Sum of Us

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EPILOGUE: Poppy

|THREE YEARS LATER|

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MOM!”

“HAPER BIRD-DAY, MAMA!”

Harper and Ash ensure their wake-up call’s success by piling on top of me in bed.

My lovebug’s not so little anymore. She’s eight years old and starting 3rd grade in the fall. Though her body is bigger and attention span have expanded, her Harper essence remains the same.

School hasn’t lost its luster for her; it’s easy to wake her up on school days and she never has to be reminded to do her homework. Music time with Rhys is still a daily staple. Harper has no shortage of friends. Robin, Madison, Ayo, and Ensley are still her favorite ones. She and Ensley still go to the same school. The two of them catch up with Robin, Madison, and Ayo during extracurricular activities, playdates, and slumber parties.

Helping others is always at the forefront of my lovebug’s mind. Her family and friends come first. Harper’s every bit the big sister Rhys and I thought she would be. Changings, feedings, bathtime, and playtime – she loves participating in them. It’s a family joke (and fact) that Ash’s her sidekick. He follows her around, does his best to do everything she can, and holds onto every word she says. In fact, he considers her his best friend. When someone asks, “Ash, who’s your best friend?” he’ll say, “Hawper!” if she’s not around; he says it and points to her if she is.

Their age difference doesn’t allow for sibling squabbles. Harper’s eight. Ash’s two, almost three. She gets frustrated with him at times. He often gets into her things and sometimes ruins them beyond repair. Harper will run to Rhys and me to complain, but she never lashes out at Ash. She understands that he’s unaware that what he has done is wrong and leaves it to us to make sure he learns not to do it again. All the lessons haven’t stuck yet; Ash’s a toddler who does toddler things. Despite all the irritating stuff he subjects her to, Harper never fails to dry his tears when necessary and help him navigate the world.

Rhys and I thought we had our hands full when Harper was a toddler. She was docile compared to Ash. Whereas Harper’s hobbies are sound-centric, his are motion. Running, jumping, swimming, dancing – Ash’s the epitome of active. His resourcefulness makes him more dangerous. He finds a way to turn all activities into extreme sports. Take climbing, for example. It’s a normal thing for infants and toddlers to do. Ash takes it up a notch by finding something to stack on top of what he plans to climb to be as high up as possible, proceeds to do it, and then alerts everyone within earshot – not because he’s afraid and unsure of how to get down, but because he finds freak-outs funny. He cackles as he’s carried to safety.

Creating music’s not really Ash’s thing. He can’t sit still long enough to play an instrument and singing while moving is a learned skill. He appreciates music and shows it by dancing like no one’s watching whenever it’s played. It’s his contribution to nightly music time. Harp and Rhys are able to get feedback on their songs’ danceability.

Ash’s love of the fast lane led him to sports without influence. “Ball” was his first word. He and Rhys were watching a baseball game. Rhys was narrating a game to him, as he did all shows when he was a baby, and Ash repeated the word “ball”. Rhys ran down two flights of stairs with him to tell me. He was so proud. “Dada” was word number two. He said it for the first time while I was at work. Rhys drove there to show me. Which word he was more excited about is a toss-up.

At six months old, before his first word was uttered, Ash became an essential part of the Wilde Wonders baseball team. Rhys wore him on his chest in his front-carry baby carrier to keep from getting thrown out of games for questioning umpires’ calls. Hiding behind Ash’s gummy smiles and clapping made Rhys impervious to dismissal. Our baby boy was just as happy to be there as Rhys was having him. Ash loves being outside. In fact, in his mind, there’s no place like our field of wildflowers in Montana. We can (and do) stay in it for hours. Sharing my happy place with him makes it happier.

“Thank you,” my voice is hoarse from sleep as I hold my babies in my arms. “I love you.” I kiss Harper’s forehead. “And I love you.” I do the same to Ash. “Where’s my cupcake? I have one more of you to love.” I ask them as I attempt to tame Ash’s hair.

At its current length and density, his hair is an exact replica of his cartoon namesake’s in the morning. It takes water or a styling product to make a noticeable difference. That doesn’t stop me from trying to manage it with my fingers.

“With Dad.” Harper answers.

“Byer sinky.” Ash laughs.

“Hey! Birthday girls are entitled to judgment-free diaper changes. It’s Briar’s party. She can cry for a new diaper if she wants to.” Rhys paraphrases the lyrics to Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party”.

“What about you, Pop? We’ve got enough Pampers to go around.” He jokes as exits the bathroom with our youngest baby girl on his hip.

Like her older sister, Briar was a surprise – one that started out scary but blossomed into someone beautiful. Rhys and I planned to space out the kids, to wait until Harper was ten and Ash was four to add another baby to the mix. Life had a different idea.

Our second baby girl was conceived after one of my work events. Rhys was my plus one. Pleasing a major client led to their subsequent request for more of our services. That was the reason my department was celebrating. I received an unexpected shout-out from my supervisor for my contributions during his toast. Rhys’s over-excitement for my job well done was contagious. Our shared happiness and champagne set the mood. We left the party early. Making sure the taxi that took us home returned to the other side of our security gate was the only precaution taken that night.

We figured the IUD I had inserted after Ash was born had us covered. IUDs are physical barriers that occupy the uterus and seal-off Fallopian tubes. One of my eggs broke through mine’s copper dam, bonded with one of Rhys’s swimmers, and we found out weeks later. I unintentionally found out on my own. My annual GYNO visit took a terrifying turn when she was spotted during my pelvic exam. “Cyst”, “tumor”, and “cancer” were my initial thoughts and what Dr. Ukaegbu was reluctant to say.

The truth further examination and testing revealed was no less scary. Getting pregnant while having an IUD is dangerous. It raises the chance that the pregnancy will be ectopic, which is potentially fatal. Even if the baby is where it should be, as Briar was, you’re still in the woods. There’s a high risk of miscarriage if the IUD isn’t removed properly and as soon as possible. I broke down in tears, terrified of leaving Harper, Ash, and Rhys behind so soon. I know the impact of losing a mother and wife firsthand. Rhys rushed to me when I called him with the news. He held my hand during the procedure and through the uncertainty that followed.

Briar Taylor James-Wilde was born on June 22nd at 1:17 PM, full-term and healthy. Her name follows the James-Wilde family tradition as well as her birthday. Briars are plants with thorny stems that grow in dense clusters, such as roses and shrubs. Our baby Briar started growing with a thorny stem. Taylor Guitars was founded in 1974, long before her professional musician, producer, and record label executive uncle came into existence. She’s named after both, one more than the other. The ratio is obvious. It doesn’t stop Rhys from trying to gaslight his twin into believing he’s being delusionally self-absorbed for thinking we would name a child after him.

Briar and I share more than a birthday. Her temperament resembles mine as well. Strangers and new places make her nervous. Briar clings to who she’s familiar with until she adjusts to foreign surroundings. She babbles as much as the next baby. It’s simply done softer than her siblings. Harper and Ash run first; Briar observes. Her first word was “Mama”. Mine was too. Briar gifted me with her presence and an extra link to my mother last year. Mom and I gave birth to baby girls on the same day with the loves of our lives by our side. I felt her presence at that moment and most since.

Today’s my youngest baby’s first birthday. My first day as a twenty-eight-year-old is an after-thought.

“I’m fine for now. Thanks for asking.” I crack a smile. “Happy birthday, Cupcake.”

“Mama,” Briar chirps, exposing her six teeth -- four on top, two on bottom -- in delight.

She puts her crawling skills to use when Rhys sets her on the bed. Ash escapes my hold as soon as the opportunity presents itself. He’s jumping on the bed while I’m pulling Briar into my arms.

“RWAR! I’M HUNGRY!” Harper transforms her hands into claws and makes her voice gruff.

Ash stops hopping mid-bounce, scrambles to get off the bed, and runs from her. He’s laughing and shrieking as Harp chases him around the master bedroom. Her strategic game of Monster makes it possible for Briar to comfortably cuddle with me.

Harper made the necessary modifications to her big sistering style to accommodate Briar’s personality when she became aware of the ways in which she differs from Ash. She applies a much gentler touch to her baby sister. Slow and steady’s the way to Briar’s inner circle. Harper spends just as much time with her as she does Ash. She plays with Briar, helps Rhys and I take care of her needs and teaches her new things.

The way she does it is the only thing different. Peek-a-Boo, This Little Piggy, and other games that require a small number of people are the ones they play. Harper makes music that Ash can dance to; her ballads and slow-tempo ones are dedicated to Briar. She helps Ash burn energy. She makes sure Briar can maintain her preferred (slow) pace. Her efforts pay off as well with Briar as they do Ash. After Rhys and me, Harper’s the person Briar’s most comfortable with; she turns to her when she’s in distress and we’re not around. That her big sister always has her back is one of the first things Briar learned.

“Thank you, Lovebug!” I raise my voice to be heard over Ash’s yelling and Buddy and Holly Jolly Christmas’ jingling collars.

“YOU’RE WELCOME!” Harper replies in character.

Holding her to my Briar to my chest, I scoot to an upright position and rest my back on the headboard. My glasses are needed to get a good look at my birthday girl. Her arms and legs are still around me as I retrieve them.

Rhys joins us in bed. “Waking you together was the plan, just so you know.”

“The birthday girl’s opening act riled up the crowd. Her entrance was highly anticipated. You trained them well.”

“You’ve got to start teaching them when they’re young. That’s key.”

My knees are bent and Briar uses my thighs as a backrest.

The resemblance between her and her sister is striking. Rhys and I could pass off black and white pictures of Harper as ones of Briar if we wanted to. Ash has my brown eyes; Harper received Rhys’s green. Briar has hazel ones, the shade of which is the perfect blend of the two colors. Briar has black hair like Ash and I. Harp has Rhys’s dark brown. All of them possess his hair’s lusciousness. Briar’s the only one who has zero qualms with haircuts. Becca gave her shoulder-length bob a trim recently and she didn’t try to run or shed a single tear.

“Today’s a big day, Cupcake. You’re one year old.” I tick her tummy.

Briar’s resting smile transforms into high-pitched laughter.

“It’s a big day for Mama too. She’s twenty-eight years old.” Rhys tells her.

“Mama,” Briar repeats.

“Happy birthday, babe.” Rhys puts his arm around me and kisses my cheek.

I rest my head on his shoulder. “We’ve survived being outnumbered for a whole year.”

“Smalls, Smaller, and Smallest seem to like us. I think that’s why they’ve chosen to kill us slowly.”

“That checks out.” I’m making silly faces at Briar to keep her giggling.

Providing her with her morning serving of my milk intensifies our bond. Rhys multitasks, cuddling with me and Briar while keeping a watchful eye on the four rascals ravaging the room. He’s become a master multitasker.

Heart-Headed Records’ headquarters is in the general access area of our home. Most of their work is done in the in-home studio. They have a flex workspace/conference area too. Both spaces have a playpen and toys and a fridge kept stocked with the kids’/Kyle’s favorite snacks. It’s how Rhys manages his full-time jobs. He’s at the top of both of his fields. All the artists he works with and our children walk away happy each day.

Rhys arranges his sessions around the kids’ schedules. I didn’t force it on him. My suggestion of sending Ash and Briar to a childcare facility part-time to stabilize his workflow was dismissed before I could state my case. Rhys enjoys little moments, especially our children’s. He said he needs to maintain the work/life ratio he’s established in the last six years to perform his best; it grounds him. Disrupting his artistic process was the opposite of what I hoped to accomplish. I let him be.

His efforts have been fruitful. The songs he’s produced, written, and is featured on always find their way to music charts. Wilde Knights haven’t released a fourth album yet, but it’s in the works. He and the guys are enthusiastic about it. Harper is too. Karin Palledorous’s a credited songwriter on many of the songs Rhys has worked on. Her royalties are in a trust she’ll be granted access to when she’s eighteen. Maybe she’ll use it to go to college. Perhaps it’ll be invested. Most people predict that she’ll funnel it into a career in music. Who knows? She’s young. Things change over time. The choice’s Harper’s to make when she’s ready.

Harp knows about the choices Rhys and I made. We told her last year. Internet usage has become a necessity to complete most of her school assignments. We’re with her whenever she uses the computer to monitor what she looks at. she wouldn’t have stumbled across a stray article from the dark days on her own. Her classmates recognize Rhys as someone other than Harper’s Dad now. He’s Rhys Wilde, the singer of their favorite songs. The thought of one of them typing his name into a search engine, discovering falsehoods about us, and relaying them to Harper began keeping me up at night.

Rhys and I had several long talks about the best way to lay everything out to her. Plainly stating our truths: I feared he would resent me if I tugged him away from his dream; I was insecure and doubted my significance and worth in most aspects of life. And it was selfish, not selfless, not to give Rhys the option to be with her, a person who’s as much mine as his. Rhys blindly walked into a situation beyond his depths with hubris. He unknowingly gave record executives the keys to his life and was too proud to ask for help to undo his mistake. He selfishly bet on me bending over backward to accommodate his decision. We learned our lessons the hard way. By a twist of fate, we found our way back to each other. We made more mistakes. With time and plenty of effort, we righted enough of them to make peace with the past.

Harper had questions – plenty of them. She was entitled to every answer and we give them. How we could hurt people we love to such extents is the one she had the most trouble grasping. When you’re young, the world is black and white. Shades of gray appear overtime. Rhys and I did our best to convey it. Harp’s sharp as a whip, but some lessons require hands-on training. Gray will have to appear in her life before she can fully understand.

Rhys and I prepared ourselves for Harper thinking less of us. We had to; she regarded us as though we were gods who could do no wrong. We’re not, we’ve done plenty of messed up things, and we’ll stumble occasionally for the rest of our lives. Harper accepted her mortal parents with open arms, literally. She initiated a group hug, said “don’t be sad. We’re together now” and told us she loved us maybe a dozen times. We asked her if she’d sleep in our bed that night. She graciously accepted our offer. Rhys and I held our baby girl, grateful for the decisions led to her being who she is.

The heaviest of our weights were lifted that day. We’re better for it. It’s made us stronger as a couple and as a family. We can focus on what’s in front of us while simultaneously fantasizing about the future.

Multitasking: it’s essential.

~

I typically don’t care too much about what I wear. My birthday’s an exception to my indifference. When I was little, my mom and then my grandma dressed me up every year. I have picture after picture of me in sundresses. I was an overalls girl growing up; they were better suited for playing in the dirt. My birthday was the exception. I still played how I wanted to. My picture was taken before they released me outside.

I kept up the tradition when I had control of my wardrobe because it made my birthday feel more special. It was even done during the darkest chapter of my life. Today, and this year only, Briar and I are wearing the same daisy sundress in different colors – mine’s navy blue, her dress’s pastel blue. She can pick what she wants to wear next year. We’re mommy and me-ing this time around. I think I earned it on our last birthday.

Rhys gets to do her hair. He collects the front it into a ponytail on top of her head and leaves the rest of it down. Babies with palm tree ponytails hit me right in the heart every time. My hubby knows me well. He decorates Brair’s tree with a little white bow. He gets a thank you kiss for his sweet gift to me, and for wrangling Harper, Ash, Holly, and Buddy on his own so that Briar and I could get a jump on her first birthday photoshoot.

“Are you ready to smash a cake, Cupcake?” Chelsea rubs Briar’s cheek with the crook of her index finger.

“The grand finale might be a bust. I can see her eating it neatly.” I angle Briar towards her.

“We’ll bring in Harp and Ash. We know they know how to do it. We’ll get all the shots we want.” Chels gives the center of her attention and our conversation a kiss.

Briar puts her pudgy hands on her aunt’s cheeks and rubs her nose against hers. Taking the hint, I transfer her to Chelsea. She holds onto her godmother’s every word as she explains the logistics of the photoshoot as we walk to its location.

There was no shortage of picturesque places for us to choose from on our Montana ranch. Briar’s content and comfortable in them all. This’s our second home, the destination of her first plane ride, and where we go to relax as a family – she loves it as much as the rest of us.

The photoshoot starts as expected. Briar’s baby instincts kick in when she’s gotten used to the format, and she proceeds to do her own thing.

“Briar, what are we doing, baby girl?” Chelsea asks her from behind the camera.

My birthday baby’s sitting at the edge of the blanket we put her on, picking grass like it’s her job. Briar looks at Chels with confusion written all over her precious face, tightly clutching freshly plucked blades of grass in her left fist. She points to herself with her right index finger.

“Yes, you.”

Briar babbles nonsense. I kneel on the blanket beside her and encourage her attempts to talk by actively listening, responding as though I know what she’s saying. She opens her hand to show me what she’s collected after she’s finished “explaining”.

“May I have some?” I cup my hands and hold them out to her.

She drops all of it into my hands.

“Thank you, baby.” I discretely discard the grass as I kiss her.

We pose for pictures together until Rhys, Ash, and Harper join us. They come outside with bubbles. They get Briar giggling, smiling, and clapping in the direction of the camera without my manual encouragement. Ash dives onto the blanket to pop a particularly big bubble. Briar yelps and falls over.

“Sowy. I sowy.” He rights her to the best of his ability. “Byer, o-tay?”

She claps her hands on his cheeks and laughs at the face he makes.

We always have to keep a close eye on Ash when he’s around Briar. It’s not because she’s fearful of him. The opposite is the problem. He likes to incorporate her into his stunts. Though they have polar-opposite temperaments, we can tell the two of them are going to grow into a dynamic duo. No one makes Briar laugh harder than Ash. She’s the only person he notifies before running into fires; he wants her to join in on the “fun”.

Before she could walk, Briar would cry or whine when he tried to take her hand and lead her to where he wanted to go. It wasn’t because he was too rough with her. It was because crawling was her mode of transportation and she didn’t appreciate being rushed. Her sounds of displeasure alerted Rhys and I to the situation. We called it our AAS (Ash Alarm System). These days, Briar waves him on when she doesn’t feel like going. Ash accepts her refusal and goes on with his plan without her. His laughter when he gets caught in the act makes her laugh and clap. I think it contributes to the frequency of his antics. Ash will do anything to make his baby sister smile.

Harper sits on the blanket with them.

“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands—” She leads a game.

Ash and Briar clap in unison, smiling. “If you’re happy and you know it, your face will truly show it. If you’re happy and you know it…tickle Briar,” Harper and Ash follow the instructions Harp gave in her song rewrite.

Briar tips over again – this time, laughing, squealing, and flailing her limbs as her siblings tickle her. Chelsea arranges them for posed pictures once they let Briar come up for air. Rhys and I get in on the group shots when the time comes. Briar and Rhys have some one-on-ones after that.

She’s as much a mama’s girl as she is a daddy’s girl. “Dada” was spoken for the first time mere hours after “Mama”. We learned early on that Rhys’s piano playing never fails to relax her. During our roughest newborn nights, we took her to the music room. I held her as he played. Her crying died down as soon as he started playing and put her to sleep within an hour.

Rhys’s fiercely protective of all our kids, but he’s more intense when it comes to Briar. She’s the most sensitive of our babies. He takes extra care to make sure she has the confidence to go after what she wants like her big brother and sister. In his strong arms is one of her favorite places to be.

“You sposa wish it, Byer!” Ash urges.

I’m holding his hand. Otherwise, Ash would be giving her a hands-on demonstration instead of verbal instructions.

We’re on the ranch’s wraparound porch. Briar’s hands have been washed. She’s sitting on a mat with a small cake right in front of her. It’s been there for five minutes and it’s gone untouched.

Briar points to herself.

“Yes, you.” Chels breathes a laugh.

Rhys sits on the ground with Briar. “Like this, Cupcake.” Using two fingers, he scoops some of the cake in an area not visible to the camera and rubs the frosting onto his cheek.

Briar pokes the cake and dots the tip of his nose with icing. The sight of it makes her giggle.

“Oh, that’s how it’s going to be?” He does the same to her, starting the game off slow.

Harper or Ash would have cake faces by now if he were with them. Briar adds more frosting his face with a gummy grin, receptive to his modified method. They go back and forth, covering each other in icing one poke and many giggles at a time. The game changes when Briar licks lips and gets her first taste of cake. She shoves handful upon handful of it into her face, attempting to feed herself.

“Dada,” Briar looks to him with her bottom lip trembling when she runs out of cake.

He’s crouching nearby to stay out of the picture’s Chelsea’s been taking.

“You’ll get more later. Your big day’s just getting started.” Rhys collects her and hugs our confection-covered daughter without regard for his shirt.

“No one clean that up. Her godfather needs to earn his keep.” Rhys is carrying Briar to the back door.

“Who’s going to be breaking the news to Sailor? It’ll go untouched if you do it.” Chelsea packs her camera into her case.

“Yeah, and it’s Pop’s birthday. She shouldn’t have to negotiate. I guess you’re it.” He pretends to be apologetic.

“It’d make more sense for his other godchildren to do it. He has two very cute ones.” She retorts.

“Nah. He’s too good at warping his work into games they want to play. You’ve got this.” Rhys disappears into the house.

Chels stops packing her things. “Might as well milk it for all that it’s worth.”

“Have fun,” I call after her.

“I will.” She throws a smirk over her shoulder as she walks.

“We really don’t have to clean up?” Harper asks me.

“Uncle Taylor’s taking care of it. Do you want to help me set up for the party?”

“Yeah! What about Ash?”

I experience momentary panic when I don’t see him at my feet. The sound of smacking redirections my eyes to the photoshoot setup. Ash’s on all fours where Briar was moments earlier, licking the cake’s plate.

“Nope, we’re not going to do that.” I lift him off his dessert.

“ROAR!” He worms and wiggles in my arms, trying to get back to the ground.

Rhys’s lion pride is still going strong. We’re not sure if Briar will want to join. Ash has it in him to play hard enough to make up for her absence.

“Chloe needs you to run around for her.”

“Run wit Lowie!?” He drops his animal act.

“Yes. You need to be cleaned up first. Sit still on the bench while I do it.”

He nods in understanding, his icing covered mouth forming a huge grin.

“Harper, you can go inside. Grandma should be in the kitchen. She can give you something to work on.” I set Ash on a nearby wooden bench.

“Do you need help with Ash?”

“I’ve got everything covered out here, Lovebug. I’ll meet you inside.”

She leaves us. I clean Ash with baby wipes from the diaper bag he and Briar share. After lathering him in another layer of sunscreen and putting a hat on him, I give him a sippy cup water bottle to hold and carry him into the yard.

Lo has been on college soccer scouts’ radar since her freshman year of high school. She’s entering her senior year in the fall. Her focus is locked on being recruited to one of the top schools and eventually the pros. Rain or shine, she doesn’t take a break. Her grades are strong to stay far away from being benched for poor school performance. She doesn’t party and has no desire to because she wants to keep her body in top shape. There’s no need to worry about a whoopies baby being created; it’s impossible for Chloe or her girlfriend to get each other pregnant. Leo’s very proud of her, rightfully so. We all are. We’re seeing to it that she has everything she needs to succeed.

“I’ve got your moving target!” I hold Ash up for Chloe to see.

“LOWIE!” Ash shouts.

I take his sippy cup and set him free. Ash sprints through the grass and into her open arms.

“Happy birthday, Aunt Poppy.” Chloe’s leading Ash in a stretch when I reach them.

“Thank you. Thank you for keeping him busy.”

“You’re doing me a solid. Dad’s dropping off Yena too.”

“Managing two two-year-olds? Wow. More power to you.”

“Training’s supposed to be difficult. Trying to catch them while they chase each other will be a great workout.”

“Gonna run. Get run. Run real real ast.” Yena zooms to stand in the middle of us.

“I gave her a bowl of Honey Smacks for breakfast.” Leo jogs close behind.

“That cereal’s over 50% sugar.” I look at him.

“Yeah, that’s why I gave it to her. Your kid’s got impressive speed and endurance. I had to get her amped to Ash’s level. Look at ’em go.” He nods to our kids.

They’re jumping in front of each other with their hands in the air.

Just as he insisted Harper was a musical prodigy when she displayed her talent at a young age, Rhys is 1000% convinced that Ash is destined for athletic greatness. And like last time, I have to acknowledge that our child stands out amongst his peers. Rhys was quick to rub Ash’s skills in his siblings’ faces the way he did with Harper. Instead of getting jealous, Leo’s jumped on Ash’s bandwagon. Who gets to coach him is the only thing he and Rhys argue about.

“Soo-jin’s going to be mad when she finds out.” Chloe tugs her arm across her chest to stretch it.

“Don’t you worry about that,” A devious smirk creeps onto Leo’s face.

“Ew, Dad.” Lo frowns.

“You brought it up.”

Grace’s mom wanted to have another baby while she was still in the prime window of opportunity. She wasn’t seeing anyone. Instead of going to a sperm bank, Soo-jin turned to Leo. Leo’s Leo, but he’s undeniably a good father in his own way. They don’t live together and their relationship status fluctuates.

They share joint custody, evenly dividing their time with the girls when their “off”. When they’re “on”, they’re…passionate; it’s not strictly physical either. They say “I love you” and mean it with every fiber of their beings, cohabitate at each other’s homes, and argue. Bickering’s an aphrodisiac to them. None of us dare to ask what their deal is out of fear of Leo’s shameless honesty. Whether or not Soo-jin’s at family events is how we get our answer. She’s in Montana for my and Briar’s birthday and the annual baseball tournament.

Grace and Yena are always in attendance. Yena’s ten months younger than Ash. She just turned two. Gracie’s eleven and happy to have a little sister. Kevin’s feelings are mixed. He’s thirteen. Everything’s complicated at thirteen; puberty’s horrifying for all of us. Seventeen-year-old Chloe often gets saddled with babysitting duty.

Her services aren’t free, and she prefers it when Leo and Soo-jin are “on”. That’s when she really turns a profit. Kev’s looking forward to taking over her hustle when she goes off to college. Leo and his kids are happy with their setup. Who are we or anyone else to judge what it is? Their weird works.

“Butterball, be good for Chloe. Let her know right away if you need anything!” I tell my Thanksgiving turkey.

Ash stops jumping and runs to hug my legs. “O-tay, Mama, I will. Wove you!”

“I love you too.” I rub his back.

“You have fun too, Yena.”

“O-tay.” She hugs me too.

“Happy birthday, baby sis.” Leo smiles at me and playfully (and very lightly) punches my shoulder as we walk to the house.

“Thanks for coming.” I do the same to him.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

“She’s got you on cleaning duty?” Leo taunts Taylor when we reach the base of the porch steps.

“Briar? Yes. She’s really playing the namesake card. You’d know what it’d feel like to be up against it if someone dedicated their kid’s life to you. I didn’t even have to ask.”

“He only did it to bait you into doing back.” Leo defensively fires back.

I mean…it’s not the only reason…

“The joke would be on him AND you if that were true. Hey, you can always sire your 70th kid and name it after yourself. It won’t be the same – sorta like the promise ring Rhys bought himself –but it’d be something.” Taylor patronizingly concludes his retort.

“You’re not funny,” Leo admits defeat by going into the house.

“Many beg to differ!” Taylor yells, knowing he’s still within earshot, to get the last word.

“Thank you for taking care of the mess.” I address Tay.

“She looked at me with those eyes and I couldn’t say ‘no’.”

“If I asked which one, would you give me a straight answer?”

Chelsea would do something like put Briar in Taylor’s face and talk about the importance of their godchild’s first birthday.

“Nope.” He throws used paper towels into the trash bag he’s holding.

“That’s an answer.”

“Not a direct one.” He remains unfazed.

“Semantics.” I leave him to his work.

“Happy birthday!” He calls after me.

“Thank you!”

Mama Wilde, Tim, Chelsea, Dad, Rhys, and Harper are in the kitchen. Mom’s cooking. Tim’s helping her with food prep by chopping strawberries. Chelsea’s decorating one of the two birthday cakes. My dad’s unpackaging party supplies. Rhys’s inflating balloons with a helium tank. Harp’s cutting the ribbon Rhys’s tying to the balloons. Briar’s nowhere in sight.

“Where’s the birthday girl?”

They look up from their tasks as I ask my question.

“We’ve got one right here.” Dad’s the first to hug me. “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

“Thanks, Dad.” I embrace him.

He’s gotten more physically affectionate over the years. Time with the Wildes will do that.

Claudia and Tim treat me to hugs and “Happy Birthday”s as well.

“My baby’s still missing. Is she in a cake? We found out she is a big fan of them today.”

Rhys smiles at my joke. “She’s with her baby buddies. They’re in the living room with Keir and Becca.”

“The whole baby bunch or is it a ladies’ morning?” I follow up.

“Just the girls. Oslo’s outgrown blanket playtime. He’s likely found his way to Booker and Scarlett by now.” Mom answers, back to cooking.

There are age divides between the children. Claudia’s current grandbaby total is fourteen. Group one consists of Chloe and Kevin; it’s understandable that the teenagers stick together. Group two is Grace (11), Courtney (10), Aiden (9), and Harper (8). Group three is composed of Booker (5) Scarlett (4), Ash (2, almost 3), Yena (2), Oslo (1, almost 2), Briar (1), and Elodie and Maisie (ten months).

Courtney was gifted a little brother after Lindsey and Myron got married, much to Rhys’s pleasure. Keir put a ring on Becca for the right reason – love. She got the girl she’s always wanted and a bonus one. The gene that results in fraternal twins is passed down by the mother. Being a fraternal twin herself upped Becca’s odds of having a set of her own. Aiden wasn’t too pleased when he found out he would be getting two little sisters. The cuties quickly won him over. He’s an attentive big brother.

Keir’s the polar opposite of Garbage. He changes diapers, wakes up in the middle of the night, and enjoys every moment spent with Maisie and Elodie. He doesn’t leave Aiden out. He treats him as his own. Aiden even calls him Dad. Keir refers to him as his son. Garbage checks in every once in a while. He’s more pissed off about Beck moving on and Aiden’s bond with Keir than not seeing his son every day. Garbage backed down after one conversation with Keir. He’s a very nice guy, one of the most thoughtful people I’ve ever met, but he’s intimidating. He used to be a professional mixed martial arts fighter and it still shows. He commands rooms when he walks into them.

Becca says he’s commanding elsewhere too. I know more about it than I would like. She doesn’t have a filter when she’s wine drunk. Getting wine drunk is a staple of our grown-up slumber parties. My contribution to those conversations is sipping my wine and nodding noncommittally. She and Lindsey appreciate it. No one wants to hear intimate details about their brother. Gabbing with my mother and sisters-in-law about everything else is always a blast.

“We’re not going to talk that today. I’ll cry. Briar will be his age way too soon. Harper, stop growing.” I tell her.

“I can’t, Mom, but I know I’ll never lose affection for people and things that went before. I know I’ll often stop and think about them. In my life, I’ll love you more.” She uses lyrics from The Beatles’ song “In My Life”.

“We’re raising her right, Pop. We can take comfort in that.” Rhys puts his hand on Harp’s shoulder, smiling down at her with pride for her tactic.

Harper’s her daddy’s daughter. She always has been.

The party starts at noon. Briar, Elodie, and Maisie are refreshed and perky from their midmorning naps. Oslo, Yena, and Ash will be ready for theirs after lunch. The girls will go down for nap number two and everyone else will be free to prepare for tomorrow – day one of the baseball tournament.

Briar and my birthday bash is taking place outside. Four wooden tables and their chairs are arranged in a line in my field of wildflowers. Alternating yellow and green balloons are tied to the back of everyone’s chairs. The food’s on a runner that spans all the tables; it’ll be served family-style. The cakes are on the first table, the one Briar and I are seated at. She’s in my lap at the head of the table. Rhys, Harper, Ash, Chelsea, Taylor, Dad, Mama Wilde, and Tim are at our table. We’ve got almost thirty guests in attendance.

Our families – including Ian and Kyle, of course– flew to a different state to celebrate our births. We’re housing them in cabins on the property and covered flight expenses, but still. The adults took off work. The kids forwent spending time with their friends. The school-aged ones are on summer vacation; they get invited to all sorts of things. They chose us without a second thought. I feel every ounce of their love – my grandparents’ and mother’s as well.

My children will never know anything other than this. There’s a deep sense of contentment that accompanies that knowledge. No other presents are necessary. It doesn’t stop them from giving me tangible things. Spoiling us is another thing they do.

With Briar on my hip, I stand to address everyone.

“My cupcake and I would like to thank all of you for being yourselves. Briar—” She points to herself. “Yes, you.” I kiss her chubby cheek. “doesn’t fully understand what’s going on, but I do. I wish I could express to you and her how much all this means to me. We love you – each and every one of you –immensely and appreciate you from the bottom of our hearts. Long ago, all of this was unimaginable. Here we are. I don’t know how to end my spiel, so I’m just going to sit back down and share a second piece of cake with my birthday buddy.”

Everyone, Briar too, claps as I proceed to do it. She’s following social cues. Babies are unable to pass up opportunities to clap once they’ve learned how to do it.

Rhys leans in for a kiss. I meet him halfway despite our audience.

I’m too happy to care.

~

“You don’t want me on your team?” I single out the person most likely to cave when I don’t get drafted to a baseball team.

“Mom, you try really hard. Trying counts for a lot. Most. It’s not everything, though. Your batting average is zero. You hurt yourself every time we play catch. We love you. This is for your own good.” Harper lets me down gently, offering me a soft smile.

“You’re supposed to stand by me, Husband.” I switch targets.

“Compromise: you can suit up and ride the bench. Marriage’s about compromise. Everyone says you must do it to go the long haul. I want us to last. Why do you think I keep gifting you Beanie Babies, Wife?” Rhys’s punching his baseball glove to soften it.

“Our relationship is built on running jokes.” I offer the truth.

“Babe, I really don’t know what to tell you. Harp laid everything out. It’s really for your own good. No one should get hurt during their birthday weekend.”

‘You’re not getting laid’. I mouth.

The ordeal with Briar didn’t mark the end of our sex life. If a baby materializes despite his strict use of condoms and my hormonal birth control arm implant, we’ll welcome it into the world and our family with a round of applause. As one of Rhys’s hair heroes once said, “We don’t make mistakes, we have happy accidents.” Bob Ross did more than paint stunning landscapes. He delivered calming wisdom. We hold multitaskers in high esteem in the James-Wilde family.

“In order to bring honor to our family, sacrifices must be made.” He kisses my cheek. “I’ll walk around shirtless until you cave. I’ll break out Cassius if I have to. Mark my words: you will want to have birthday sex and I’ll happily oblige.” He speaks directly into my ear before kissing my cheek a second time and pulling away.

I challenge him with my eyes.

“It’s getting hot out.” He says to no one in particular.

“It’s supposed to get up to 90 degrees today. Grandpa told me. You’ll get hotter when we start practicing.” Harper tells him.

“You’re right.” Rhys removes his hat and strips out of his t-shirt.

She doesn’t bat an eyelash at it because of the context. I narrow my eyes at him for mercilessly playing dirty.

Rhys knows exactly what his body does to me. He still finds time to exercise. I don’t know how, but he manages. And he added tattoos for Ash and Briar to said smoking hot bod. His is an ash tree with an acoustic guitar propped on its base. It’s on the same side as Harper’s harp. Briar’s on the same side as mine because we share a birthday and Taylor’s responsible for putting my poppy on Rhys. She’s represented by three sweetbriar roses.

He’s being unfair – absolutely and completely unfair.

“Ash, Briar, and I will have our own team. It won’t be a baseball one. It’ll just be a team and we’ll have loads of fun doing whatever we do.” I scramble for something to say.

“You should eat cake. They’ll like that.” Harper suggests with sincerity.

“Good idea. We’ll have a full picnic. You’re welcome to stop by if you get hungry.” I not-so-subtly exclude Rhys.

“I’ll be crashing your party. This weekend’s about family bonding. Bring it in, babe. I really do feel bad about all this.” Rhys pulls me into a hug.

Now he’s just being mean.

“Me too.” Harper unknowingly transforms Rhys’s seduction attempt into a family-friendly group hug.

“I’m going to check on my team. Practice with yours. Bring honor to our family.” I step out of our embrace. “Put on more sunscreen. Do it now before you forget.” I look at Harper.

“Yes, Mom.” She lets out an exasperated sigh.

“And keep your hat on!” I add as she’s walking to one of the baseball field’s dugouts.

“I will!” She replies without looking back.

“What about me? Do I get care instructions?” Rhys’s still in front of me.

“Her directions were meant for both of you. Put your shirt back on or have Taylor rub sunblock onto your back.”

“Or…you could do it.” He sicks his puppy dog eyes on me.

“I could. He will.” I pat his chest and leave him to play in his field.

Ash’s eyes crack open while I’m watching him sleep. He silently reaches for me. I collect him and carry him to the rocking chair in the room he and Briar share. He clings to me, his head on my shoulder as I rock him. He’s quick to fall back to sleep, a deeper one than before because I’m rubbing his back and combing his hair with my fingers.

“Hi, Mama. I gots to go potty.” Ash lifts his head, rubbing his eye with the back of his hand after sleeping an additional twenty minutes.

“Good job for telling me right away.” I stand with him in my arms.

“Wet pants and sinky pants no gets sickers. I want my sicker.”

Ash stayed dry during his nap. I get wet keeping him that way.

The process of potty-training Ash has been a difficult one. If he weren’t showing blatant readiness signs, Rhys and I would postpone it and try again later…much later. Anyone who says it’s more difficult to potty train boys than girls are correct. It’s messy and frustrating and we can’t let our aggravation show on our faces because it’d discourage him. Rhys and Harper may have a point about effort only accounting for a fraction of success.

He gets dropped off with Grams, who’s watching his cousins, and I shower and change. I bought two identical dresses, anticipating something like this would happen. As a mother of three children, two of whom are under the age of three, I can’t remember the last time I’ve gone a day without acquiring a noticeable stain.

-

My job at Thrive Green fulfills me. If I gave it up to stay home all day, I would feel as though something was missing in my life. That being said, being away from my kids is difficult. Harper’s a gal on the go; the rate at which she evolves has slowed in pace. I spend ample time with her, but I give her the space necessary for growth. Ash and Briar, however, pick up something new each day. I miss things. I miss more when I have to bring my work home. But when I’m on vacation? I glob onto my babies and rarely let them out of my sight.

The children who are too young to participate in the baseball tournament, the dogs, Grams, and I are in the mowed, fenced-in section of my field of wildflowers. There’s a playground, children’s outdoor toys, and benches.

I’m pushing Briar and Ash on the swings. They’re giggling and squealing their cute little butts off; they love swing sets as much as Harper does. Ash soon ventures to the slide connected to the swing set.

“Look, Mama!” He waves to get my attention from the top of the slide.

“I see you. Go ahead and slide. Briar and I want to watch you go fast.”

He does so with a grin on his face.

“Good job, Butterball!” I clap for him. Briar does the same.

He celebrates his job well-done by doing a backflip.

Yes, he can do a backflip.

We put him in gymnastics -- big mistake. He picked up the tumbling moves alarmingly quickly. His teacher promoted him to a class with children twice his age. Much to my horror and Rhys’s delight, he now uses acrobatics to express happiness.

He’s his daddy’s son.

“No flipping on hard surfaces, Ash -- soft only. It’s safer for your spine and skull, and Mama doesn’t want to have a heart attack on her birthday.”

“I bounce on the bed?” His eyes alight at the prospect.

“Only if Daddy or I watch.”

“Yay!”

I keep pushing her as I watch Ash run to activity to activity. He tries to get on the things intended for older kids more times than I can count. Telling him to get down adds to his fun.

Knowing his quirks and everything else about him and his sisters gives me a sense of accomplishment that exceeds all else.

~

“That toe is pointed! POINTED! Tell me otherwise! I dare you!” Harper proclaims as she points to second base, which Rhys is touching with the tip of his right foot.

“Harper Posy James-Wilde!” I march up to her with Briar on my hip.

Harper’s head whips in my direction, but her hand and facial expression remain in “arguing with the umpire” mode.

Ash’s already at her side. He ran to the field as soon as it was within sight.

“Mom, you didn’t see it, okay? Dad slid to second. Aunt Lindsey tagged him AFTER he was on it. Uncle Leo’s declared him as out before the dust cloud settled. His call influenced Kevin’s official call. Uncle Taylor’s trying to back their WRONG call. They’re wrong and they know they’re wrong. They’re cheating! “She rattles using a single breath.

“Why are you playing at all? The tournament doesn’t start until tomorrow.” I try to resolve this with a reasonable solution.

“It’s a scrimmage. We need to know where everyone’s at skill-wise to strategize tonight.” Chris answers from first base.

He’s just as into it as the rest of them.

“Have you checked the playback footage?”

“My camera was left unattended on its tripod while I went to the bathroom. The footage is a little out of focus; there are only full field shots, and no zooms. I told them to pause the game during my potty break. They acted like I suggested we do a sacrificial ritual. If they’d done what we’re doing now, we wouldn’t be doing this. Irony at its finest.” Chels answers from behind the camera in question.

“May I see it?” I walk to where she is.

“May I see the recorded footage magnified? It’ll be blurry but it’s something.” I hike Briar further up on my hip. She’s playing with my locket and looking at it with fascination.

“Sure.”

Chels holds Briar as I examine the recording. I pause the video on the frame that best depicts the situation in question. Once I’ve zoomed in as close as possible, I physically move close to the screen. My eyes are mere inches away when I see it – Lindsey reached Rhys before he reached the base.

“Harper’s right. Rhys made it! No strike.” I declare loud enough for everyone to hear.

“You have a restricted license! You’re an unreliable source!” Taylor’s marching over to me.

“For corrective lenses, which I’m wearing!” I point to my glasses. “My call is valid!”

“No way. You’ve got too much skin the game. Let me see it.” Leo’s coming my way.

“Birthday girl override!” I decree when they are steps away from me.

“What the hell is ‘birthday girl override’?” Tay stops walking and puts his hands on his hips.

“Until midnight, I’m the ultimate umpire. If I say someone’s safe, they’re safe. If I say someone’s out, they’re out. What I say goes.”

“You don’t know the rules of baseball,” Taylor argues.

“I know enough about it to play if I could. I also know about my birth. I definitely know about hers. I’m a shot-calling birthday girl.”

“You roped Briar into this. That was your call. Your game decisions have to be unanimous.” He finds a loophole.

“Easy. B—”

“You can’t ask her to repeat a word or identify someone. She needs to weigh in on the situation presented to her.” He thinks he’s got me.

“Alrighty. Let’s see what she has to say about this.” I take Briar from Chelsea.

“Cupcake, what’s that?” I point to the base, not Rhys's foot, and make a big show out of doing so.

Briar silently contemplates what I’m showing her.

“Dada oot.” She says after a few moments.

“BOOM! IN YOUR FACES!” Rhys tells his brothers.

“FACES!” Ash repeats.

“Briar said what she saw. Dad’s safe.” Harper chimes in with the same smugness as my boys.

“Birthday girl override rules are only in effect today. You two have to agree on everything. EV.REY.THING.” Leo negotiates.

“We agree to those terms. We’re merciful birthday girls.” I give Briar a kiss on the cheek.

"I wanna run wit Daddy," Ash tells no one in particular.

"You may run, Butterball." I accept his request.

"Ah, ah, ah. Briar needs to agree." Leo halts us.

"Briar, can Ash run with Daddy?"

"As n' Dada." She agrees.

"The decision is unanimous. We want Rhys and Ash to be together."

Leo and Taylor grumble complaints, but they can't do anything about it. Everyone playing in the game returns to their rightful places. Briar and I are in the bleachers when the game commences.

After Jess successfully hits the ball, the players on the bases run. Rhys runs at the pace Ash sets. And because no one wants to be responsible for mowing down a toddler, they make it to home plate untouched. Rhys puts Ash on his shoulders and does a victory lap around the bases to celebrate their run. Harper escorts Ash into the dugout afterward to give him the full player experience. Rhys runs to where Briar and I are seated as Mama Wilde steps up to the plate.

Chelsea takes Briar without me needing to ask. I meet Rhys at the fence.

“What’s up, Squints?”

He folds his arms and leans on the fence’s ledge. “A 'thank you' is order.”

“Oh yeah?” I put my hands into the pockets of my dress.

“You stood by me, Wendy.” A sexy smirk creeps onto his face.

“You keep buying Beanie Babies. I’ve got to hold up my end of the marriage bargain.”

“You were ridiculous for me.”

“Us.” I shorten the distance between us.

He closes it and kisses me.

|THE END|


This is the end of Rhys and Poppy’s story, but this is not the last Wilde adventure. Taylor has a story of his own. Its timeline spans before, during, and after the events of Sum of Us. You’ll be able to get a glimpse of what they were like in high school, what Tay was doing while Rhys and Poppy were reconnecting, and what he decides to do with his future.

“The Addition of You” is underway. You can add the book to your library and follow me to get the latest updates on it.

|CLOSING REMARKS|

I never imagined “Sum of Us” would acquire the audience that it has. This started as side project. It evolved into what it is because of the relentless reader support I was given during its writing process. Thank you for believing in me and my book’s potential. My upload schedule wasn’t as consistent as I would’ve liked; this book isn’t a short one (It kind of took on a mind of its own and I couldn’t stop writing); my thought process isn’t the easiest to follow at times, but you gave my story a chance and completed the journey with me. I hope you join me on the next one (“The Addition of You”). However, if this is where we part ways, I want you to know that I love and appreciate you for all that you’ve done.

With all the love,

Erin

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