Carnival Lights: Chapter Sixteen
Twenty minutes later, Christina locked the door to her apartment building behind her. Pulling the zipper of her thin coat up a notch higher, she walked toward her car. It was a blistery May morning and she spared a thought to the poor kids that were going to have to play out in this weather. Shoving her hands deeper into the silky lining of her jacket, she only hoped the concessions booth would be kept suitably warm.
Well, whatever. She’d brought along a pair of mittens, just in case. And her wet hair (thanks to a frantic shower) was pulled tight through a ball cap she’d unearthed at the back of her closet. Not exactly glamorous but then, she didn’t feel beautiful today. She felt cheap and dried out.
Scrambling inside her car, Christina made a mental note of the errands she had to run yet.
She needed to go to the bank.
The grocery store for hotdog buns and hot chocolate packets.
And then Carmen’s Bakery.
The thing was, this particular tournament was being hosted by one of the myriad organizations Mary belonged to—and so, among the regular hotdogs and potato chips, the concession’s was also hosting a bake sale, with cookies and pies and brownies and whatnot. All to which, Christina had agreed on Easter to help produce. And so…well, she was calling in reinforcements. In the name of the local baker.
Pulling out of her parking spot, she sighed tiredly. A quick glance at the radio’s clock informed her it was only a little after nine in the morning, and already it felt like an impossibly long day.
Her stomach had stopped churning with the acid of shame since she’d woken up. Breakfast had been out of the question. She couldn’t force herself to eat. Hell, she wasn’t sure she could even swallow liquids at this point. Her head thrummed in the aftermath of her crying the night before (and maybe a little bit because of the whiskey), and her mind just kept replaying over and over the things she’d said, the things she’d done.
And no amount of: “Well, what’s done is done, you can’t change the past” seemed to be helping her cope. Every time she thought about Jason, and it was almost ridiculous to think that more than five minutes spanned between bouts of that exact thing, her face felt hot all over, her hands shook, and this weird sort of hollowness erupted inside her body.
She felt like dry-heaving.
And yet, she was dying to see him. To make amends, to forget about the whole thing. To exercise the regrets swirling around inside of her.
At ten twenty-five, however, Christina was seriously questioning that earlier resolve. Sitting half-hunched in her car at the school’s parking lot, she felt panic flood her system. She’d spotted Jason’s SUV the moment she’d pulled in. Just the sight of it had sent her senses into high alert. A quick, surreptitious glance around the ball field told her he was in the dugout with what looked to be the team manager.
The team was busy practicing on the field.
His back was turned to her, had been the whole time she’d been there.
And of course Mary was already there. Buzzing around the grounds, her hair flapping in the breeze, she was busy setting up a sign in front of the food cart, informing customers about the fundraiser going on.
Peering out over her steering wheel, Christina huddled further into her seat. In a minute, she’d get out of her car. Maybe in two minutes. Christina huddled lower in her seat. It was silly, but she felt like everyone must have known she was out there, hiding away. That everyone must’ve been able to see her clearly, crouched low in her seat, half a dozen desserts tacked up behind her.
She was mortified by her cowardice
Besides, she couldn’t let Mary down. Could she?
Then again, she had no idea how she was going to handle being around Jason.
She wasn’t sure she could be around him.
But Mary was counting on her.
What if Jason ignored her?
“Christina! You’re here, oh thank God!” At the squeal of surprise coming right outside her door, accompanied by the wrap of a fist against the window, Christina jerked upright. She’d been so lost in her thought she hadn’t heard the small woman approach.
Desperately trying to look like she hadn’t just been slinking slowly to the floorboards, she pretended to be looking for something. “Yeah.
“Well?” Mary furrowed her eyebrows and with an impatient wave of her hand asked: “What are you waiting for? We’ve got set up to do!”
Christina threw her a hasty glance. “Yeah. Sorry I just dropped, um, something,” she mumbled. Rushing then, she reached for the deposit bag, lying on the passenger seat, with one hand while pulling her door handle open with the other. She jerked her chin toward the back passenger door. “Baked goods are in there.” Keeping her eyes lowered, she begrudgingly alight from the safety of her vehicle.
“Oh! You are an angel,” Mary cried, throwing the door open with gusto. Ducking her body inside the back seat, she emerged seconds later with her arms piled high with desserts. “Follow me.”
The only good part about setting up the concession booth, Christina soon learned, was that with only her and Mary to do it all, she quickly warmed up. Shucking off her jacket in the small wooden structure (the inside of which was nothing more than rough wooden plywood), Christina double checked that all the appliances were turned on and warmed up before she started setting up the condiments and, when that was finished, organizing the till.
At some point, Mary had left her for the admissions stand, which she was currently piling with the tournament schedule, team programs, and of course a little something for the fundraiser—to which Christina was still woefully ignorant of. All of which had to be forcibly held down from the stiff wind by the weight of rocks.
Wiping her hands together, Christina nodded. There was still about fifteen minutes to the start of the day, but already cars were starting to pull into the parking lot. Reaching for an erase marker, she turned toward the white board. Her last task before opening the large window welcoming customers was to write out the menu—
She was just finishing the last of the beverages on sale when she heard the door open beside her. “Almost finished, Mar,” she mumbled around the cap of the marker, which she’d stuck between her teeth.
“I didn’t think you’d come.”
At the sound of Jason’s voice, Christina stilled, her writing marring the last couple letters in “Hot Chocolate.”
She was still trying to absorb the shock of Jason’s entrance when she heard the door shut behind him as he stepped fully into the small space. Her fingers squeezed the sides of the marker too hard.
She tried for nonchalance, her eyes still staring fixedly straight ahead of her. “What?”
“Will you look at me?”
With calculated movements, borrowing time, she slowly lowered her hand and, taking the cap out of her mouth, popped it back on the writing utensil. Then she slowly, slowly pivoted in his direction.
His hair was windblown, his cheeks wearing the ruddiness of a biting cold. He wore a coach’s uniform tucked into a pair of pressed khaki pants. He should have looked ridiculous. Should have.
Raising her eyes up to his, Christina only just kept herself from flinching. She knew her face was blotchy from lack of sleep, her eyes swollen and slightly pink around the edges— “Well?”
“What the hell happened last night, Christina?” But Jason didn’t hurl the demand at her. It was said softly, curiously even. If he was angry, he hid it well. No. He just looked concerned.
She wasn’t sure she actually preferred that, but then again…
Shrugging indifferently, she let her eyes skip away from his. “Nothing. We had a misunderstanding, that’s all.”
He whistled. “You think?”
But when he didn’t say anything else, when his eyes remained steady on her averted face, Christina felt herself brisling. “What do you want me to say here, Jason?”
With a quick movement, his hand shot forward, gripping her upper arm, and before she was fully aware of what was happening, Christina felt herself being pulled up close to his body. Surprise flickering on her face, Christina was left momentarily breathless. His eyes were stormy as they searched hers in the close confines.
“I want you to tell me the truth. There was no misunderstanding. Something happened last night. You changed the rules halfway through—”
“Does it spare your ego to think that?” She baited him, pushing against his chest. He didn’t budge. With a frustrated sigh, she closed her eyes.
His teeth snapped together. “Dammit Christina. Don’t be an ass.”
“God, Jason. Get over yourself. And while you’re at it, get the hell out of here.”
With a jerk, he brought her body even closer. “Maybe I should refresh your memory?” His head dipped lower, his lips hovering just above hers. “Perhaps I’ll get some answers this way,” he promised on a whisper.
Christina’s eyes widened, her head shifting frantically toward the door. “Jason,” she warned nervously. “Someone could walk in here.” But she wasn’t fighting him very hard, her hands only half-heartedly pushing against his hold.
He smiled. “You mean, my dad or mom could walk in, right?” There was nothing but hard mockery in the words, the accusation.
She felt her eyes flinch. “Yes,” she hissed. “You got me. Okay? I don’t want your parents to see me with you.” With a force, she broke free from his hold. Her eyes condemned him where he stood. “Nice trick, by the way. Using my attraction for you against me.” She curled her lips. “That’s low, even for you.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Do they have anything to do with what you said last night?”
“God!” Throwing her hands up in the air, Christina stalked to the other end of the booth. “Stop. Just stop already.”
“I want answers.”
“And I want you to leave.”
Jason shook his head. “That might have worked last night.”
“Oh, it’s going to work right now, as well,” Christina assured him. With a pointed look at the clock, she took in the time. It was less than five minutes to the start of the game.
Jason growled, following her gaze. His eyes moved back to her. “This isn’t over.”
“Oh but it is.”
She held up a hand. “You didn’t want me last night, Jason.”
“That’s not tr—”
“Well I don’t want you now.”