Authors: Kristina Springer
We stack in silence for a good twenty minutes. I'm moving slowly enough to prolong the job as much as possible, but not so slowly that Danny thinks I'm a poor worker or a weakling. Whenever I can, I sneak glances at him, admiring tiny things like how he lets out a small grunt every time he hoists up a couple of pumpkins. And how he rubs his cheek on his shoulder instead of reaching up and scratching it with his hand. And how his messy brown curls hang almost completely in his hazel eyes. Every few minutes he gives his head a little shake to knock them out of his way. It's completely adorable.
I want to make a connection with him, something that will make him take notice of me as more than just Henry Edwards's daughter, but I don't know how. I keep trying to come up with something witty or interesting to say.
I'm about to ask him if he's seen the YouTube video of the cat that can sing “La Bamba” when Danny says in a low voice, “
I turn in the direction of his gaze and see a long tanned leg in a fancy-looking shoe come down from behind the passenger door of my dad's beat-up old truck and land smack-dab in a giant mound of pumpkin guts.
There is a shrill shriek followed by “Ew, ew, ew!”
The other leg of the shrieker joins its match. She's here.
“That's my cousin Milan,” I say to Danny, not taking my eyes off her.
“It's so good to see you!” I exclaim when I reach Milan. And it really is. We haven't seen each other since we were kids and argued over whose Barbie got to marry Ken. She won because I didn't like to fight. Her Barbie was more the domestic type anyway. Mine wanted to be an astronaut. Though Ken did flirt with my Barbie whenever hers was busy with a clothing change. I hold out my arms to Milan for a hug.
“You've got to be freaking kidding me!” she screeches. “Who leaves a pile of disgusting orange mush lying out on the ground like this?” Milan bends down and slips a three-inch heel off her right foot and examines it.
It's a pumpkin patch, I want to tell her. There are pumpkins everywhere. And sometimes there are rotten ones. It happens. But I'm getting the feeling she wouldn't react well to me pointing this out to her just now.
I am beginning to feel silly still holding my arms out and she is apparently not in the hugging mood so I put them back down at my sides.
“Oh my God, would you look at this?” She shoves a coffee-colored shoe with the cutest pink polka dots on it at me.
The shoe is badly stained from the pumpkin guts. I run my finger over one of the pink dots to see if any of the guts comes off. The leather feels so smooth, like freshly lotioned skin.
“Well, maybe we can wash it,” I say, and she looks at me like I'd told her she would be sleeping in the barn with the goats.
Roy Vances! They're ruined!”
She looks completely distraught and I want to say something to make her feel better. My dad climbs down from the driver's seat, shaking his head. He slams the driver's-side door shut and heads toward the house, leaving Milan with me.
This is definitely not how I wanted Milan's visit to start. She seems superupset. “We have a Megastore about a mile from here. Maybe we can find something similar?” I suggest.
Milan stops ranting and cocks her head at me. And then she starts laughing. Really loud.
I smile, waiting for her to stop laughing and fill me in on the joke. “What?” I finally ask.
She wipes at the tears in the corners of her eyes. “Roy Vances
at around two grand. I don't think your âMegastore' will have them.”
dollars? She's got to be kidding. My car didn't even cost two thousand dollars.
“Thanks for the laugh though. Jamie, right?” she asks, eyeing me up and down.
I nod, surprised at the question. I know it's been a long time since we've seen each other, but hasn't she seen any recent pictures of me? I've seen loads of pictures of her so I knew exactly what she looked like. Of course, those
mostly tabloid shots. But still. Surely she's seen our family Christmas letters over the years. Mom works so hard on them.
Milan bends over and plucks off her other shoe. “Here, Jamie. Toss these out for me, okay?” She drops the shoes in my hands and turns toward the house. “So I take it this is where I'm staying?” she calls over her shoulder as she follows the path my dad took.
Wow. That went quite a bit differently from what I expected. I'm still standing at the open door of the truck, holding Milan's shoes, and I can feel people watching the scene. I glance at the caramel apple stand and see Sara gaping. I look at Danny standing in front of our newly erected pumpkin tower with his arms crossed and a big smile on his face, watching Milan walk away.
I feel a little sick.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
I start to toss Milan's shoes into one of the huge green garbage cans spread throughout the Patch, but then reconsider. They're too expensive to throw away. And what if she changes her mind? No, I'll keep them somewhere for her. I follow Milan, about fifty yards behind her, to the house, stopping briefly to hide the shoes in a bush until I can bring them into the house later.
There's something bothering me and it's not only Milan's odd interaction with me. Why did Danny look at her like that? I wonder if he recognized her from her pictures. Milan's not in the tabloids every week or anything, but occasionally the paparazzi will get a shot of her. Aside from being gorgeous, she's the only daughter of two A-list movie stars in HollywoodâJack and Annabelle Woods. Uncle Jack and Aunt Annabelle to me when I see them. Which is just about never. Uncle Jack is Mom's older brother by three years. They grew up here in Average, Illinois, but he ran off to Hollywood to act, the first chance he got. And Mom met Dad senior year in high school and married him a couple of years later. Mom has almost never talked about Uncle Jack, not until recently anyway. I think she's always been either mad that he moved away and left her at home alone with their parents or jealous that he's so famous. I'm not sure which. It could be both, for all I know. But then recently she's been whispering to Dad a lot and I've heard her say things like “Jack thinksâ¦” and “Jack's worriedâ¦” and “God forbid she turn out like her mother.” Okay, that last one could have been about anybody and not about Milan. But all I know is, suddenly my cousin Milan, whom I haven't seen since we visited her family when I was six years old, is staying with us and helping out for the entire pumpkin season.
I kick my boots at the block of concrete with the metal scraper sticking out of it, knocking loose dirt from the Patch, and then push open the old wooden front door with the ripped screen and walk into the house. Mom's got both of Milan's tiny hands in hers and she's gushing all over her.
“Oh, sweetie, oh look how much you've grown up! You're a young woman now!” Mom says, a huge smile spread across her face. I notice Mom has set her hair and put on a little makeup. She's wearing a pale yellow shirt with a long skirt. Not the usual dinner attire around here.
Milan nods. “It's nice to see you again, Aunt Julie.”
Mom hugs Milan tightly and Milan twists up her face like she's getting squished. “Oh, honey,” Mom says. “Oh, you're much, much too skinny. Don't your parents feed you? Well, we'll fix that right up. I'm making a big dinner tonight. Chicken, potatoes, green beans, biscuits”âMom ticks food off on her fingersâ“creamed corn, and peach cobbler.”
Yum. Mom is an awesome cook. I head for the sink to wash up.
Milan looks alarmed. “Um, I'm sorry, Aunt Julie, but I don't eat meat. Or carbs. Or sugar. And I'm not sure what creamed corn is, but I make it a general rule not to eat anything with the word âcream' in it. And you know corn is a filler anyway, right? Do you have any tofu? Maybe a soy burger?”
Mom looks at Milan for a long minute and her smile disappears. But she doesn't say a word. Finally she turns around, walks to the pantry, pulls out two cans of creamed corn, and walks to the can opener.
Creamed corn it is, then.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
My mom's chicken is so good. I mean, so, so good. She always debones it and cuts off the fat, because she knows that rubbery stuff grosses me out, and then she batters it in flour and egg and bread crumbs and fries it in some vegetable oil. Delish. I want to reach for a third piece. I worked hard today and I'm pretty hungry. But I don't want to look like a total pig in front of Milan. All she has on her plate is a scoop of green beans, which she is ever so slowly nibbling on. And that is only after she brought them to the sink and washed each bean individually to get off the butter Mom had added to them. Oh man, I thought Mom's head was going to explode when she did that.
“What are your plans for tonight, Jamie?” Mom asks. She picks up her and my dad's empty plates and turns for the kitchen.
“The usual,” I say to her. “Hanging out with Sara.”
Dad grunts and pushes back from the table. We watch him leave without saying a word. I'm sure he's off to hole up in his office and watch TV. He's not what you'd call the world's best conversationalist. I'm pretty good at translating his grunts though. That one means “I wish you'd hang out with someone other than Sara every once in a while.” Not that he dislikes Sara or anything. I mean, he hired her to work at the Patch and gives her free rein to do her creative thing with the caramel apples. It's only that she's nineteen and out of high school and he'd probably be happier if my best friend was seventeen like me.
And, well, he sorta thinks she's a bad influence on me. Which she's totally not. But it's a small town and everyone knows everything about everyone else so when a rumor gets going it spreads through town fast. I know Dad wasn't too happy when he heard that Sara got caught in a compromising position with a boy under the bleachers at the football field her senior year. But that was two whole years ago and it's not like I followed suit or anything. I don't even go to football games. I work on Saturdays.
And truth be told, there was that one time when Sara first got her driver's permit and we went joyriding in her dad's new truck when we were supposed to be having a sleepover at her house. Nobody would ever have known if we hadn't run out of gas about two miles out of town. We had to call her dad to come get us in her mom's minivan, which he had previously sworn never to step foot in for as long as he lived. Guys are so weird about minivans around here.
But aside from that extremely short list of typical teenage deviance, Sara and I are good people. It's not like we're getting drunk at parties or starting fires in empty parking lots. There are worse people I could associate with. Of course, I could bring Dilly Hanson around more. She's my school best friend. But then Dad would find something wrong with her too, I'm sure. Dilly's parents are a tad bizarre. Not bizarre in a bad way, I mean, they're supernice people, have good jobs, and contribute to the community, and Mrs. Hanson is on the town board. But they do some odd things too, like their house is pink with orange shutters, they hang candy from the tree in the front yard every Halloween, and they named their three kids Dilly, Fraction, and Nero. In a town of only a thousand people, this kind of thing sticks out. I think of them as colorful while Dad says they're freaks. That's mostly why Dilly is my school friend; I don't bring her home too often. I think Dad just doesn't like me having fun.
“Why don't you take Milan with you guys, honey? Show her around Average.” Mom walks back into the room, slipping on her sea-foam-green apron with tiny blue flowers around the edges in preparation to do the dishes.
I look at Milan. “Sure, that'd be great.” Spending some time together outside the house and away from my parents will loosen Milan up a bit and give us a chance to talk about old times.
Milan looks like she ate a bad bean.
“Um, that's okay, Aunt Julie. I should probably unpack. Or something,” she says.
“Plenty of time for unpacking tomorrow,” Mom replies, carrying the last of the chicken from the table.
“Yeah, you should come. It'll be fun,” I say once we're alone. I start thinking about the places in town I want to show Milan.
Milan pointedly looks from one of my pigtails to the other and I self-consciously reach up and touch one. What, is she worried about my hair? Is there still hay in it? I forgot to check it when I came in. Or is it my pigtails? It's not like I won't do my hair before we go out. All of the girls at the Patch put their hair up. Well, those doing physical labor do, that is. It's sweaty work out there. You don't want your hair sticking all over your face.
Milan chews on another green bean and swallows. “What do you do on a Friday night around here anyway?” she asks, looking the teensiest bit intrigued.
“Usually we cruise the strip. You know, the main drag through town. Everyone does it. You get to see lots of people.”
“So, you just drive? Do you ever stop anywhere or is that all there is to it?” she asks.
“Well, no. We mostly drive around. But sometimes when we're really bored we'll drive out to the cornfields and turn our headlights off. It's
crazy.” I shake my head and chuckle. “There are no lights out there so you are literally driving in pitch-black.”
“Crazy,” Milan says flatly.
“Um, and sometimes, we'll stop and gather a bunch of ears of corn and then drive back to the main drag and chuck the corn at people out on the sidewalks.” Milan gives me an alarmed look. “Not to hurt them of course,” I quickly add. “I mean, we don't actually hit people, we just throw it sorta near them. You know, to scare them. To be funnyâ¦” I trail off.
“You're telling me,” Milan says slowly, “that you people throw
at each other? For fun?” She pushes back from the table and heads for the guest room. “What freaking planet have I landed on?” I hear her mumble under her breath before she shuts the bedroom door behind her.