Caroline stared blankly at the creased and grubby sheet of paper Jeffrey was pressing into her hand. A thick strand of brown hair that seemed to have just begun to streak with silver, dropped free of her loosely coiled bun and landed limply against her cheek. Her hand, still well fleshed but running rampant with small lines closed reflexively on the cold page. Even without her glasses she had spotted it from the kitchen window while watching for her grandson to get home from school. He had leapt from the bus like it was any other day but the paper, this paper, was bow-tied tightly in his fist as he raced for the house, smiling over the last words he had exchanged with his friends. Now she could feel his eyes glued to her face. Without looking she knew his expression was becoming alarmed, his brown eyes widening and his small, full lipped mouth beginning to sag and tremble. She needed to pull herself together. She needed to paste a look on her face that would ease his sudden worry. Feeling like her skin was made of silicone she pushed her mouth into a smile and, dropping the paper on the counter reached to ruffle his shaggy, slightly sweaty, brown hair with hands that could have been carved from plastic.
“How was school baby?”
“Gramma? Are you sick?” With his red hoodie zipped all the way up and the hood barely pushed back Jeffrey’s face looked pale and anxious, framed by tufts of his messed hair. For just a moment Caroline had the impression that his damp locks formed a pair of horns on his young head and her heart thumped painfully inside her chest. Immediately she shoved the absurd idea out her mind. Jeffrey was a normal five year old. He was a good boy. There was nothing to worry about. Reaching out again she smoothed his hair down.
“I’m fine sweetheart. How was your day?” Pulling out one of the brown, low backed wooden chairs from the counter she leaned down to lift him, the weight making her back tighten harshly. Lift with your legs, she thought. Either he was growing fast or she was losing her strength. Both thoughts brought sadness into her chest, a feeling that never seemed far away these days. As he settled into the chair and tried to help her undo his jacket his former concern for her slipped from his mind and he began to prattle about all the things that had happened at school. Making appropriate sounds of encouragement she hung his jacket on the wooden coat tree by the entrance to the great room, nearly stubbing her toe on the heavy, brown, resin cow she used to fortify the wobbly base and moved into the kitchen to get his sandwich and juice from the refrigerator. Sliding the plate and drink container across the smooth, well scrubbed counter her eyes drifted toward the paper. Jeffrey grabbed the sandwich and took a large bite, never ceasing his now excited chatter. When the word jack-o-lantern passed his lips followed by a coarsely chewed chunk of tuna fish sandwich Caroline felt her blood drain down her body and pool in her feet. She pressed both hands flat on the counter to steady herself, and a very bad word wriggled free of her mouth. Jeffrey froze in mid chew, tuna and bread openly exposed inside his jaws as his eyes locked onto her face, a regretful parody of the look his mother had given her countless times as she had grown up. Heartbreak punched her in the stomach as she tried to wave away his worry along with the family resemblance.
“I’m sorry Jeffrey. I shouldn’t say those words.”
“Are you sick gramma?” Worry spread over his face again as he set down the rest of his sandwich and slumped in his chair. “Did I do something?” Caroline took a deep breath and tried to rally herself again.
“Oh no, baby. You are just fine.” With a slow exhale she picked up the paper and began to smooth it against the counter, noting the small, nearly perfect fingerprint of dirt Jeffrey had left near the top, right after the formal greeting: Dear Parent or Legal Guardian. She might as well face the facts, her grandson was going to have a jack-o-lantern in the contest this year whether she read the paper or not. Trying to pretend otherwise was just going to worry them both. “I guess we need to go shopping for a pumpkin, huh kiddo?” Tears prickled behind her eyes as happiness spread across his face. Caroline lowered her face to stare at the print on the page, hiding her eyes from her grandson. This paper was actually the second notice, the first one having arrived in the mailbox just after the new year began. That one had been official, neatly arranged in a full sized envelope a quarter inch thick with all the rules and addendums for this years contest. She had felt just as sick then, reading through each page while Jeffrey slept unknowing in his room. To him it would just be a contest, something fun. The reality of it wouldn’t shake his stability for a few years yet. This paper today was the catalyst, the blatant reminder that the annual countdown was nearly over and that she had participated simply by having custody of Jeffrey. She had forty-five days and then her life might change forever, again.
Victory and shame battled in her chest as she felt an alarming amount of gratitude for the fact that her daughter was not able to experience this moment. Were she alive they would be hugging each other fiercely right now, trying to support each other and vowing they would make it through the next eight years together. Jeffrey was a good boy. He would be fine. Caroline had raised her daughter to responsible adulthood, she would do the same with her grandson. The jack-o-lanterns were not going to change that. Her family would thrive.
“Katie says her grandpa has a pumpkin patch in his backyard. She says he grows all their pumpkins every year.” Jeffrey’s voice rose with hope. “Gramma, can we grow pumpkins next year? Can we grow a patch just for us?” Pressing her eyes tightly closed Caroline tried to stem the horror that blossomed in her stomach. He just doesn’t understand yet, she told herself. Feeling hateful she wondered if Katie’s grandfather poured over the legalese of the Jack-o-lantern document looking for loopholes while he weeded his pumpkin patch? Maybe he used it for mulch.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Jeffrey.” Forcing her voice to stay steady she raised her head and gave him a smile. “Pumpkins take up a lot of room. Our yard is too small for them.” Too small to grow them to the required size, she thought bitterly. And what would we do with the extra ones? Eat them? Her stomach rebelled at the idea and she turned instinctively toward the sink, pressing a hand to her mouth to quell the queasiness. Pumpkin pie. Pumpkin bread. Pumpkin roll. Pumpkin cookies and cupcakes. A litany of foods ran through her mind and nausea pushed upward. Caroline held onto the edge of the sink with both hands as her stomach heaved and her hair bun gave up the battle, her heavy, brown tresses falling with a thump of finality into the stainless steel basin. The only words she had read on the paper were the last ones: Failure to comply with any of the above requirements will result in immediate forfeiture of the contest and your child will be surrendered for disposal. Behind her Jeffrey sniffled.