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A Seedless Melon

by Jason Hauser 5 months ago in Short Story · updated 5 months ago
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An adult tale of literary fiction

A Seedless Melon
Photo by Rajesh Rajput on Unsplash

I regret only two things in my life, and as old as I am now, that’s pretty good I think.

My second regret is not asking Julia Bicksworth to marry me when I had the chance. That might have saved me from heartache later on. Or, Fate might play its hand just the way it did. Fate is shrewd like that. But more on Julia later.

The first regret is what I’m going to tell you about now. I…I like to think I’m not a bad man. I’m no Holy Pope, but I did the best I could, and that’s all that a man can hope to do.

It happened in Yadkinville, North Carolina, 1950, a year I’ll never forget. I was twelve years old, about to enter fifth grade. It was August. Melt-the-asphalt hot, the humidity slapping you across the face, your breath catching in your lungs like a warm wet towel. That kind of hot.

The Fall school session hadn’t begun yet at West Forsyth when momma would drop me off and then drive my brother to Forsyth Elementary. That was weeks away, and the threat of books, tests, and teachers an unfulfilled future.

Unlike other children who grew bored by summer’s end, my brother and I reveled in it, whether catching golden June bugs and leading them around like an airborne cavalry, or dredging the Yadkin River for pike and trout, or mounting old tractors in Mr. Feldman’s dry corn fields, climbing their blasted ochre bones to pretend we rode dinosaurs.

By Sharon Rosseels on Unsplash

I actually owned a pop-up book called The Jurassic World. The dinosaurs would spring to life, and David enjoyed the book too--until we reached the Tyrannosaurus Rex page. Something bloody lay at the bottom (it didn’t move, just drawn there) that must have been the Rex’s dinner. Between that hunk of red gristle, the lizard’s stained teeth and the way it stared at you as if thinking, “You’re next, BOY!” …well…David hated it. And sometimes I would flip straight TO that page and scare the bejeezus out of him.

By Frank Kroeger on Unsplash

Like I said, I was no Holy Pope…David called me turdhole. But I was a pain in other ways too. I am to this day the finickiest eater you’ve ever seen. Whenever Momma threw leafy green poison veggies on my plate I just threw a fit. But lucky for Momma, my favorite food back then was watermelon, and Papa had planted a watermelon patch before he left for greener pastures. Momma had never remarried. I think being single suited her somehow.

But I still had to bother Momma about the melons, whining and complaining until she removed every single last seed. I wouldn’t do it myself, I honest to God don’t know why. Maybe it was obsessive compulsion, but Momma was so pleased just to have something I enjoyed that she gladly cleaned them for me and we’d share the sloppy mess.

So those were the tranquil scenes those last dog days of summer, all of us together, laughing, smiling and sucking on mangled watermelon rinds that stained our chins like blood, happy that we at least had each other. Life was good.

Until the bad thing happened.

I don’t recall the day of the week exactly. Every day felt like Saturday, every day another adventure. It was hot of course, the sky the kind of endless blue you imagine the ocean to be, so clean and pure that even the clouds shied away.

Momma worked dayshift at RJ Reynolds tobacco plant in Winston-Salem. She would always come home smelling like the raw stuff, and I can’t smoke a cancer stick even now without thinking about Momma. She smoked them too, and they killed her in the end. It makes me weepy some days, but I don’t quit smoking them either. We all gotta die sometime.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if it had rained that day like it did the next, one of those unexpected summer downpours that stains the horizon purple like a bruise. What if we had not gone to the fossilized tractors roasting in the heat? What if we had skipped down to the river with our fishing poles, earthworms and creel boxes? What if? One thing I’ve learned in the intervening years is that Fate likes to grab you by the balls, and when it does it don’t let go.

That particular afternoon we found ourselves at the tractor graveyard behind Mr. Feldman’s old cornfield, the stalks hacked low, crawling with grasshoppers and earworm.

By Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

I rode Rex of course, mounted on that cracked, hot seat that nearly blistered my bottom, pretending the gearshift was the pommel of a Western-style riding saddle and I was charging my pet T-Rex across the blasted heath of primordial earth. David rode his somber brontosaurus and pretended that it ate corn stalks. I tried to tell him that a brontosaurus would never eat such a stupid vegetable, and that it only liked “fronds,” and such, and my Rex would gobble him up anyway.

I suppose the game didn’t sit too well with David because he crawled off his mount and sauntered through the field toward an old barn sitting on the tree-line. Barns in the country are numerous, but this barn was a few boards shy of safe. Maybe red once, it was now uniform gray as if pale wooden planks had crawled out of the earth and shaped into something manmade. A rusted tin roof glinted in the afternoon sun, and a big hay door hung open like a slack mouth. Goldenrod and honeysuckle cropped up on all sides, waving to us in the breeze.

I lost sight of David in the taller grass, and then he popped back up, still running. I yelled at him to stop, but knew he wouldn’t. I slid off my tractor and followed. An empty building can be exciting, especially for adventurous boys, but I wondered why we had never noticed the barn before. I held reservations. Empty buildings could be dangerous. I remember that me and Adam Dodd had once investigated such a barn off Wyatt Road, and I had plunged my foot through a nail and had to get tetanus shots. I knew damn well the dangers.

When I caught up to David he stood at the barn, a hand shielding his eyes against the glare. The building looked…unhealthy. But the sun flashed bright, the day hot and the sky blue, blue like the ocean, blue like my eyes, and bad things like ghosts and boogeymen didn’t exist under such conditions. That was Nature’s Law, pure and simple. Nighttime was a different story, but neither David nor I were stupid enough to enter an old barn at night. I told him we shouldn’t go in, but his look made me wince. A look of disappointment. Why not? he asked. Even for a peek?

By sawyer on Unsplash

I could have stopped it right there, but I didn’t.

A rusty chain looped through the door handles, but a good six-inch gap existed in-between. Six inches might as well have been six feet. We both squeezed through. Inside, sunlight slanted through holes in the roof. Motes of dust and chaff drifted like smoke through hazy headbeams. It smelled of must and mildew, of things unused and unwanted, as if this place had existed for a long, long time, maybe as old as when dinosaurs had last walked the earth.

The hay in the loft had rotted to black mulch, although fresher tufts lingered here and there. Machinery hung from the ceiling on chains, the guts of old tractors and cars, their engines stripped out, dangling above our heads in shadowed eves. Bats and barn swallows lived up there, maybe even vampire bats, and I told David as much. His eyes widened, not in fear, but in childish anticipation that he might actually get to see an honest-to-God vampire bat.

By Clément Falize on Unsplash

We walked deeper into the barn, our feet whispering on the dirt floor. Horseshoes hung from nails. A moldering saddle sat beside grimy riding tack. A water trough and feed bin rested outside two derelict horse stalls. A mangled Studebaker crouched in the middle of the barn, its doors missing, the hood run off, the windshield smashed into a crystalline spider web. Looking up, I saw the engine near the roof, chains tying it off to a lever and pulley on the wall.

I felt like we had entered the laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein where he hoped to reanimate a monster machine. I imagined it lumbering up, assembling itself from discarded components, the stuff that we had mistakenly dismissed as junk, but contributed to its arms and legs, a steam-spurting gasket-head, blinking headlight eyes and a barbwire tongue, coughing exhaust and dirt as it clomped closer and closer on massive wheel-hub feet.

Maybe it was the exhilaration of being in the barn with its many secrets to unearth, the many baubles and trinkets to amaze and confound us, treasures that _wanted_ to be found, just as an archaeologist might gently brush dirt from a fossil…

…whatever the reason, we didn’t hear The Man until it was too late.

I think in the brief moment before he grabbed our shirts I actually smelled him, the way a dog catches a whiff of danger. Maybe a sixth sense warned me that something bad was about to happen, but it was a sense I had never honed. To this day it remains butterknife dull.

A hand jerked me up and back, so fast and forceful I damn near pissed my pants. David squealed, the sound a puppy might make, a poor puppywuppy dog. His feet lifted right off the floor. I squealed too, although I prefer to think it was a cry of outrage. I thrashed around like a hooked trout and felt just as helpless.

“What have we got here?”

That’s what he said. What have we got here? His voice was cigarette scratchy, full of phlegm. I kicked, struggled, and saw David flailing beside me. Urine splashed down his legs, a hot sour stink mixing with the unwashed breath behind us.

“Two little barn mice,” he said next, or something to that effect. He held us out at arm’s length. He was tall, and bull-strong too. My shoes scraped the dirt, giving me zilch for leverage. I dug my fingernails into the arm at my back, but my position was awkward, and the man vastly stronger.

Part of me hoped this was a prank, but the logical part knew we were in trouble. It was at least a two-mile hike to our house, back through the cornfields and Mr. Feldstone’s acreage. There wasn’t anyone around to hear us. We could have used bullhorns. We could have launched fireworks that showered multi-hued “HELP!” signs. If there was a phone and we called Momma at the factory, even if she raced home as if the Devil nipped at her heels, it would be at least an hour before she arrived.

And dirty old men can do a lot of damage in an hour.

The Man threw me against the gutted Studebaker. My skull bounced off the fender. I swooned, and looking up, I saw a dark shape holding David, blurry replicas of each. David shrieked, and that’s when The Man wrapped a grimy hand around his mouth. I think he said, “Don’t bite me you little fucker.” I tried to rise, but fell to my knees and puked.

I remember the man’s eyes--what a shark’s eyes might look like--just two black marbles. A hairy face too, as wild and unkempt as a briar bush, a snaggletooth smile. He wore a long coat like the cowboy dusters from the telly shows. The man’s arm switched from David’s shirt to his waist, the other hand clamped to his mouth, David’s muffled pleas squeezing through his fingers.

“Your lucky day,” he said. Or maybe, “My lucky day.” Or even, “Not your lucky day at all.” I don’t really know.

The Man hurled David to the floor hard enough to punch the wind from his lungs, and then descended with one knee to the small of his back. It was pathetic. He twisted David’s arms behind him, grabbed a length of cord from his pocket, and twirled it around David’s wrists. My brother sputtered protests into the dust, runny snot and saliva darkening the floor. He kept making these sad sounds, like wet hiccups strung together. I staggered up, fighting the nausea, fighting the terror, and flung myself at the son of a bitch. He crushed me across the face with a fist like a hammer.

I have never been slugged so hard in my life, before or since. It fractured something in my jaw, and pain dragged me down.

I like to think I saved David though.

The next thing I remember was hanging. My feet barely touched the floor. My weight tugged at my wrists where another cord suspended me from a hook.

Hands touched my chest.

“You’re a wriggler,” the man muttered. His fingers tightened, and unclipped nails dug in. It hurt, like he was trying to gouge my lungs out and show ‘em to me. “Stop wriggling,” he whispered into my ear, “or I’ll cut your little cock off.” He pressed a hand between my legs and squeezed until my eyes watered, and then the pressure vanished.

I didn’t dare breathe.

The man moved away, talking to David in a quiet, conversational tone. I assume it was something vile, something _wrong_, something a grown-up should never whisper to a child. I now know that adults sometimes say those things and our world is not a safe place.

Dilapidated wood pressed against my cheek. My hands were numb, purple and swollen from restricted circulation. I heard David whimpering somewhere behind me, and daring to twist my head, I saw the man hunched over my brother. He had dragged David to the base of another column not far away, that tattered hobo’s jacket sprawling around them like a vampire bat’s wings. David’s bare legs stuck out, but he wasn’t moving. I couldn’t exactly tell what the man was doing, and I don’t think I want to know.

I wanted to help, but for the life of me I couldn’t imagine how. Undoubtedly, once The Man finished with David, he would come for me, and insane rage and embarrassment welled within me. I wrapped my legs around the beam. I was wearing shorts, and the wood wasn’t smooth. Splinters stabbed the soft tissue of both thighs, but I clenched my teeth and didn’t make a sound.

I gained leverage, hoisted myself far enough to ease the pressure off my wrists. It hurt like hell, stinging needles and pins, but I didn’t squawk. I inched further up, and further still, shards digging deep into my legs, but I finally gained enough slack to lift my bonds over the hook. I grabbed that hook with one hand, praying to God for the first time ever, and eased myself down. Either I didn’t make enough noise for the man to hear, or maybe he expected to hear me struggling and ignored me. The cord still trapped both my wrists, but I was otherwise free. The glow outside wasn’t the same hot white as before, but tainted now with the ruddier shade of evening.

I saw the barn entrance, but he’d swung them completely shut. Another chain crisscrossed the interior so there was no way of moving them without him hearing.

Still, I might be able to escape, maybe without him noticing me until I was far away. If lucky, maybe not until I reached home.

But David. Poor David.

My little brother David whimpering beneath that man’s grimy cloak.

I didn’t want to leave him but I was so frightened. I have never been so scared since, even the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done. I had to get help. I could come back, and if I ran fast enough and hard enough, we could return before the worst of the worst.

I’m an old man now, and I’ve had my highs and I’ve had my lows, but I feel that my choice of entering the barn that day was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done. But Julia Bicksworth, the one I let slip away, she heard the whole sordid story too.

I scanned the darkening barn for a weapon, but knew in my heart that it wouldn’t do any good. The man would laugh at me, probably even _let_ me hit him with a horseshoe or a brick, and then just smack me right back. No, I would need a wooden stake or a silver bullet to even scratch him.

I looked for another exit, and then spotted one high up on the south wall-- the loft for shucking out bales of hay. I would have to climb a twenty-foot ladder and creep over creaking rotten floorboards, but if I could wriggle through and drop to the other side…

I would be home free.

My heart was thumping so loud it is a wonder he didn’t turn around and see me trembling behind that wooden beam. But I couldn’t stay there. I started moving, using the shadows and machinery as cover. It was the longest distance I have ever crawled. I kept glancing back at my brother, and knew that if I thought too much about it I would cave in. My heart and soul would crumble and I wouldn’t be of use to anyone.

I finally reached the wall. The ladder looked none too safe, with a few rungs even missing, but it offered the only way out.

I grabbed hold, and started inching toward the loft. Five feet…eight feet…ten feet. I was almost there and I reached out, the fingers of my right hand scratching the edge…

…and that’s when the rung snapped.

My feet skittered, my hands clenching spasmodically, and I plunged off the ladder, knowing that if the impact didn’t kill me the Devil Man surely would. But right before I landed, my arm smacked that pulley on the wall.

It broke my wrist, but it also broke the goddamn pulley.

It was rusted anyway and designed to catch at four separate stops, but I pounded through each one: CHUNK! CHUNK! CHUNK - except the last, where something snapped. Air exploded from my lungs when I hit the floor, but I also heard a horrible grating sound, the rattle of chains and gears and smoke hissing from parts that hadn’t been used in Christ knows how long. I turned my head and saw the engine falling from the ceiling.

The man spun partway around, trying to tug pants up over his bare ass. The engine fell fast, and then it snagged and swung perpendicular to the floor. I could never have planned such a thing, but Fate decided that the engine should smack that Barn Man right between his black shark’s eyes.

The beam behind him cracked, and part of the ceiling fell, but not before his head exploded.

One second it was there, a swarthy tangle of hair and burrs and Lord knows what else…and the next it was gone, crushed into a haze of red mist, brain and bone splattering in every direction that reminded me--I swear to this day--that reminds me of my mother’s sloppy seedless red melons.

By Irene Kredenets on Unsplash

And there I stood, shuddering in blissful relief, thankful for the death I had created.

The engine swung back and retreated over the car, the man’s body standing there for a moment, crimson bubbling from what was left of his face, concave and punched inward like a deflated basketball, and then he toppled over.

That was the last clear thing I remember about the barn. I passed out for a while. David was still alive, I know that because I eventually helped him dress, and we somehow limped past the thick hedge of goldenrod and honeysuckle, and walked hand in hand through the ruined corn field, past the endless acres of Mr. Feldman’s property, back to home where I helped David wash the blood off his face and body, most of it not his.

He winced a lot but never spoke a word.

Momma could tell something was wrong the moment she walked in, and then she saw the state of my wrist, the bone jutting out like a freakshow spectacle. I lied at first, but then told Momma almost everything, and the more I told her, the faster it poured out, and the faster it poured the shriller my voice grew, and when the tears began I couldn’t shut them off, and I finally collapsed into her arms, her face as white as a sheet of paper.

Hysterical, she called the authorities and shoved us both into the car, tearing off toward Downtown Memorial Hospital where we received a rigorous series of penicillin and antibiotic shots. The Sheriff and his deputies arrived a while later, nodding to Momma while they removed their hats. They spoke with her first, but soon questioned David and I in detail, but David couldn’t talk and only cried, until Momma insisted she had to take care of her babies, and we would go to the police station later for official statements.

It turned out that The Barn Man was just a vagrant. They didn’t know where he came from, he had just drifted in on the breeze with a dandelion’s whimsy. He didn’t have any possessions other than a pocketknife, some canned food, a knapsack and the ratty clothes on his back.

The story made headlines, locally at first, then statewide, and then I’m sure it reached ears across the nation. We were briefly famous, but eventually it faded from public memory. David, Momma and I never forgot though. Especially David. He cried a lot at night and would bolt up in bed, screaming until momma came in and stroked his head, and he eventually fell asleep again.

I would like to tell you there’s a happy ending to this story. I would like to tell you that we stiffed our upper lips and pulled together and everything turned out all right. That Which Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger. You know the saying.

But sometimes I feel that even if something doesn’t kill you, maybe you wished that it had.

Well, David developed behavioral problems worse than my own, and they continued well into high school and beyond. He got mean. Aggressive. Sullen. Withdrawn. He never even graduated. He dropped out when he was sixteen and took a job as a packer at RJ Reynolds where Momma worked, although by that time she was getting Pangaea-old, accelerated by the thousands of cigarettes filtered through her lungs.

In contrast, I tried to clean up my act. I entered a community college and worked toward a Carpentry degree. I was good with my hands and always felt the most comfortable when manipulating a plank of wood or a hammer and nails. I eventually moved back to Yadkinville and apprenticed under someone else, and later on built a house on my mother’s property. I worked like any other blue collar average Joe, clocking long hours by day and sucking down beers at night, gambling on the weekends and chasing the skirts.

But still, on those dark nights while fumbling for sleep, I would sometimes see that Man’s head evaporate into a bucket of rich red pulp.

I was thirty-one by then, David twenty-eight, still working at RJ Reynolds, although he had advanced to Regional Manager. We didn’t talk much. We had grown apart over the years, and we never, _ever_ talked about that day in the barn. I suppose we both thought that if we didn’t mention it maybe it hadn’t happened. We talked about sports instead, how UNC and Wake Forest were doing, about players and coaches and girlfriends and this and that, anything except that terrible day in the barn.

Now, if you recall, there are only two things I regret in my life, and the two are sort of related. My other regret was not asking Julia Bicksworth to marry me when I had the chance. Momma would have liked her.

I had met this great blond named Julia at a church Christmas party and we hit it off pretty well, but she was the marrying-type. The kinda gal whose internal clock was set to overdrive and her ovaries controlled the steering wheel. I got cold feet, I don’t know why, and I let a good woman float away.

She ended up meeting another fella named Barry Burns, a tall drink of water I actually knew from East Forsyth. I had never liked Barry much. He was a two-faced sort of person, showing you one side but hiding another. It served him well as a litigation lawyer. Emerald-eyed jealousy grabbed hold of me and I tried to win Julia back. I tried to woo her with flowers and candies and half-hearted promises. I even badmouthed Barry, outright lying about him sometimes, but he had already proposed and glazed her eyes with a four-carat rock and notions of a big family, a big house, and a big income. It was more than I could ever offer.

I voiced my concerns to David once or twice, but he was having his own issues. He had gotten married before me, just to do it I think, trying to find a way to feel normal again. He had sprouted off a youngster of his own with another on the way, but he and his wife fought all the time. One evening, after a couple of beers apiece, we were sitting on a Yadkin river dock, our feet swinging over the water, and David just broke down. He started sobbing and couldn’t stop. I had not seen him cry since we were kids, and I didn’t know what to say.

So I didn’t say anything.

Something changed though. I kicked myself for letting the Big One go, and I tortured myself for letting David enter that dark barn seventeen years earlier. The Man with the black shark eyes had devoured my brother after all. And part of me too.

And then I did something stupid.

That very same night, I confessed the whole story to Julia. I was pretty well-lit when I did it, and it probably came out messy and muddled. I tried to tell her how guilty I felt, and I tried to make her see how she was the one who could make me whole again. I suppose I put the onus on her, just the kind of thing a drunk, desperate younger man might do. But it had the opposite impact; I scared her, all this talk about barns and blood and brains and years of repressed grief and how I KNEW she could make it all better.

She begged me to leave, herself sobbing and hysterical, and then I did something even stupider.

I followed Barry Burns home that night to his condo in Winston, not far from the cobbled streets of historic Old Salem, and I slipped on a pair of leather workman’s gloves and then loaded a .22 rifle purchased from Smithy’s Gun Shop. When I thought he was asleep, I broke into his house and I shot Barry three times right through the heart, a heart that Julia didn’t deserve, a heart that should have been MY HEART loving Julia instead.

I tried to make it look like a robbery. I stole a few items, rifled through drawers, spilled the contents. I tried to cover my tracks, but they say for every contingency you consider in a murder there’s three more that you don’t. And I probably missed a dozen.

The cops nabbed me before long. I should have guessed as much. I could never lie worth a damn. They hauled me off to jail, initially to the same police station where David, Momma and I had gone years ago to finish our statements, only now I was on the other side of the fence.

I was sentenced to forty years. I think it broke my Momma’s heart, but the cancer would have killed her anyway. Right? Sometimes I think it’s all my fault. I just wished I could have been with her before it happened.

As for David…my little brother David who loved the brontosaurs and hated the Rexes, who gulped sloppy watermelon at my side, my good friend for such a long, long time, he committed suicide while I was in prison. Maybe you’re expecting me to say he stuffed a shotgun in his mouth and blew his head off, but that didn’t happen. He parked his car in his garage, scribbled a letter to his wife, stuffed the tailpipe with rags, drank a fifth of gin and suffocated on carbon monoxide. He had left a letter for me as well, but it only said three words: “I’m so sorry.”

David was thirty-four years old.

I’ve spent a long time in penitentiary thinking about my life, how Fate worked its fingers through, molding it first one way and then another. A ripple effect I couldn’t control. Oddly, I never regretted the actual killing parts. They seemed like ways to fix a wrong I had created, whether intentional or not. I only regret the events that led up to them, the mistakes that could have been prevented. Maybe that’s my flaw. The killing came too easy. The forgiving came too hard.

It is August now in the walk yard. So damn hot that your breath catches in your lungs like a warm wet towel. It reminds me of the blistering summers when me, David and Momma would sit outside, carving watermelon and flicking seeds into the grass.

By Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

I don’t think I’m a bad man. I think I’m a good man who has just done some bad things. And stupid things. I feel empty now, my very soul a hollowed piece of fruit, the seeds scattered, all rotting in the sun. And I have the rest of my life to remember the people who I’ve hurt, and I pray they will forgive me in the afterlife.

I hope they do. It’s all that matters anymore.

THE END

Author's Note: Thank you for reading the story above! If you enjoyed it, check out some of my other work below! And please don't forget to hit the ❤ button below and subscribe

Short Story

About the author

Jason Hauser

I am a writer, artist and poet from North Carolina. I recently self published a children's/YA book called Harold and the Dreadful Dreams. You can learn more about it at my blog https://jmhauser.com, as well as other projects.

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