This week, the Miscellany features “Orange Starbursts,” a short story by Josh Pitkofsky ’17. “Orange Starbursts” was selected as a one of four finalists in the 2015 Nick Adams Short Story Contest.
Shaking hands was not something John usually did. He had stopped shaking hands years ago. It wore him out. So, when the young boy sitting next to him stuck out his hand, John eyed it suspiciously. The boy had been chattering incessantly for the better part of the flight.
“…and the way they have the gooey stuff in the middle is awesome, so I think gushers good, but I also love orange Starbursts, so yeah, I don’t really know if I can pick one,” the boy said.
“Do you have any idea the kinds of chemicals they put in Starbursts?” asked John.
The boy swallowed hard. “Well I know they’re not good for you. My mom doesn’t really let me have candy,” said the boy, directing his gaze towards his sleeping mother who was seated on the other side of John. John had wanted that seat. He had offered to switch seats so the family could sit next to each other, but the boy had wanted the window, and the mother, the aisle. John partially blamed the mother for this torturous flight. She had been on the phone with her husband while the plane was in line for the runway. She spoke at the phone as if it were deaf, over-enunciating each word and speaking a bit too loudly even though her mouth was less than an inch from the microphone. She had ignored the flight attendant’s request to put away her phone and had continued chatting until a different attendant asked again. John hated her voice. Maybe it was the way she spoke from her the back of her throat making a creaky sound, maybe it was the way she inserted a fake high pitched giggle after every sentence. John wasn’t sure, however he was sure that this creaky voice had certainly been passed down to her son through some genetic misfortune. He had been listening to the creaky voice of the boy for over an hour and a half now.
John had purchased a bag of Starbursts on impulse just before the flight; he decided to have some fun. He pulled the Starbursts out of his backpack and slowly opened them taking one for himself and giving an orange one to the boy.
“Thanks!” said the boy, opening the candy. John began chewing on his and flipped the package over.
“Okay let’s see here, corn syrup, sugar. No surprises there.” John saw he had the boy’s full attention. “Ah, here’s the good stuff. Hydrogenated palm kernel oil, banned in restaurants across the USA.” He looked up at the boy, “That stuff can cause Alzheimer’s, cancer and heart disease, not to mention high blood pressure and obesity” The boy’s chewing slowed. John popped another Starburst in his mouth. “Oh look, here we have a classic, Gelatin. You are currently eating the boiled bones, ligaments, and tendons of furry animals.” John pulled the packaging taut twice, making a snapping sound. The boy had stopped chewing the starburst and John could see that he was holding it in his mouth waiting to spit it out. He decided to push a bit further. “Oh and here’s your favorite,” said John, raising an eyebrow, “Yellow 5, for the orange ones. It’s made from coal tar and can cause thyroid tumors and asthma attacks.” The boy spit his starburst into its wrapper, folded it in half and stuck it in the seatback in front of him.
“Okay, well, I think I’m going to nap now, but could you wake me up when we’re over the Grand Canyon? Also, I’m Alex,” said the boy, straightening up and holding out his hand. John’s initial reaction was to keep both hands down. In order to stifle the need for an explanation, John braced himself and reached out to shake Alex’s hand. Alex made it a point to look him in the eye and smile. As soon as their fingers made contact, John knew he would receive the boy’s number. As the numbers emerged from murky depths in his mind, John’s thoughts began to spin. John finished the handshake, faking a smile. Alex pulled a pillow out from under the seat in front of him. John swallowed hard; the handshake had given him one of the lowest numbers from any person that he had ever touched.
He had gotten low numbers from animals, and of course from his clients, but even then they usually had weeks or at least days left. John usually didn’t need to touch his clients to know how long they had left, usually he could guess based on the age of the person and the diagnosis. Stage five kidney disease, three weeks. Class C end stage liver failure, one to three years. Stage four lung cancer, eight months. His skills were only needed to confirm that there would be no miracle, helping to prepare for end of life care.
John had first made the connection between the numbers and their meaning as a child. He had been playing with a frog on his balcony. The slippery skin left an oily residue on his hands. Of course the numbers were there, they were always there when he touched something living. His parents had numbers, his best friends had numbers, and his teachers had numbers. So it was no surprise that the frog had numbers. The frog just had really low numbers. The numbers were getting smaller too, as usual.
The frog moved a second too quickly and slipped from John’s hands falling from the balcony. John ran to pick up the frog’s limp body and, as he held the dying frog he felt the numbers coming to him. Three. Two. One. Zero. Their morbid significance overtook him.
A pat on the back from a friend. A hug from a family member. A handshake with a teacher. Brushing shoulders with a stranger on a crowded subway. Every time he held hands with his girlfriend. Out of a haziness deep within his mind numbers would emerge. A focusing lens, blurry and then crisp creating a glaring image of the mortality of his loved ones. Throughout life the numbers had always been there whether he liked it or not.
His sophomore year of high school his English teacher, Mr. Grant had two years left to live. When Mr. Grant announced that he was expecting a daughter, John fought back tears while everyone else in class clapped.
John had watched his parents’ time slip away as he grew up. He knew how long they were going to be around, he could have told them. They had decided early on they didn’t want to know.
Two hours. That is what the boy’s reading had been. This child sitting next to him had taken five times longer than he could have imagined to answer each question he had asked. Favorite color, seven-minutes. Favorite animal, ten minutes. He had spent five of those ten minutes debating between cheetah and a lion and had settled on peregrine falcon after John said they could reach up to 242 miles per hour. Favorite candy, fifteen-minutes.
John squinted at the screen on the back of the chair in front of him. The flight tracker showed five hours left until they would begin their descent into JFK. Maybe it was a heart condition, or maybe he would choke. Earlier in his life John would have made an attempt to save the child, maybe by asking the mother if the boy had any allergies, or telling flight attendants to make an emergency landing or by taking everything that the child could hurt himself with out of close proximity. However years of experience had told John all he needed to know about messing with the numbers. John looked at the mother resting peacefully. He looked at Alex, now fast asleep. John took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
The seat seemed to be closing in on him; maybe stretching his legs would clear his head. He checked that the seatbelt sign was off and made up his mind then winced as he considered the gap between the mother’s knees and the seatbacks. Avoiding touch while getting onto the plane had been surprisingly easy. The only physical contact John had made this trip so far was with the older TSA agent who had patted him down roughly. John hated himself in feeling a guilty pleasure knowing the man had three years left. Boarding the plane was more of a challenge, but John had been careful, and upon arriving at his seat, Alex had already situated himself by the window. John had taken his seat, followed by the Alex’s mother. Still, he hated flying with a passion. John hated all forms of public transportation. Buses were terrible, but flying was the worst. Contact with others was unavoidable. Smoking wasn’t allowed. John had been a lifelong smoker. Although he didn’t know his number, he knew whatever time he had was set in stone, so the dangers of smoking never gave him much cause to worry. This was the fourth time he had ever flown. He usually had his clients fly to him. The high net worth individuals he worked for could afford plane tickets, or medical transport. Typically they had recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness and wanted to know how much time they had to get things in order.
Again John eyed the space between the mother’s knees and the seatback. He swallowed. He turned back, rested against his chair and sighed. His attempts to gather his courage failed, he swallowed again.
“Excuse me ma’am?” he said, his voice coming out an octave higher than planned. The mother stirred but didn’t wake.
“Ma’am. Pardon me,” he said, deeper this time. Her eyes opened and she turned to look at John. John unbuckled his seatbelt and began to stand.
“Oh, sorry,” she said, her voice creakier than normal. She turned to move her knees to the side. Grabbing on to the seat in front of his he lifted his left leg as high as it would go. The mother tilted her head, eying him doubtfully. John slowly stepped over her knees and put his leg down on the other side. As he brought his back leg over it brushed her knee. Dammit. The numbers emerged and John’s head began to swim. One hour and fifty-four minutes. John froze; he took a step back into the aisle.
John began to walk towards the back of the plane, looking at the faces of passengers. His mind raced and his breathing quickened. The flight attendants were serving drinks. He didn’t care if he got their readings. He bumped into one of them as he pushed by. The numbers came. One hour and fifty-six minutes. John’s mouth was dry; he tried to swallow. His legs were weak. Using the headrests to stabilize himself he squeezed past another passenger who was pulling a bag out of the overhead. Their bodies brushed. One hour and fifty-three minutes. John pretended to trip and brushed another passenger’s shoulder. One hour and fifty-four minutes. He couldn’t breathe. John’s eyes darted around, resting on the bathroom sign. Unoccupied. Water. He stumbled into the bathroom and turned on the sink splashing water on his face. He slowly slid his hands down his face and looked up at himself. John could feel his heart pounding. He could hear it, deafening. John put the lid down on the toilet and sat, beginning to rock back and forth. Nausea overtook his senses and he lurched forward puking in the sink. He wiped his face and rinsed his mouth. John inhaled and exhaled through pursed lips. He unlocked the bathroom door and stepped out. A flight attendant reached out and touched his shoulder.
“Are you feeling okay?” she asked.
“Fine,” said John. One hour and forty-seven minutes. John turned to walk back to his seat. Sunlight filtered through the plane windows casting a warm glow on the seatbacks. The plane almost felt homely. John squeezed past a man who had noted the vacancy in the restroom and their shoulders brushed.
Thirty-five years. John inhaled sharply and turned to watch the man bustle towards the restroom. The man had a window seat in row 24, the second to last row in the plane. The middle seat was empty, and an elderly woman took the aisle seat. John looked around the area; this was the only open seat on this half of the plane. John squeezed into the middle seat, and pulled out his phone. The old woman had ten years left. This might just work. He pulled up his photos and began to scroll through them absent-mindedly as his hopes began to rise. His mother would die in fifteen years, his father in thirteen. His best friend Tom had thirty years left. He looked happy in most of the photos he was in. He put his phone away, rested his head against his seatback and closed his eyes. He let figments of his memories wash over him, bathing in their familiarity. He was no longer on the plane, but on the gritty warm sand on a beach in Mexico. He was in his family’s cabin, soaking in the warmth cast by the fireplace. He listened to the snow dripping, melting off of icicles outside. He was screaming at his mother about something insignificant. He was dancing in a dorm room, surrounded by friends, drunk off of youth.
He opened his eyes slowly and got out of his seat walking towards the old one, towards the sleeping boy. He tapped Alex’s arm. Five minutes. Alex stirred and opened his eyes slightly.
“Come with me,” said John. “We’re almost at the Grand Canyon, but you can only see it from the other side of the plane.” The boy avoided waking his sleeping mother as he followed John to the other seat. Alex sat down and looked over the shoulder of the man in the window seat while John stood in the aisle.
“Where is it?” asked Alex.
“The map shows we’re fifty miles away, just hang here for another five minutes and you should see it.” John gave Alex a thumbs up.
“Cool.” Alex returned the gesture, smiling. “Hey thanks again for the Starburst.”
“Ha I hope I didn’t ruin them for you,” said John.
“I thought about that, and I know they’re bad for you.” Alex began swinging his legs under his seat. “But my dad always says, you gotta die of something.”
“You gotta die of something,” John repeated. He winked at Alex and walked back to his seat. He finished the Starbursts and waited.