David took a deep swig from his water bottle, glad no one was close enough to smell the sharp whiff of vodka before he refixed the cap. He had barely had any, just a little something to settle his nerves, and he was confident that he could drive Cady home safely. As long as his ex, Laura, didn’t smell it, he would be fine. God, she was just looking for an excuse to take away weekend visitation. And if he couldn’t see Cady, it would honestly kill him. Not that he could tell Laura that. She would view it as a threat, or a sign of mental distress, another reason… Tonight wasn’t about Laura. Tonight was about making Halloween memories with Cady.
Halloween wasn’t until Tuesday, but David considered it a lucky break that he got the weekend celebration instead of the official holiday. Trudging after Cady and her friends through the neighborhood couldn’t have been as much fun as watching a bunch of pumpkin-shaped lumps giggling and tripping through the “P’mk’n” pumpkin patch. When he saw the ad, “Bring Your Pumpkin to P’mk’n: Free Entry for Every Child in a Pumpkin Costume,” he couldn’t resist. It may not have been that fancy organic pumpkin farm Laura went to every year, but it stole his heart with one word – free. And it definitely made him feel less like a deadbeat dad that he ordered Cady’s pumpkin costume online beforehand and didn’t pick it up from the cheap dollar store most of the other parents seemed to have swung by beforehand. Really, more than half the kids were dressed in the same identical, poly-plastic-fiber whatever-wear.
A pumpkin-shaped lump barrelled towards him, hugging his leg with a hard thwump.
“Ready to go, kiddo?” David asked, giving the oversized pumpkin top-and-stem hat an affectionate rub.
His little hanger-on nodded enthusiastically, grabbing David’s offered hand as he led her to the car. He fought the urge to take another drink, sure Cady would be able to smell the vodka, standing so close to him. And she was getting bigger, seemingly by the second. Even if she didn’t know what the smell meant, she might be aware enough to mention it to Laura. He couldn’t have that.
They wandered through the cars, the parking lot appearing fuller than the pumpkin patch itself, as David clicked his fob with a dozen other parents searching for a way out, hoping their cars would call out to them with guidance. After almost ten minutes, and several false hopes dashed, David finally reached his own Ford that blinked happily at his command. A cold breeze flapped his jacket open before he could unlock the door, messing up the bed-head styling of his hair, and stealing the top-and-stem hat from his little pumpkin. But instead of Cady’s blond curls, hazel eyes, and mischievous dimple that twisted into her left cheek, David looked down to see an unfamiliar face. Long brown hair. Wide blue eyes, staring up at him. Wrong pumpkin.
David knelt down next to the little girl, telling himself that Cady was fine, Cady was still playing. This girl, however, had been, perhaps, a little bit kidnapped by him.
“Hey darling, looks like there’s been a mix-up,” David said, as gently as he could. “Could you tell me your name? Your dad or mom’s name?”
The girl was silent.
“Who brought you here today?” David tried instead.
The desperate voice cut through the beeping and flashing cars, followed by a man with sweat-soaked brown hair, terrified hazel eyes. The little girl let go of David’s jacket and ran towards the man, throwing her arms around his waist.
“Found her wandering the lot,” David lied smoothly. “She’s been looking for you.”
The man sagged with relief, stared down at Maggie, then stiffened. For a moment, David thought he was going to push her away. Instead, with a strange, frantic energy, the man redid the little girl’s hair, brushing it with his fingers so it was parted on the right side instead of the left. He nodded, mumbling something to himself before he grabbed her hand and led her away. David was sure something strange had just happened, something wrong, but the girl, Maggie, was practically skipping as she followed the man. It must have been okay. At least, Maggie was okay.
Cady was alone at the pumpkin patch.
David ran back through the lot, a much faster returning journey. He wanted to scream, then thought of Laura, thought of the lie he would need to concoct if people saw him panicking. So he wandered through the crowd, sauntered into the patch, and searched through the children for his own.
There were so many children, so many pumpkin costumes, all blending together. What made the search even harder was how many children reacted to his call. David could not believe that all of them were named Cady. But perhaps they just heard the sound of an authority figure demanding their return, and their brain could not help but obey his beckoning. The worst was when they almost looked like Cady, maybe blonde, maybe with a few similarly missing teeth, but it only took a quick glance to see the mistake that had been made. He gently detached their grip from his, pushed them back to their friends, chuckled at any parent who saw and got some sympathetic nods. Children were just so trusting. Ready to follow anyone home.
It was not getting late, exactly, but if it got much later he would be late for when he said he and Cady would video chat with Laura. They were supposed to have their Jack-o-Lantern carving done by then. He did not know if Cady had even picked out a pumpkin. He was not sure where he was even supposed to pay for it. He didn’t see any adult in uniforms, anyone who looked like they worked there. Just an overwhelming number of pumpkin-costumed children and their parents, many of whom looked just as frazzled and anxious as David felt. He heard other children’s names being called and was glad he was not the only parent struggling with their search. But as time ticked on, the names became a cacophony.
Too many names, blending together, not Cady, not quite Cady, and too many faces looking up at him from under top-and-stem hats, but none of them were his. A woman was sobbing somewhere, a man was hyperventilating, and David could have been doing both. The world swam in his vision, small pumpkin-shaped creatures running at his feet, and surely he hadn’t had that much to drink? A better dad would have found Cady by now. Maybe Laura was right. Maybe Cady was gone, too trusting, too eager to follow the wrong call home –
With a sudden thwump, small arms wrapped around David’s waist, and he looked down to see a pumpkin costume that was decidedly not made of poly-plastic-fiber whatever-wear.
“Lost a pumpkin?” said a tired-looking woman, though she smiled at David through the fatigue. “She’s been looking for you.”
“Yes, thank you, thank you,” David rambled.
He pulled off the top-and-stem hat, relieved to see a cascade of blonde curls. Cady grinned up at him with her big hazel eyes, dimple twisted into her right cheek…
“Everything alright?” asked the woman, her smile faltering.
Not quite. Not quite alright, and not something that could be fixed by running his fingers through her hair, changing the part. But it was late, and Laura was expecting a video chat, and he could just buy a pumpkin from the supermarket on the way home. And surely, this was Cady.
Surely this pumpkin was close enough.
“Yes, fine, thank you,” David said, lifting the girl onto his shoulders. “Time to go home. Sweetheart. Cady.”
David picked his pumpkin from the pumpkin patch.
Alexandra Grunberg is a Glasgow based author, screenwriter, poet, and artist. She earned her MLitt and DFA in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Recent publications include fiction in CatsCast, Penumbric and Intrepidus Mag. You can learn more at her website, alexandragrunberg.weebly.com, or find her book reviews at her instagram blog, @5starbookreviews.