Pumpkin King by Abby Knox

 

Chapter One

Jane

Toddlers arethe ultimate cock block.

Wait. Is it a cock block if a toddler prevents a woman’s attempt to procure a man’s phone number? Or is that technically a cooch block?

Whichever it is, I have Sarah, my angel-faced, mop-haired 14-month-old daughter to thank for making sure I don’t get any contact information from the incredibly hot guy we meet at the fair.

Picking up dudes while I’m out with my daughter is not my normal M.O., especially when I’m packed into a beauty pageant audience in support of my best friend, Rocket. It’s not that I wouldn’t talk to these somewhat intense people, it’s just that most of them are super invested in the outcome and not interested in making small talk with strangers.

My first impression when seeing a young-ish guy alone, eating snacks and observing a beauty pageant, is maybe he’s a little bit of a creep. I mean, this is the section reserved for friends and family of the contestants. I’ve attended half a dozen of these to support Rocket, and I’ve never seen that guy before.

He doesn’t give off creep vibes, though. I amuse myself with the most likely answer to why he’s sitting in the reserved section: he just needed a convenient spot to sit and eat his fair food, and the reserved section is never too crowded with people.

I’m not about to rat him out. He seems way more into that corn on the cob than he is the beauty pageant. Besides, he’s very cute. So, Sarah and I sit near the corn eater, because why not? He seems…interesting and different.

Different from Carl, Sarah’s biological dad. Very different.

I’ve always believed babies are an excellent judge of character, and Sarah immediately begins babbling at the man as soon as we take the empty seats next to him. She grows even more excited when he leaves and comes back with a funnel cake. Sure, she might be fascinated by the way he devours that sweet monstrosity, licking the powdered sugar off his fingers, but I see the way he playfully side-eyes her while he eats his food.

“I hate to eat sweets in front of a hungry baby, but I also don’t feel so good about tearing off a piece for her with my grubby fingers,” he says.

I appreciate this. It’s shocking to me how some strangers think they can offer candy or food to babies and toddlers, completely unaware of choking hazards or germs.

The man gets up and comes back with a small funnel cake for her—with my permission—thoughtfully cut up into bite-size pieces. He’s a god to my little monster after that.

For a second I think he’s bought himself a second adult-sized funnel cake, but then he holds it out to me. “And one for you,” he says with a wink.

The truth is, funnel cakes are not my favorite. Give me kettle corn any day of the week, if we’re ranking fair food. But I take it, and I nibble on it, enjoying the sugar rush and grateful for his thoughtfulness. Sometimes I feel a little invisible with all of the attention that a toddler requires.

Throughout this humid day at the pageant, Sarah’s new hero keeps my kid entertained but always checks in with me to make sure I’m cool with him talking to her. The checking-in part makes my soul want to cry from happiness. If he only knew how refreshing it is; too many people feel entitled to the attention of a cute kid.

I don’t usually find myself physically attracted to country guys, but Henry, as he introduced himself, has a certain laid-back aura and an easy smile that engages without trying to actively charm me. After everything I’ve been through since Sarah was conceived, charm doesn’t work on me anymore.

What touches me is Henry’s open enjoyment of our company. Surely he has things he’d rather be doing at the state fair than talking to me and entertaining a toddler. Tractor pulls. Concerts. The butter sculpture. A whole exhibit dedicated to potatoes that look like faces. But what does he do? He runs off to the midway games and comes back ten minutes later with a stuffed unicorn for Sarah.

“How in the world did you manage that so quickly?” I ask. “Those games are rigged!”

Henry’s large hands, chafed and calloused from hard work, mimic a tossing motion and he says, “It’s all in the wrist.” I’m pretty sure he paid off the ring-toss guy, but I don’t question it. That unicorn buys me another hour with a happy toddler.

It occurs to me that this man, in the span of a few hours, has spent more time interacting with this child than the child’s biological father. And that right there is why I never questioned my decision to omit Carl’s name on the birth certificate.

Just when I’m trying to decide if I want to ask for Henry’s phone number, and just when I think he’s looking at me like he might ask for mine, drama happens. Because of course, it does. Rocket texts me from backstage with some shocking news. Around the same time, Henry’s friend—who, it turns out, is one of the pageant judges—needs help with a low-key investigation of some contestant shenanigans.

When he has to leave to go question the stage crew, I offer to help by tracking down some contacts. “Perfect,” he says, shooting me his contact info. I love it that he’s leaving the ball in my court.

Before leaving, he looks me right in the eye and, with an intensity he hadn’t shown before, says, “Don’t move. I’ll be right back. I promise.”

I believe him. I try to stay put. I really do. But Sarah is about to lose it in this heat and then has a massive blowout from all the fair food, rendering me done with this day. Using the public bathroom changing table, I refuse to buckle her in; those straps are not the cleanest, so I hand her my phone to play with while I change her diaper.

I realize too late that I’ve left my phone screen unlocked. After she’s changed, I try to get my phone away from her, but she screams. A toddler screaming in a public place on a hot day is my limit. We’re leaving.

I wrestle her into the stroller, both of us nearly in tears because she’s doing that back-arching move that makes it almost impossible to strap her in. And then, like magic, she sees my tears, softens her posture, and lets me clip her in. She hands me my phone and I dig the unicorn out of the diaper bag for her to snuggle on the way back to the car.

It’s then when I look down at my phone that I realize something terrible has happened. Her sweet, dimpled fingers have erased all my contacts. I can’t be angry at her, but I want to explode. So, I take a deep breath, and simply refuse to process what has happened until later.

I get Sarah into the car and, mercifully, she falls asleep on the drive home, which gives me time to think.

All is not lost. Rocket will understand why I couldn’t stay; I can text her when we get home, as I have her number memorized.

As for Henry? He told me he’s a pumpkin farmer, and his pumpkin patch and corn maze will be opening in a few weeks in a town not far from where we live. A more perfect excuse to bump into him again, I could not have thought up myself.

Between trying to find a job in a new town and caring for the little munchkin, it’s not like I have time to be subtle with a potential gentleman caller.

My phone rings on the way back to the apartment and my spirits rise for a moment. See, Jane? People will call you and they can be added back into your contacts one by one. How many do you actually need?

I recognize the number, and the hopeful feeling darkens. I hit “decline” while keeping my eyes on the road.

Moments later, I receive a text notification. I don’t look at it until we’re home.

“If you bring her back now, I won’t ask any questions. I’ll put in a good word with the CEO to get your job back. As I said, no questions asked.”

Sure, Carl. Sure, I think. But what if I’m the one with questions?