October is crisp even though the jean jacket buttoned shut around Max. Joyce couldn’t drive them to the pumpkin patch. So Jonathan volunteers, Nancy comfortable up front with him, over for the weekend just like Max. So it’s just the three of them stuffed snuggly in the backseats: Max and Will at the windows with El between them. Will chatters to the whole of the car, excited about Joyce finally letting him carve a pumpkin himself. Like he can’t handle a knife. Max and El share glances, El not aware of the custom and Max finding it a bit beneath them. But she knows the moment they touchdown in the dirt parking lot of whatever farm they’re going to, Will is going to take off like a shot. Jonathan and Nancy will probably leave them alone. It’ll just be the two of them.
Hands in their pockets as they wander away from the car, Will leaving them in the dust, El asks, “What is the point of this?”
“I guess we can just? Wander around and look at the pumpkins? I’m pretty sure Will’s mom gave Jonathan enough money for all of us to get one.”
El frowns, thick eyebrows coming together.
“So we can carve them and decorate them.” Max pauses beside hay bales and points to grinning gourds. “Like that. You carve out a face or whatever, put a candle inside, and that’s it. It’s called a jack-o’-lantern.”
El’s hand brushes Max’s dangling by her side, whether by accident or seeking closeness. Max holds her head high while grabbing El’s hand and lacing their fingers together. She leads them into rows of pumpkins, some already bashed open and attracting bugs. Scowling, Max tugs El deeper into the field, away from screaming kids and people clustering right at the front of the pumpkin patch. Morons.
“This is actually my first time at a pumpkin patch,” Max confesses when they’re finally alone. That time in the tunnels in Hawkins doesn’t count. “There’s not a lot of farms in San Diego. Sometimes a carnival would have pumpkins you can buy and carve, but nothing like this.”
They come to a stop in the middle of the field below a wooden pole and a slumped figure. Something in Max’s stomach lurches even though she knows it’s just a scarecrow. She can’t help the lurch or how the little hairs on her stand straight up. Shadowy things always tease the corners of her vision, and the scarecrow is barely better than that. Human but broken. Wrong. Starcourt is more like a nightmare than a memory, still too fresh to rationalize. So Max grimaces at her reaction, stupid, but just as quickly fights the tightness in her throat. She hates that someone had thought to put hay on the scarecrow’s head to give it hair. It’s curly at the ends from the wind whipping it about. Pale. Why must she see him everywhere?
When Max blinks hard and turns her head, El already waits for her. Deep, dark eyes glance to the scarecrow too but just as quickly flash back to Max. A smile wiggles on El’s lips. Even though the happiness it means to spread only brushes Max’s surface, she smiles back. At their sides, they’ve yet to let go of each other. Max’s everything is so tightly wound she thinks she’d cry if El weren’t holding her hand. She’s still so fragile months later, but there’s nothing she can do about it. El is the same. At least there’s that.
“Come on,” El murmurs with her raspy voice cracking. She clears her throat, tries again, “What are you gonna carve on your pumpkin?”
El leads them away by their clasped hands, warm and alive against Max’s palm. She tosses one last glance to the scarecrow and its weak neck, head cocked down menacingly. Max can just picture the glare on the burlap face.
“Probably a scary face,” she finally says, almost tripping over a rut in the row. “If I can figure out how to give it angry eyebrows.”