Author's Note: Though this can be read as a standalone story, I recommend that you read my story "Sum of Us" first. The "Addition of You" takes place within that narrative.
“What did you get for number three?” I circle my answer before asking.
Poppy has already finished the practice test Mr. Grodsky distributed. She shifts her eyes from her geometry homework to what we came to the library to study. “e. 0.05 joule of light energy”.
After double-checking her answer against the answer key, I erase my failed attempt. “How did you get that?”
Poppy and I use most lunch periods to study. Calling it tutoring is more accurate, but she refers to it as studying together. Correcting her goes against my best interest.
“Light is a form of electromagnetic energy. Heat is a form of kinetic energy. The answer is light energy instead of heat energy because the energy source in question is an incandescent light bulb is powered by an electrical current rather than—”
“Here, there, everywhere – that’s where I’ve been looking for you.” Rhys drops into a chair at our table. “I brought you an apple and milk. You’re a growing boy, Taylor Thomas. You need your nutrients.” He puts a carton of milk and granny smith apple on top of my notebook.
Poppy represses a laugh. It comes out as a snort. Her cheeks are beet red when Rhys and I look at her for an explanation.
“Sorry, I –“ She clears her throat. “JTT, uh, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, he was one of the sons on Home Improvement. He became a major 90s heartthrob. You may have been named by a big fan; it could be a coincidence. Neither is funny. I’m sorry.” Poppy nervously rambles then downcasts her eyes.
“Mom’s a fan of his work. Tay hates being reminded. All of it’s funny. I stopped by to laugh about it. I’ve got nothing better to do.” Rhys playfully tells the truth.
Poppy outwardly laughs. “I thought it was for his health.”
“I can do both.” He leans back in his chair.
“Where did you get this? The cafeteria sells bottles of milk and red apples.” I’m peeling the sticker off my apple.
“I snuck out of class last period and ran to the convenience store down the street.”
“For a joke?” Poppy raises an eyebrow.
She has no idea.
“Kyle said he was making a gummy bear run and asked if I wanted to join. I was bored. Messing with Taylor always hits the spot, so I went along for the ride. Well…walk, technically. ” He crosses his arms.
“You’re lucky you didn’t get caught. Mom would’ve killed you.” I swallow the first bite of my apple.
“I didn’t, which means she won’t. The deed has been done. It was done well, and I’m home free. ”
“We’ll see. The school has security cameras everywhere. It’s someone’s job to go through the footage. You could still get pulled out of class.”
“He could always say the one-armed man did it.” Poppy timidly contributes.
Rhys redirects his attention and body toward her. “How many times have you seen ’The Fugitive’?”
“Enough to reference it. I can’t quote it. My dad’s a Harrison Ford fan; it’s understandable. Come on, He’s Indiana Jones and Han Solo. Star Wars and Indiana Jones are power-hitting franchises.”
“He’s not a real fan unless he named a kid after him. Is your middle name Harrison? Do you have a brother named Ford? Han, Indiana, or Richard David Kimble are acceptable too.” Rhys replies, his easy smile growing.
“I’m an only child and my middle name’s Elise. I feel like my entire life’s been a lie. I bought my dad the Indiana Jones box set for his birthday and he said he loved it.” Poppy retorts with more confidence.
“Don’t take Rhys Witherspoon Wilde’s word for it,” I interject.
“Your middle name’s Witherspoon?!” Poppy says a little too loud. She slouches in her seat to make herself smaller when the librarian gives her a dirty look.
“It’s not. It’s Michael. Taylor Thomas’s being a hater.” Rhys turns to me after setting the record straight. “This is the thanks I get for laying it all on the line for you? I’ll be sure to show up empty-handed next time.”
“How about you don’t and say you did?” I retort.
“Because I’m not a liar. What are you working on?” Rhys puts his elbow on the table and uses his arm and palm to support his head. “It’s Poppy, right?”
“Penelope, but yeah, I go by Poppy. We have a science test on Friday and geometry homework due on Thursday.” She smiles politely.
“It’s Tuesday…” Rhys says as though she’s unaware.
“Some people do their work before the class starts. Mind-blowing stuff.” I spout sarcasm between bites.
He dismisses me with a wave of his hand. “I believe you were going to answer, Poppy.”
“We’re lightening our Wednesday and Thursday workloads. It’s relaxing.”
“Homework is relaxing?” He’s the one who raises an eyebrow.
“Doing it eliminates stress.” She pushes up her glasses.
“Hm. You might be onto something.” He thinks out loud.
“You should try it sometime.” Poppy suggests.
“Nah. That’s what I’ve got Tay for.” Rhys pats my back. “I fuel his brain to use it.”
“We have an arrangement. I do our schoolwork. We split the money he earns doing odd jobs.” I confirm.
Her expression goes from amused to alarmed, “What about tests?” Poppy whispers.
“We did the ole’ switch-a-roo until he started growing his hair out. He’s on his own now.”
Rhys nods solemnly. “But it’s worth it. I haven’t gotten called Ta-Rhys or Rh-Taylor in months.”
“I thought that was the point.”
“Only when it’s beneficial.—” I start.
“It’s hard work having matching bodies. We thought our first year of life thinking we were staring into a mirror.—” Rhys continues.
“Our identity crisis occurred hella early. –“ I add.
“We’re talking preschool.—” He says.
“We’re finally breaking free.” I complete.
She looks between the two of us. “Completing each other’s sentences is a good start.” A tiny smirk forms on her lips.
“We’re still learning, Penelope. That’s what school’s all about, right?” Rhys jokes in response.
As I suspected, Rhys lingers the entirety of our lunch period. He shuts up enough for Poppy and I to get our work done. He occasionally looks up from his songwriting notebook to vocalize a scatter-brained thought. Poppy doesn’t seem to mind. She seamlessly transitions from humoring him to helping me.
“What’s Poppy’s deal?” Rhys asks me over dinner.
“There’s no way you’re asking what I think you’re asking me. I’m going to need you to spell it out for me.” I spoon rice into my mouth.
“I can tell you don’t like her the way I like her. I want to know why that is, which team she plays for, if she’s seeing anyone, and everything else you know about her.”
I lifted my eyes from my plate and narrow them at him. “Are you messing with me? This isn’t funny, like at all.”
“Hand over heart—” He does it. “I womb promise on Mom’s life that I’m interested in Poppy. She’s interesting and smart and pretty, really pretty.”
I burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” His face falls.
I exhale and flick away a fallen tear. “She’s a genius, a certified one. She’s even a member of Mensa—”
“Am I supposed to know what that is?”
“It’s an international society for people with high IQs. You can’t get in if you score lower than the 98% percentile. I don’t know what she scored, but she made the cut. –”
“Does she go around bragging about it?” He interrupts again.
“No, I overheard one of our teachers talking about it a few years back. Poppy hasn’t mentioned it to me.”
“Then what’s the issue?”
“Academics are her life. And if by some miracle she wanted to go out with you, I highly doubt she could do it. Her dad is beyond strict. She must go straight home after her extracurricular activities on weekdays, with no exceptions. Her curfew is 5:00 PM on weekends. If you manage to jump through those hoops, the final one’s going to stump you. Her father’s a cop. Our dear old dad’s a convicted felon.”
“We haven’t seen him in years.”
“You don’t think her proud papa’s going to run a background check on the boy sniffing around his little girl?”
Rhys leans back and crosses his arms. “If none of that was a factor, would you try to be more than friends?”
“No,” I answer with complete honesty.
“We became friends during our awkward phases. Being mutually uncomfortable with ourselves and using academic success to define ourselves is our relationship’s foundation. We’ve built a solid friendship. We’ll be categorized as friends forever.”
“Glasses are removed and hair is shaken out of ponytails all the time.”
“Becca moved out. You can’t blame watching rom-coms on her anymore.”
“I do it when I miss her. Excuse me for loving our big sister.” Rhys shrugs.
“She lives fifteen minutes away.”
“What’s your point? You never responded to mine.”
“I’ve seen her with her glasses off and hair down. We’re still just friends. Music will never swell as it dawns on me that Poppy, my own true love, has been in front of me this whole time. That’s not how life works.” I say.
“Right on,” He disregards the meat of my sentiment, “is she interested in dudes in general? I’m not going to make a sexuality assumption. You never know, you know?”
“I have no idea and I’m not asking.” I dryly reply.
“I don’t want you to. That’s too obvious. What’s her taste in music? That could be a deal-breaker.” He preserves.
“Indie and rock, mostly, with touches of pop and R&B.”
He subtly nods his approval. “Who are her favorite artists?”
“We don’t rank them.”
“You’re failing as a friend, then. I’ll ask and report back. What do you know?”
“Plants, she loves them and being in nature. Science is her favorite subject. Math is her second. The type of music she listens to depends on what she’s doing. And she’s a friend of mine; I’ll kick your ass if that stops being the case because of you.”
“I haven’t even talked her yet. Hold off on the death threats.” Her nonchalantly replies.
“I’ll punch you in the face, no regrets or hesitation if you screw her over.”
“You’re awful touchy for a person who isn’t interested.”
“She doesn’t have a lot of friends. The few friendships she has revolve around school. I’ve tried to include her in our things; that’s how I know about her dad’s rules. If you worm your way into her life, whether it be as a friend or boyfriend, you’ll be the first of your kind. Turning it into a joke would be cruel.”
“Your lack of faith in me feels fantastic.” He spits sarcastically.
“I’m saying what I’m saying for your sake too. You’re not built to be the bad guy. You smile too much.”
His body relaxes and his resting smile returns. “She has to be something if you’re looking out for her. You’re selective. “
“I got stuck with you. I’m overcompensating.”
He lifts his middle finger. I pop up both of mine. Rhys laughs, I smirk.
Mom gets home hours later. She’s a nursing home unit assistant during the day and waitresses every other night. Rhys or I stay up the nights she works late to make sure she gets home safely and keep her company as she eats dinner.
She’s made sacrifice after sacrifice to ensure my siblings and I (there are six of us) have everything we need. Mom had my older brother Christopher when she was sixteen. Our deadbeat father landed himself in juvie before he was born. Harris pretended to turn over a new leaf five years later. He kept up the act for nine months. His cover was blown when he showed up to my brother Leo’s birth drunk. Soon after, he discovered his true calling – stealing cars. Harris has as good at that as being a partner and father; he went to prison for grand theft auto.
You’d think Mom would’ve tapped out on loving the piece of shit. Nope. She bought another bundle of lies, allowed him to move in her and my brothers, and put up with his bullshit full-time for years. My twin sisters (Becca and Lindsey) and Rhys and I were brought into the world during his seven-year third chance. He struck out by cheating on Mom. More cars were stolen and he was sent back to prison. He’s been out for years, but he doesn’t bother with us anymore. Rhys and I were twelve the last time we saw him. We’re almost fifteen.
Mom’s been holding it down this whole time. We’ve never been without necessities or ways to advance. My guitar lessons and Rhys’s baseball equipment aren’t cheap. They’re the reason she still has a second job even though our siblings have moved out. Mom funded their extracurricular activities too. Chris took college courses all throughout high school. Leo played every sport under the sun. Lindsey played clarinet. Becca was a cheerleader. Discouragement isn’t in Mom’s nature. She wants her babies, as she still insists on calling us, to have the same opportunities as everyone else. Mom does it all without letting her pain or exhaustion show; I see it. If I'm ever in a position to do so, I'm going to give my hero everything she deserves and wants.
“Hello, honey, how was school today?” She hands her coat in the hall closet.
I’m seated at the kitchen table with my science textbook. “Same old, same old,” I say as I turn the page.
“What about your brother?” Mom puts an arm around me and kisses the top of my head.
“The same for him – different.”
She’s laughing as she opens the refrigerator. “What has he set his sights on?”
“Who.” I correct. “My friend Poppy.”
“Does she like him?”
“I have no idea.”
“Yes, you do.” She pulls the plate of food I set aside for her out of the fridge.
Rhys excluded, Mom knows me best.
“I suspect she does, but the odds are stacked high against him. She’s shy and her dad’s strict. Rhys is Rhys.”
“He is. Rhys’s a charmer who doesn’t shy away from a challenge. If you told him not to go for it, which I know you did, you want him to do it. Why?” She punches her food’s necessary cooking time on the microwave.
“Poppy appears fluent in his pop culture-riddled language. She spoke more during the study session Rhys crashed than our others combined. Rhys listened while she was talking and seemed interested in all she had to say.”
“They sound like a perfect match to me.”
“It won’t last past graduation. There’s plenty they could learn from each other within four years, if it gets that far, though.”
“Ye of little faith.”
“I prefer the term ‘realistic,’ but I’ll accept your variation.”
“You have to. I give you life.”
“Thank you? Sorry? I don’t know which is more appropriate.”
“It depends on the day. Today, my response is ‘you’re welcome’”.
“I love you too.”
“I love you more.” She sits at the table with me.
Poppy hasn’t looked at me and has been giving me short answers the entire time we’ve been studying. Passive-aggressive has never been one of her adjectives. Something’s going on. It doesn’t take a genius to know what it is.
“What did Rhys do?” My teeth are gritted as I think of ways I can retaliate.
“He keeps asking me out. Am I a joke to you too? Would you laugh with him if I said ‘yes,’ thinking he was serious?” I can hear she’s on the verge of crying.
I curse beneath my breath. “You’re not one to either of us. I consider you a good friend of mine. He’s interested in more than friendship. I know it looks like he views life as a joke. That’s not the case. He kids all the time, sure, but he doesn’t make people the butt of jokes. He wants us to laugh with him. He’s a pathological people pleaser. It pains me to use this phrase, saying it should prove my sincerity – Rhys like-likes you. He thinks you’re cool, which you are, and I’ve already threatened to harm him if he hurts you.”
“Really?” Poppy looks at me, her big brown eyes shimmering with unshed tears.
“You did hear me say ‘like-likes,’ right? I wouldn’t degrade myself by saying it if I were joking. Shamelessness is Rhys’s thing.”
Her sadness is blinked away and a soft smile appears on her face. “Would it be weird for you if I accepted his offer?”
“Opposite. I’d thank you for taking him off my hands for an hour.”
Poppy laughs. “You aren’t exactly upselling him.”
“Honesty is the best policy. You’ll see the truth if you go out with him. Rhys’s incapable of subtlety.”
“I, um, declined both of his offers. Is it too late to accept?” She pushes her glasses further onto her face.
“No. Rhys’s rebound rate is slow. It’ll take him a month or two to consider someone else. If strike two took place today, he’ll ask me for assistance tonight in preparation for Monday. He applies the three strike rule to most things.”
“Must I wait until Monday?”
“Nope, and I would prefer you didn’t. His questions are relentless when he’s trying to achieve a goal – not that you’re a prize to be won, you’re a person. You have a heart and feelings. I’ll kick his ass if he inflicts damage on them.”
“Rhys is your brother. I thought you were required to side with him.”
“In our family, we call each other out on our bullshit. Punches are thrown occasionally, but there are no hard feelings. All of us are close, and there are a lot of us.”
“I have five siblings. Rhys and I have two older brothers and sisters. Our sisters are twins too. Mom referees and keeps us in line.”
“I’m jealous. I’ve always wanted a big family. They seem fun. It’s only my dad and me. My mom died when I was two. He’s an only child too, and my grandparents live in Montana. My hands are and will always be kept to myself.” She lets out a self-deprecating laugh.
“Harming the elderly is never a good look.”
“A terrible one, and it would likely result in less knitted goods. My nana makes me all sorts of things for no reason at all. This sweater arrived in the mail last week.” She plucks it.
“That’s quality craftsmanship. I don’t blame you.”
“She’s tried to teach me a million times, but my hands can never seem to cooperate. Hand-eye coordination has never been my strong suit. Shop class is the one in which I have to work the hardest. I currently have a B. Its potential impact on my GPA is a major stressor.”
“That’s Rhys’s favorite class. He does my takehome woodworking assignments. He used to do my in-class exams until he stopped getting haircuts.”
“Do teachers ever ask why you do well on homework and not on tests?” She lowers her voices.
“No. Many people simply don’t test well. They assume. We don’t correct them.”
She nods as she mulls it over. “Interesting. If I asked Rhys to help me, do you think he would do it regardless of our date’s outcome?”
“Totally. He’ll consider you a friend; Rhys goes above and beyond for them. Your boundaries will be respected too. Getting away with murdering him will be a family bonding activity if he tries to use assisting you as leverage.”
Poppy laughs. “Well, alright, I’ll try to find him later.”
“I can page him if you want. Sitting and staring while you finalize plans would be as awkward for me as it would be for you. I’ll step away until I get the ‘all clear.’”
“You would do all that for me?” She tips her head to the side. “Our test is next period.” She gently reminds me.
“I’ve retained as much as I’m going to at this point. I expected you to shoot Rhys down point-blank, having zero interest in dating him. I’m curious as to how this will play out.”
“You REALLY aren’t upselling him.”
“That’s not my style. Rhys’s well aware.” I text him.
I wait for him at the library’s entrance.
Rhys walks up to me with a goofy grin on his face. “I told you I had a shot.”
“I’m thoroughly baffled. You better go finalize your date before the truths I dropped seep into her brain.”
“You love me.” He kisses my cheek.
I shove him off of me. Rhys strolls away, laughing.
Their date is set for Saturday and taking place at Vinny’s Pizza. I go about most of Saturday as usual. I cut my time with my friends short to be home when Rhys gets in from his date; that’s shortly after 4:00 PM.
“I’m going to ask her to be my girlfriend.” Rhys plops onto the living room sofa.
“You’ve known Poppy for five days. You went on one date; it ended less than an hour ago. I shouldn’t have to say more.” I continue practicing my guitar chords.
“When you know, you know, and I know. We clicked. Sparks were flying all over the place.” He props his feet up on the coffee table. “And you’re friends with her. If she were sketchy, you wouldn’t be. My bases are covered.”
I sigh heavily and lift my head from my guitar. “You can like her without a label. Take a deep breath and go at a reasonable pace. You’ll scare her away if you push her too far too fast.”
“Being around Poppy is – I don’t know, effortless? We didn’t run out of things to talk about. All references, they were made by both of us, were gotten. Her taste in music is –” He chef kisses his fingers. “You were right; she is brilliant. She’s not pretentious about it, far from it. I think she’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. And yeah, she’s easy on the eyes, but her personality’s what I like the most. I swear. Character counts.”
“Are you referencing something?” I squint my eyes.
“Yes, every elementary school assembly. Poppy would’ve known that.” He fires back immediately.
And then it dawns on me. “You’re telling, not asking, me that you’re going to ask her out.”
Rhys nods with a smile. “Out of courtesy and respect.”
“Once, just once, I’d like you to fall for someone at a normal rate.”
“Whoa, no one said anything about love. Exclusivity’s all I want.”
“You can do that without making a big deal out of it.”
“Can I?” He states rhetorically.
It pains me to admit he has a point. He’s a freshman set to play varsity baseball in the spring. Even if he weren’t, girls would still be flocking after him. People are drawn to Rhys. They always have been. The way we look amplifies his charm. I’ve been in chess club since middle school, I’m currently on the debate team, and I’ve never lacked female attention. Let’s leave it at that. I can’t get into specifics or statistics without feeling like a douche bag.
“Don’t let them hassle her,” I firmly state.
“I mean it. Poppy’s not equipped to be messed with by your entourage. She thought you were making fun of her when you asked her out the first two times. Her feelings were hurt, and she sorta took it out on me. She thought I was in on the joke.”
“We’d never do something like that.” He reels back in his seat.
“That’s what I told her. Poppy’s not fragile. She’s just not used to being around people; she sticks with nature and books. There’s social conditioning she lacks because of it. I’d hate for her to get overwhelmed and her grades suffer because of it. Her dad puts a lot of pressure on her excel.”
“She told me. I listened; I want to keep listening.” He reveals his vulnerability.
“You don’t have to stay with her forever. I know you’ll break up. All I ask is it’s done the right way. If it’s your call, face her when you tell her. Don’t text her, leave a voicemail, give her a drive-by phone call, or anything equally dickish. Show her the respect she deserves.” I switch to a gentler tone.
“Is a video call respectful?”
“Yes. It’s probably the best option. Poppy can hang up if when she’s heard enough. Escaping in person is harder. Looking her in the eye and facing the impact of your actions is the objective.”
“Oh, okay. I can do that.”
Rhys rolls his eyes. “Yes.” He says with exasperation.
“Then you have my blessing.”
“I may not need it, but I appreciate having it. This has also taught me that I should never resist the urge to harass you for fun.” He smirks.
“I never do. It’s only fair that you do the same.” I go back to playing.
“Irritating me is the only thing you’re bad at. I like it when you pop up unannounced and refuse to go away.”
“Because you’re so damn needy.” I snark.
“If you’re expecting an apology or change, you’re never going to get it.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it.”
He brings his keyboard out of our room, and we have an impromptu jam session.
The music classes we were required to take in elementary and middle school were enough for Rhys to learn to play the piano and sing on key. He does it as well as people who are formally trained their entire lives. Rhys taught himself to play the guitar. Music comes naturally to him. It always has. I have to work at it, but it doesn’t impact my enjoyment. I may like it more because of the challenge. We’re twins within a big family; we’re in a neverending competition – a healthy one. Working toward wins is a means of asserting our differences and spend time together.
And truth be told, I like it when Rhys nags me too.
Rhys and Poppy are in the library when I arrive on Monday. The two of them are laughing at a library-appropriate volume when I reach our usual table. They are side-by-side, leaving me to sit on the opposite side alone.
“So, you’re a thing now?” I put down my books.
“Is it too weird for you?” Poppy apologetically asks.
“You don’t get a say,” Rhys tells me.
“If your partner wants me to have one, I do. You’re already failing as a boyfriend. I should lie about caring to put her out of her misery.” I pick with him because I can.
“You really don’t care?” Poppy timidly interjects.
“Everything is above board. I have nothing in writing, but I’ve thoroughly threatened him. You’re free to suffer.” I can’t pass up another opportunity to tease Rhys.
He kicks my shin. I flinch, but don’t give him the satisfaction of making an audible noise.
“No, I, being around him is fun. I can’t see it becoming a hardship.” She tucks wisps of hair behind her ear as her cheeks flush as she smiles in his direction.
She’s falling hard and fast too.