King of the Fruit Festival

Summer was for the bees. Summer was for the children tired of school. Summer was for the baby-faced capital of Old-town, Merica, Jaxon Thompson typed fervently on his tablet while unsuccessfully blocking out the noise around him. He swatted at a rogue blue streamer that had landed in his field of vision. Streamers and confetti decorated the buildings and lampposts all around town. 

Every summer brought a different festival to celebrate Merica’s Independence Day, the 5th of July. Several years ago, it was The Festival of Arms, and Jaxon heard of 30 people being accidentally shot. Last year it was the Festival of Born Babies, and a few weeks before it a girl died after trying to use a coat hanger the wrong way. Summer made Jaxon’s bones heavy with the weight of dread.   

“And the lucky boy and girl to be Old-town’s Festival of Fruit King and Queen are–drumroll please…” The lady on the microphone waited expectantly and didn’t continue until she got her drumroll. It was probably Mary-Lou. Good old Mary-Lou somehow managed to be the face of all the festivals. Jaxon suspected her patriotism and willingness to spread her legs had something to do with it.

“Jaxon Thompson and Lily Jane,” she shouted exuberantly. 

Earlier in the day when Jaxon hunkered down to work on his book, The Unauthorized Tales of Merica, he smirked at the smartness of his hiding spot. No one hung out around the statue of the last true American President;the man once revered for encouraging Jaxon’s forefathers to secede from a changing United States was now mostly forgotten. The bruises Jaxon’s father, Beau, had left on Jaxon’s spine ached when he leaned too heavily against the statue’s leg. Jaxon heard his name called from the main stage a few blocks away, and his fingers froze over his tablet’s screen. 

No. I don’t want it, he thought.    

He held his breath hoping he heard wrong. The roar of applause slowed to a trickle, and then to a vast ocean of silence.

“Jaxon? Has anyone seen the boy? Out of all days he could go wandering off he had to choose the first day of the festival,“ Mary-Lou said in a voice that was quickly turning from sweet to sour. She didn’t bother with turning off the microphone.

Every festival was a direct result of a law passed in the United States that went against supposed American rights. The Fruit Festival had been inspired by the Anti-something law of 20-something. Names and dates sometimes slipped Jaxon’s mind.  It’s not that he didn’t care—he just saw a narrative told by only one group of people as unreliable. He knew there was more information on the dark web—the unrestricted internet of the United States—but Jaxon was too scared of getting caught by his father to hack into the United States’ well of information too often. 

For weeks now, Beau and his goons had snuck into the country of the United States during obscene hours and returned with fruit that was too exotic to be found in Old-town or anywhere else in Merica. They kept the fruit in disused farmhouses. Jaxon didn’t know what he would have to do exactly, though he could guess, and it turned his stomach into knots.

“Jaxon,” Beau yelled, sounding proud and a little drunk. Few people milled about that part of town, so Beau’s voice boomed from somewhere behind Jaxon. If he had to guess he would say his father was just a few buildings away. Jaxon scrunched himself behind the statue and winced when his back screamed. 

“Please go away. Please go away,” Jaxon chanted under his breath. He focused on the oak trees 30 feet ahead of him, their Spanish moss unmoving in the sticky humid air. 

“There you are,” Beau said. Jaxon realized that he’d left his red, white, and blue—no longer the colors of the United States,as once Merica claimed them the United States adopted new colors—baseball cap lying off to the side of the statue. Beau grabbed Jaxon’s arm and Jaxon took a sharp breath. It was drawn in expectation of the incoming blow as much as it was so as not to have to smell the alcohol perpetually wafting off his father. But the blow never came. Before Jaxon could react properly, he felt his father’s unfamiliar arms encase his body in a hug.

“I’m so fuckin’ proud of you son,” Beau whispered into his son’s white-blond hair.   

“You are?“

“Sure am,“ Beau said while momentarily locking his blue eyes with Jaxon’s bluer ones. “They ain’t just gonna pick anybody to be King and Queen of the festival. Only the best.“ Beau spit out some chew then whacked Jaxon on the back, hard enough to make Jaxon’s tablet slip from his hands and land in the bushes.

Jaxon reached to the statue to stabilize himself from the pain. He mentally ticked off the times he felt his father touch him out of love and not anger; it maybe took two seconds. He didn’t have the balls to tell Beau that he still hurt from last night’s beating. He also couldn’t tell his father that he never applied to be King. Jaxon never would have, as he thought the festivals brought out the worst in people. One of Jaxon’s acquaintances must have put him in the running as a cruel joke. Jaxon didn’t even care though, because for once in his life he knew how it felt to finally live under the ray of father’s shiny approval.

Jaxon saw the crowd walking towards him and his father with the stolen fruit in tow. Suddenly he recalled what he might have to do to keep Beau’s pride and his smile died.   

What is my father’s love worth? 

Lily came running up to Jaxon, her red hair only half as bright as her smile.

“Can you believe it? You and me,” she said. She pulled Jaxon into a clunky hug. He felt unsure as to where to put his hands on a girl he had never shared a conversation with outside of school. Lily fell into Jaxon’s long list of people he could pick out in a crowd and tell you their lunchtime eating habits, but not much more about them. He preferred the company of his books and mind more than the company of most of the people in Old-town. Chances that the feeling of dislike was mutual were pretty high. The only reason he wasn’t flat-out bullied was because he was a Thompson—a great-grandson of a Founding Uncle.  Plus, everyone either revered or feared Beau. When Lily thrust her phone into Jaxon’s face for a live stream video, he bared his teeth but stopped when he realized it probably looked more animalistic than friendly. 

The following moments flew by in a swampy blur. One moment Lily placed a crown on Jaxon’s head and kissed his ruddy cheek;  Beau rambled on about how to tie a specific knot; Jaxon and Lily suddenly felt weightless on shoulders that carried them to Oak Park.

“Mer. Ic. A. Mer. Ic. A,“ was chanted in the crowd with fist pumps and all.

This is how it feels to fit in, Jaxon thought as he joined the chant. The people of Old-town filled the thick summer air with glee. Their pale hands clapped thunderously, and their voices laughed and whooped in delight. Children ran around with sparklers in their sticky hands. For the briefest of moments Jaxon forgot what could be asked of him, then he caught a whiff of overripe fruit. Flies were starting to gather in the stench. And then he heard the whimpers and pleas that were almost drowned out by shouts from the protestors. 

Old-town’s three protesters—there used to be more, but they kept dying—were out with their phones and judgement. Jaxon didn’t think they protested for purely altruistic reasons. They’d share the videos to the United States in hopes that the U.S. would intervene or at the very least loosen their immigration policy for Mericans. Beau spit in the eye of one of them. 

Jaxon’s heart pounded a furious war song in his chest. Regardless of what he decided to do, he’d be the loser: the loser that had to live with a father that hated him or the loser that had to live with a hatred of himself. 

“Settle down, settle down. Lily and Jaxon, come on over here now,” called Mary-Lou. She was a Southern belle from her wobbly chin to her sunburnt calves spilling out over her cowboy boots. She stood in the shade of an oak tree that had to be significantly older than Merica. Jaxon would have bet good money that this tree held fruit countless times. 

Jaxon almost threw up on his leather boots at that thought, but Lily grabbed his hand forcibly and drug him to the spot under the tree where Mary-Lou was waiting for them. 

“Hot dog, this is gonna be amazeballs!” Lily exclaimed as she pulled Jaxon. He focused on the freckles on her nose so as to ignore the anxiety blooming within him. “My Me-Maw was the Queen for the Festival of Separate and Unequal in ’35. She’s part of the reason all the blackies left town. They didn’t belong here, no way.”

Jaxon noticed that her lips looked fuller than they did when school was let out the month before. She was looking pretty orange, too. Alabaster skin didn’t exactly tan. 

If you hate them, why try to look like them?

“You’re right! The U.S. can have all of them. If that country had a lick of sense, they’d ship those dirty animals back to Africa,” Jaxon said. The lie settled uncomfortably in the bottom of his stomach. For as far back as he could remember, Jaxon learned how everyone that wasn’t white was less than. The blacks were uneducated, the Mexicans were drug lords, the Chinese were ruthless business people or disease-carrying vermin, and white people were the inherent rulers of them all. The Founding Uncles of Merica burned and banned anything that said otherwise. Their mistake however was letting on that the world was bigger than Merica. During Jaxon’s loneliest nights, he taught himself—thanks to the United States’ internet—that black and brown people had made countless contributions to the world. They were people, that’s it.  Suddenly, Jaxon found it hard to pull air into his lungs and focused on the talking around him.   

“Really, what right do they think they got to be here? They are lazy and useless!“ Lily said in response to Jaxon.   

“Today we honor the brave souls all those years ago that stormed the United States Capitol when they saw that country going to hell in a handbasket. If it wasn’t for them, our ancestor would have never tried to break free of the United States,“ Mary-Lou shouted.

“That’s my boy,” Beau said to whatever strangers were around him while pointing to Jaxon. 

“They make me sick just looking at ’em,” Lily continued. 

“This here boy and girl are who the people have chosen to commence the Festival of Fruit,” Mary-Lou prattled on.

“You got this. Remember what I told you about knot tying,” Beau said only loud enough for Jaxon to hear. 

Jaxon found comfort in his father’s foreign smile. The smile that Jaxon lived on pins and needles to earn. 

If I do this maybe he will love me.   

“Lily Jane, you come right on over here and pick the fruit. Don’t just go picking any ol’ thing now. Pick something that’ll look real nice and purdy for Merica’s archives. I know y’all are just waiting for your turn to go fruit pickin’ but don’t you worry, there’s enough here for everyone. Lily just needs to go first,” Mary-Lou said. 

Lily eyed the selection of fruit coolly, but Jaxon could tell she was radiating with poorly concealed excitement. The cheers in the audience egged her on. She ran her fingernails across the skin of some to see how easily it wrinkled and on others she patted the round parts to see if they sounded hollow. Jaxon could recall seeing people do that to watermelons at the Farmer’s Markets to check for ripeness. 

I’m gonna be sick. I can’t do this. Jaxon grabbed his stomach that was still bruised from the night before. And then he saw his father. He winced and then thought, I can’t keep getting beat for being different. Whatever they ask of me, I have to do it. Maybe it won’t be that bad. 

“I want this one, it’s nice and plump,” Lily pointed like a kid at the prize booth of a fair. 

“I would have picked the same,” Mary-Lou faux whispered with a giggle. “Come on up, Jaxon. As King all you gotta do is hang it up on the tree. How’s your hangman’s knot?” She asked as she dropped a thick rope in his hand. 

It was the dropping of the rope that pulled up the curtain on the scene he had been playing in his mind. Mericans always called black people that they chose to hang “fruit.” It was a throwback to some song or poem that condemned lynchings in 1950’s America. The Anti-Lynching law passed in the United States in 2025 was the final straw that forced Merica to start parting ways with the United States. The Fruit Festival was a pure fuck-you to the people who didn’t choose Merica. 

For the first time since the ceremonies began, Jaxon met the mahogany eyes of the men and women shackled to each other. The Mericans who had been keeping them hostage also kept them drugged so they wouldn’t put up much of a fight. 

“Please,” the woman chosen by Lily implored with tears dripping down her face. The lady was probably a mother. She was definitely a daughter. But most importantly, Jaxon was a son terrified of his father. 

Jaxon glanced between the rope, a salivating Mary-Lou, a mean-eyed Lily, an honored Beau, the poor creatures in chains, the bright audience chomping at the bit, back to his father, and the rope again. 

Later in the evening when the fruit was all hanged, the sky smoky with the smell of fireworks, and the hungry beast of Old-town quiet for a moment, Jaxon returned to the spot at the statue where he had dropped his tablet earlier in the day. 

He rubbed his dirty hands on his soiled pants before continuing to type in his book, Summer was for the loss of innocence. Summer was for death. Summer was for fruit that was once so much more.