Alittle girl, probably no older than 5, ran across the thick grass outside Macy's department store. She and her family were celebrating the Fourth of July at the Freedom Festival Tuesday at the Shops at Wiregrass.
She caught her frilly white tutu decorated with red and blue sparkles as she stumbled, letting go of her balloon painted with stars and stripes. The adults around her held their breath, waiting to see if she would cry. She reached out a hand adorned with blue fingernails, standing on her tiptoes, straining. She paused. The stretch turned into a wave.
"Bye, bye," she called after the balloon.
The Fourth of July is honor and sacrifice and other ideals printed on posters and T-shirts. It's also a little girl in a red, white and blue dress. It's a slice of dripping watermelon. It's a young couple watching the thunder and fizzle as fireworks light the sky.
The event started at 4 p.m., and by 4:30 there was a Ms. and Mr. Firecracker Pageant, a watermelon eating contest and multiple bands playing, all at once throughout the blocked street.
Along the street were inflated slides and obstacle courses in garish purples and greens, booths from local businesses, ice cream and hot dog and jewelry stands. Stages were balanced on metal beams underneath pale, unmarked awnings.
Under one, a woman announced the names of girls and boys competing in the Firecracker pageant, dressed in bows, skirts, suit pants, all in red, white and blue. Some stared at their feet, some waved wooden sticks sporting American flags in their sweaty palms, some blew kisses to the crowd.
Down the road, children sat in plastic chairs in front of a long, white plastic table, white bibs covering them from neck to feet. Teenagers and adults working the event placed quarters of fresh, dripping watermelon on the table in front of them. Sarah, a 9-year-old competitor, widened her dark eyes when she saw the piece. The children weren't allowed to touch the watermelon with their hands — they had to gulp down as much as possible within a few minutes, holding the pieces in place with their teeth.
The workers rang a bell twice, blew a whistle. Parents whipped out smartphones and digital cameras to record as their children plunged their faces into the sweet, sticky juice. The crowd cheered.
"Don't look at me — bite!"
"Not your hands!"
"Small bites and swallows!"
Halfway through, mouths were outlined in red, and the going was slower as stomachs filled.
"Sarah, it's okay if you're sick, if you don't feel good," her mother called. She shot her mother a pleading look.
Next to Sarah, her 13-year-old sister Elizabeth was making better progress. When the final whistle sounded, Elizabeth won third place. Every child left with a plastic, gold-painted medal around the neck, fastened to a red, white and blue ribbon.
Later, in the central plaza across from Macy's, a band from a local Methodist church played top 40 hits and Christian rock. Sprawled across the grass courtyard were the young, the old. People in Gucci and American Eagle and Target clothing, everyone sporting some form of the American flag or patriotic colors.
The sky darkened to teal, then violet. By then the plaza was packed with people waiting for the fireworks, promised at 9 p.m.
A teenaged couple perched on a wooden fence, peering around pale yellow buildings to make sure they had a view. The girl had brown-and-blond highlighted, straight-ironed hair, dark eyes, lip gloss. The boy wore a salmon shirt and gray cargo shorts, and he leaned to murmur in her ear over the sound of the band, balancing with one foot on the fence and the other on the ground.
Aiara Beard and Joey Hoppes, both 17, came together just to see the fireworks. They were rewarded when the first booms echoed through the plaza. The fireworks thudded, popped, screamed. They created fizzy ribbons and glowing chandeliers. All the while, two young faces stared up, lit by the fire in the sky.
As the finale spurted up and deafened the crowd, Beard took a picture on her phone. When it was quiet again, Hoppes turned to her. They shared a laugh. The fireworks' smoke melted away, and the two hopped down from the fence, disappearing into the crowd.
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.