Carnival Lights: Chapter Seventeen
The first deep breath Christina took that morning came when she watched Jason’s back exit the small concession stand, the door swinging shut determinedly behind him. Leaning eagerly against the service counter, she tried to gain some perspective. The games were set to start in a matter of minutes and, judging by the sounds coming from outside, people were already lining up to get food before finding a seat.
With as much enthusiasm as she could muster, which admittedly wasn’t much, Christina opened the customer window. Throwing a smile on her off-white pallor, she pretended a nonchalance she was far from feeling when the first in line came up to her:
“I’ll have a box of popcorn, nachos, and two cups of hot apple cider…”
And so the orders came pouring in. And soon enough, Christina found herself wishing for a tank top and running shorts. It went without saying, by the sweat beading down her forehead and the unfortunate flush donning her cheeks, that concessions was not meant to be run as a one-man operation.
Christina did not personally know this Shelley person with the lame excuse for backing out today, but she absolutely hated her. Though, it had to be said, maybe that wasn’t quite the truth. The harried pace was actually maybe, sort of welcoming for Christina, as it gave her absolutely no opportunity to think about Jason, to remember (or fantasize, as the case may be) the feel of his lips pressing up against hers, or the confidence in his voice when he promised her their talk wasn’t over—
Of course, the rush died down eventually. The pace couldn’t last forever, when the fans would find themselves huddling to their seats, ready for the first pitch. Using that time to quickly organize the room, ready some more hotdogs, open extra bags of pre-popped popcorn, and refill the hot apple cider, Christina knew the reprieve would be short-lived. There were ten more games set to be played on the four baseball fields on the grounds, with teams rolling in and out at intervals, bringing with them new customers and more orders.
So that, other than those brief spells of silence, which were so packed with cleaning and replenishing, Christina found herself unable to think beyond the necessity of the moment. And for once, just once, she got her way with Jason. He, too, was kept busy all day. And so he stayed away.
Of course, she was terribly disappointed about this.
“I should probably be thanking Mary,” she muttered to herself that evening, as she scrubbed the counter clean for the last time. It was five o’clock and the final game of the tournament was winding itself to a close. First place stood between Jason’s team and a team from Hastings. Pulling the customer counter shut, Christina carefully unplugged all the machinery. Concessions was officially closed for the day.
Her shoulders ached and her back was sore, but dammit, it was almost nightfall and she’d managed to keep the fiery pit of anxiety rolling through her stomach to a four all day. She’d even managed a couple bites of a hot dog. “Without her, I’d probably be two cartons of ice-cream into it by now.” Expertly, she deconstructed the hotdog roller. She wasn’t in a rush to clean the parts.
Because the only thing waited for her was home. And those ice-cream treats. With a twist of her wrist, she turned on the tap water.
“Knock, knock!” At the sound of Mary’s voice the door to the concession stand opened. Carefully composing her features, Christina turned in greeting.
Mary took a quick look around the booth. She whistled. The condiments were still out, the popcorn boxes stacked haphazardly on the floor, the smell of slightly burnt apple cider permeating the air. “At this rate, you’ll be here all night.”
Christina shrugged. “I didn’t have time to put things away.”
Mary rolled up her sleeves. “Well then, it’s a good thing I did.”
Christina blinked. “What?”
“Throw me a wet rag?”
Christina gaped at her. “What about admissions?”
“What on Earth do you think I brought Matthew along for? The conversation? Please.” With a laugh, Mary started scrubbing.
For a few moments, they worked in silence. It was only as Christina was putting the cleaned hot dog roller back on the rack, as Mary was finishing taping up the box holding the dry storage, that the questions started:
“So,” Mary said carefully, her eyes on the box in her hands. “I take it you and Jason didn’t have a good talk, then?”
Christina stilled, her hands holding the large crock pot of apple cider. “What?”
“Just before the games,” Mary explained unnecessarily, her hands moving to tackle the napkins. Her eyes still avoided Christina’s. “He came in here. And by the look on his face when he came back out—”
“You knew about that?” Christina’s voice was somewhere between amusement and incredulity.
“Well thanks!” Christina tossed the pot in the sink with a hard clanking sound. “What was all that nonsense earlier—about keeping him from bothering me?”
“Oh. That.” Mary cleared her throat. “Well, as you know, I’ll say just about anything to get my own way.”
At that, the older woman took a peek up at Christina’s face. There was a knowing look in that gleam. “And honestly, if I’d truly thought it would bother you…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Christina placed her hands on her hips. In all the years she’d known the Gordman’s, she wasn’t aware of ever raising her voice to Mary before. At the knowledge, she took a deep, evening breath.
Mary made a gesture. “I was young once, too.”
Christina narrowed her eyes. There was something Mary wasn’t telling her.
At the look, Mary sighed. “Matthew told me,” she confessed, her chin lowering a little closer to her chest at the words. “About what happened between you and Jason on Easter.”
Christina’s mouth formed words for a few seconds before any sound emerged. And when it did, all she muttered was: “Oh.”
And just like that, Mary had the upper hand. “I was surprised, to tell the truth.”
Abandoning the apple cider, Christina moved toward the condiment stand, her hands doing little more than moving the bottles around absently on the counter. Standing to one side of Mary now, she could more easily refuse to meet that searching gaze. “No more than I was, I assure you—”
“You really turned him down?”
At the words, Christina felt cheeks crease in dismay. The last thing she’d ever want to do was insult Mary. “No. No, Mary, it wasn’t like that—”
“But you’ve been in love with him all these years.”
The red plastic bottle of ketchup catapulted out of her hands at the words. Christina was too startled not to face Mary head-on. “You know?”
It must be said, she was also too surprised to lie.
Mary shrugged with only one shoulder, her eyes soft and gentle on Christina’s broken face. “If it’s any consolation, I’m the only one who does.”
Christina nodded. Slowly. Thoughtfully. “Yeah. Actually, it is.”
Mary touched her arm. “And, if that’s the way you want it, I’m the only one who ever will.”
Christina inhaled slowly. “Thank you.”
“But,” Mary paused. “Look, I know it’s none of my business, but, can I ask why?”
Christina didn’t pretend not to understand. It wasn’t as if she wasn’t questioning her own behavior. Dropping her eyes back to the ketchup and the mustard, she looked down at them absently. “I couldn’t stand to lose you or Matthew,” she admitted, her voice hardly more than a whisper.
It should be said, at this point, Christina found little point in subterfuge.
Mary blinked, as though this were the last thing she expected Christina to say. “Me and Matthew?”
Christina’s fingers itched to grab the ketchup. She kept them carefully at her side. “Statistically, the odds are against any relationship working out.”
Mary nodded. “Ah. I see.”
“And if that happened…”
“Then you think you’d lose us?”
Christina smiled in an unhappy sort of way. “I know I would.”
Mary’s eyes watered.
“And,” sniffing hard, Christina could barely force the words out of her mouth. It was difficult. Speaking that way. She wasn’t raised to do it. “I don’t mean to sound, whatever or anything, but you’re all the family I’ve got left.”
There was a beat of silence and then Mary nodded. “Yeah.”
Christina almost laughed. “You know that, too, huh.”
Mary pursed her lips. All pretense of packing away the concession stand was over. “I sort of put two and two together, as they say.”
Christina blew out a hard breath. It was getting cold inside the booth again. “Yup.”
Mary reached out to touch Christina but, on second thought, pulled her hand back. “I don’t know what happened between you and your family…”
“It’s a long, terrible story.”
“Well, I’m here, you know,” Mary told her softly, so softly her voice hardly carried. “If you ever need to tell it.”
Christina turned her head. The look she leveled at Mary wasn’t pretty. “You don’t want to hear it.”
Mary sucked in her lower lip. “I’m sure—”
“Trust me. I’m more villain than victim.”
At the words, Mary pulled herself up to her far inferior height. “I won’t believe that.”
Mary narrowed her eyes. “Then let me reassure you.”