Sum of Us

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Ch.52: Rhys

Wilde Knights’ tour is over. We have music festivals to go to every couple of weeks, but our days of living on the road have come to an end. We’re finally home, and a new normal in Seattle is starting to take shape.

Poppy is taking summer classes at UW. She and her academic advisor worked out a way for her to get her bachelor’s degree in one year instead of two. Summer courses and overloading during the fall and spring semesters are what it’ll take to get the job done. And she’s doing it.

Creating schedules that’ll keep Harper engaged and entertained in Pop’s absence is my responsibility. I’ve been a full-time dad, part-time musician for nine months. And I finally get to behave like it.


“We packed you a snack.” I extend the paper bag with Poppy’s name and a Harper-original crayon drawing on it to her. “What did we put in the bag today, Harp?”

Preparing a sacked snack for Pop to take with her to school is a part of our breakfast routine. It has been since Poppy’s first day of classes. Harper colors on the bag while I make our breakfast. We pack up it up together after we have finished eating.

“Apples and bwocci and arrots and enut utter. Yummy fwoots and eggiebles. Bwains wike enut utter. Help wit ’earnin.”

“I love fruits and vegetables, and protein from peanut butter does help with learning. This snack is just what I need to get through the day. The picture on the bag is beautiful too. Thank you very much, you two.” Poppy graciously accepts her meal.

“Elcome, Mama. Have good day.” Harp hugs Pop’s legs.

“What she said.” I hug Poppy’s waist.

“I love you both. Take care of each other.”

With her food in hand and backpack on her back, Poppy treats both of us to a kiss – Harper first, me second – and heads to the garage to start her day.

Harper turns to face me and lifts her arms. Taking the hint, I hoist her to my hip. She rests her head on my shoulder.

“We’re going to have a fun day too. We’ll get to tell her all about it when she gets home.” I breathe into Harper’s ear as I rub her back.

Harp’s separation anxiety has gotten a little better. She no longer cries or gets fussy when Poppy and/or I leave her. Instead, she latches onto whoever is left in charge of her care until she’s adjusted to the absence.

“We make pwetty icture pwesent for Mama?”

Harp asks to make a “pwesent” for her every single day. A designated time to do it has been in our schedule since Poppy’s second day of school. We usually color. Painting is reserved for special occasions, like when Pop submits papers and takes tests.

“If it’s on our schedule. Are you ready to check it?”

“Yeah!” She lifts her head and perks up. “Gots to go to my oom. Fawhoa me.” She wiggles in my arms.

I put her on the ground, and she immediately takes my hand leads the way.

Once we’re there, I sit and she stands in front of her magnetized dry erase board.

Each day, I write out our schedule. It is her job to take illustration magnets and match them to the activities I have listed.

“It’s Wednesday today. What letter does Wednesday start with?”


“That’s right. Good job.”

We clap together.

“Which word is it?”

She points to it on the board without hesitation.

“Yes, and we’ve got to spell it.”

She correctly identifies each letter as I point to them. It’s a cause for another clap break.

We go through what we have already done. She puts the toilet paper roll, bowl of cereal, toothbrush, and paper bag magnets in their rightful places and spells each word. The same is done for getting dressed (a dress), brushing each other’s hair (a hairbrush), creating a work of art for Poppy (a crayon), music time (a piano), eating a snack (an apple), and going on a car ride (a car).

“Where are we going in the car?”

“Swim cass. We gets to spash and spash and pway wit buddies.”

We’re taking parent-child swimming lessons. I could teach her to swim by myself but learning alongside other kids is good for her. Harper gets to spend time with her new pals outside of class too. The one she sees the most is Robin. She’s a fellow two-year-old who’s as active as Harper. Her dad, Paul, started working remotely after she was born. He’s been at this stay-at-home dad thing for three years. He’s a fountain of knowledge and has kindly taken me under his wing.

“We sure are.”

When we return, she’s getting a bath, eating lunch, and taking a nap.

“Where are we doing this afternoon?”

“Oshy tore!”

Harper still loves grocery shopping. We do it every Wednesday.

It’s snack time after we put the groceries away. After that, we’re going to play, eat dinner, get ready for bed, Poppy will be home in time to read her bedtime stories, and both of us will tuck Harper in.

Pop’s not gone all day every day. She dedicates extra time to studying on Wednesdays. Doing it in UW’s library instead of at home helps her stay focused. Harper’s not the best at leaving her alone when she does it here. It doesn’t matter where Poppy hides in the house to study, Harp finds her within ten minutes. She always has a toy with her while she hunts, and once she’s found Poppy, she sits on the floor and plays with it. She plays relatively quietly; she doesn’t even ask Pop to join her. Being around her Mama is all she wants. The problem is Poppy frequently checks on her to make sure she has everything she needs, even though I’m right there. It doesn’t hurt my feelings at all. It’s hard not to dote on someone as adorable as our little girl. Working away on Wednesdays guarantees Poppy has at least one day of uninterrupted studying.

“I think yours needs more purple.” I withdraw one from Harper’s box of purple crayons.

“Yeah.” She puts down the one she’s using to color a blank sheet of paper and accepts my offering. “Tank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I finished my shopping list.” Taylor walks into Harper’s room.

“Hi, Nunckle Aylor! Wanna olor wit us?” Harp stops scribbling to smile at him.

“I would, but your table is full. It wouldn’t be very nice of me to make Rue or Stitch move.”

They’re sitting in two of the four seats at Harper’s activity table located in the same area as her kitchen playset. Harp and I are occupying the other two seats. I’ve got to curl into a ball to sit here, but there’s nothing I won’t do to keep her happy. Taylor, instead, always talks her into changing her mind.

“Oh, yeah, that no nice. Wike my itcher?” She holds it up for him.

“I love it. Your mama will too.”

“Tank you. I wove Mama oh oh uch. Gotta do good ob and make her happy wit pwesent.” Harp resumes her masterpiece.

“What brings you all the way over here? You usually text.” I hold out my hand for the folded square Taylor’s holding.

“I needed more steps on my fitness tracker and don’t feel like working out.”

“I think you missed me. Either or is fine.” I unfurl the piece of paper.

“Is it tumbling or swimming class today?” He sits on the floor.

“Swimming. She has gymnastics on Mondays. Music and Me is on Fridays.”

“You’ve taken molding her in your image to the next level. It’s a good thing I’m here.”

“She’s playing baseball, not soccer, and there’s nothing you can do or say about it.”

“What if she likes it better? It’s the most popular sport in the world; she’ll make more friends is she gets into it. Baseball is slow-paced and she’s energetic. She still plays fetch instead of catch. I can vividly see her playing football.”

“Just say soccer.”



“Yes, Daddy?” She stops humming and coloring to look at me.

“What game are we playing when you get big?”

“Aceball! So cited. I gets a tick and ball and run round in a pwetty hat.” She says this wearing her Smalls cap backward.

“We’re going to have so much fun.”

Harper nods adamantly. “Ots and ots.”

I wait until she’s back to jollily coloring to resume my conversation with Taylor.

“You’ll have to pry our little league dreams from my cold dead hand.”

“I’ll concede if I can co-coach.”

“Assistant or nothing.”

“Fine, but I want a whistle and clipboard.”

“I didn’t invite you to our party. You’re crashing it. Bring your own stuff.”

“Am I allowed to argue with umpires and other coaches?”

“What would be the point if we didn’t?”


“You get to tell Leo he’s out.”

“Even better.”

Leaving Taylor alone with Harper is a gigantic but necessary risk. I’ve got to get myself ready for swim class before I can do the same for her. I supervise him supervising her by watching the livestream on my phone being produced by a nanny cam teddy bear.

“Mane tame time, Nunkle Aylor. Sit real till.” Harper fetches the basket containing the hairstyling playset Becca bought her.

Taylor assumes the position, remaining on the floor and turning his back to her to give her easy access to his head. “It’s going to be shorter when you do it tomorrow.”


“I’m getting a haircut later.”

“No, you not.” Harper states as a matter of fact as she begins combing the longest section of his hair.

“The sides are getting too long.” He reflexively touches some of the area he’s referring to. “I’ll have less taken off the top this time. You’ll still be able to do it.”

“I wanna do all it. I gots aftey issors. I cuts it.”

“Your scissors only work on paper. Aunt Becca has special tools that’ll get the job done.”

“Auntie Ecca sare?”

“Not yet. Your hands are too small to hold them. One day, kiddo.”

“But I wanna help now.” Harper pouts with her lip poked.

“You are. I can’t get my haircut if its messy. You’re helping both of us by combing my hair.”

“Yay! I wove helpin’. So much fun.”

“Sometimes. For me, it depends on the person. There are some real a-holes in this world.”

“A’-‘h’-‘o’-‘l’-‘e’-‘s’. I do good ob? I spwell it wight?”

“Yes, your spelling’s really coming along. How’s your swimming? Is Robin still your best friend?”

Harper tells him about all of her classes, Robin, and the rest of her new friends as she combs his hair, tangles rollers in it, ‘blow dries’ it with a toy that makes sound effects, brushes his “early air” to make it stand on end, and finishes off the fluffy mess with a bow.

His decision to let her do it all without protesting is what keeps him from getting hit for adding “a-hole” to her vocabulary.

“You have never looked better.” I take a picture of Taylor.

“Harper is very talented. She always does a good job.” He compliments her while cursing me out with his eyes.

“I gots to make his mane pwetty.” She pets her handy work.

“Mission accomplished, my cub. Are you ready to get ready to swim?”

“Yeah!” She ditches her brush and runs into her closet.

“If you post that anywhere, you’re getting choked.” Taylor discards his bow.

“Group chats don’t count and I’m off social media. Better luck next time.” I pat his shoulder. “And you better hide that bow at the bottom of her hair accessories bin. I’ll do way more than choke you if she finds out that you undid your hair. No one gets away with hurting my baby girl’s feelings.”

“I’ll be right there with you if someone has the nerve to mess with her.”



“Coming, HAAARRRPPPERRR!” I sing back to her as I take Taylor’s hand and help him on his feet.

“I too wittle. I no wike it! I can’t gets it all by myself.” Harper’s face is scrunched in frustration as she jumps, still trying to get to her flower girl dress on the upper pole of her closet.

“You can’t wear that dress to swim class. It’ll get wet and dirty. You can get dresses that you can wear all by yourself.” I show her a section of casual dresses that would work well as a coverup.

“I wanna sow Wobin my pwetty dwess.”

“You can show it to her when she comes over to play on Tuesday.”


“Yes, Tuesday. These are Wednesday dresses.” I once again redirect her to the other dresses.

“O-tay.” She shuffles to them with evident disappointment.

The Lilo dress she selects fits her dramatic display.

Harper’s evolved past picking out her clothes. She insists on picking them out AND dressing herself now. It takes three times as long but waiting it out is necessary. We’ve got to let her grow up.


“WOBIN!” Harper waves frantically when she sees her but continues to talk at a slow pace and hold my hand.

She knows not to run around the pool. Water safety rules were a big part of our first lesson.

Paul and I greet each other while our daughters hug.

“Harper’s Dad, can Harper come to my birthday? She’s my bestest friend.”

Harper’s Dad. That’s what her little friends call me, and it’ll never get old.

“Best friends have to go to each other’s birthday parties. Harper will be at yours.”

The girls squeal and celebrate together.

“When is it?” Paul’s who I go to for details.

“Next Saturday. It’s at that indoor trampoline park, Jump for Joy.”

I’ll be at a festival in Tennessee Thursday through Sunday next week. The day we perform? Saturday.

Pop has a big test next Friday and a paper for another class due the following Monday. The working plan has been for her and Harper to meet us in Tennessee Friday night; how much headway she makes on her paper today was going to be the deciding factor. Knowing Poppy as well as I do, Harper being able to attend her first non-family birthday party is going to be the new one. There will be other shows. Harper will only be invited to her best friend’s third birthday once.

I swallow my disappointment. “I’ll be out of town for work, but Harper will definitely be there. Poppy or my mom will take her. What kind of present should I get? Harper goes in strange directions when it’s up to her to decide.”

“Anything that has to do with a mermaid will make Robin happy. They’re the whole reason we’re here.”

“I’ve got some experience in that section of the toy department. My niece is obsessed with them too. You should’ve seen what she did to Ariel at Disneyland. Their hug turned into a chokehold.” I force a smile.

“Robin will probably do the same thing when we go on our Disney Cruise in August.”

“Cruise, you say?”

Paul shares the trip package details. They’ll set sail in Florida and travel to and from the Bahamas. Though the boat has all sorts of amenities, activities, and character meet and greets, all I can picture is the Titanic. The warmth of the water would be on our side, but I don’t know if a door can handle a woman and a toddler. That wasn’t proven or disproven on Mythbusters. I can’t risk it. My girls are too important.

Today’s swim lesson is about recovering after being completely underwater. At the start of the class, my follow caregivers and I have to support our kids while they practice their swim strokes. Harper reminds me a lot of Poppy during her gymnastics and swimming classes. She takes in every last word that her teachers say and applies them with hyperfocus. Playing with her friends and giggling is done between tasks. Learning is her main objective because she truly loves it. How hard she works is impressive and the faces she makes when she’s trying to figure something out are downright adorable, just like her mama.

“Who wants to jump first?” Miss Pricilla, the swim instructor asks with an animated smile.

Harper’s hand shoots up first. Most of the other children tight their holds on their adults, fearful of being in the water by themselves.

I’m not even surprised. Harp’s always eager to dive into new experiences headfirst. The riskier they are, the more excited she is about them. She’s too brave, and it’s terrifying.

“Okay, Harper. Step right up.”

I carry Harper to the floating platform that Miss Pricilla’s assistant, Miss Maura, is holding. Miss Pricilla’s hands replace mine on Harp’s waist after I have set her on the ledge. And as instructed, I take several steps back from the jump zone and open my arms, ready to catch Harper when she reemerges or rescue her if she’s unable to do it by herself.

“Everybody count.”

“1,2,3.” We do, Harper included.

My heart is racing as she jumps in with an elated expression. The seconds it takes her to resurface and paddles to me feel like hours.

Everyone else is clapping as I clutch her tight to my chest.

“I dids it, Daddy! I dids it! I wanna go ’gain!”

“It’s someone else’s turn. We have to share.”

Thank God. My heart needs a break.

As nice as it is to see Harper learn and socialize with people in her age group, the end of class is always a relief. Today it is when she gets Robin’s birthday party invitation. The envelope is addressed to Harper. Harp knows how to spell her name and what it looks like written; seeing it on a “pwesent” from “Wobin” makes her bounce for joy. She screeches when she sees the mermaid silhouette made of gold glitter on the invitation itself. She falls asleep with it in her hands during the car ride home.

“Hey, honey, how did swim class go?” Poppy calls during the drive.

I’ve got the call on speakerphone, but Harper doesn’t stir.

“Hello to you too. Harper knows how to jump into pools now.”

“In other words, we’re in big trouble.”

“Yep. She’s a big fan of diving headfirst.”

“Thanks a lot.” She jokes.

“You love us anyway.”

“Very much. How are Harper’s first best friend and your dad buddy?”

“They’re doing well. For now. They’re going on a cruise in August.”

“Please say you didn’t traumatize a little girl and scare away Paul by bringing up the Titanic.”

“Who do you think I am? Taylor?”

“No, he would’ve done it by talking about sketchy maritime laws, bacteria and viruses running rampant, and the ship’s environmental impact. You’d bring up a 90s movie.”

“I was a good boy; I smiled and nodded along. Harper’s still invited to Robin’s birthday party.”

“Aw, she invited to her birthday party?”

“Robin asked me if her “bestest friend” could come. I didn’t stand a chance.”

“That’s so cute. When is it?”

“Next Saturday.”

There’s a long pause.


“She can’t miss it.” She breaks to me gently.

“I know, baby. I want her to go to the party. What you want to do should be done.”

“We’ll watch the livestream and I’ll call you before bed to ask how it went. I know it’s not the same, but—”

“Babe, seriously, it’s okay. I want you two to be there. You’ve got to see how Robin and Harper are when they’re together for yourself, and Paul said Angela id dying to meet you. Harper and I are always talking about “Mama” and “Poppy”. Robin passes along what she hears to her. A face needs to be put to the names.”

She giggles softly. “Our baby girl’s growing up. She’s got a human best friend her age and she’s going to her birthday party.”

“Growth is healthy, sure, but I don’t think we should rule out stunting her development just yet. She’ll be harder to handle when she stops being portable.”

“Thanks a lot.” I can hear the smile in her voice.

It brings one to my face.

I’ve got to wake Harper when we get home to give her a bath and lunch. She goes right back to sleep as soon as I tuck her into bed.

A little bit of time is spent taking care of my needs, and then I’m off to the next thing – video calling our attorney to get my weekly update on our cases.

“Good afternoon, Rhys, how are you today?” Bill greets.

“I’m doing well. You?”

“Personally? Well. Professionally, I’m worried about how you’ll respond to the news I’ve got for you.”

“That’s reassuring.”

“I ask that you keep an open mind. This solution could benefit you in the short-term as well as the long-term.”

“Rip off the band-aid, Bill.”

“Mr. James is willing to forgo the formal arbitration and hand over anything Poppy wants that is in his possession, including photographs and other heirlooms left behind by her mother.”

His name alone has my blood boiling.

“What’s the catch?”

“He wants to see Poppy and meet Ha—.”

“No,” is out of my mouth before he can complete Harper’s name.

“A one-time meeting is all he wants. He assured me that a relationship doesn’t need to come of it and he will not introduce himself as Harper’s grandfather.”

“It sounds like a setup. I wouldn’t put it past him to do this to find a reason to call Child Protective Services.”

“That’s not the impression I got from our conversation. He all but said he has regrets and wants to see what could have been.”

“What did he say about me?”

“He didn’t—”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“He is under the impression you’re sparking Poppy’s hostility towards him. His optimism for the meeting to happen is low, that you’ll most likely keep them apart.”

“I don’t control Poppy. Our relationship’s not like that. He must be mistaking ours for theirs.”

“Have you discussed meeting with him with her?”

“She told him to his face that she wanted nothing to do with him.”

“When was this?”


“That was six months ago. February was the last time you spoke to him. Many things have transpired in your lives in those stretches of time. You have nothing to lose by revisiting that conversation and I’ll be able to say I tried.”

“If we were to do it, and I’m not saying we will, how does he imagine it would happen?”

“He wants her and Poppy to come over to his house for an hour. When the time is up, all items will be relinquished and can taken the day-of. It could be done as early as this weekend.”

“What’s the point if the arbitration is in three weeks?”

“Poppy is only entitled to the ranch her grandparents bequeathed her and assets she obtained herself. Items Mr. James purchased for her and his deceased wife’s belongings are his in the eyes of the law. He has no obligation to forfeit them.”

“He’d give it to her without all this if he really cared about her.”

“Arbitration is a fancy word for compromise. An hour is nothing in the scheme of things. Both parties can walk away with everything they want in as early as three days from now. At least think about it.”

“Is there a deadline?”

“As soon as possible is ideal, but you have until a second before arbitration starts.”

“I’ll talk to Poppy tonight and see what comes of it. What about the other ones?”

“Defamation suits are never easy, but the privacy and NDA violation cases are moving swiftly. The speed at which we will able to collect the money you are owed in damages will differ from party to party. Some are wealthier than others.”

“How hard is her camp fighting you?”

“Tooth and nail. Despite the mounting evidence, they are maintaining that Ms. Slate was oblivious to what was being done on her behalf.”

“Thanks for taking that gaslighting for me. No one does it quite like her.”

Harper is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when she wakes up from her nap. All that I have on my mind makes getting on her level a challenge; I get myself there before she can sense there is something wrong. We continue our schedule as planned.

She has her book picked out and is settled into bed when Poppy walks into her room.

“Did you have a good day, Lovebug?” She gives her a kiss.

“So uch fun. It ends-day. We do ots and ots.” Harper goes on to explain all that we did in the order we did them.

Poppy is sitting on the edge of her bed, running her fingers through Harper’s hair as she talks a mile a minute about everything.

“Wow, you and Daddy did do a lot. Storytime and bedtime are next on the list. We’ve got to do them to complete your Wednesday.”

“Ery Hungey Catty-piwer.” Harper hands Pop the book.

“Excellent choice.”

“They a utterfwy.”

“Sit back and relax. It’s time to hear how it happens.”

Poppy reads to her as I clean Harper’s room and turn on the essential oil diffuser. Lavender is sprayed in her room at night. It helps her sleep through the night by herself.

“Goodnight, Lovebug.” Poppy tucks her covers around her and kisses her forehead.

“Night-night, Mama.” Harper sleepily sighs.

“Sweet dreams, my cub.”

“Roar.” She softly replies as she struggles to keep her eyes open.

“Roar.” I kiss her forehead. “We love you.”

“Wove you.” And then she surrenders to sleep.

“Hello.” Poppy waits until we are in the hallway to kiss me.

“Hello.” I capture her lips a second time. “How was your day?” My arms remain around her waist.

“Productive. My snack made it possible. I was able to take fewer breaks.”

“Have you eaten dinner?”

“Not yet. Are there leftovers?”

“There are. Would you like dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and steamed carrots or pho chay and vegan summer rolls?”

“Just to be sure: you didn’t make the Vietnamese food, right?”

“It was delivered. I’m not trying to kill you.”

“It never hurts to ask. I’ll take option number two, please.”

“You’ve got it, gorgeous.” I press a kiss to her forehead.

Unable to stop touching her, I hold her hand as we walk to the kitchen.

“What made you decide to special order this for me? Wednesday is Vinny’s Pizza day.” Poppy sits at the island as I warm her food.

“Well, 1. I love you, 2. you’ve been killing it lately, and 3. we need to have a serious talk.”

“That’s not ominous at all.”

“It has nothing to do with us as a couple. Only one thing makes me happier than being your pre-fiancé and baby daddy. That thing is our baby girl. You and me? We’re good. Better than good – great.”

“Have you noticed something wrong with Harper? Is she struggling with separation anxiety?” Her beautiful face is panic-stricken.

“No, baby. She understands why you’re gone. She’s happy that ‘earnin’ is making you happy and wants to help you do it in all the ways she can. A lot of coloring is involved. She made four pictures for you today.”

“I can’t wait for her to follow her Thursday schedule by showing them to me as soon as I wake up.”

“She’s looking forward to it too. She talked about it while she changed into her pajamas.”

“That only leaves one thing.” Her anxious expression pains me.

“I’d like to ease you into the conversation with one of your favorite meals and white wine like I planned.”

“It’s that bad?”

“More delicate than bad. You’re still in control. What you say still goes.”

“That’s good. Control is good.”

“Now, you’re going to have dinner. I’m going to eat the nuggets you turned down, and we’re going to talk about the normal parts of our day.”

“Are you doing to drink wine with your second dinner?”

“No, beer goes with food shaped like animals. You should know that, Penelope.”

“I should. I’ve got to start studying harder.”

“Harper and I will pack you more snacks and make more pictures to help you get the job done.”

Her smile is a sight to behold.

Listening to her talk about her schoolwork and classes is a highlight of my day. She radiates whenever she shares it with me. Just how much she missed being in an academic environment is made clearer with every passing day. A vital piece of my Poppy is back and brighter than ever. And as always, she hears all that I’m saying when I share today’s adventure as Harper’s Dad.

In hopes of helping her hold onto at least some of her good mood, I suggest she tends to the plants in her greenhouse while we talk. She’s unable to resist.

I sit across from her at the worktable. Poppy’s standing, measuring a plant with a tape measure.

“What did Bill say?” Her eyes remain on her work as she jots down the measurements.

“There are two ways we can handle your case against him. If we move forward with the arbitration, the ranch and your awards are all that you’ll walk away with. Door number two holds everything you are petitioning for. You’ll get it in exchange for you and Harper spending an hour with him.”

“And if we don’t, he won’t?”

“Yes. His hopes aren’t high. He thinks you’re my puppet.”

“I’ll go if you do.” Her voice remains neutral.


She flits her eyes to mine. “You’re my partner and Harper’s father. I’m not going to listen to an hour of him bad mouthing you behind your back. Harper sure as heck isn’t going to be exposed to it. We’re a package deal. He has to accept that if he wants us.” The fire burning in her as she says this in inappropriately sexy.

“You want to see him?” My brows crinkle.

“My life is far from ruined. Proving that would be nice, yes, and having you there when I say what I want will help me make up for last time. I know it’s not as impactful as telling him I can’t get rid of our baby, but letting him know I don’t regret it or the time I’ve spent you is something we can do together.”

I’m nodding before thinking.

“Yeah?” Her lips form a soft smile.

“It’s you and me.”

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