Mouth Full of Ashes: Part 3

 

Callie felt a jolt of panic as she turned toward the voice.

A tall, slender white girl with bleach-blonde hair, shaved on one side, was examining her friend’s hand. The friend was even taller than the first girl, Black, with long braids threaded with gold. Metallic beads clicked through some strands as she tilted her head to look at Callie. Both of them had septum rings. Both of them were staring at her.

She flushed and averted her gaze. They definitely hadn’t been talking to her before, that much was clear.

“Hey,” the voice said again. “Blondie.”

Callie turned, albeit reluctantly. Maybe she’d been mistaken. The other white girl with blonde hair, the one she’d noticed first, was talking to her. She held her friend’s hand up so Callie could see it. Blood ran from a cut in her friend’s palm and trailed down her elbow, dripping onto the dirt.

“Is she okay?” Callie asked.

“Depends. You got a band-aid?”

Callie slipped her purse off her shoulder and rummaged around inside. She knew she didn’t have any band-aids, but she felt awkward and wanted to at least seem like she was trying to help. After a few seconds of searching, she shook her head. “Probably have a first-aid station up front or something.”

“Not for workers.” The Black girl said. “They don’t give shit to us.”

Callie blinked. Her gaze shifted to the white girl. “You two are carnies?”

“Carnival workers,” the white girl corrected. “And we’re about to be screwed if we can’t stitch this up. But… we also were gonna get something to eat. You mind holding our place in line then?”

“I…” Callie’s stomach growled again, and the girl’s brow raised. Shit, she could hear it. “I mean, yeah, sure, I can hold your place. What happened to her?”

“Maybe caught it on a ride,” the Black girl said. “Anyway, I’m Tahlia. This is Maeve. We should be back soon.”

Callie nodded, and when they kept staring at her, realized she needed to introduce herself too. “Oh, I’m Calliope. Callie. Nice to meet—”

“Be right back,” Maeve said. She raised Tahlia’s arm above her head and made her hold it like that as they walked away. Callie watched them, transfixed. Tahlia hadn’t been bleeding too heavily, but she’d never seen two people so cavalier about blood loss. And now that she thought about it, that cut had looked deep. She hoped everything would be okay.

Before long, Callie was at the front of yet another line. The smells from inside the food stall smacked her in the face as she placed her order. If the cashier was surprised by her ordering a Coke with her funnel cake, he didn’t show it. For most people, that would have been way too much sugar and caffeine, but with Callie’s ADHD, caffeine and sugar often calmed her. It was bizarre and not a thing many people in her life understood. She remembered spending the night at Ramsay’s years ago before she’d gotten diagnosed. They’d both chugged Mountain Dew to stay awake, with Becca drinking iced coffee because she couldn’t stand soda. Callie had fallen asleep. Ramsay and Becca hadn’t understood it until Callie explained it years later.

Now armed with refreshments, Callie cast an anxious look at the rest of the people in the line. Tahlia and Maeve still hadn’t returned, and she wasn’t sure she could save their spots. It was fully dark now, and the floodlights positioned near the food stall illuminated the annoyed looks on the other customers’ faces. Callie had never been great with confrontation. She looked around, hoping to catch a glimpse of blonde hair or braids somewhere nearby–but all she saw was families pushing sleeping kids in strollers, people carrying oversized stuffed toys they’d won from games, carnival food, open mouths laughing—

No sight of the near-strangers.

Reluctantly, Callie took her funnel cake and Coke and stepped out of the line. Her phone buzzed against her hip, but she didn’t have a free hand to check it. She carried the paper plate and plastic cup dripping with condensation to an empty picnic table, not far from the Ferris wheel, and sat. She took a long, slow sip of Coke and savored the crispness of the soda and the syrup on her tongue. Then, she pulled her phone out of her pocket. Two messages from Ramsay:

he’s not here yet idk what he’s doing. i don’t think he stood me up though

And the other, sent a few minutes later:

he just texted me. said something happened to his friend. he can’t meet up. I’m pissed. if you need me I’ll be drinking over by the petting zoo

Callie frowned down at her phone. Her thumb hovered over the screen. She wanted to fire off some words of encouragement, but she was worried that Jabari was never going to show. Maybe he wasn’t real. It wasn’t like Ramsay to make someone up, but he sure hadn’t shown her any pictures of the guy, and she hadn’t thought it was like him to just meet up with some random, either. And… well, Ramsay had been through a lot. Everyone processed grief differently. Maybe—

Her phone sprang to life again, chirping and vibrating in her hand. Ramsay’s photo popped up on the screen. She answered the call and held the phone to her ear.

“It’s Callie.”

“Why the fuck does this shit happen to me?” Ramsay whined. “And where the fuck are you?”

She wrinkled her nose. “How many beers have you had, Ram?”

“Don’t wanna talk. Just come pick me up.”

Callie sighed and hung up, too tired to argue. She popped a piece of the funnel cake in her mouth and chewed. Then, she wiped the powdered sugar off on her shorts, picked up the plate and her drink, and headed out in search of Ramsay.

True to his word, he was leaning on the fence outside the petting zoo, holding a plastic cup of beer in one hand and gesturing toward a goat with the other. “This motherfucker is so lucky. All he does is bleat and eat.” He laughed at his own joke. Callie held the funnel cake out to him, and he tore off a piece. “What a lucky bitch.”

“There’s children in here,” the attendant said. “Would you might not swearing so much?”

Ramsay and Callie looked at the children in question. They were twin boys, maybe ten years old. Ramsay shrugged. “I’d heard worse at that age. Besides, where are the parents?”

“I don’t get paid enough for this,” the attendant replied. Callie offered her a sympathetic look. She redirected her attention to the children, rattling off some facts about the sheep they were petting.

“Eat some of this and let’s go home,” Callie said.

Ramsay obediently put the funnel cake in his mouth and chewed. He offered Callie some of his beer, but she shook her head. It looked warm, at best, and she’d never really been one for beer.

“I’m sorry about Jabari, Ram.”

“Me too.”

“I mean it. Also, don’t talk while you’re chewing.”

“Sure, Mom.”

She rolled her eyes, and he stuck his tongue out, covered in partially chewed funnel cake and powdered sugar. Callie scrunched up her face. Ramsay laughed. He finished chewing his food, swallowed, and grabbed another piece of funnel cake. Callie, like a proper escort, offered him her arm. He took it and let her lead him away from the petting zoo.

As they passed by the food stall again, Callie swore she heard someone ask about a blonde girl, say something about losing their spot in line, but she didn’t stop to figure it out. Ramsay needed her, and she’d always be there for him. The Starlight Carnival had been a bust, but at least she didn’t have to return.

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