***Chapter One***
Word Count: 4,650

October 1984

"John?"

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

He turned in the direction of the person calling him and swore inwardly again. Of course it was her.

"Uh, hey," he said.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

He frowned a bit.

"Buying a pumpkin," he said, holding up the pumpkin in question. "The same as you are, I guess."

"Well, right, I just meant. You know, why?"

He let out a low whistle. "Holly," he said. If he wasn't careful she'd wander off and he'd never find her because the place was pretty crowded today. Stupid idea to come here on a Saturday, but he didn't have a whole lot of choices when it got down to it. Unless he wanted to come pick out the pumpkin by himself, but that seemed stupid.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing, I wasn't talking to you," he said.

"Okay," she said, sounding every bit as confused as she probably should be.

"Sorry, I really have to go," he said, walking off in the direction he needed to go.

"Wait," she said.

Fuck. She was following him. That was the last thing he wanted, so of course she would do exactly that.

"Hey," he said, kneeling on the ground and setting the pumpkin next to him. "You need to stay by me, okay? Remember the rules. No running off."

"Who," she started to ask and then stopped herself. John would laugh at the look on her face if it wasn't at his expense.

He grabbed the pumpkin and stood again.

"You?" she said.

"You go to college to learn to talk like that, sweets? Because I'd tell your old man to ask for his money back if that's the case."

"No, I just…"

"What?"

"Is she yours?"

"No, I woke up this morning and thought it would be a fantastic day to go to the pumpkin patch and hit on the single moms there so I borrowed her from someone who happens to look just like me."

"You don't need to be a smart…" she paused and he smirked as she glanced at Holly. "Mouth."

"Stop asking stupid questions."

"It's not a stupid question."

"It is when the answer is pretty damned obvious."

"But how?"

"How? You need me to explain that to you? Did you skip the day they explained that in health class?"

"Quit being an ass."

"Hey," he said. "I didn't ask you to follow me. So watch your mouth."

"Sorry," she said, looking legitimately apologetic.

"So, what? You decorating your dorm room for Halloween?"

"Yeah, pretty much."

"Great."

"I didn't know."

"Why would you know?"

"I don't know," she said, biting at her lower lip. "I thought…"

"I don't know what you thought, but it was obviously wrong."

"Wow. Nice. How is that possible? I mean, she's not a baby. How could no one know?"

"I didn't want them to?"

"How old is she?"

"Eighteen months."

"Really?"

"You questioning whether I know how to count?"

"No, I was just doing the math. That would've been our sophomore year."

"Yes," he said cautiously.

"I didn't know."

"We've established that already."

"You kissed me…"

"Jesus, really? I'm not dead. I'm an eighteen year old guy. You came to me. What did you think I was going to do? Take the high road and tell you to get out? Remember, that's all I did was kiss you. There was a reason for that," he said, gesturing to Holly. People thought he was getting laid left and right. It was an image he didn't do much to change. It kept the attention off other things like his home life and eventually that he was seemingly friendly with someone he'd been with years ago. Friendly was being nice. They weren't friends. He didn't even really like her, but she was Holly's mom so he tried to work with her as best as he could.

"What's her name?"

"Holly."

"It's cute."

"I had nothing to do with it. Her mom picked it out."

"Oh," she said.

"Is she? Are you?"

"With her? No, never really was."

"I'd say you were with her at some point."

"Well, yeah, long enough for her to happen anyway."

"Nice."

He shrugged. "It is what it is."

"What are you doing?"

He sighed softly, watching Holly as she wandered a bit but stayed close to him. He absolutely didn't want to be standing here having a conversation with her here. Holly would go back to her mom tomorrow night and babble to her about John talking to a woman. Then the questions would start. Betty seemed to have it in her head that one day John was going to wake up and love her.

"Didn't we already establish that? I'm here buying her a pumpkin."

"No, I meant, in general. You know. Are you working? Going to school?"

"Oh, yeah. No school, no. I'm working downtown at a garage."

"Oh," she said. "Good."

"Yeah, I can tell you're impressed and thrilled."

"That's not fair."

"Life's not fair, sweets. Haven't you heard, life's a bitch and then you die? Anyway, I really have to go," he said. "It's colder than I expected and if I give her back to her mom sick she'll freak out on me."

"She's wearing a hat."

"So you know she's not going to get sick? Yeah, okay, I'll take your word for it with all of your professional medical experience."

"Why are you being so nasty to me?"

Did she really have to ask him that?

They'd spent hours making out at school the day of detention. He'd thought he'd behaved well. Like a gentleman some people might say. He didn't talk like that, but likely Claire knew people who did. There'd been a reason for his behavior being of the good variety. He hadn't dared having sex since Holly was conceived because he didn't want to take the chance it'd happen again. On the pill, my ass. He was never going to trust that line again in his life. Ever. So, he thought Monday when he got to school she'd be nice to him, talk to him, and maybe just maybe they could do more of the kissing they both seemed to enjoy somewhere other than Shermer High School and with Vernon roaming the halls.

He'd been wrong because she'd barely given him the time of day. Oh, she'd been nicer than she had been the previous Friday at school, but he recognized the signs of dismissal and distaste well enough. He never would have imagined not fucking a girl would get the response he'd gotten out of her. Eventually, he stopped going past her locker because it wasn't worth it.

"Is there a reason I should be nice to you?"

"I can't believe you're still mad at me over something that happened like six months ago."

"You can't believe I'm still mad at you for being a bitch?"

"And you tell me to watch my mouth."

"She's my kid! And she's not listening to us right now."

"At least let me help you."

"Help me with what?"

"Well, I can carry your pumpkin if you need to carry Holly."

He glanced at her suspiciously.

"You want to carry my pumpkin for me, Princess?"

"Well, it seems as though you have your hands full."

"All right," he said, handing her the pumpkin so he could pick up Holly. She came to him willingly. She seemed to like being held by him and try as he might to deny it he liked holding her. She was better now at this age than she had been before. He hadn't been able to see her much until graduation. He wouldn't let her at his house so he'd rented a hotel room a few times on Saturday so he could have her for an overnight, but otherwise he just saw her when he could. So, until the past four or five months he wasn't a steady fixture in her life.

At first he hadn't wanted to be any part of her life. Her mom had lied to him, tricked him. Why she'd chosen him of all the guys she could've gotten knocked up by was baffling to him. There were others who hung out with him who could've actually afforded a kid eighteen months ago. John had shit to his name, which was the reason he'd turned to selling the product he had. His supplier was good, never selling John cheap shit. He hadn't questioned why John suddenly wanted more, quantities exceeding what John could smoke by himself. It had gotten him enough money to keep Betty off his back, and from telling her parents who he was who'd tell his parents. His parents finding out would very likely have led to him not breathing anymore so her willingness to keep them out of things sort of indebted him to her in a way he didn't like.

He'd found a job after graduation through a friend of a friend who knew this guy running the garage he was working at. John almost thought the guy wasn't going to hire him, but he'd called about three days later and offered him the job.

Dawson wasn't the nicest guy to work for, but John wasn't there to make friends with anyone. He was fair, the hours were long but the work had proven steady to this point. As long as the work kept coming in so he kept earning paychecks he didn't care if his boss was Fidel Castro.

"Thanks," he said.

"Sure."

"So, where are you going to school then that this place is convenient for you?"

"I'm actually just here for the weekend. I'm at University of Iowa."

"Ah," he said. So, it was just a fluke that he ran into her today. Great. "Liking it so far?"

"It's all right."

"Good."

"And you? Your job?"

"It's a job. I fix cars for a living."

"Does Holly live with you?"

"No. I get her every weekend and one night during the week."

"I see. What does her mom do?"

"She works at Jewel," he said.

"Oh," she said with a frown.

"Yeah, she's still living with her parents." Betty wasn't the most ambitious person. People thought John had a drug problem. He couldn't recall the last time he'd seen Betty not stoned out of her mind. He'd be more concerned if her parents weren't the ones really doing the most with Holly.

He paid for the pumpkin, walking with Claire to his car. He settled Holly in her seat before opening the trunk and taking the pumpkin from her.

"Thanks," he said.

"That's okay. She seems tired."

"Closing in on naptime."

"Okay. Well," she said. "It was nice seeing you."

He scoffed at that.

"You, too, sweets. Safe travels back to Iowa."

"Thanks," she said.

He closed the trunk, watching as she walked back toward the place. She seemed to be alone. So, she'd really just come here wanting to get a pumpkin. Strange.

"Hey, Claire," he said.

"Yeah?" she asked, turning around to face him.

"I was going to take her down the street for lunch."

"Okay."

"If you were hungry," he said, letting the thought drift off. She'd probably shoot him down anyway so it really didn't matter.

"Um," she said, glancing at her watch. "Sure, give me a few minutes to pick out my pumpkin and I'll meet you guys there."

"Sure," he said. "See you there."

He slid into his car, glancing at Holly through his rearview mirror. He had no idea what had come over him to ask her to join them. He didn't like involving people with Holly. He didn't have friends so he didn't want her to get to know people that were just fleeting things in his life.

He liked Claire, though. He'd liked her seven months ago enough to spend hours kissing her. He'd liked her enough to contemplate asking her out on a date. He hadn't gotten the chance to. He thought she'd liked him back, though. He really had. It was the first time since he'd heard the words 'I'm pregnant' he'd even thought about a girl like that.

"We'll carve the pumpkin after your nap, okay?" he said as he started the car.

He had no idea if she'd actually show up and have lunch with them. It'd serve him right for putting himself out there to have her blow him off again.

"Let's go get some lunch then."

Claire couldn't believe she'd run into John here of all places. Small world. She'd been coming here since she was a kid to get her pumpkins with her parents. She doubted somehow John had gotten too many pumpkins growing up, so how did he know about this place? Then, she supposed everyone knew about it whether they came here or not.

She found a pumpkin big enough for her to actually carve but not too big that it would take up a ton of space on her dorm's desk. God, she hated dorm living. She couldn't wait until next year when she could have a place off-campus. She didn't care what her father said, she was never going to get used to having a room so small. Not to mention having to share everything, including the shower, was just so beneath her. And truly disgusting.

She sat in her car for a few minutes, debating about what to do. He'd invited her to lunch, certainly he was doing it to be nice. John couldn't have a lot of friends because he usually went out of his way to be a complete jerk to people.

It was why she hadn't talked to him after detention. She'd been too afraid to. Afraid to be on the receiving end of one of his sarcastic quips or barbs in front of her friends. She'd wanted to. God. She hated seeing the look of confusion in his eyes, but she couldn't do it. She wasn't willing to risk her reputation to have him dismiss her rudely and publicly humiliate her.

So she'd done the only thing she knew to do and save face, blow him off first. Immature and perhaps wrong.

So, did she go to lunch with him? She had no idea what they'd talk about. She had no idea what seeing him actually interact with his daughter – he had a child, a baby still really – would be like. She started her car, rolling her window down just a smidge to let some air in. It was cool, but she still liked the air.

She knew which restaurant he was talking about because there was no place else around here to eat. Well, unless you wanted to go a couple of exits down the expressway, but he hadn't mentioned doing that. Her parents had taken her and her brother there many times after picking out their pumpkins over the years. It was a pretty good restaurant if she remembered correctly, though it'd been years since she'd been there. As she got older her parents hadn't felt the need to include lunch in the pumpkin-picking adventure.

She pulled onto the parking lot. Curiosity was what led to her being here. It absolutely was not interest in him anymore that had her joining him for lunch. She'd gotten over that interest months ago. She wanted to know how he pulled off having a baby for the last year of high school basically and no one knew about it. She'd have heard, too, if anyone knew. It was just the way Shermer High worked, and ultimately whatever was gossip-worthy had gotten to her whether it involved someone she cared about or not. She knew everything about everyone that went to school there. Good and bad. She wasn't afraid to use that information either if it benefitted her or her friends.

She spotted them sitting in a booth together. John hadn't noticed her yet because he was busy helping her color. As she approached the table she noticed that she had her own coloring book and crayons, so John had come prepared to take her to lunch. She found her heart, and her crabby attitude toward him, softening a bit at that.

"You made it," he said once she got to the table.

"I wasn't sure…"

"You and me both, but sit down. Unless you just came to tell me you weren't going to have lunch with us."

"No," she said, sliding out of her leather jacket and setting it in the space next to her at the booth. He was watching her. Intently. Some might say staring, but she knew he was checking her out, taking her in. He wasn't doing it to be rude. He hadn't really seen her since March beyond in passing here and there.

"You look good," he said.

"Thank you," she said.

"Obviously college agrees with you."

"I like it," she answered.

"Even the boring drive?"

"Yeah, I did not want to drive home this weekend, but a friend of mine is getting married over Christmas break and her shower is tomorrow. I'm one of the bridesmaids so I sort of have to be there."

"Friends getting married already?"

"Yeah, you know her. Penny Lundquist and Bobby O'Brien."

"I know Bobby," he said with a slight nod.

"And you don't know Penny? They've been together since before high school."

"I only know him from a couple of parties that I doubt Penny would have gone to with him."

"Oh," she said. She hadn't realized Bobby was that kind of guy. She wondered if Penny knew he was.

"He didn't come to many. I had a feeling he'd been dragged along to the few I saw him at. I didn't see him doing lines of coke or anything."

"Well, that's good to know."

She should be surprised that he went to parties where lines of coke were readily available, but then nothing really surprised her about John.

"So, you have her until tomorrow then?"

"Yeah, I'll drop her off at her mom's on my way to work Monday morning."

"Do I know her mom?"

"I doubt it. She was a couple of grades ahead of us."

"You mean, she's older than us?"

"Yes, that's what a couple of grades ahead of us implies, sweets."

"And she did that with you when you were a sophomore?"

"So?"

"That's illegal!"

"You going to call the cops on her?" He snorted a bit at that, shaking his head a little. She supposed her reaction was ridiculous. Their sophomore year he'd probably already been having sex so doing it with someone older wouldn't be that big of a deal to him.

"I'm just surprised."

"Believe it or not, Princess, chicks dig me."

"I believe it, and look where it got you!"

"Yeah, well, she lied. She said she was on the pill."

"Oh," Claire said. "She tricked you?"

"It would seem."

"To what end?"

"I don't know I was sixteen it's not like I could marry her. It wasn't like her home life was terrible and mine was great to where I was going to ask her to move in with me and my parents or something. I really don't know."

"And you just what?"

"What are you asking me?"

"Do you even know she's yours for sure?"

"Look at her and tell me you have a doubt she's mine."

"Well, no, but I'm not the one giving her mom money every month."

"I had a test done, don't worry. I'm not that stupid, but it was a formality. I knew the second I saw her."

"She is adorable."

"Why thank you, Princess. I think that's the closest you've ever come to complimenting me. Since she looks just like me I'll take it you think I'm adorable, too."

"When you're not being an…" she paused, glancing at Holly. She didn't seem to be paying them any attention, but still. "Jerk."

"It's what I do best."

"Obviously."

"Anyway, she does as little as possible. I can honestly say I'm not even sure the money I give her every month goes to Holly over her habits. That's why I try to do things when she's with me like buy pumpkins because I doubt Betty will."

"Why don't you have her then?"

"Well, at the time, I was sixteen and my home life wasn't ideal for me let alone a baby."

"And now?"

"I work."

"Parents work. That's what daycare is for."

"I don't have the cash for things like a lawyer, Claire. One day maybe. In the meantime, I just do the best I can with the time I get with her. I'm hoping I can slowly ease her into the realization that I have majority custody without her even knowing what I'm doing. That's why I bring her back Monday mornings and have her once during the week when I can. So when I have the cash I can hit her with that. She's not a great mother, but she wanted to be one for whatever reason so she's not just going to hand her over to me without a fight."

"I suppose," she said. "Didn't you like ask to see them?"

"What? Her pills? No, why on earth would I think she'd lie about that? I'm not the catch of the century or anything."

Claire actually didn't think he was as bad a catch as he claimed to be. Underneath it all she thought he was a pretty good guy. She'd had her doubts about him in the spring, but that was more her looking out for herself than anything. Clearly, though, despite not expecting to be a dad he was doing all right by his daughter.

"So, you're working downtown?" she asked.

He smirked at that. Totally busted on changing the subject away from what kind of catch he'd be.

"Yes."

"How long have you been working?"

"Since June, a couple of weeks after graduation. This guy I know through someone else got his car fixed at the garage. The owner had more business than he could handle. He knows I'm good with cars so he thought maybe I could talk to the guy about a job."

"You're good with cars?"

"Yes," he said dryly. "It's what I do. You think my hands are just naturally so beautiful?"

"I just didn't know."

There were a lot of things she didn't know about him evidently.

"The hours can be long. He's one of those bosses who works right along with me, which is good. He doesn't like to leave for the day with work unfinished, though."

"Oh," she said.

"He tries to understand I don't live downtown and have a commute to and from there, but I guess he thinks I applied for the job too. I don't know. So, sometimes I don't get back to my apartment until seven or eight o'clock at night."

"And that's why you can't have her in daycare," she said, glancing at Holly.

"Right. I don't know daycares that are open that late. The latest I've seen or heard of is six o'clock. If I get to the point of pushing for custody I'll deal with Dawson and my hours then. Until then, I'm not going to snub my nose at some very good paychecks."

"Lots of overtime I bet if you're there late every day."

"Yes. He goes in on Saturdays sometimes, but he doesn't ask me to do that."

"Would you?"

"If I don't have Holly I would, sure."

"She's very good."

"She's tired. I think if we're here much longer she'll get very crabby and have a breakdown, but I planned the visit around her nap. We'll get home and she'll crash and burn for a couple of hours."

"What will you do?"

"Probably nap right along with her," he said with a shrug.

"With her, with her?"

"Yeah, she likes crashing in my bed. She has a crib and everything, and I put her in for the night but for naps I don't mind."

"That's kind of sweet," she said. She bet there were people from Shermer who'd pay good money to see John snuggling up next to a baby, sleeping with her. Claire, admittedly, was one of them because it was so far from the image he put out to everyone.

"Anyway, speaking of the time."

"I understand. My parents are probably wondering what happened to me anyway."

"So, shower tomorrow?"

"Yes," she said. "My first."

"Really?"

"I hope my last for a while."

"You don't want your friends to get married?"

"I think getting married right out of high school is kind of ridiculous."

"I tend to agree, but if you're in love," he shrugged.

"You believe in love?"

"For me? Not really, but I've seen enough to believe it exists, sure."

"Why not for you?"

"I'm a sarcastic fuck at eighteen, I don't think that's going to improve. Finding someone to put up with me would be next to impossible. I've got a kid, what more do I need."

"There's more to love than babies."

"Really? What?"

"Well, I don't know."

"When you figure out the answer, sweets, let me know."

She pulled out her purse, setting her wallet on the table. John set his hand over hers, stopping her from opening it.

"I asked you here. I'll buy."

"Yes, but…"

"I'll buy. It was nice not to eat with just her. No offense to her, she's cute but she's not very talkative and I feel like I have to eat in two seconds when it's just the two of us."

"Why?"

"Because I'm tying up someone's table for a fifteen dollar tab."

"It's better than no one sitting here."

"I suppose that's true, but everyone's pumpkin searching today so I would've felt bad."

"I can see that. And thank you. At least let me leave a tip."

"All right," he said. She hoped that sounded fair.

She waited for him to get Holly ready to go before they walked to the front counter area for him to pay. She continued onto the parking lot, waiting for him out there.

"Well, it was nice seeing you," she said. She had no idea what else to say to him.

"Glad I could surprise you, Princess."

"It was a shock."

"I'd appreciate it if you didn't go to your shower tomorrow and talk about what you saw."

"You're ashamed of her?"

"I'm ashamed of being an idiot," he said. She knew that couldn't have been easy for him to admit. "I'd just rather people didn't know, you know."

"I wasn't planning on telling anyone, John, don't worry. It's not my place to tell anyway."

"Well, thanks," he said. "Drive safe when you head back to Iowa tomorrow. You're not drinking at the shower, are you?"

"No, her mom will be there."

"Ah," he said. "So an actual shower not the bachelorette thing?"

"No, we'll probably do that over Thanksgiving break."

"Well, have fun, don't do anything I wouldn't do."

"Yeah, well, doing things you would do I'm not sure I want to do those either."

"Ha ha. I deserved that, I guess."

She walked to her car then, watching him for a minute as he settled Holly in his car. What a strangely unexpected side to him. He was an asshole at first, but he hadn't been at lunch at all. She supposed she couldn't really blame him for acting like that to her at first. She had acted like a bitch toward him. If he'd given any indication that he actually liked her, was interested in her, she wouldn't have. Him walking by her locker was not the indication she was looking for.

"Oh well," she said. No point in thinking on it further. The chances of her running into him again anytime soon were next to nil since today was a huge fluke.