He forgot about the festival. Or he blocked it out. Or he told them he needed the day off and they forgot, or he forgot, or….
He hated the festival, the major event of the racing season, where the horses were a sidelight to the bands and the food and the beauty queens, to the girls in wet tee shirts and muddy bikinis, to the rapping contests and the tractor pulls spilled out from the track to venues all around.
And he hated himself for hating the festival, when it was just supposed to be fun. But the horses got spooked by the noise and the crowds. And somebody always got hurt, a drunk toppling off the stands or some stupid kid blowing off his thumb with a firecracker. And who had to patch things up till the real doctors got there? He did, of course.
Jesus, he was starting to sound like his father, cranky and disapproving of everything in the world, especially if it involved laughter or frivolity. Better to sit alone in a dark room with the TV on silent and a glass of whiskey in your hand. Better to leave your children all alone so you could sit by yourself in a trailer parked in an empty field.
“Beth.” He shook his daughter awake. “Come on, honey. Time to get up.”
On an ordinary non-school day, he’d take Beth to work with him. She’d sit obediently on a stool and color while he tended to the horses.
But during the festival, it was just too crazy out there, too unpredictable. People swarming in and out of the barn, emergencies popping up all over the place. There was no way he’d be able to reliably take care of her.
He thought, inevitably, of Taryn, who seemed to have vanished into the hills. He might have worried that she’d drowned in the lake, or overdosed, but reports had reached him that she’d been sighted so he knew she was alive, and functioning. It was odd that she hadn’t tried to get in touch, if only to hit on him for money, or to call high in the middle of the night, ranting about Beth.
But he should be happy. Beth hadn’t said anything about her for a few days, and the best thing would be for Taryn and all memories of her to fade away.
“How would you like to play with Darrell today?” George asked the little girl.
Before Taryn came back the last time, Beth would sometimes stay with Darrell while George tutored his mother. His idea of entertainment ran more to video games than plastic horses or CandyLand, but Beth was dazzled by the attention of a bona fide teenage boy.
But LaTonya said she was sorry, she’d love to help George out, but she had to work today, what with the influx of people to town for the festival, and she was bringing Darrell to the Bath House with her so he could catch up on his school work.
The few parents of playmates of Beth’s that he managed to contact had other plans — or, he suspected, just didn’t want to take responsibility for an extra six-year-old for an entire day — and so he finally dialed the last person on his list. Cora.
He could hear the hesitance in her voice. Or maybe she was just sleepy; he suspected he’d woken her up. He couldn’t blame her for not rushing to say yes. She’d been through a lot, and she already had a house full of people. George wouldn’t have called if he hadn’t been desperate.
“Maybe,” she said finally, “Juliette can do it.”
“Juliette,” said George aloud.
At the mention of the older girl’s name, Beth’s eyes lit up and she clapped her little hands and nodded her head. George had never seen her so excited at the mention of a potential babysitter before.
But George had his doubts. Juliette had been acting odd at the party the night before, he thought. She and Darrell both claimed to be fine, no big deal, an adventure in the woods for one night, but it seemed as if more than that had gone on. Plus the oily French father and the boyfriend who stared jealously at her, issuing what sounded like commands in French. Plus now George could hear Cora and the girl arguing in the background.
He had made up his mind to tell Cora never mind, it didn’t matter, he’d take Beth with him to work, when she got back on the phone and said fine, Juliette would be delighted to take care of Beth. No problem at all. The little girl could come over and they’d all help keep an eye on her.
Beth was already packing her little suitcase with her toys, pulling on her favorite pink-and-purple heart-printed leggings and jamming a red satin headband over her unbrushed hair.
So it was decided. Beth would spend the day with Juliette. And George would head to the festival. Wheeeeeeeeeee.