Poppy, Harper, and I visited Montana for Pop’s 22nd birthday. Her dad and I worked together to make sure the ranch looked its best for her. Even in tiptop shape, being on the ranch was a bittersweet experience. She loved being out in nature. Her enthusiasm about it was buzzing the whole trip. Pop enthusiastically showed Harp and I every square inch of her happy place. Acres of land in the middle of nowhere with mountains in the distance, more fresh air than my lungs knew what to do with, a lake, wild horses, harvestable crops, and the legendary field of wildflowers that earned her her name – all of it was more spectacular than I imagined. The memory of her grandparents and their unavoidable absence loomed over our three-day celebration vacation. As much as I hated that there was nothing I could do to take the melancholy that sporadically overcame Poppy, I knew that she needed to feel it to properly say goodbye to two of the most influential people in her life.
We had three additional birthday celebrations in Seattle – one with her dad, Wilde one, and one with our friends. Chelsea came to all three. All of us made sure she was saturated with love. She was overwhelmed by it. She insists that it was the good kind of overwhelmed. I can verify her truthfulness. She smiled and laughed as she cried – all laughter was genuine and her smiles were pure Poppy.
Summer has transitioned into fall.
Pop’s in her second semester at UW. She started it with a 4.0 GPA. Her schedule has once again been overloaded and she’s kicking some serious academic ass. There’s no doubt she’ll be able to graduate in the spring. Poppy’s plenty busy blowing minds with her giant brain, but she’s still present at home. She gives her attention-seekers plenty of it. We return the favor by making her pictures and packing snacks.
Harper’s four months away from being a 3-year-old. It makes me as proud as it does sick. Our Rocky III music montages this summer paid off; she can swim, walk on a balance beam, do forward and backward rolls, ride a tricycle, and play simple chords on her guitar and piano. It’s easier to understand what she is saying. The words are all there, the reasons she’s strung them together is what’s questioned these days. Smartypants Jr. can identify shapes, letters, colors, objects, and numbers and spell them. Her fear of toilets is gone. They’re one more thing she can climb on and she likes the loud noise flushing makes. Her newest skill is playing a game of catch without turning it into fetch.
Holly Jolly Christmas and Buddy are giving her the pawed pushes she needs to take her awesomeness to the next level. Harper has been living to keep them entertained. Practicing skills and showing them her progress is her way of performing. All of the games of fetch we play with them has shaken her need to fetch balls on all fours by herself. We’re moving on to batting soon. She’s going to be a baseball beast when she makes her little league debut in the spring. I’m already looking at jerseys for Holly and Buddy. They’re coming to every game and practice. Those pups are our tickets to W’s. Taylor doesn’t know it yet, but his main task as assistant coach will be keeping our good luck charms comfortable.
Last week was the end of an era for me. The concert that will probably be my last as a member of Wilde Knights’ was epic. It was better than in my dreams – my entire family was there, my friends too. All of the technical cues were hit, the guys and I didn’t miss a single note, we headlined a festival we were too broke to attend when we first started out, and the fans devoured what we gave them. The bang we made as I went out on top secured Kyle, Ian, and Taylor an offer to continue what we started without me.
No band meeting to discuss what’ll happen next has been scheduled. Scattered performance dates for the past seven months have helped with tour burnout, but it’s still too fresh in their minds. They’ll walk in with the idea tossed out; I want it to have a fighting chance. The careers they prepared for most of their lives and the lifestyles they’ve grown accustomed to because of our success shouldn’t be dictated by my past and present decisions.
I’m not going to think on it too hard right now. It’d hurt too much. Taylor’s tough to sell on any idea on a good day. Trying to convince him to continue to live out the dream that came to me when we were ten and we made a pact to live out together without me will be like talking to a titanium wall. Looking at my mirror image, begging him to – nope, I’m not thinking about it. There are better, brighter, happier things to fixate on.
Like Tim securing all of our blessings and proposing to Mom during her surprise birthday party. She was stunned and elated by all of the day’s twists and turns. We were able to watch it play out with pure happiness in our hearts. They went for a full engagement right out the gate, instead of a half one, but to each their own. I’d like to take a second to toot my own horn – I won round one of the Chris and Jess baby bet. Their kid’s due date is in the second week of April. I’ll be able to thank Booker Grayson Wilde for giving me bragging rights in six months. Becca is officially divorced. She was awarded full custody of Aiden, 1/3 of Garbage’s trust fund, and half of their shared assets. After months of bloodshed intermixed little victories, winning the legal war is within sight for me and Poppy too.
The pick-me-up I’ve been looking forward to all year is finally here – our family vacation in Hawaii. All of us are sharing a 6 bed, 4 bath rental property on Maui. The room assignments are as follows: Mom and Tim, Chris and Jess, Leo and Taylor, Lindsey and Becca, Poppy and me, and all of the kids.
The kids are together for fairness’s sake. There’s a room of bunk beds. My siblings and I survived sharing a bedroom with five people; our kids have to too. I’m not going to lie, I feel a little bad for Chloe and Kevin. Not enough to bail them out, but enough to acknowledge their struggle. Chris pulled through and look how he turned out. Gracie and her younger cousins see their living arrangement as an extra-long slumber party. Harper is a vocal part of that crew. She’s saying she wants to do it forever. Poppy and I are going to toss a coin to decide who has to be the one to tell her she can’t. We’ve agreed to put off our Taylor-level dream crushing until we’re back in Seattle.
This week is all about family fun. The kitchen, pool and jacuzzi, living spaces, porch, and short distance to the beach and other sources of entertainment are helping us make it happen.
I start each day the same way – jogging with Chris, Taylor, and Leo. It always turns into a race and all of us, Chris included, play dirty. From the outside, it looks like mortal enemies trying to kill each other as the sunrises. To us, it’s a bonding exercise, literally and figuratively. If you can’t shove your brother into the ocean without hard feelings, do you even love each other?
Poppy is still asleep in our bed when I enter our bedroom after my workout. The early morning light filters through the French doors that lead to the balcony, making the caramel strands within her black hair glow. Because of the absence of her glasses and the sun-kissed tan she’s acquired from days spent in the Hawaiian sunshine, the light dusting on the bridge of her button nose and cheekbones are more prominent. Her face is completely relaxed, serene and angelic.
And I can’t tear my eyes away from her.
Exactly one year ago, we found our way back to each other. She mesmerized me from across a crowded club; I had to plead with who turned out to be Chelsea just to get her to speak to me. Tonight, I’m going to ask my dream girl to marry me with 99.99% certainty that she’s going to say ‘yes’.
She’s still real.
This is happening.
Likely sensing my stalking, Poppy’s lashes flutter open.
The smile that accompanies her sleepy greeting is as ethereal as she is.
“Good morning, gorgeous.” I lean down and press a soft kiss on her lips before sitting on the edge of the bed.
She remains on her pillow, but rolls onto her back to make it easier for us to look at each other. “I can’t see you very well, but it’s a safe bet that you look way better than you should after working out.”
“Do you want your glasses?”
“No, I’m enjoying the blur. How was your run?”
“I won.” Using a feathery touch, I brush her hair out of her face.
“Good, that’s all that matters.”
“I thanked you and Harper in my acceptance speech.”
“That doesn’t matter at all. I acknowledge the effort and appreciate the gesture on behalf of both of us, nonetheless. Is Harper awake?”
“I don’t think so. I haven’t heard—”
“Mammmmmaaa! Dadddddyyyy! Wake up! It’s time to pway ow-side!” Harp jiggles the doorknob.
“Speak of the angel.” I rise from the bed.
Harper flies into the room as soon as I open the door for her.
“Mornin’, Daddy. We haves to gets ready.” She hugs my legs.
“I heard. I’m going to go take a shower.”
“Go really fast. I wanna go esploring.” Harper climbs onto the bed to be with Poppy.
“Yes, ma’am.” I leave the room with the outfit I laid out before my run and head to the bathroom.
Our excursion for the day is a guided nature walk through tropical gardens and a rainforest. There will be a waterfall, an ancient cave, and a wide array of plants and animals. One of those plants is cacoa. After we see chocolate in its natural state and learning about it is processed, there’s going to be a chocolate making workshop and tasting.
There’s a little something for everyone and tame enough for everyone in our party to do– the children and pregnant woman too. It was designed to be, anyway. It’s never been tested on a Harper.
Her new fixation with nature shows doesn’t help the situation at all. Not children’s shows set in nature – nature documentary series with whose target audiences are decades older than her. I find most of them boring. The only ones that hold my interest revolve around a person trying to survive on the elements in harsh environments. Harper? She devours all of them, even the ones without an onscreen host. Footage and narration are enough for her. She calls it ‘esplorer watchin’; it is done wearing one of several bucket hats with a chin strap and a pair of binoculars. Her “esporing suppies’ were worn on the plane to better see the clouds.
“Lovebug, you’re going to be in your seat on Daddy’s shoulders during our walk.” Poppy lays down the law as she double checks the Velcro straps on Harper’s hiking boots.
Children under four can only experience the adventure from a wearable carrier. The rig we bought her lets us carry her around on our shoulders hands-free; she’s secured in place by reinforced straps and supported by a backrest. We got plenty of use out of it at festivals this summer.
“But I haves to walk around to do my esploring.”
“You have to be with a grownup. Those are the nature hike rules. You could hurt if you’re away from us, so you have to stay close. And you could trip and fall if you walk and use your binoculars at the same time. Daddy will do the walking and you’ll be free to sightsee.”
“We gets lost if he can’t see. I don’t wanna gets lost.”
“I’ll hold his hand to keep you from getting lost. How about that?”
“Oh, yes! We be esploring to-ether. If you get hurts walking, you be o-tay. I make all better. I’m a docker. We help eat-other.”
“You’re not a doctor yet. You’re not allowed to heal people, including yourself, without help, remember?” Pop gently reminds her of her lack of degree.
Her dream had to be crushed for her own good a few weeks ago. Robin got a nosebleed during one of their playdates. She’s prone to them. Dr. Harper tried to treat her with her bare hands rather than alert an adult right away.
Harper gasps in indignation. “I’m a docker, Mama. I help. Auntie Jess-ka say I doing good job.”
A snort escapes as I stifle laughter. Pop shoots me a look.
I clear my throat. “What Aunt Jessica meant is that you’re doing a good job learning to be a doctor. You know how Mama is going to school to be a plant scientist?”
“Yes. She reads stories with her fwiends and touch all the pwants. We make her pwesents ’cuz she’s a smartypants.”
We discuss what Poppy’s doing at school during our education hour – my lesson plans, my terminology. Harper’s in the “I want to be just like Mama” phase. It’s how the nature documentaries obsession got started. She wants to learn what Poppy knows. I help by putting her in front of something that can. Pop gives her hands-on instruction when she gets home. They’re in her greenhouse daily. I kick back and bask in their awesomeness from a chair in the corner.
“Uncle Chris and Aunt Jessica had to go to school for a long time to become doctors. You’re still too little to go to school. You can’t be a real doctor until you do. For now, a helper is all that you can be.” I continue.
“O-tay.” She grumbles.
I’m behind her, doing her hair, but I know her bottom lip is poked out and her eyebrows are defiantly crinkled. She looks like an angry puppy when she’s upset. It is absurdly cute. I don’t envy Poppy, who is facing her pout head-on. The spell Harp casts with that look is unsettling. Such a small person shouldn’t have that kind of power. Her level of adorable is scary.
“We’re still going to have plenty fun. What are you looking forward to most?” Pop avoids eye contact with our sorceress as she adjusts the straps of Harper’s overalls.
Her prompt instantly perks our girl back up. The likelihood we’ll give into all her demands and help her take over the world lessens as Harper describes her ideal adventure with meticulous detail.
“Which explorer hat do you want to wear today?” I ask once I’m done with her hair.
“Butterfwies and bumblebees, pweeze.”
I situate it on her head and tighten its drawstring. “Now, we’re ready to have some fun.”
She hops off the bed and hurries to the door.
Mom, Tim, Jessica and Chris are in the open concept living/kitchen/dining area when we arrive. Tim is actively setting the table while Mom’s attention is torn between putting the finishing touches on breakfast and Jess’s morning checkup.
Impending fatherhood has transformed the Wilde pillar of calm into an overprotective wreck. If Chris had his way, Jess would never leave his sight or lift a finger. You’d think his pregnant wife being an OB/GYN would ease his mind. Nope. He’s the picture of paranoia. To keep him sane, Jess lets him give her a checkup everyday. As a doctor, Chris has access to medical supplies that make it easy for him to go overboard – a stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, and portable ultrasound machine. He charts her results and pours over them all day long. It’s a new source of entertainment for the rest of us.
“Goooood Mornin!” Harper sings to everyone in the room as she runs to Jess. “Is Booker awake, Auntie Jesska?”
“I’m not sure. We haven’t seen him yet. You came just in time.”
“Yay!” Harper exclaims before climbing onto the couch.
Harper’s stoked about becoming a big cousin. Booker will recognize her voice once he is born, I guarantee it. Harp seizes every opportunity to be around him. I’m looking forward to seeing what she will do when the baby she is anxious to meet is her little brother or sister.
“Jess’s doctor has to hate you.” Taylor comments on Chris’s hysteria as he takes a front row seat to his freak out.
“She does not.” He folds his blood pressure cuff on her bicep.
“I keep him in check during appointments. I’d never be able to show my face in the hospital again if my coworkers were subjected to all this.” She gestures to her husband.
“Babe.” Chris complains.
“As your wife and Booker’s mom, I find your obsessive attentiveness enduring. I would want to throttle you if you were the partner of one of my patients.”
“I wouldn’t take it personally as long as I got her medical charts to compare to mine.” He quickly retorts.
“I don’t know why you’re giving Chris such a hard time, Tay. You’ll be worse. He actually knows everything. You just think you do.” Lindsey joins the conversation.
“Who lied and told you I’m having kids?” He ignores her jab at him.
“Mom.” She replies.
Mom just so happens to be out of earshot.
“She’s mistaken or in denial. I’ll break the truth to her when she thinks the time is coming.”
“It’s my job to keep her distracted as long as possible.” I punctuate Taylor’s sentiment.
“With what he produces, I’ll have decades.” He motions to exhibit A.
Harper is driving the point home by singing a song about sea turtles to Jessica’s stomach.
Sea turtles are her second favorite animal. Dogs are still her first. Harper knows more about both species than I do. She likes sharing all knowledge through music.
“Pop and I make quality weirdos and we know how to share.”
“The highest quality and entertaining.” Taylor reiterates.
Harp’s song is getting Jess choked up. She’s smiling down at her and cradling her head, which is in her lap and angled at her belly.
“How do you feel about this?” Lindsey turns to Poppy.
“I’d be concerned if they weren’t doing it. An intervention would have to be scheduled. This plan is quintessential Rhys and Taylor.”
There’s no disputing that.
Seeing Booker, who resembles a gummy bear at the moment, on Chris’s laptop screen and hearing her heartbeat always brings on a tsunami of emotions.
There’s a wave of sadness. I only have videos and pictures of Harper’s ultrasounds. I could pretend Booker is Harper and Jessica is Poppy, but altering the past, even in my imagination, makes reality more difficult to cope with. Visions of my future children are what I’m allowing to overtake me – doctor’s visits with Poppy where we get to hear our baby’s heartbeat and see them growing in their temporary home, Harper being all over Poppy the way she has been Jess and talking nonstop about how excited she is become a big sister, all of our children their playing with their cousins and each other, and the whole family waiting and ready to welcome them into the world with an outpour of love. Right now, that’s what my big brother and my sister-in-law are experiencing. While rooted in reality, I get to celebrate with and for them...and fight for the title of #1 uncle.
I’m three out of five of my nieces and nephew’s favorite uncle. Leo barely edged me out with Aiden. I can’t fault Courtney for going with Chris; he’s basically a superhero. As Booker’s dad, Superman is out of the running. I won’t stop until his son is a member of my fan club.
After today’s serving of magic, all of us help ourselves to the breakfast Mom made. Two vans transport us to the location of our adventure an hour later. Harper and I have a one-song dance party to make it possible for her to sit in her carrier without wiggling. She gets her ladybug binoculars after promising not to drop them on my head or kick her feet.
“May I have your hand, kind sir?” Poppy extends hers to me.
“You may.” I accept her offering and intertwine our fingers. “The explorer I’m escorting has no time for getting lost.”
“It not on the said-dule.” Harper verifies as she fiddles with her binoculars above my head.
“We created a monster.” I whisper to Poppy.
“You did. The activity board in her room and the travel-sized one were your creations.” She says on a giggle.
“You let it happen.”
“Enabling precious behavior isn’t a crime. I’d still do it if it were.”
“Such a rebel.”
“I am what I am.”
I give in to my chronic urge to kiss her, satisfying it by pecking her cheek.
“How cute are you?” Becca coos as she takes a picture of us.
“Beck.” I whine.
“I need this. You’re hope.”
I groan but keep my deletion request to myself.
“Uncle Rhys, I want a turn up there.” Aiden points to Harper.
“I can’t give you a ride, bud. Harp has to sit there. She’s not allowed to walk by herself.”
“I gets lost or hurt.” She adds on her behalf.
“I’ll give you a lift, little man.” Leo opens his arms.
Leo hoists him onto his shoulders as though he weighs nothing.
“Hold on tight, baby.” Becca tugs down Aiden’s shirt, which has risen in the back.
“I will.” Aiden listens by wrapping his arms around Leo’s neck for balance. Leo’s already using his legs as handles.
Becca gives Leo a sidehug to silently thank him for doing this for her.
Our tour begins as soon as our guide arrives. All that he is teaching us about island’s history and environment is interesting. My girls have fully immersed themselves in the experience. Poppy has a question each time Kai asks if our group has any. Harper is mimicking every animal sound she hears. Our hike comes to a halt when one of the birds Harper probably summoned drops a surprise on Lindsey’s head. As a dutiful twin, Becca works to get it out with a bottle of water and a leaf.
“Smile and say ‘rawr’!” Mom directs as all her grandkids pose for a picture in front of a patch of dinosaur ferns.
The littlest one, the one who was the most vocal when the plants were identified by her mother, is the only one who doesn’t cooperate; she’s looking off into the distance with an expression I know all too well.
“What is she—” Taylor starts.
Harper tears away from her cousins and bolts in the direction she was staring. Capturing her is easy. Keeping her in captivity is always the hard part.
“Noooooo! He runs away! I gotta go, Daddy! I gotta go!” Harper wails as she violently thrashes in my two-armed vice grip.
“Who ran away?” I carry her in the opposite direction.
“Pascal! He gots lost! He’s here! I gots to get him home to Ra-unzel!” She continues her fight, undeterred.
“Lovebug, that chameleon wasn’t Pascal. He or she lives here. Hawaii has plenty of chameleons. Pascal is safe and sound in Rapunzel’s kingdom.” Poppy tries to talk our weirdo off her latest ledge.
“Oh. Can we pway with the ’eleons here?” Harper ends our wrestling match.
“No, we’re going to leave them be.” Poppy answers.
“I’ll be real nice.”
“I know, Lovebug, but most animals in the wild like be left alone by humans. We’re going be nice by letting them play with their nature friends and family.” Poppy puts the hat that fell off Harper’s head during the struggle back onto her head.
“O-tay. We leave them lone. I can walk now, Daddy.” Harper squirms in hopes of being set free.
“No, you can’t. You’re in timeout.”
I shift her onto my hip. “No buts. Mama and I told you not to run away from us. You didn’t listen. You’ve got to ride out your two-minute punishment like a big girl.”
“O-tay.” Her plump lower lip is poked out as she accepts her fate.
120 seconds isn’t long enough for Harper to re-earn our trust. Her hand is held when she’s not in her carrier. Those are the rules for the rest of the trip. It creates an actual reason for Harper and me to feed each other during the chocolate tasting. She still manages to get more chocolate on her face and hand than in her mouth. All toddlers are slobs. Baby wipes exist for a reason. Plenty of them are used to keep her from staining the shuttle van.
The kids aren’t the only ones participating in naptime today. Virtually everyone else opts to take one too. Harper gets a bath before joining them. Tay and I are the only hold outs. We lounge by the pool on the property instead of making the two-minute walk to the beach. It’s all the same to me. I can play the guitar while he reads anywhere.
“Are you going to do it today or tomorrow?” He turns the page.
“Do what?” I tighten a tuning peg.
“You know what. It’s the whole reason we’re out here. You’re too anxious to rest. Your nervous energy is keeping me awake too. You can’t play coy with me.”
“But you can? That’s not fair.”
“I’m not going to try to take over. It’s your deal. I just want to be in the know.”
“Tonight.” My guitar strumming doesn’t cease, neither does his reading.
“You’re going to need someone to officiate your private wedding.”
“We’re not having a wedding.”
“You’re going to have a marriage ceremony in which you, Poppy, Harper and an officiant will be present. A fourth person is needed to make your union legal.”
I stall my strings’ reverberations by pressing them down over the sound hole with my hand. “Ask me.” A smirk creeps onto my lips as I look at him.
“There’s nothing to ask. I merely pointed out an element you may have overlooked.”
“You, a person who has all sorts of problems with the concept of marriage, want to get ordained to officiate mine. I want to hear you say it.” Satisfaction makes my smirk grow.
“No,” is his dry reply.
“That’s the only way it’s happening. Pop and I have options.”
“You only have one twin.”
“You’re off to a good start.”
“Fill in the blanks.”
“But you are so good at explaining things. I don’t want to miss out on a special edition Taylor Truth. It can count as an engagement present.”
“Your non-wedding, Christmas, and birthday one too.”
“That’s a steal. I’ll take it.”
He lets out a heavy exhale. “We’re carbon copies who started life together and wound up being individuals with different philosophies on life. Securing a spouse and 2.5 children may not be on my list of aspirations, but it is at the top of your updated one. All of our wins and losses have been shared up until this point. Everything is about to change. Pop’s the one for you. Harper is Harper. More cubs will be added to your pride at some point. I’ll be around, but I won’t be involved the way I am now. It’s for the best but having a firm grasp on the reality of the situation doesn’t make it any easier. If I’m the one to that puts you in Poppy’s highly capable hands, it will soften the blow.”
My teasing is stamped out by the rawness of his admission. “I wouldn’t be me without you. I know, I know – that’s the definition of codependent. I don’t care. Your feet are on the ground; My head’s in the clouds, and we give each other access to both worlds. We’ll be doing it ’til death do us part. Poppy embraces what we are. It’s how I know she’s the one. You’re not losing me to her and our weirdos. Remember that when you marry us, will you?” I nudge his shoulder with my fist.
“I can do that.” Taylor cracks a smile.
“There’s something else I’d like you to do for me.”
“No. It was ours – not mine or yours.” He snips.
Great, the career talk is going to be a screaming match.
“That’s not what I was going to ask.”
“Sure, it wasn’t.” He grumbles.
“Seriously. That’s not something I want to get into right now. My baseball field is. The plans are almost finalized. I need you to agree to marry Poppy and me on the border of our merged fields of dreams.”
“Should I know what ‘merged fields of dreams’ are?”
“She has a farm in the middle of nowhere. How could Pop and I pass up building a baseball field like Ray and Annie in Field of Dreams? There’s even a cornfield. We’re going to make it our own and have our ghosts come in and out of her field of wildflowers.”
His expression is equal parts amused and baffled. “How long did it take you two to come up with that idea?”
“During our walk to her field, what we could do with the space in front of it came to me – the field layout, future games, everything. She nudged me with her elbow to get my attention. When I looked at her, she looked as amped as I felt and pitched my idea. I almost dropped to one knee then and there.”
“I don’t understand the point, but I’ll pretend being an active participant in one of your inside jokes an honor.”
“You’re double hired.” I lean back in my lounger and get back to tuning.
“You can borrow anything of mine tonight. I packed formal clothes just in case.”
“I wish I hadn’t come prepared. You don’t even let me go into your closet. Wear your clothes? Wow. I never thought I’d see the day.”
“I want her to say ‘yes’.” He turns the page of his book.
“Wearing mine will increase the odds.”
“How are you going to do it?”
“You’ll find out tomorrow.”
“It better be good.”
“No pressure or anything.” I fire back sarcastically.
“You need a fire under your ass to knock it out the park. I’m helping by billowing the flames. You’re welcome.”
“If only I’d have the opportunity to return the favor one day.”
“You’re the only person who doesn’t take what I say and respond with ‘just wait’.”
Because if someone does come along, you’ll make a point to do the opposite of what is recommended. Control – it’s always about control with you.
“We share a brain wavelength. Each other’s operation manuals are programmed in it. Cut them some slack.” I tell him a different truth.
“Who do you think knows you better – me or Poppy?”
“You.” My answer is immediate. “But she is an impressively close second. She knows and wants it that way. Pop’s the total package.”
“She always has been. Why do you think I got so pissed at you when I found out you broke up with her?”
“Because I crushed our phones when I figured out that she blocked us.”
“That warranted a tackle and loud raging. Letting her go is what earned you a punch in the face.”
“You were supposed to be on my side.” I shift narrowed eyes to him.
“I was. I always am. She makes you happier than all the bullshit the industry assholes were promising us. I hoped I’d make you pull your head out of your ass and visit her during our stop in Boston. You didn’t but I made a lasting impression. You eventually started hunting for her to prove me wrong, that you hadn’t lost her for good. You thrive when given microscopic odds. It’s how we became one in a million.”
“I’m going to say one thing and I want it to be left at that – a tossed-out statement that isn’t discussed.”
“Tread lightly.” He warns.
“There’s a way to keep doing what we started. If anyone can figure out how, it’s you.”
“And if I don’t?”
“I’ll still love you. Less than I do now, but plenty. You’ll get the silent treatment for no more than a decade.” I joke.
He scoffs. “You can’t go a whole day without talking to me. Ten years is out of the question.”
“You’re worse than I am. You spoke to me an hour after having your tonsils removed.”
“We were eight. The hospital was boring. You brought cars and comics and got Mom to let you spend the night.”
“You said the first word.”
“I responded to your move.”
We do our own things in the same space until the alarm he set to alert us that we should get ready goes off. When Tay and I eventually go inside, we are greeted by sound of small children singing Where We Are. I’d recognize the loudest voice anywhere.
Harper, Courtney, Aiden, and Grace are jumping in front of the living room’s television. Moana is playing. The kids are singing loud enough to alert the neighbors. Leo’s on the couch, scrolling through his phone, unbothered by their antics.
“Have fun.” Taylor is quick to wash his hands of the situation.
I applaud when their song comes to an end.
“Daddy!” Harper sprints to me.
I kneel down to accept her hug.
“You hear it? Did you hear me? We sing songs.” She rapid fires with a bright smile.
“I heard you singing when I walked in. It sounded so good that I had to come in here and see your performance.”
“We pacticin’ for the luau. We’re gonna sing songs and dance and eat yummy food.”
“You sound ready to me. Can we go now?”
“No, we not dwessed.”
“How about we change that?”
I stand with her and situate her on my hip.
“Do you need help with them?” I ask Leo.
He finally looks up from his device. “Nah, I’m good. Three’s been my number for six years.”
“Two of them will need your help getting dressed. Beck takes longer than Taylor to get ready.”
“I had her hand over Aiden’s clothes first thing. She’s not making me late. I’ll leave her this time. Tay too.”
Leo’s the most punctual of us all. If he’s not early, he considers himself late and he lets the people who caused his tardiness hear about it.
“No, Nunkle Leo. They haves to go to. It suppose be really fun. Gamma say fammy fun time.” Harper reprimands.
“What she said. Get it together, bro.” I say in jest as I carry her away.
Harp knocks on our door. “Maaaaammmaaaa, it me and Daddy!”
It takes effort to keep my jaw from dropping and my tongue in my mouth when Poppy opens the door.
She’s fresh-faced, skin glowing. The long navy-blue dress Poppy has on pops against her olive skin. What she’s wearing is held together by a waist tie; the overlapping fabric creates a v-neck that provides a peek of cleavage and a slit in the skirt that’ll show off her long legs as she walks.
“Just who I wanted to see. How was practice, Lovebug?”
“It was good. It time to gets dwessed for the luau now. We can’ts be wate. We miss all the fun.”
“Missing out on the fun is unacceptable. All of us have to move as fast as we can. Your dress and shoes are on the chair. Do you want help?”
“No, I dos it all by myself like a big girl. Down, pweeze, Daddy.”
I grant her polite wish. She wastes no time scurrying to her task. Poppy shuts the door behind me.
“Hiya, gorgeous, how was your nap?” My arms encase Poppy’s waist.
“Gorgeous, huh?” She raises an eyebrow with the corner of her lips quirked. “It must’ve done more than just recharge my batteries.”
“You always are. Telling you is my new full-time job.”
The lower half of her face remains playful; her eyes are pensive.
Poppy silences me with a peck on the lips. “Later.” She tucks my hair behind my ear. “You’re not in trouble. We have a schedule to follow.”
A short-sleeved denim shirt, khaki shorts, and an aloha shirt-pattern snapback turned backward is my outfit for the night. Harper approves. My hat inspires her to dig her Hawaiian shirt out of her suitcase and wear it over her sundress like a jacket.
All I had to do to make sure Taylor isn’t tardy is put Harper in front of his door and have her talk about everything she is looking forward to doing tonight. Becca, on the other hand, requires a more direct approach. She gets tossed over Leo’s shoulder and carried to the car. He’s chosen this tactic enough times to remember to unplug her curling iron during his fit of frustration. Sharing a bathroom with her is always torture.
There is no shortage of luaus on the Hawaiian Islands. The one where we have reservations is in Lahaina, Maui. It has the essentials – lei welcome, music, kālua cooking presentation, grand feast, and a show. All of it will be taking place in view of the ocean.
“Do you want my lei?” I’m holding Harper’s hand as we follow the hostess to our table.
“No, you haves to wear it to dance.”
“I can still dance without it. You love your flowers; you’ll have even more if you wear mine.”
“You haves to wear it, Daddy. Fowers are how you do a good job.”
“You don’t think I can do a good job without flowers? What about my concerts?”
“You Daddy dance at co-certs. You only needs to be Daddy. You needs fowers for hu-wa dance. It part of it.”
“Can you Daddy dance?”
“No, I’m Hawper. I Hawper dance, silly.” She laughs as though its obvious.
“Is there anything I can wear to Harper dance?”
“No. I haves to Hawper dance. You haves to Daddy dance. We haves to do it to-ether to do really good jobs.”
“Oh, okay.” I repress laughter by pursing my lips together.
“We not Daddy and Harper dancing soon. We hu-wa. You haves to wear your fowers.”
“I’ll keep them on all night.”
“Gweat!” She chirps and proceeds to skip the rest of the way to the table.
Poppy takes Harper to the bathroom. I’m put in charge of ordering our drinks.
“Let me see the ring.” Lindsey slides into Poppy’s seat.
“It’s about time someone noticed.” I fan out the fingers on my right hand and hold it in front of both of us. “I had ‘James’ added to it back in July. Pretty solid font match, don’t you think?”
“I don’t care about the ring you bought yourself. Show me Poppy’s engagement ring before she gets back.”
“Why would I have an engagement ring?”
“You’re proposing here. How much you cared about which luau we chose gave it away. Now, show me. Becca trusted me to get the scoop. We need time to shop for a new one if it’s not up to snuff.”
“Yeah, no, I was looking out for Harper and Taylor. She loves music and dancing. He would’ve talked through the hula performances if they blended Samoan, Tahitian, and Hawaiian customs. I’d have to kill him if he took away from her enjoyment. That would’ve ruined everyone’s vacation. I cared then to be able to kick back now.” I clink our tropical cocktails.
“Are you playing it cool for more shock value?”
“I don’t play it cool in my free time. All of my time is my own now that I’m retired.”
“We couldn’t make a bet on that. We’re all on the same side.” She pushes her sunglasses further up the bridge of her nose.
“About what?” I have a sip of my drink.
“Whether or not you’re leaving music behind for good.”
“Pull a Rhys already. There’s no reason to put it off.”
“All of it. Just do it.” She rises from the chair she stole. “Do you really not have her ring on you?” She looks down at me.
“I honestly don’t. You’ll have to report back to Beck empty-handed.”
“Do you at least have pictures?”
“Let me see them.”
“Eh. I’ll be able to say I tried.” She gives my shoulder a squeeze.
Poppy holds one of Harper’s hands and I hold the other as we visit the demonstration stations. The laulima area is the reason both of us have hands on deck. Translated, laulima means “many hands working together”. Our helper extraordinaire would’ve wind up in the imu trying to do her part without us as her restraints. Motivating the chefs with praise from the sidelines is what she does instead. But there’s no stopping Harper during the hula lesson. Pop and I don’t even try. We over-participate right alongside her.
A family that dances like fools together, stays together. A twin brother that records it to laugh at and pass around to the rest of your family is worth sticking with too.
The sunset is watched from the ocean’s edge. Harper’s standing between Poppy and I, her hands once again in ours. Waves are lapping at our bare toes. My mind wanders elsewhere as I stare at the horizon line; it goes to the possibilities, all that has yet to be explored and seen. As the sky is fading to lavender, I turn my head to who I wish was there when I sailed out the first time.
I’m still wishing, wanting. I shouldn’t be. I’ve been there, done those things. Home with her and Harper is where I belong.
Poppy soon meets my gaze and a beautiful smile stretches across her face. Guilt hits me and my stomach drops.
“My Rhys is a dreamer. It’s why I love him.” She takes my breath away.
“Weese Daddy. Love you, Daddy! Let’s spwash!” Harper jumps on the incoming tide.
“Yes, Weese, we want to splash with you.” Poppy spins her words metaphorically.
“It’ll get messy.” I reply the same way.
“We’re taller. We know not to go too deep and how to protect our little explorer. Her hand’s being held and a dry set of clothes is waiting in her bag. Venturing out this way won’t hurt us. We were built for it.”
“I’ll only start if you keep going.”
“Stopping didn’t cross my mind.”
“Then let’s play.”
“Yeah?” Tension leaves her face and her smile reappears.
“Yes,” I say as I take a step forward.
She gathers the hem of her dress with her free hand and joins me a few steps into the ocean. Pop and I swing Harper to where we are. She squeals with glee as her tiny feet sends shallow water flying.
“Again! Again!” Harp exclaims as soon as her feet are on the ground.
Wet feet covered in sand and a few damp patches on our clothes is the extent of our damage. It’s nothing napkins and baby wipes can’t fix. Both are in Harper’s diaper bag. The three of us are inseparable for the rest of the evening. My lap is Harper’s seat; we feed each other dinner. Her back is resting on my chest during the show. I’ve got an arm around Poppy and her head is on my shoulder. Becca takes more nonconsensual pictures. I’m too content to care.
Harper falls asleep in the car on the way to the house. She’s sticky from a pineapple juice spill and in desperate need of a bath. Instead of waking her, Pop and I clean her in the kitchen sink. I’m in charge of holding her; Poppy is on washing duty.
“Can we still talk later?” I keep my voice down for Harper’s sake.
“That depends. Am I in trouble?”
I breathe a laugh. “No.”
“How is my valid question funny?” She lightly teases as she softly scrubs Harp’s arm.
“You Make My Dreams – Hall and Oates.”
The corner of a lips curl into a smile. “Will you play it for me during ‘later’?”
“Just how am I supposed to do that? I only brought my guitar.”
“You packed Cassius in Taylor’s second suitcase and padded his case with Tay’s clothes for safer keeping. He’s your favorite. You can’t spend a whole week away from your keyboard.”
“Shhhh.” I hold my index finger to my lips. “Gage is right around the corner. I tuned him down here during your nap. He won’t play right if his feelings are hurt.”
“Is there a reason you need him in tip-top shape? Finally giving me my promise ring back, perhaps?”
“I took yours because you haven’t complimented mine. It has nothing to do with wooing you into marriage.”
“I love that the ring you bought yourself now says, ’Property of Penelope “Poppy” Elise James” and you’ve been getting along with my dad. Can I have my ring back now?”
“Patience, Penelope. All in due time.”
“Yet you say it’s not being held hostage to play a part in a wooing scheme.”
“We’re in the middle of Harper’s bathtime. My priorities are showing.”
“Well, isn’t that convenient?”
“Not really. We’re making a mess that’ll have to be cleaned up.”
“If you’re the one that does it, I’ll stop being suspicious. My shower won’t be long enough to tidy and do something woo-worthy.”
“I sure won’t.” I don’t smile because she’d be able to tell it’s forced.
My backup plan is formulated as we finish Harper’s bath and put her to bed. I run at full speed to the living room to put it in action the second Poppy closes the bathroom door.
“Move!” Leo barks at me.
He, Chloe, Kevin, Jessica, Chris, Becca, and Lindsey are trying to view the action movie they invited Poppy and me to watch.
“Nope. Help. I need help. Pop’s in the shower. Short on time. Proposal setup crew. You in?” I plead as I continue to block the TV with my body.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Becca rapidly claps. “Oh, ring! Let me see the ring.”
“Later.” I answer.
“I knew it!” Lindsey proclaims.
“Where do you want Cass and Gage?” Taylor’s already on his feet.
“Balcony in our room.”
“Were you holding out on us?” Leo asks Tay’s back.
Taylor ignores his question and continues rushing in the direction of where I left my guitar.
“What do you want me to do, Uncle Rhys?” Lo asks from her seat on the floor.
“You and Kev need to stand outside the first bathroom upstairs. Stall Poppy if she comes out.”
“On it!” They run to the stairs.
“You and you--” I point to Linds and Beck. “Decorate the balcony with the box of stuff on the top shelf of my closet. “Leo, move get it for them. It’s pushed back.”
Leo ruffles my hair, Becca kisses my cheek, and Lindsey gives me a quick on their way of out room.
“And can you two clean up Harper’s stuff in the kitchen?” I ask of Chris and Jess.
“Sure thing!” She pops up from her seat with ease and hurries to her task.
“You’ve got this.” Chris claps me on the back and jogs after his wife.
Their assistance frees me up to get myself ready. My keyboard wasn’t the only thing I stowed in Tay’s suitcase. The neon pink baseball cap covered in pineapples Poppy bought me for our first anniversary, The Sandlot t-shirt she bought me for Christmas, my favorite pair of track pants (Pop would feel uncomfortable if she were the only one in pajamas), and Poppy’s modified promise-turned-engagement ring.
My racing heart and difficulty breathing has little to do with all the running and rushing I’ve done. The bathroom light is on, but the shower is no longer running when I exit Taylor and Leo’s room. Chloe and Kevin are still at their post. Trusting my siblings’ abilities to follow directions, I silently motion for the kids to leave.
They give me thumbs’ up and smiles before listening. The prep crew I assigned bedroom tasks are gone when I get there. I pace instead of quality controlling their work. I’ll obsess over details. Obsessing will put me in worse shape.
Poppy yelps. “Geeze, you couldn’t have turn the light on?” She flips the light switch.
I swivel on my feet to face the door. “What would’ve been the fun in that?”
With damp hair, her face stripped free of all makeup, glasses in place, and wearing a pair of leggings and my high school baseball hoodie, she looks absolutely stunning. Heartbreakingly so.
“You’re lucky I like you.” She drops her clothes in the hamper. “Fancy hat, Squints. What’s the special occasion?”
“Our anniversary, dear Wendy.”
“It’s not – shoot!” Her eyes go wide. “I can’t believe I forgot. I didn’t get you anything. I’m so sorry.”
“Hangout with me on the balcony and we’ll call it even. I’d rather watch stars than a movie.”
“Stargazing it is.” She rises on the balls of her feet and presses a soft kiss to my lips. “Are Cassius and Gage already out there?”
“Maybe.” My arms encircle her waist.
“Music beneath the stars – that’s some high-quality wooing, Wilde.”
“Anything for you, my love.” I kiss her forehead.
“Tone it down. The outside setup is going to be the epitome of romance and I don’t want your wooing well to runneth over.”
“Always looking out for me. You’re the best.”
“It’s a selfish act. I do it to maintain your body and voice.”
“You’re finally taking me up on my free escort offer? Best anniversary ever.”
She finally breaks, giggling with a radiant smile on her face.
This witty, brilliant, beautiful in every way creature will be my wife if I don’t blow this.
Poppy abruptly stops laughing, tilts her head to the side, and makes her study face.
“Time to get to wining and not dining you.” I take her hand and start in the direction of the balcony door.
She digs her feet into the carpet. “Look at me.”
I begrudgingly do it, knowing she won’t move until I do.
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in you.”
“I’ve screwed up too many times to count. I lost you once. I almost did it a second time.”
“I have too. This wouldn’t mean as much if we hadn’t. The time spent apart gave us the strength to tough out this year. You need the bad to truly appreciate the good. A lifetime of silly little moments is more than enough for me. I’m in luck. I just so happen to be in love with a ridiculousness professional.”
I’ve dug into my pocket and I’m on one knee as soon as she punctuates her reassurance with her sweetest smile.
“'All the roads that lead you there are winding. And all the lights that light the way are blinding. There are many things that I
would like to say to you but I don’t know how'. 'My life has been such a whirlwind since I saw you. I’ve been running around in circles in my mind. And it always seems that I’m following you, girl. ’Cause you take me to the places that alone I’d never find'. 'So if you’re mad, get mad, don’t hold it all inside. Come on and talk to me now. Hey there, what you got to hide? I get angry too, well, I’m alive like you. When you’re standing at the crossroads, and don’t know which path to choose, let me come along, ’cause even if you’re wrong, I’ll stand by you'. 'I want to stand with you on a mountain, I want to bathe with you in the sea. I want to lay like this forever until the sky falls down on me'. 'We lay in the bed of flowers, your smile’s shining brighter than the sun. I take your hand and then we start to run to the horizon. The field to be built is vast, much time will pass. Our lives have just begun. Lights may fade, some dreams the same. Who knows what it’ll come to be? You. You believe in what I see. Sometimes the only one. Will you come with me? Through this field and to the horizon?'” I speak-sing lyrics to her.
She breathes a laugh, her smiling growing as she does. “Wonderwall - Oasis, I Can’t Fight This Feeling - REO Speedwagon, I’ll Stand By You - The Pretenders, Truly Madly Deeply – Savage Garden, Field – Wilde Knights.”
“You passed the final test. You’re the love of my life, smartypants. It’s always been you. It becomes more obvious as time goes on. You’re the second coolest person I’ve ever met. We made the first one together, but she’s here, happy, healthy, and a genius all because of you. I couldn’t ask for a better partner, baby mama, or best friend. I don’t deserve you, like AT ALL, but I’m still gonna swing for the fences.” I take a deep breath. “Penelope Elise James, will you settle for me?”
“N-no?” The ring box is fumbled and falls to the floor.
Poppy joins me on the ground. “No. We’re going to do the all things we used to talk about and bring to life the ideas that haven’t popped into our heads yet. There will be inside jokes, fake and real fights, music, pop culture references, growing – plants and as people, and we’re going to share it all with our little weirdo and future weirdoes. You’ve asked to be my Rhys. I’m choosing to be your Poppy. Neither of us is settling.” She returns the ring box to my hand. “Slide it on me, handsome. I’m ready to be a blown full fiancée.”
I gulping air into my lungs. “You had to give me a heart attack too?!”
“Not so fun being snuck up on, is it?”
“New rule: no jump scares. My soul left my body. My heart was in shards. My–”
“We’re getting married.”
“Not yet. I haven’t gotten my last chance to shine.”
“The floor and my hand are yours, drama king.” She lifts her left hand.
First, I pluck her ring out of its box’s silk folds. Next, I bring her hand to my lips and kiss it.
“I made my ring more special by adding your last name. Your family shaped you as much as mine did me. Pieces of you that I love came from them. I spruce up your ring by adding them too.” I say as I slide the ring onto her finger.
My thumb is covering the most noticeable new additions. “Remembering is something both of us want to do for the rest of our lives. Sharing is too. Randall and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but it didn’t take convincing for him to agree to help me do this for you—” I give a little background before revealing the ring to her.
I reveal the ring to her.
“Some people pass engagement rings from generation to generation. Hodgepodges with sentimental value are more our style, so I had tassels from one of your grandfather’s bolo ties melted down and cast to make the band. Two little pearls are from the brooch your grandmother wore to your parents’ wedding. The forget-me-not’s still front and center in the middle. Our relationship is ours. We want to embrace the past while we frolic in our field to the future. So, what do you—?”
Poppy pounces on me and I land on my back. The deep, electrifying kisses that follow have me on the verge of another heart attack.
“Door. Getting door.” She pants against my lips.
I roll her beneath me. “I will. Let’s go outside after I do.”
“That’s a plan, fiancé.” Poppy says as she tucks hair falling in my face behind my ear.
Three smooches give me the strength to move off her. As I’m shutting the door, a hiss comes from down the hall.
“Pssssstttt, Rhys!” Becca whispers louder.
I crack the door just enough to be able to stick my head into the hall. All five of my siblings are shamelessly stacked on the stair landing.
“What’d she say?” Chris is the one to ask on behalf of the group.
“Yes. Go away before she changes her mind.”
With the speed and power of a herd of bulls, they charge toward me. I bedroom door is burst open. I’m hoisted into the air and cheered for like I just hit the winning run in the world series in the blink of an eye. Poppy meets the same fate. Mom shoos them out – after giving Poppy and me tearful kisses, of course.
“You don’t think piling furniture in front of the door is a bit excessive?” Poppy asks after I’ve locked the door and move a nightstand in front of it just in case they want immediate feedback on the balcony too.
I swivel to face her. “Oh, it is. That’s what we are. We would’ve been much louder if the kids weren’t asleep. You should’ve seen what we did to Chris. Any second thoughts on marrying into all this?”
“Not a one.”
Her temple gets kissed after I’ve draped an arm across her shoulders. “Time for me to earn my keep with my voice and body.”
“Just your voice until we get home. They made me acutely aware of everyone’s proximity. Mom’s on the other side of the wall.”
“Ew. That— ew.”
“I know, babe. I know. It’s a good thing they didn’t go away before I changed my mind.”
“You heard all that, huh?”
“I don’t know how the rest of the house didn’t. You were speaking at full volume.”
“We were whispering.”
“Stage whispering, maybe. I’m not complaining. I love that you can’t contain your love for each other. I’m looking forward to being an official Wilde.”
“You already are.”
“Not in name. What do you think? Does Penelope ‘Poppy’ Elise James-Wilde suit me?”
“Beautifully. I’m going to need a bigger ring, though.”
“What about your ring tattoo?”
“I’m having both. One isn’t enough.”
“I have a suggestion.”
“Let me hear it.”
“Upgrade from a property ring to a property watch. You’ll have two objects of symbolism instead of one.”
“I’ll be your property until time runs out.” I smile.
“In. Help me pick it out. I want to be sure it’s sexy enough for you. You know, because of your watch fetish.”
“Says the person who asks me to explain the research I plan to study in grad school by saying, ‘talk dirty to me’.”
“Yep, I do and I’m not ashamed to admit it.”
“You’re going to stand on a piece of furniture while you officially announce our engagement tomorrow, aren’t you?”
“I’ll be flipping off of it too. You’re worthy of trillions of backflips, babe.”
“Lucky me.” She laughs.
I open the French doors that lead to the balcony and Poppy stops in her tracks.
Twinkle lights are wound on the railing. On one side of the balcony, the inflatable bed is oriented horizontally and lined with a yellow fitted sheet (Pop’s favorite color) and the throw pillows are neatly but artfully arranged to serve as back rests. The coffee table that was already there has my keyboard on it and throw pillows that weren’t put on the bed are on the ground behind the table to be used as a seat for me. My guitar is protected in its case and beside the table. The wicker table and chair set that came with the house has been pushed onto the opposite side of the balcony. On it are battery-operated candles Mom made me buy months ago, a bottle of red wine, and pint glasses are on the table. It in no way looks like they had ten minutes to work.
“Y-you did all this?” Poppy sniffles.
“I shipped the supplies here last week, but Leo, Tay, Beck, and Linds were commissioned at the last minute to set it up. Chris and Jess cleaned the kitchen. Kev and Chloe were on look out duty. I was busy making myself presentable.” I move to stand in front of her and hold out my arms to give her a good look at my outfit. “Proper wooing has layers, Penelope. Help was needed to make it happen this time.”
She’s belly laughing as she launches herself at me. I catch her and return the hug she’s giving.
“T-this is so weird and it was supposed to be weirder. I love it. I love what it is, what it could’ve been, them and you, and everything else.” She covers my face in kisses as she happy cries.
“Are your thoroughly wooed?” I’m grinning like an idiot as I clear the steams of tears on her face.
“Oh, yeah. Wooed to the max and loving it.”
“Would you’ve said ‘yes’ faster if I proposed out here?”
“No, my Rhys follows his heart. You couldn’t wait to run to me in there. That’s what makes the culmination of all this so special. Our best moments aren’t completely unplanned.”
A light bulb switches off in my head.
It only takes her a millisecond to see it. “I know that face. That’s your songwriting face.”
“We’re having a moment. I’m staying in it. They’re not going to be brought in. Tonight’s about me and you.”
“We share in this family. You said it yourself during my proposal. Our daughter rambles about it all the time. I want you to share your music until your heart’s content. I’m really into being your muse. Call it a fetish if you’re so inclined.”
A smile slowly stretches onto my face. “Will you help me?”
“Finally! I get to get in on the action instead of sitting around looking pretty. How much fun Taylor and Harper get to have with you has been getting exponentially unfair.”
“Remember that thought!” I bolt back into our room to get my composition book.
“The math one!”