Authors: Kristina Springer
I'm so deep in thought on my walk that I don't even notice when I veer off track. Not until I hear Dad's voice. What's he doing out here?
I stop dead in my tracks. About fifty feet away is Dad's giant six-hundred-pound pumpkin, his pride and joy. Every year he grows a giant pumpkin and gets his picture taken in front of it. Seriously, we have an entire album full of just him and his giant pumpkins. And truthfully, the rest of the people in town love seeing Dad's yearly giant pumpkin and getting their pictures taken in front of it too. I can't even tell you how many hours he spends each year picking just the right genetic seed, perfecting the soil mixture, and fertilizing and watering the pumpkin as much as it needs. He's got a passion for it.
Dad's talking to someone on the other side of it. I can hear a female voice, though it's muffled and I can't make out the words. One thing is for certain, it's not Mom since she sent me out here for the gourds.
I crouch down and creep closer to the giant pumpkin, using it as cover. I know there's a bench about twenty feet away on the other side of the pumpkin. Dad put it there in case people wanted to sit and gaze at the pumpkin for a while. I peek around the pumpkin, hoping to eavesdrop on Dad, and my stomach tightens. I recognize that hair and that ensemble. He's sitting there on the bench with Milan. And she's crying.
I jerk back behind the pumpkin and clench my fists. Argh! What is she up to now? And why is she crying to
Did she run out of her favorite shade of lipstick and can't find something similar to it at our sad town store? Or maybe her eyebrows aren't getting the proper attention she feels they deserve, with no eyebrow-artist-to-the-stars here. Obviously she's faking the tears to get my dad's attention. She doesn't have any real problems. A split end is a crisis in her eyes. A dead cell-phone battery spells doom. This girl is
I peek around the pumpkin again and see Dad put a comforting arm around Milan's shoulders.
I gasp and fall on my butt in the dirt behind the pumpkin. Dad and Milan stop talking and I'm afraid they heard the thump when I fell. I don't move. A few seconds later they resume talking and I let out the breath I was holding in. My chest is burning and my skin is feeling prickly. I'm dizzy too. God, please don't let me pass out behind Dad's stupid giant pumpkin, I mumble to myself. I put my head down on my knees and take several deep breaths. A few minutes later, when I feel like I can lift my head up, I peek around the pumpkin and see Dad and Milan walking away, back toward the house.
What on earth was that about? Why did heÂ â¦ How could he hug her like that? He's never hugged me. Geez, I don't think he's ever even patted me on the backânot even when I made the winning goal in a soccer game when I was ten. I can't remember a single time when he's ever said “I love you.” I mean, I've always assumed that he must, because that's what parents do. They love their kids. I thought it was a thing with himâthat he didn't show affection to, well, anyone.
But he does show affection, to Milan anyway. I squeeze my eyes shut and rub them with the backs of my hands. This is stupid. I'm not going to cry. I'm not. I have to get out of here. I forget about the gourds Mom asked for and start running, heading for the front of the Patch, intending to pass through the parking lot and hit the road. And from there I'll just have to see how far I can get.
I run past the concession stand, past the storybook barn, and past the bunny hill and petting zoo. I'm running so fast I can feel the dirt kicking up behind me and hitting the backs of my legs. I'm about to pass Sara's booth when she sees me and dashes out from behind the counter, waving her arms in front of her.
“What's wrong?” she says, grabbing both of my shoulders and pulling me to a stop. “Are you okay?”
My heart is beating extra hard in my chest. I stare at the ground with my hands on my hips, trying to catch my breath. I feel my bottom lip start to shake. I don't know what to say that won't make me sound like a whiny baby.
“Jamie? What's going on?” Sara urges, though in a less panicked and more soothing voice now.
The smell of hay is in the air. I turn around and Danny is standing behind me, concern all over his face. Of course. Perfect timing.
“You shot by me like a jackrabbit,” he says. “Is something wrong? Are you being chased?”
Oh man, this can't get worse. I can't let Danny see me like this. I give Sara a pleading look. She understands, and nods. “She's fine,” she tells Danny over my shoulder. “I'm going to go with her to get some water.”
My chest is still heaving and I'm trying to regulate my breathing.
Sara loops her arm through mine and I think we're going to get away when Danny speaks again. “But what were you running from?”
“She wasn't running from anything,” Sara responds quickly so that I don't have to. “She's been doing these sprintsâgearing up for the track team this year.” Sara presses her lips together and nods, affirming her story.
I finally chance looking at Danny. “Yeah. Track,” I say, wondering if he's going to buy this excuse.
He considers this for a moment and adjusts the dark baseball cap on his head. “Track, huh? Okay. Well, good luck with that, I guess,” he says.
Ugh. I feel bad for lying to him. That's not good. And he really does look concerned about me. It's sweet how he came running over to see what was wrong. No one else did. Except for Sara of course. “Iâ¦” I begin, not sure where to go from here.
“Let's go get you that water now,” Sara says, tugging me away from Danny. I'm kinda glad to follow her since I had no idea what to say to him. She abruptly stops and yells back over her shoulder, “Danny, do me a favor? Get one of the girls from concessions to cover my booth for fifteen, okay?”
“Sure,” he replies, and Sara drags me out of there. We don't talk and we don't stop walking until we're out at the pumpkin chucker. It seems I've been spending a lot of time here these days.
“All right,” Sara says when we stop walking. “Tell me what's wrong.” She crosses her arms over her chest and looks at me with concern.
I shake my head. I can't tell her. I'll sound like a big baby.
My daddy likes Milan more than me, wah, wah, wah
. Sure, it's true, but I can't bring myself to say it out loud. And if I can't tell Sara, I obviously can't tell anyone else.
We both stand there, silent. Sara gives me a sad look. I know she wants to cheer me up and I appreciate her caring. But I can't make any words come out. It's too embarrassing.
“Well,” she finally says, “if you don't want to talk then let's chuck some pumpkins. You know that always makes you feel better.”
I shake my head and plop onto the ground, staring straight ahead. Sara takes a seat next to me. Honestly, the only way the pumpkin chucker is going to make me feel better today is if I strap Milan's skinny butt to it and chuck her toward Los Angeles.
When I wake up Sunday morning, I want to get out of the house as soon as possible. It's not comfortable for me anymore, not with Milan here. I'm not talking to her, obviously, and I've been ignoring Mom and Dad. I don't think Dad noticesâeither that or he doesn't careâbut I think Mom knows I'm giving them the cold shoulder. Oh well, I say. They've made their choice crystal clear; they can talk to Milan if they're feeling chatty.
I get in my car and drive to the Burger King to meet Dilly for breakfast. She's a bit of a sausage-biscuit fiend, and I could use the distraction.
I walk into the restaurant and it's pretty full for a Sunday morning. I give a small smile to some neighbors sitting at a table as I scan the room, but I don't see Dilly. Maybe she changed her mind?
“Jamie, over here,” a girl with a mass of pink hair the shade of Sweet'n Low packaging calls to me.
“Dilly?” I screech. “Holy smokes, what did you do to your hair?” I walk quickly to her booth and slip in across from her.
She reaches up and pats her hair. “This? I was tired of the highlights and wanted something new. Do you like it?” She smiles, waiting for my response.
She looks like the fluffy pink cotton candy you can get on a stick at carnivals. Or like one of those dolls you win for a quarter if you can pick it up with the big metal-hand grabber. But I would never say either of those things of course.
“Adorable,” I reply. And I'm not lying. It
adorable, in a Strawberry Shortcake sort of way.
“Here.” Dilly pushes a small white paper bag across the table to me. “I got an English muffin with grape jelly for you.”
“Aw, thanks, Dill,” I say, suddenly feeling ravenous.
“Yeah, I'm a big spender.” Dilly grins. “So, how's your weekend been? Are things with Milan getting any better?”
I stick my tongue out and shake my head. “Nah. And they probably won't. Not until she leaves town anyway,” I add. I unwrap my English muffin and poke a white knife through the jelly container's plastic lid. I squeeze some jelly on the muffin and start spreading.
“Oh,” Dilly says, like she just remembered something. “I did get a chance to talk to my mom about Milan. You know, about the deal with her running for Pumpkin Princess.”
I stop spreading. “Yeah?”
Dilly nods. “Sara was right. My mom said it was some committee lady's bright idea to get extra publicity for the festival. She thinks it'll get a few more pictures in some of the nearby newspapers. It's so not a big deal though. My mom says Milan will never win.” Dilly takes a sip of her orange juice.
“Really?” I say, hoping I don't sound too eager. But I'm craving reassurance like a sugar addict craves chocolate.
“Yeah, she hasn't even been in town that long,” Dilly continues. “It would be completely ridiculous if she won.” Dilly crumples up her wrapper and tosses it in her bag.
“That's what I think too,” I say quickly.
“My mom thinks you have the best chance. You have the qualities they're looking for,” she adds.
“She said that?” I ask. How sweet! That's what I've been hoping this whole timeâthat people would see I was the right person.
Dilly nods and I'm completely filled with joy. This one conversation with Dilly has me feeling better than I have in days. It's like they always say about good triumphing over evil. I'll come out ahead in the end. I pick up my English muffin and take a big bite. Maybe things aren't as bad as I thought. Maybe I just needed to get away from the Patch to clear my head and really see what is going on.
I head for home, my mood a hundred times better than when I left this morning. I pull on my work clothes and go out to the Patch, excited to tell Sara what Dilly told me about Milan and the Pumpkin Princess committee.
“Morning, Sara,” I sing when I reach her booth. “It's finally starting to feel like October, huh?” I say, taking a deep breath of the cool air. This is my absolute favorite weather.
“I know, isn't it great? You're in a good mood today,” she comments, studying my face. She picks up a cap off the counter and pops it on her pen.
I smile. “Things feel better today. What are you working on?”
Sara looks down at the white paper bag she was doodling on. She flips it around so I can see. There is an oval with a thick border and inside it are two crisscrossed delicious-looking caramel apples with the words
SARA'S SWEET TOOTH
written over them in big bold letters.
“Wow!” I exclaim.
Sara looks pleased. “Do you like it? It's the logo for my future sweetshop,” she says. “Once I get out of school of course.”
“I love it,” I say, and I really do. It's so cool seeing Sara go after her dream like this. “Are you going to let me work for you someday?”
“Oh sure, you can be my taste tester.”
“I'd love that job!” I say.
Sara laughs. “I know you would.” She folds up the paper bag and slips it into her back pocket. She grabs a wet dishrag and begins wiping down the counter.
“So, listen, I just got back from breakfast with Dilly and she had some interesting things to tell me,” I say, excited to relay the news to Sara.
I quickly fill Sara in on my conversation with Dilly. As I talk I see Sara's face start to fall. Since what I'm saying leans more to the side of a happily-ever-after kind of story and not a tragedy, I'm not getting her reaction.
“What?” I ask, halting my story. “Why do you look like I took your cookies or something?”
“Eh, um, uh,” she stammers. “Man. Why do I feel like I'm always the bearer of bad news lately?”
“What bad news?” I ask, frowning. Ugh. And I was so ready to have a good day today.
“Well,” Sara begins reluctantly. “Laurel was over here giving me an earful this morning.”
That's nothing new. I nod, urging her to continue.
Sara rubs her chin and twists up her face. I can tell she doesn't want to tell me whatever it is she's about to tell me. “She seems to think there is some sort of âMilan Movement' in the works,” she finally says.
“What? What the heck is a Milan Movement? If it has anything to do with moving her back home to California then I'm all for it. Shoot, I'll pack her suitcases myself. I'll order her a plane ticket. I'll even make her a tofu-rice-cake-whatever-it-is-she-likes snack for the plane ride.”
Sara sighs. “No, that's not it. I'll just tell you what Laurel told me. Basically, the mayor of Average paid a visit to your dad and told him how he thinks Milan's presence in our town is our âticket to fame and fortune,'” Sara says, adding dramatic air quotation marks.
“Fame and fortune?” I repeat, more like a question. “That makes no sense.”
“She said the mayor read something about how Forks, Washington, became a big tourist attraction after the Twilight books were published and he thinks if they promote Milan's being here, our little Average, Illinois, will turn into a big tourist attraction too. He told your dad that his Patch business will probably double if not triple. And that all the businesses in town will benefit.”