The Pouting Pumpkin Mystery
by Ann Carol Ulrich
“Hurry, Pen, we’re gonna miss the bus!” Annette Vetter waited beside the locker, weekend homework piled in her arms.
Penny Duncan dug through her locker, in search of a book. Brushing her long dark hair off her face, she glanced up at her friend. “Is he still there?” she whispered.
Annette turned to look behind them. “No, he’s gone.”
Penny swept her hair behind her, then stood up. “Darn,” she hissed, and slammed the locker door. Clutching her books, she followed Annette as she hurried down the hall. “Maybe I should just give up.”
“We’ve still got a week,” Annette reminded her. “Maybe he’ll ask Monday.”
“It’s Monday or never,” grumbled Penny. “At least you still have a chance left before this day is over. Steve Newton may never ask me to Homecoming, but I thought Pete Randt was gonna ask you long before this.”
“That’s why I don’t want to miss the bus.” Annette’s heart pounded at the thought as they went through the doors. The yellow bus with Ravensville Public Schools lettered on the side was filling up with rural kids.
“I’ve got that feeling that I forgot something,” said Penny as they climbed on. “But I don’t see how. I have homework in every class but typing and phy ed.”
Annette searched for a seat. In the middle, she caught sight of a particular brown-haired boy, who met her gaze with his usual smile. He was sitting alone. “Hi there,” he called to them as they approached.
“Hi, Pete,” replied Penny.
“Hi.” Annette put on her most appealing smile, then continued searching. “There’s one.” She nudged Penny toward it, but just as she did, a couple of girls ahead of them swung into the seat. Annette turned back toward the middle of the bus. She saw that Pete Randt was still sitting alone. It was Penny who pushed her into Pete’s seat.
“I hope you weren’t saving this seat.” Annette felt her cheeks getting warm.
“Not at all.” Pete grinned, then moved over so there would be room for Penny, too.
Embarrassed, Annette wondered how she could get even with her friend for pushing her. The bus started up and was now on its way out of the high school parking lot.
“What’s your brother doing this weekend?” Pete asked Penny.
Annette pressed her back against the seat, so Pete could talk to her best friend.
“Oh, you know Tim. He’s going out tonight... and probably tomorrow night again. He and Dad have hardly a moment’s rest. I hope they hire an extra man soon.” She caught herself just in time as the bus turned a corner, almost forcing her into the aisle.
“Tim told me you and Annette were harvesting some kind of a pumpkin garden.”
“We are,” said Penny.
“To earn money,” said Penny.
“We’ve already sold eight,” said Annette. “Do you wanna buy a pumpkin?” She was aware of her elbow pressed against Pete’s arm.
He smiled. “Halloween’s still a couple weeks away.”
“Yes, but they last,” coaxed Penny.
“You see, we’re trying to raise money to buy a colt,” explained Annette. “A friend of Penny’s dad, Wilbur Jackson, wants to sell his horses. We hope to raise about twenty dollars with this pumpkin harvest.”
“Well, what does he want? What’s his asking price?” inquired Pete.
“A fifty-dollar deposit,” replied Penny. “Then it depends upon how good the colt is.”
“We probably won’t get it till spring,” added Annette, “but as long as we give him the deposit, at least he’ll hold it for us.”
Pete had been thinking. “Jackson... isn’t that the farmer down the road from where I live?”
“Yes,” said Penny.
“You should put an ad for the pumpkins in the school paper,” Pete suggested.
“It’s already in the town weekly,” Annette told him.
Penny clung to the back of the seat ahead of them as the bus turned another corner. “Hey, Pete, what’s the band doing for the Homecoming game this year?”
“It should be pretty good. It’ll be the first time we’ve ever danced on the football field.”
Annette laughed. “A dancing band?”
Pete smiled at her, and Annette felt a pang. “You’re going, aren’t you?” he asked.
Flustered, Annette turned to her friend. Then she turned back to Pete. “Why, of course. We never missed a single home game last year, and we can’t miss any this year, especially the Homecoming game.”
“If you mean did anyone ask us, the answer’s no!” exploded Penny.
Annette gave her friend a swift jab with her elbow. She could feel her cheeks burn.
“W-well, then,” stammered Pete, “you... you’ll just have to come and see the band in action.”
They rode in silence the rest of the way, except for an occasional comment from Penny. After Pete got off at his stop, Annette glared at her friend. “Pen, how could you do such a thing to me?” she demanded. “Pushing me into his lap was one thing, but actually announcing that no one asked us, hoping he would...”
“You’re gonna thank me some day,” said Penny. “Just wait and see. Now, at least, he knows you’re still available.”
“No doubt we’ve scared him away.”
“Listen, Annette, Pete needs a push. You can read it all over his face that he’s crazy about you! I’m sure that now that he knows you want him to ask you to Homecoming, he will!”
Annette protested no further. Instead, she lapsed into silence until the bus stopped at the junction of Ogden Road and Tower Drive. Annette and Penny both lived on Ogden Road. The Duncan farmhouse was located farther down the road than the Vetters’. Penny’s father ran a dairy farm, which he worked and supervised himself. Annette, being an only child, lived with her mother in the house her father had left them eleven years ago, when he’d passed away. Their property included a barn, some outbuildings, and forty acres of woods that surrounded the two-story farmhouse on three sides. Annette, with Penny and Penny’s brother, Tim, had grown up playing in these woods. Now the trees were in their peak, in radiant shades of reds, oranges and yellows, and it was Annette’s favorite time of year.
“Another weekend of facing our failure,” Penny moaned after they stepped off the bus and began walking home.
“Really, it wouldn’t be so bad if none of our other friends had been asked,” added Annette. “Jim Clark asked Nancy Marshall yesterday, and George Calkins asked Debbie Kelton today at noon hour.”
“Maybe we should just take our minds off it,” suggested Penny. “After all, it’s such a beautiful day, and there’s no school tomorrow.”
“I’m surprised it’s still this warm,” said Annette. “It seems every Halloween there’s frost. And it’s only two weeks away.”
“When should I come over?” asked Penny.
“Right away. We’ve got a lot of picking and cleaning to do on those pumpkins. Let’s see, Mom’s home today. Why don’t you ask your mother if you can eat supper at my house?”
“And wear something old. We’re bound to get all dirty.”
They separated at Annette’s driveway. Penny hurried on down the road. A dog whined at the back door as Annette climbed the porch steps. She opened the screen door and let her collie out. “Ginger, you poor dog. Did Mom leave you cooped up inside?” She ruffled the thick white mane with her free hand, then went inside and deposited her school books on the kitchen table. Something smelled delicious. Spaghetti sauce simmered on the stove.
“Oh, there you are.” Annette greeted her mother when she walked into the living
room. Mrs. Vetter was watering her indoor African violets. Dressed in navy blue
slacks and a sweater, she was small like Annette, with short hair that almost
matched the bright auburn color of her daughter’s.
“How was school today?” her mother asked.
“I can tell he didn’t ask yet.”
“No, he didn’t.”
“Well, you and Penny are only sophomores. You still have your best years ahead of you.”
“Oh, Mom.” Annette groaned. “Pen’s coming over to clean pumpkins. Can she stay for supper?”
“I don’t mind. I made plenty of spaghetti.”
“Good.” Annette fingered through the mail in the dining room on her way out of the living room, then went upstairs to her room to change clothes.
Penny showed up half an hour later. They set to work in the pumpkin garden, a fairly large plot in back of the house where, facing the south, the sun shone the most. Annette cut a few more pumpkins from their vines, and they washed them, to scrub all the dirt off.
“How much do you think we should charge for this little one?” asked Penny.
“It’s got a nice round shape. Sixty cents.”
“I wouldn’t pay that much for it!”
“All right, then.” Annette sighed. “Forty-nine.”
“Look Pen, we’ve gotta raise twenty dollars. Do you want someone else to buy Wilbur Jackson’s colt?”
“Forty cents, then.”
“Okay.” Annette stood up and brushed the dirt off her jeans. “There, I’m done. How are you doing?”
“I’ve got two left to do.” She threw a rag at Annette. “Help me, and we’ll be done sooner.”
“Annette!” Mrs. Vetter called to them from the dining room window. “You have a phone call.”
“Okay, thanks, Mom.”
“And supper’s ready, so please clean yourselves up and come in and eat.”
“What about the pumpkins?” asked Penny.
“We can finish them afterwards,” said Annette, and started toward the house. She wondered who could be calling her. In the back of her mind, the possibility lingered that it might be Pete, and her heart pounded when she picked up the receiver in the dining room. “Hello?”
“Hello, Annette, this is Pete.”
“Oh, hi, Pete.” Annette couldn’t wait to see the look on Penny’s face when she told her.
“Did I catch you at a bad time?”
“No, I was just outside.” It was a struggle to keep her voice steady.
“I was wondering if I could ask you something.”
“Go ahead.” Annette’s heart was now racing.
“Well, you see, my cousin came to stay with us, while his parents are in Europe, and since he doesn’t know anybody, I was wondering if you and Penny and Tim might like to go on a picnic or something tomorrow, so that Luke can meet all of you.”
Penny had come into the house by now. Annette turned as Penny stepped into the room, the question written on her face.
“Well, just a minute, Pete. Penny’s right here. I’ll ask her if she’s doing anything.”
“What? What?” demanded Penny. “Did he ask you to...”
“Shh! No!” Annette whispered harshly, her palm covering the mouthpiece. “He wants us to go on a picnic.”
Penny’s face brightened. “When?”
“For goodness sake, say yes!”
Annette smiled. “Pete? Penny’s free.”
“Great. Oh, do you think we could combine the picnic with a bike hike?”
“That sounds fun. Our woods would be the perfect place, too, with the trees all in color. Penny and I will pack the lunch.”
“Great. We’ll come by around noon. And make sure Penny doesn’t back out now, okay?”
“Don’t worry, Pete.” They said goodbye, and after Annette had hung up, Penny asked what it was all about.
“Pete’s cousin is staying with the Randts for a couple weeks, and Pete wants him to know some kids, I guess.”
“What’s his name?”
“I dunno. Wait... he mentioned it to me... Lou, I think. No, it’s Luke.”
“Well, what’s he like? Doesn’t he go to school?”
“I didn’t ask. Pete said his parents are in Europe, though.”
“Hmm... he sounds well off, at least.”
“Must be. I almost died when I heard Pete’s voice. But he didn’t ask me to Homecoming.”
“Girls, go wash up,” Mrs. Vetter called from the kitchen.
“You know what?” Penny told Annette when they were washing their hands in the downstairs bathroom. “I’ve figured it out. Pete’s trying to get me and his cousin together, so that he can be with you... and pop the question!”
“It does seem that way, now that I think about it,” replied Annette. “I hope you’re right, Pen.”
During supper they talked about their plans for the next day, and finally settled on chicken sandwiches, with apples and peaches for the picnic lunch. Annette was glad to see her friend so upbeat after being so disappointed earlier.
“Penny, why don’t you call up your mom and ask if you can stay overnight?”
Annette asked later, when they were washing the dishes.
“Oh, and Pete wants Tim to come tomorrow, so you can ask him, if he’s around.”
“Aw, do we have to ask Tim?” Then she grinned. “Wait. When I got home from school, I heard Dad telling Tim he had to stay home tomorrow, to help him with something.” As soon as they had finished the dishes, Penny called home and got permission to spend the night at Annette’s, then they watched television, waiting for the news to come on, to see how Ravensville had come out in their game.
They listened carefully when the sports was on. “And it was MacArthur over Ravensville... twenty-four to seven...”
“We lost!” cried Penny.
“We sure did.”
“Oh, well, as long as we win next week.”
Annette tingled with the thought of next week. She envisioned herself sitting at
the Homecoming game, proudly watching Pete perform with the band during the
halftime. Then she would sit with him during the second half. He might even hold
her hand. The thought made her quiver. She knew that tomorrow would be the day
he would ask. He had to.
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