Sum of Us

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Ch.6: Rhys

Poppy’s gone when I return from the back alley. I find an envelope with my name on it tucked inside my jacket. I take a seat while holding proof that our meeting was not some sort of vivid nightmare.

With a fresh mug of tea in hand courtesy of our server, I read the piece of her soul she left behind.

Dear Rhys,

I want to first start by saying that hurting you was never my intention. To this day, I look back on our time together with fondness. None of my actions were done out of bitterness, most were done out of fear.

We were both on the cusp of making something of ourselves when we made her. You were so much closer than I was. You called for permission to get all the way there. I gave it instead of telling you about the positive tests because I was afraid you’d come to view me as the girl who ruined your life and kept you from achieving your dreams. I knew I was pregnant when I ended our call, but I didn’t think I would become a mother.

I walked into my first appointment with all options on the table. I left it with an ultrasound photo in hand and a closed adoption in mind. She wouldn’t have been handed over to just anyone. Finding her a good home was my top priority. I was about to start interviewing prospective parents with a social worker when my dad found out.

I knew I had to tell him eventually, obviously, but I wanted to do it with a concrete plan in place. I was going to stay in school until the end of the fall semester to get my credits, take the spring semester off to recover, and take summer courses to catch up with the rest of my class. By the fall, I would’ve been back in school and doing all that was expected of me. That course of action was derailed when MIT sent my leave of absence approval letter to my Seattle address instead of my Massachusetts one. My dad opened it and called me.

I tried to explain the adoption process and the other details of my plan. He wouldn’t hear of it. The deed had been done. He didn’t want to be the father of a pregnant teenager, regardless of whether or not I went on to become a teen mom. He withdrew all of his financial and emotional support. Our baby was the only person I had left. As selfish as it was, that was when I decided to keep her.

Returning to Seattle was out of the question. I used my savings to pay rent on an apartment I shared with a roommate. By some miracle, I was able to get a full-time job with benefits as a receptionist at a business consulting firm.

After 13 hours of labor, Harper Posy James was born on February 14th at 12:04 am. She weighed 6 lbs, 7 oz. All of her fingers and toes were accounted for upon arrival and her organs are functioning as they should. We only had to spend a day in the hospital. There was no excessive crying, problems breastfeeding, or difficulty sleeping when we got home. Harper was a cuddly, easy-going baby.

She talking started at six months old. Harper’s first word was ‘pup.’ I was reading her a story about a puppy that gets lost in the city when she said it. Yes, I was bested by a dog. “Mama” was next. Music pronounced ‘usic’ said a few weeks later. Many other words have been learned since. She is very good at expressing what she wants. Her pediatrician says she has an advanced vocabulary. She started crawling at 7-months-old and walking at 9-months; both milestones were hit on time.

Harper loves music. Love’s not a strong enough word, honestly. She spends all day, every day singing, humming, and dancing. British alt-rock is her favorite genre. Harper’s a big Oasis fan. When she gets upset, ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ by them soothes her. My post-pregnancy hormones were all over the place. I ricocheted between hating you and missing you so much that it was physically painful. Listening to that song helped me get a hold of myself and gain perspective. It has the same effect on her.

She may never meet you, but she does know you. I’ve been playing your music for her since she was in the womb. She falls asleep to the first song you wrote for me every night. I wore a t-shirt of yours to bed most of my pregnancy. Outgrowing it was the only reason I stopped. The zipper hoodie you gave me the day before I left for college, the one you made sure smelled like you so that it could serve as “male smartypants repellent” was put to use as a baby blanket supplement. Your voice, your words, your smell -- she’s grown up with those pieces of you and they comfort her. Erasing you from her life has never been my intention.

I’m not asking you to be in her life. I’m certainly not holding my hand out for money. It was my choice to keep her. You had no say in the matter, which I know is wrong. It's worse than wrong; it's cruel. There’s not an apology strong enough to make up for all the moments you’ve missed. You deserve so much better than what I did, and you have every right to hate me for depriving you of your daughter's existence. The door to her life is and will always remain wide open. Your number will not be blocked this time and mine will never change.

No matter what, you’re not the villain of the story of us. I’m not going to teach Harper to hate you. That’s not fair. If you choose not to be an active participant in her life, I plan to say that she doesn’t have a daddy because I chose to be a mommy on my own. It’s the truth.

Have a great life. I mean that with sincerity.

Best wishes,

Poppy

Tears slip from my eyes as I read. I use my sleeve to subtly get rid of them.

I remove the other contents of the envelope with trepidation. The first is a black and white ultrasound dated three years ago with Poppy’s name on it. Our daughter’s a black speck in a sea of gray. The other is a professional photograph of a real-life angel.

A thick mane of dark brown hair almost touches her shoulders, the front of which is pinned up with a blue bow that matches her dress. Her big eyes are the exact shade of green as mine. Between her cherubic cheeks is a bright smile. Seated on a blanket in a patch of grass, she is clapping her tiny hands with glee.

Poppy and I made a person -- a daughter. We have a daughter. I’m a father. A dad -- I’m going to be her dad, the type of dad I always wanted.

I have my driver take me to the nearest store. Poppy’s voicemail box is filled during the ride. My unanswered calls do not lessen my resolve. I text her until my hands need to be put to use pushing a shopping cart.

There’s aisle upon aisle of toy options. Not wanting to fail my first test as a dad, I call my older sister Lindsey for help.

“Hey, baby brother, how’s traveling the world treatin’ ya?” She greets.

“Fine. Listen,” I quickly disregard it. “I need help with something. What sorts of things did Courtney play with when she was two?”

“What have you done?” Her voice loses all cheer.

“Nothing,” is my reflex response. “Something.” I correct. “Do you remember Poppy?”

“Yes, of course, why?”

I scrub my hand over my jaw. “We have a daughter.”

“Are you sure the baby is yours?”

“Yes,” I say with complete certainty.

“Have you done a paternity test?”

“Poppy would never lie to me about something like this.”

“Why did she wait three years to tell you?”

“I broke up with her. She figured I’d resent her if she tied me down.”

“Did she hunt you down after a concert or something?”

“No, I approached her and she agreed to meet me for coffee this morning. She told me about Harper.” I answer as I check the back of a toy tambourine for the age requirements.

“Her real baby daddy must’ve bailed. You’re a prime replacement. Raising a child alone is expensive. I should know. Groupies try to trap musicians all the time for a payday.”

“She’s not a groupie.” The box I’m holding gets the scowl meant for Lindsey.

“I know you’re still hung up on her, but don’t be stupid. Get the paternity test. You have too much to lose.”

“I’ve seen a picture of Harper. She looks like me.”

“All that says is Penelope has a type.”

“She’s my kid, Linds. I know she is.” I snap with finality.

“Get papers to prove it. Taking on this responsibility is a huge deal. I don’t want you playing daddy just to find out that role belongs to someone else on the kid’s eighteenth birthday.”

I end our call and shove my phone into my pocket.

Left to my own devices, I wing it. I add musical instruments intended for her age group, a unicorn rocking horse, and a zoo of stuffed animals to my cart.

Kid-sized Bluetooth headphones and a tablet are picked up from the electronic section. The baby aisle is my next stop, recalling my siblings complaining about how quickly their kids go through diapers and how expensive they are.

What size to get is a complete mystery.

“Need help finding anything?”

I have been happier to hear those words in my life.

“Yes, actually.” I turn to the saleswoman, pulling the picture of Harper out of my back pocket.

“Do you know what size diaper she needs? Her mother usually gets them.” I show it to her.

“She is adorable.” She coos, resting her hand on her chest. “What’s her name?”

Pride fills my chest. “Thank you. Harper.”

“Cute name. I’d be happy to help.” She smiles at me.

“Thank you so much. You’re a lifesaver.”

“First-time father?”

“Yes, and absolutely clueless.”

“We all are with the first one. How old is she?”

“Nineteen months.”

“Size 4 is a safe bet.”

“Thank you.”

I get several boxes of the size she recommends. Sippy cups with guitars on them catch my eye. I toss them to the cart as well.

“You are on quite the shopping trip.” She eyes my hoard of items.

“It’s almost her birthday. I want to spoil her.”

The lady’s nice and all, but she doesn’t need to know my business.

“You’ve picked up some good stuff. She’s going to love it.” She smiles politely.

“Thanks again for your help. I really appreciate it.”

“Have we met before? You look so familiar.” She carefully studies me.

“No. I just have one of those faces.”

The last thing I need is this getting leaked to the press.

“But your voice. I swear I’ve --.”

“It was nice chatting with you.” I am out of the aisle before she can finish her sentence.

Clothes are next on my list. She’s older than eighteen months old, so I opt for the 24-month size. Better to be too big than small. I shop in the girl and boy departments.

Glitter, pink, and ruffles are cute and all, but why do boys get all the cool stuff like band t-shirts and superhero pajamas? My girl’s going to rep the greats – The Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Johnny Cash, and The Beatles. And when she’s not, she has a wide assortment of other things to choose from.

My last destination before checking out is the candy aisle. I’m not above bribing my kid with candy to get her to like me.

Lollipops seem like a safe bet. Kids get them at doctor’s offices. They’re basically medicine.

“Did you find everything alright?” The guy at the registers says in a monotone as he scans the first of my items.

“Yeah.”

His eyes immediately shoot to mine and widen.

“Oh my God! You’re Rhys Wilde! I tried to get tickets to your show last night, but they sold out too fast. Big fan. Huge!” His enthusiasm draws the attention of nearby customers.

“Thanks, man. Do you mind hurrying? I’ve got somewhere I need to be.” I shrink myself, trying to keep the others from getting a good look at me.

He picks up the pace on his scanning and bagging, but his fanboying continues. He lists his favorite songs, recites the lyrics that resonate most with him, and boasts that he has been a fan of Wilde Knights since before we became a household name.

I nod along as I discretely check my phone to see if Poppy has replied to my calls or texts.

“Your total is $1,564.52.” The cashier informs me.

“Do you mind not telling anyone about all the baby stuff?” I insert my debit card without worrying about its approval.

That definitely wouldn’t have been the case three years ago.

“Sure. No problem. People would get the wrong idea.”

“Exactly. I’m visiting my sister while I’m in town. I’m on the road a lot. I have to buy my nieces and nephews a bunch of stuff when I’m around to be the cool uncle. I thought I’d do my sister a solid by getting diapers too.”

“I wish I had an uncle like you.” He accepts my lies without question.

“Family first.”

There is so much stuff in my cart that if the car the label arranged to shuttle us around were not an over-sized SUV, there would be no way to transport everything to Poppy’s place.

“Will all of that fit on the tour bus?” The driver adjusts the rear-view mirror.

“We’ll make it work.” I pull up the Find My Friends app on my phone to locate Poppy. Once I’ve got her pinpointed, I tell Lars the address to program into his GPS.

Figuring out her apartment number will a challenge, but I’m not going down without a fight.

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