Authors: Kristina Springer
I stamp the last of my potatoes on my plate with my fork. Sheesh. What's with the “you people” stuff? It's not like we're throwing cucumbers and cabbage at each other. It's only the corn. There's loads of it around here. And it isn't like we do it all the time. Just when we're
bored. We don't hurt anybody. It's silly. And it's usually Sara's idea anyway. She's the one who throws the corn. I'm always driving. Geez, this
sounding more and more stupid, even to me.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
An hour later I pull up, alone, in front of Sara's white two-bedroom house with the peacock-blue shutters and dove-gray door, and tap on the horn three times, my signal to let her know I'm here. Sara's mom peeks out from behind the living room curtain, her hair in pink foam rollers, and waves to me. I return the gesture. Mrs. Erickson is so dependable. Every night by 6:30 she's got a head full of rollers and is sitting at the small table in the window reading
Soap Opera Digest
. While I do love my soaps, I don't touch that magazine. I hate how they tell you what's going to happen weeks out. Like, which one of these three
stars will survive a tornado that devastates the entire town only to find out she's got terminal cancer? Spoilers much? I can't see Mr. Erickson from the driveway but I'm 99.9 percent positive he's watching reruns of old game shows from his recliner. It's hard to believe they rerun that stuff but they do. I know Sara is dying to move out, but she doesn't know where she wants to go or what she wants to do yet. She tried community college for one semester last year and absolutely hated it. She said she was never going back. She's not the books-and-studying type.
A few minutes later Sara comes bounding down her front steps, pausing briefly in front of the maroon and yellow mums that line both sides of her walkway. Yellow and maroon are the Average High School colors so I like to tease Sara that her landscaping is the equivalent to having dozens of cheerleaders with their pom-poms sending her off and welcoming her home each day. She pulls a couple of buds from one of the maroon mums and slides into my passenger seat. She pushes one flower behind her ear and hands me the other. But I'm not really in a flower-behind-the-ear mood just now.
“So, what's the plan?” Sara says, buckling her seat belt.
“I don't know,” I reply, staring straight ahead at my steering wheel.
“No!” I say more adamantly, as I put the car in reverse and back out onto Sara's street.
“Okay, okay. What
you want to do?” she asks.
I pull out onto the main road, thinking. “Want to get a custard?” I finally ask. Frozen custard always cheers me up. And the family-run frozen custard stand up the road has the seasonal pumpkin-pie custard right nowâmy favorite.
“Yeah, I can go for custard. Let's do it.”
A few minutes later I park the car in the gravel lot near the stand. I pull on my navy wool hat and gloves since it's a bit nippy outside tonight. Plus they look cute with my lightweight green sweater. The weather in central Illinois in September is oddâit can be warm during the day but chilly at night. Sara tosses her flower onto the dashboard, then takes her multicolored striped hat out of her pocket and pulls it on.
The custard stand is hopping so we get in line first for our custard and then find a spot at the end of one of the long wooden picnic tables. There is a group of sophomore girls from school at the end of the table and a family with young kids a couple of seats down from us.
Sara takes a big bite of her custard and points her spoon at me. “So spill. What's with the mood? Is cousin-poo driving you nuts already?”
I sigh. “No. Not exactly,” I say, and take a bite of my custard, relishing the creamy deliciousness of it.
“Did you see Danny looking at her? Seriously, I was about to stick a bowl under his chin to catch the drool,” Sara says.
“Sara! He wasn't drooling over her.” I add, “Not really.”
“Uh, okay. If you say so. Is that why you're in a mood? You've had four years to ask him out.” She stabs at her custard with her spoon.
I know Sara thinks I'm a wimp for not “going for it” with Danny. She has no problem walking up to a cute guy she likes and asking him to a movie or out for a burger. But that's so not me. I'm not the forward type. I'm much more the sit back, smile pleasantly, and pray that he someday, somehow notices me type.
“No, that's not bothering me,” I say. “And Milan would never go for him anyway even if he did like her. Which he
. He's one of us. He's âyou people.'”
“Huh?” She raises one eyebrow at me.
I quickly fill Sara in on how Milan's been acting since she got here and how she basically thinks we're a town full of a bunch of freaks or something.
“I say ignore her,” Sara concludes when I've finished. “Act like she doesn't even exist.” She gets up from the bench and tosses her empty custard cup into a nearby trash can.
“I can't ignore her,” I say. “She's living in my houseâat least for the next six weeks. It's not that big a place, you know. Our rooms are across the hall. We'll see each other all the time. Not to mention she's going to be working at the Patch too.”
Sara laughs, sitting back down again. “Yeah, right. Milan Woods is going to do physical labor? I'd love to see that.”
“Well, you'll get your chance. She starts tomorrow.” I crumple up my napkin and toss it into my empty cup.
“What is Milan doing visiting right now anyway?” Sara asks. “Doesn't she go to school?”
“Mom says she's on some kind of break,” I reply.
“In mid-September? Who gets a break in mid-September?”
I shrug. “It
kinda weird.” Especially during pumpkin season. I mean, we're a pumpkin patch; this is our busiest time of the year. She could have come in winter or spring when we're less busy. In the winter Dad hauls in fresh-cut Christmas trees from a tree farm to sell and Mom sews and teaches quilting classes. And they attend a lot of trade shows in the spring. It's pretty quiet then. But come June, Dad starts planting the pumpkins and Mom is superbusy with all the marketing and getting the shops and stands ready. Then September hits and it's nonstop pumpkinmania, seven days a week.
“Listen,” Sara begins. “She's still thinking she's a Hollywood princess or whatever and that we all care who her mommy and daddy are. When she sees that nobody does and she's no better than the rest of us, she'll come down from her high horse. Wait and see.” Sara nods matter-of-factly, and I want to believe her.
“I hope you're right. I was sort of thinking that with Milan being here I'd get to see what it was like to have a sister,” I admit.
“Hey!” Sara says, feigning insult. “You've got me.”
“I know, I know. I mean a live-in sister. True, I haven't seen Milan in years, but she was so much fun back then and I figured we could pick up where we left off. I guess that was a stupid thought,” I say, and rest my chin on my hand.
“You haven't talked to her at all since you were six? Haven't you e-mailed? Written letters? Birthday cards? Facebook? Anything?” Sara asks.
I twist my lips. “NoÂ â¦ not really. I mean, Mom has written and called to talk to Aunt Annabelle and Uncle Jack and she's told us about them over the years. But as for me and Milan specifically speaking? No. Though I did try to add her as a friend on Facebook once. She ignored the request.”
Sara smirks. “Well, what was so fun about her back then?”
I cross my arms. “I don't know. Nothing. Everything. We got into a lot of trouble together actually. Like, when we were out in California visiting we went to the beach for the day. Aunt Annabelle was walking down the beach a ways and Milan and I were building this awesome sand castle near my parents. It had at least a dozen turrets. Anyway, Aunt Annabelle suddenly came running toward us with this
in her hand. It looked like a clear, half-deflated water balloon. She was laughing so hard and yelling, âMy plant fell out! My plant fell out!' Well, Milan and I had no clue what the heck she was talking about, but the adults burst out laughing. So we did too. I mean, Aunt Annabelle looked so darn goofy hopping around that way. But then she screamed and we got spooked for a second. We figured it was still part of the joke though so Milan and I resumed laughing. Then Uncle Jack got up and peed on her hand! Right there in front of everyone! So we laughed even harder. And Milan got up and started jumping around yelling, âMy plant! Ah! My plant! Ah!' It was hysterical. The adults were not amused. We had a time-out on Milan's beach towel for half an hour after that. Turned out that thing Aunt Annabelle picked up was a jellyfish that had stung her and the pee was supposed to help relieve the pain. But how were we supposed to know that? I was a pretty good kid, you know, but I had five more time-outs with Milan over that vacation. She was so, so funny. I didn't even mind getting in trouble.”
“Aw, that's a cute story. Kind of weird, but funâaha!” Sara slaps the picnic table and chuckles. “Wait, I just got the joke!”
“Your aunt's joke! I bet she said âMy implant fell out!' You know those saline bags they use for boob jobs? I can see how one of those might look like a jellyfish.”
I smile. “Hey, yeah, that is pretty funny. I wonder if Milan ever got her mom's joke?” I stop smiling. “I'd tell her but she'd probably roll her eyes at me and call me âyou people' again.”
Sara frowns. I can tell she feels bad for me.
I shake my head. “No. You know what? We got off on the wrong foot. Stuff like this probably happens all the time when you haven't seen someone in so long. You can't always have an instant reconnection like on those mushy gushy find-your-lost-relative reality shows. It'll just take us some time. I'll get her to like me yet.” I nod, determined.
“Well, whatever. But don't stress over it.” Sara stands and tugs at my arm. “Come on, forget about her for now. I know what will cheer you up.”
Sara grins. “Let's talk about Pumpkin Princess and how
are a shoo-in for it at this year's pumpkin festival!”
I still remember the first time I understood what a Pumpkin Princess was. I was sitting between Chester and Leroy, two of the goats in the petting zoo, brushing their coats and watching the Patch parade. The parade always starts at the far end of the Patch, taking a route through the Patch and onto the main drag in town. A big crowd had turned out, lining the way with their lawn chairs. There were people carrying orange and green balloons, local farmers driving big green John Deere tractors, the high school band dressed in costumes and playing fun songs, dancing scarecrows, and a giant float in the shape of an ear of corn, carrying people who threw candy corn to the parade watchers. The thing I couldn't take my eyes off of though was the red hay wagon with the corn-husk throne and the Pumpkin Princess sitting atop it.
It was beautiful.
Shelly Larson, Miss Shelly to me back then, was the Pumpkin Princess that year. She was a senior in high school and about the nicest grownup I'd ever met. She had short bobbed brown hair, huge green eyes, and a warm smile. She volunteered at the town library after school and man, could she do a good story time. She also worked at the Patch. She gave tours of the pumpkin farm to the Boy and Girl Scout troops and worked in the craft tent. She often let me hang around with her and be her assistant. She even made me a special braided necklace with a clay pumpkin dangling from it and called it my assistant badge. I wore that thing everywhere.
The day I saw Miss Shelly sitting up there on her throne, with the green rhinestone stem firmly in place atop her head, I knew that someday that would be me too. I could be Pumpkin Princess. After that I wandered the pumpkin fields daily, finding broken-off pumpkin stems in the dirt. I would carefully untie the ribbon Mom had put in my hair each morning and retie it to fasten the broken stem onto my head. I practiced walking up and down the pumpkin rows, waving and pretending that I was Pumpkin Princess.
If I didn't think someone might see me and that people would talk, I'd probably still practice walking and waving in the pumpkin fields. Instead, whenever I get the chance, I head to the red barn way at the back of the Patch. That's where we store the throne. It's also where we store the huge apple-picking baskets, my excuse for coming back here now.
I check around to see if anyone is watching before I enter the barn and zero in on the throne. It's in the far corner underneath a pile of thick wool blankets. I pull off the blankets and examine it. It's huge and amazing. My mom and her friends made it years ago. They spent weekend after weekend twisting and braiding corn husks together and then shellacked the whole thing within an inch of its life. It's really cool and at the end of the parade young kids always want to climb up into it and get their picture taken with the Pumpkin Princess.
I take a seat in it and smooth my hands over the shiny armrests. It's still early and the Patch is pretty quiet. I don't hear anyone nearby. This barn is set far back from the booths so not many people would come all the way out here anyway. It's safe to take a minibreak. I close my eyes and, for probably the thousandth time, envision myself in the parade. I can see the younger kids smiling and waving at me as the tractor pulls the wagon holding me through the Patch. Sara's clapping and hooting and being typically obnoxious but supportive. And there's my mom and dad with their arms around each other, looking proud and telling people around them “That's our daughter.” And Danny. He's sitting back a bit from the parade crowd, hanging off his tractor drinking fruit punch Gatorade. Watching me with a crooked smile. I wave to him and he winks. The tractor parks and I start to get down. Danny jogs over and holds his arms up to me, ready to put them around my waist and lift me to the ground. I reach toward his shoulders andÂ â¦