Cheryl opened the door before he rang the bell so that he wondered if she’d been watching him stand in the street like a man with second thoughts.
“I was just thinking about the shutters,” he said.
“Really.” She leaned out past him to look at the front of the house. “I thought maybe you were looking at the wide open road just beyond my back yard.”
“Not yet,” he said, joking, but she moved away from him when he bent his head to kiss her.
“Libby’s in the den. I just have to do something with my hair and we’ll be ready.”
“Leave it down.” It floated around her face like shadows, and he wanted to catch his hand in it and keep her as Cheryl and not Mommy.
“It’s a mess. I’ll just be a minute.”
Cheryl’s 3-year-old daughter was sitting on the floor in the den about 2 feet from the television.
“Hi,” he said. “Whatcha watching?”
Her eyes flickered in his direction and back to the screen. “Dora,” she said, as if any moron would know that. Maybe any moron would. He didn’t know anything about Dora.
“Excited about getting a pumpkin for Halloween?”
“I guess.” She turned big blue eyes on him, eyes that looked nothing like her mother’s, and said, “Daddy got me a pumpkin last year.” He could have sworn she was waiting for a reaction.
“I bet it was nice,” he said, reminding himself again that Cheryl’s ex-husband had already lost.
“Henry broke it,” she stated and turned back to the TV.
Libby got up from the floor with a big sigh and took one of the picture frames off the top of the television. “Henry,” she said, pointing at a black lab with a smaller, plumper Libby and a man who was going to need Rogaine. Jeremy had never seen a picture of Peter. He was blond, like Libby, and looked like a man who threw money at all his problems.
“I bet Henry’s a nice dog,” Jeremy said, trying to remember if he had just said the same thing about the pumpkin.
Libby shrugged. “He lives with Daddy. Girls like Henry.”
Jeremy looked from the picture to the small child in surprise. Which adult had that come from? Though he could imagine. Cheryl had once called Peter’s dog a “Frisbee-catching babe magnet” and claimed that he took better care of the lab than he did of Libby. Of course, this had been after Peter had fed Libby nothing but hot dogs over a long holiday weekend.
“I’m back.” Cheryl had changed. He didn’t know what she’d been wearing before, but now she had on a fuzzy red sweater that looked great.
“Cookies,” Libby said, running across the room to throw herself at her mother’s leg. “You said cookies.”
“Not now, Libby, we’re leaving. Would you cut that off?” She waved at the television.
He looked around him for the remote while Libby started screaming.
“Cookies! Cookies! You said!” Her mother dragged her around to the other side of the bar that separated the den from the kitchen.
“All right, all right, Libby, hush.” She got a box of animal crackers out of the cupboard and shook a few into a plastic bag. “You don’t mind, do you?” she asked, grabbing a little blue jacket off the floor and ushering Libby toward the front hall.
“Mind what?” Jeremy found the remote in the toy bin, mixed in with building blocks, games and doll heads.
“If she eats in your car.”
“Of course I mind.” He shut off the television. Hadn’t she been paying any attention since they started dating? Had he ever let her eat in the car? Had she ever seen him eat in the car? Why would he want a 3-year-old eating greasy crackers in his car?
“Oh come on, Jeremy, lighten up.”
He sighed as he followed them out and looked longingly at Cheryl’s hatchback with its vinyl seats, but there was no way he was going to be comfortable folded up in that tiny car for the next 30 minutes. Obviously if this relationship was going anywhere, it was going in his car, and he needed to “lighten up.”
The packing shed at the pumpkin patch was set up with rows of pumpkins ready to purchase, including some that were painted with a variety of Halloween faces. Baskets of apples, dried corn and trick-or-treat buckets crowded the counters. Arrows pointed to the pumpkin patch and a big scarecrow near a row of hay bales held a wooden sign that said, “Wait here for wagon!” Libby hoisted herself up on a bale of hay and jumped off the other side. Jeremy sat down as she climbed up on it again.
“Careful,” he said, without a whole lot of concern. Cheryl wasn’t even watching. Her eyes were scanning back through the packing shed.
“Since we’re here...” she said, and Jeremy stifled a groan. She definitely had the smallest bladder of any girl he’d ever dated. “Do you mind watching her for a minute?”
“Um, shouldn’t she go with you?” Libby was running up and down the other side of the hay bales making “zooming” noises.
“She went before we left.”
“Yeah, well, so did you.”
Cheryl rolled her eyes at him. “Libby, do you need to go potty?”
“Then stay here with Jeremy, OK?”
“Then come with me to the bathroom.” Cheryl reached over the hay bales and grabbed Libby’s arm. Libby dropped like a deadweight to the dirt floor.
“Fine. Stay here.” Before either Libby or Jeremy could protest further, Cheryl moved off toward the other side of the packing shed. Libby looked vaguely surprised.
“There goes Mommy,” Jeremy said. Libby sat where she was until Cheryl disappeared into the “Little Ghouls” room. Then she looked from him to the Coke machine standing across from the oversized scarecrow.
“I want a Coke,” she told him, running to the machine and smashing each oversized button with both hands.
“No,” Jeremy said, because he had wanted to ever since he’d met her.
“Coke!” shrieked Libby.
“No,” said Jeremy.
“I. Want. A. Coke.” Libby told him, in a very stern voice that he recognized as an imitation of Cheryl.
“I. Don’t. Care.”
“Mommy!” she shrieked.
Jeremy glanced toward the restrooms. But the door didn’t move, so he said, “It’s just you and me, and I’m not giving you a Coke.”
Libby put her hands on her hips and told him, “No videos when you get home.”
Jeremy laughed, and so did a few of the people close by. He felt a little relieved.
“No means no,” he said, pleased with himself.
Libby screwed up her face, clenched her hands and charged at him. Her momentum knocked him off the edge of the hay bale and into the scarecrow. He grabbed at it as he went over, and pulled the whole thing down on top of him. The “Wait here for wagon!” sign dropped out of the scarecrow’s hands and hit him over the eye.
“Oh my goodness,” said someone.
Jeremy pushed at the straw arms and legs and finally got out from under, coughing up hay dust and wiping at his eyes. He could feel blood dripping along the edge of his eyebrow and he blotted at it with his shirt sleeve, looking around for Libby. If she was gone —! But no, there she was, just a few steps away, her eyes wide and dismayed.
Someone dragged the scarecrow off him and said something about ice and first aid.
Jeremy pulled himself into a sitting position and held out a hand for Libby. “It’s all right,” he said, gently.
She shook her head and stared at the blood on his fingertips. He wiped it on his shirt and offered his hand again.
“Come here,” he said.
“Was an accident,” she said, her chin quivering.
“You mean I fell over all by myself?” Jeremy asked. He still held out his hand. She didn’t come any closer. “All by myself?” She shook her head. “But you didn’t mean to hurt me, right?” She shook her head again. “It’s OK, Libby. Come see me.” She took two hesitant steps forward.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and he pulled her in closer and wrapped both arms around her. “I’m sorry, Jemy.”
She smelled like animal crackers and baby shampoo, and her body seemed amazingly fragile, considering the force with which she had just knocked him over. She sniveled once, and he patted her back awkwardly.
“It’s OK,” he said, just as he caught sight of Cheryl coming toward them. He held up a hand to forestall her, but could tell by the way her face changed that he was too late.
“Good God! Jeremy, what happened? Libby, are you OK?” Cheryl pulled Libby out of his arms. Blood had gotten in Libby’s hair, and Cheryl ploughed through the blond curls with anxious fingers. “Libby, hold still!”
“It was an accident,” Libby said unhappily, trying to pull away.
“Cheryl, really, she’s all right. The blood’s mine.” Jeremy touched Cheryl’s elbow, and she stopped, actually looking at him.
“Oh,” she said in relief. “Jeremy.”
“Accident,” Libby whispered, moving back from them.
“It’s OK,” Jeremy said, as much to Libby as to Cheryl. He blotted at his eye again with his sleeve. “The scarecrow thing fell over, the sign hit my head. No big deal.”
“No big deal,” Libby echoed, hopefully. He smiled at her.
“Your eye,” Cheryl said. “You should get something to put on that.” She sounded a good deal happier now that she knew he was the one leaking blood.
“I’m fine, really,” he said, again, standing up and brushing off hay dust. “It’s just a little cut.”
“Maybe you should get a tetanus shot,” Cheryl said, frowning. She reached out a hand for Libby, who was starting to move farther away. “Stay here,” she ordered.
Jeremy envisioned spending the entire rest of the afternoon in some sterile waiting room, with Libby fidgeting in a plastic chair, just so he could get a tetanus shot he didn’t need. “Come on,” he said. “All I need is a Band-Aid. You’ve got to have a Band-Aid in your purse.”
“Well, yeah.” Cheryl smiled at him and stepped closer to wipe at his cut with a tissue. “But it’s yellow with blue puppies all over it.”
“Perfect,” he assured her as she dug in her purse.
“Sit down,” Cheryl directed, finding and unwrapping the Band-Aid. It wasn’t merely yellow; it was a neon banana.
“Not only will this stop the bleeding,” he said, “but it should also protect me from being shot at by hunters.”
Cheryl smirked and gestured again for him to sit down on the hay bale. The wagon was finally pulling up from the pumpkin patch, and Libby wandered closer to watch.
“Libby, stay away from the horse,” Cheryl called, and Libby looked over her shoulder before moving back two steps.
“She’s always testing you,” Jeremy observed.
“That’s normal.” Cheryl didn’t look at him as she peeled the backing off the Band-Aid, but he could tell from the way her voice had gone all tight that she resented the remark.
“Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean that it wasn’t. It’s not like I have anything to compare it to.” He couldn’t tell from her bland expression if she were relenting or not, but she affixed the Band-Aid over his eye with rather more force than he thought was necessary. “Ow,” he said, leaning back from her. “It doesn’t have to stick forever, you know.”
The stiff line of her lips wavered, and she said, “Want an aspirin, brave man?”
“What I really want is a kiss,” he said. The kissing rule, at least so far, was “Not in front of the kid.” He checked and found that Libby was now sitting two bales of hay down watching people unload their pumpkins. When he leaned closer to Cheryl, she smiled teasingly but ducked her head to dig in the bottomless purse again.
He sighed inaudibly. “Does the aspirin have puppies on it, too?” he asked.
“No, it does not have puppies on it.” Her smile strengthened, and she glanced almost absently in Libby’s direction. “Libby, are you ready to get a pumpkin?” she called. She popped the childproof cap off the aspirin bottle and shook a couple into Jeremy’s outstretched hand.
Libby slid off the hay bale and came running back to them. “Mommy, that man got a pumpkin this big!” She threw her arms out as wide as they would go. “Jemy, this big!” she said, and when she turned to show him, a huge grin spread across her face. “You look funny,” she announced.
He waggled his eyebrows at her, which kind of hurt, and she giggled. Apparently puppy Band-Aids weren’t quite as flexible as the regular ones. He felt as if he had a piece of packing tape stuck over one eye, and he could definitely feel it sliding up and down as he moved his eyebrow.
“Mommy,” Libby said, through laughter. “Jemy looks funny!”
“Yes, he certainly does,” Cheryl agreed, but she was looking at him fondly. The way she had when she had first said, “I have a 3-year-old daughter,” and he had said, “I’d love to meet her.” And he had really wanted to, that was the amazing thing, he thought now. He hadn’t known that 3 was a dangerous and conniving age. He touched the spot over his eye and could feel a lump growing under the innocuous bandage.
Behind Libby and Cheryl, someone was feeding change into the drink machine. Jeremy waited for Libby’s reaction as the drink dropped out with an unmistakable double clunk. Her little blond head whipped around, and both hands snagged the bottom of Cheryl’s sweater and pulled.
“Mommy, I want a Coke!”
He shook his head in amazement, and Cheryl, catching the movement, said, “No, Libby, we’re getting ready to go.”
“But, Mommy!” Libby protested, dragging on her, and Jeremy waited for Cheryl to give in.
“I said, ‘No,’ Libby. Don’t pull on my clothes.” Cheryl firmly disengaged both of Libby’s hands from her sweater and took hold of one. “Ask Jeremy nicely and maybe he’ll hold you up to pat the horse.”
Libby yanked free of Cheryl’s hand and hurried to haul herself up on the hay bale next to Jeremy. He watched without helping her until she was standing right next to his knee, her face close to his.
“Please,” she said, and held out her arms. S
Style Weekly 2003 Fiction Contest Winners