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Where the Watermelons Grow by Cindy Baldwin (1)

On summer nights, the moon reaches right in through my window and paints itself across the ceiling in swirls and gleams of silver.

I lay in bed, the sheet on top of me as hot and heavy as a down quilt, listening to the roar of the box fans that weren’t doing a single thing to keep the heat out of my bedroom. I’d gone to bed hours earlier, but it was too hot to sleep—too hot to do anything but lie there watching the moonlight shift across the ceiling, thoughts spinning through my head like the wind on the bay right before a storm breaks. On the other side of the room, baby Mylie snored in her crib.

Only a baby could sleep on a night as hot as this.

I closed my eyes, letting a string of numbers appear against my darkened eyelids. Doubling numbers as far up as I could go: it was a trick Daddy had taught me, and my favorite way to fall asleep—a problem interesting enough to keep my mind focused, but not so hard that I couldn’t drift off when I was ready. One. Two. Four. Eight. Sixteen. Thirty-two. Sixty-four.

I’d made it all the way to One thousand twenty-four times two is two thousand forty-eight when I finally gave up trying to concentrate my way into sleep and slid my legs over the side of the bed, the cool carpet hitting my toes a tiny little shot of relief in all that heat. The clock on my nightstand read 12:03. I tiptoed out of my bedroom and through the dark hallway so nobody could hear I was awake and come tell me off for it.

But I wasn’t the only one awake.

Mama was sitting at the kitchen table, her pale skin strange and greenish in the light from the left-open fridge. A plate of watermelon slices sat on the table in front of her, and she was looking at them with the same look I have when I’m taking a test in English class. She used the tip of a knife to flick the black seeds out of each slice, one by one, not seeming to care that they were landing all over the table and the floor. One seed had stuck itself to her forehead, hanging there like a little bug just above her crunched-up concentrating eyebrow.

“Mama?” My voice was quiet and a little shaky in the silent kitchen, with only the refrigerator hum to back me up.

It was one of Daddy’s sliced-up watermelons on that plate. My daddy grows the sweetest watermelons in all of North Carolina. He grows other things, too, like wheat and peanuts in his big fields and squash and berries in his small ones, but the watermelons are my favorite. Biting into one of those ruby-red slices is like tasting July, feeling that cold juice hitting your tongue like an explosion.

I like to take a spoon and dig out round bites so big they barely fit into my mouth, but Mama’s always after me to slice them in neat little pyramids. “So that everyone can enjoy them,” she says, glaring at the holes my spoon left, and every time she does I know she’s thinking about all the germs that came from my lips touching that spoon touching the watermelon.

But whatever she was doing to those slices on that plate was way worse than obsessing over a few germs.

Watermelon is near about my favorite thing in the world to eat—if I’m hungry enough, I can eat almost a whole one by myself, which Daddy says is pretty impressive for a girl who’s barely twelve and not yet five feet tall—but right then, the taste of all those remembered melons on my tongue was sour and awful.

I cleared my throat. “Mama?” I said again, louder this time.

“Della,” she said. “You oughta be in bed.”

“I just had to get a drink of water.” I wiggled my toes against the bare linoleum floor. It was sticky where it hadn’t gotten cleaned up enough after Mylie threw her sippy cup down there when she pitched a fit about going to bed.

Where sleeping was concerned, Mylie pitched a lot of fits.

“What are you doing, Mama? Don’t you want to be in bed, too?”

“No.”

I inched into the kitchen a little at a time, keeping my feet away from the seeds all over the floor and reaching for a clean glass from the cupboard. I ignored the open fridge with Mama’s special no-germs-here water-filtering pitcher and filled my cup with tap water from the sink. I didn’t want to know what Mama was doing. It felt like the long-ago bad time all over again, and I didn’t want to know a single thing more about any of it. So all I said was, “Do you know you got a watermelon seed stuck above your eye?”

Mama’s fingers flew to her forehead, picking the seed off and flicking it onto the tabletop real quick, like it might bite her. “I don’t like these. There’s just too many of them. I don’t want you eating any, okay? And I don’t want you feeding them to Mylie, either. I don’t want them crawling around in your tummies and making you sick.”

The glass of water froze in my hand halfway to my mouth. I looked at Mama and looked at her some more, wishing so hard that I hadn’t gotten out of bed in the first place. Wishing I was asleep like I should have been, so that I wouldn’t be here seeing Mama acting like this.

I drank up all my water and put the cup in the sink. Sometimes I liked to put my water cups on the counter, so I could keep drinking out of them and didn’t have to wash them out between, but anytime I did that, Mama got on my case about all the germs my mouth had left on there. I never knew what she thought was going to happen—it wasn’t like those mouth germs were going to crawl down the sides of the glass and onto the counter—but she sure didn’t like for me to leave them.

“Listen,” I said, taking a deep breath and pretending I was talking to Mylie instead of to Mama. More than anything I just wanted to go back into my bed and close my eyes and pretend I’d never come in here in the first place, but I knew I couldn’t do that without it eating me up from the inside. Mama needed me. “I’m gonna close the fridge door now, okay? And then I’m gonna help you clean up the watermelon, and I think you should go to bed, otherwise you’ll be tired at church tomorrow. And I know you don’t like that.”

What Mama really didn’t like was when I was tired at church, but she didn’t like being tired herself, either, because she said it turned her into a mean-green-mama-monster.

Sure enough, Mama frowned. “Why are you still up, Della?” she asked, like I hadn’t just told her a minute ago. “You need to be in bed, honey.”

I sighed. “I know. I’m going there right now. You gonna come to bed, too?”

Her eyes snapped back to that plate of watermelon, and her fingers started up again with the knife. The seeds made wet little taps on the table as they hit it, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. “No!” she said, and I felt my shoulders jump a little, because she was so loud she was almost yelling. “I can’t go to sleep tonight. I need to take care of this watermelon.”

I heard a door open down the hallway, and Daddy came out, looking tired. His feet were bare and his hair was sticking up all over his head.

“Suzanne,” he said, “what’s the matter?” Then he saw me. “Della, what are you doing out of bed? You know it’s after midnight, right?”

I sighed again, a loud one this time so that Daddy could hear it. “I was just getting a drink.” It was Mama I was mad at, but I couldn’t stop that mad creeping across the kitchen toward Daddy anyway. “Is that not allowed in this house anymore?”

“Don’t sass,” said Daddy, but he didn’t sound upset. He never sounded upset. That’s one of those things about my daddy—he’s so calm and quiet that you can hardly hear him talk sometimes. “Did you get your drink?”

“Yeah. Good night.”

I didn’t look at Mama again, but I could still hear those watermelon seeds tap-tap-tapping on the table as I walked down the hallway.

“Suzanne, please come to bed now,” Daddy said as I opened my bedroom door.

“Can’t. Can’t go to sleep. Too busy.”

There was silence behind me. I pictured Daddy pushing his callused white fingers through his brown hair like he does when he’s upset and can’t figure out what to do about it. “Suzie,” he said, and his voice was so quiet I could hardly hear it, “you need your sleep, sweetie. You know you need your sleep or you’re gonna get sicker.”

Mama didn’t say anything. I pulled my bedroom door closed behind me carefully and slowly, leaving it open a crack by my ear, so I could still hear them.

“Suzanne. Come with me now, all right? Come on to bed, please.”

“No!”

I swallowed. Mama was almost-yelling at Daddy just like she’d been almost-yelling at me. I peeked through the crack I’d made in my doorway and could just barely see him, there behind Mama with his hands on her elbows, trying to pull her up out of that chair.

“Suzie, sweetie, put that knife away.”

“No!” Mama shouted again, louder this time. From the other side of the bedroom, Mylie started whimpering and shaking the bars of her crib.

“Leave me alone,” Mama said. “Just leave me alone. I have to do this. It’s important. I gotta keep the girls safe.”

I tiptoed over and reached through the crib bars to put my hand on Mylie’s head, feeling her soft strawberry-blond curls all wet from sleep sweating. She was sitting up, her fat fingers in fists around the bars.

“Shh,” I whispered, and she quieted down. “It’s all right, baby. Go back to sleep. You want I should tell you a Bee Story?”

“Stowy,” Mylie repeated, wiggling her little body till she was lying back down on the mattress.

“All right,” I said, sinking down on to my knees by the crib, my voice still quiet and low. I reached my hand in through the crib bars and rubbed her back as I spoke. I could feel her start to settle, relaxing into the mattress, like my hand on her back was all she needed to feel safe. Lucky baby. “Way back a long time ago, when Grandpa Kelly was still a little boy and the farm belonged to his daddy, he was playing on the tractor when he fell off and got a big old cut right down his leg. It was long and deep, and his parents knew if they took him to a doctor it would need stitching and medicine and might never heal good enough for him to walk normal. So they didn’t take him to a doctor. They took him to the Quigleys.”

I leaned my face against the crib, feeling the bars cool and hard on my skin. Mylie’s breathing was steadying, but I could still see the shadows of her open eyelids there in the dark.

“It wasn’t our Bee Lady who was living there then, of course. It was her grandma. Grandpa Kelly asked Mrs. Quigley if her bees had anything that might fix up Grandpa’s leg. Mrs. Quigley took one look at that big old gash, and at Grandpa’s face white as cotton fluff, and went right to her shelves for one of her honeys. It was dark and sticky and thick, and when she tipped the jar over Grandpa’s leg, it took a long time to roll its slow way out. Mrs. Quigley spread it all over Grandpa’s cut with her gentle hands.”

Now Mylie’s eyes were closed, her little butterfly lashes soft against her cream-colored cheek. I slid my hand off her back and she didn’t stir.

“And Grandpa’s leg healed so fast and so clean there was hardly even a scar, and he was up and walking by the time the sun set that day,” I whispered to myself, and then walked back over to my bed and climbed into it, lying down on top of all my blankets. It was too hot for them, anyway.

It was a true story, that one about Grandpa and his leg. More than once, he’d shown me the thin white line of scar tissue that ran almost from knee to ankle. If there hadn’t been a Bee Lady in Maryville, he always said, he probably would’ve limped through the rest of his life.

I sighed and rolled over. Daddy had gone back into his bedroom while I’d been talking to Mylie, but if I listened real hard, I could still hear those seeds tap-tap-tapping on the kitchen table.

I closed my eyes, trying to forget all about those watermelon seeds, all about Mama yelling and acting worse than she had in a long, long time, wishing there was anything in the world that could pull Mama’s brain back together like the skin on Grandpa’s leg.

Fixed right up, without anything more than a harmless little scar.