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Sprinkles of Heaven
Conversation With a Stranger
The Sprinkles of Heaven ice cream parlor defined the word ‘pink.’ The walls were pinstriped in shades of carnation and raspberry, the floors were tiled in pastel, and gauzy rose curtains had been draped across the windows. Even our uniforms were pink. It would have been bad serving Rocky Road to cranky customers when in jeans, but we were forced to dress like a Godzilla-sized bottle of Pepto-Bismol exploded on us. I mean, seriously? There is not a person on the planet that can pull off Pepto-Bismol.
You can always see it when first-timers walk in. They get this stunned look on their faces and their eyes kind of glaze over. You can just tell they’re thinking, Oh my God! It’s like Cupid barfed in here!
The boy was one such customer. He was a frail little thing, with pasty skin and arms that looked like a pair of twigs. He was wearing a Star Wars shirt, too. It was like he was just asking to get beat up. His mother nudged him towards the counter and said, “Anything you want, honey.”
Now, that’s not one you hear very often. Usually it’s ‘Nothing with chocolate’ or ‘No, you can’t get the extra-large double fudge sundae with triple the whipped cream and two cherries.’
“Okay…” the kid said. He pressed his nose against the display, clouding the glass with his breath. “I’ll have a large Superman with sprinkles.”
I dished the ice cream and handed it over. As the mom was paying, she leaned across the register and whispered, “Can you keep an eye on him? I have to run back to the office.”
Jessie Winkle, the only coworker I could actually stand, shot me a surprised look. I was just as taken aback. These days, you don’t just drop your kid at an ice cream parlor. However, something—maybe the desperation—in her eyes made me agree.
“Umm—well,” I stammered. Babysitting had never been my thing. “I guess…”
“Great,” she exclaimed and practically sprinted out the door.
“Tina!” I yelled to the boss. “I’m taking my break!”
I tore off my red candy-striped apron and jumped over the counter. I followed the boy to one of the back booths and sat down across from him.
“Who are you?” he asked, pulling his ice cream closer to his chest. Yeah, kid, I’m here to steal your Superman.
“I’m Beckett. Your mom told me to watch you.” I leaned back against the vinyl cushions and gave the kid a lazy grin. “She had to run back to her office.”
He basically ignored me. Scooping a giant spoonful of ice cream into his gap-toothed mouth, he kept his eyes glued on the ceiling.
“And your name is…?” I prompted. I was about ready to slap this kid. I mean, I was kind enough to spend my break making sure he wasn’t kidnapped or mugged or whatever, and he had to be totally snotty about it.
“John.” He met my eyes for the first time. Whoa. The boy was going to be a heartbreaker when he grew up, with those blue eyes.
“Nice to meet you, John,” I lied.
“Ditto,” John drawled. I held back a snort. Since when have children been so sarcastic? Was I like that as a kid? Wincing, I realized that was exactly how I acted.
“So, what’s the occasion?” I asked. “Moms don’t let their precious spawn get large ice creams for no reason.”
“I’m dying,” John said, without missing a beat.
“Wait, what?” I gasped, sure I’d misheard him. I gave the kid a quick once over. John definitely looked sick, with paper-white skin and the dark purple circles ringing his eyes. His face was thin to the point of starvation; his cheeks were sunken and hollow. The bird-like bones of his skull were prominent under a thin layer of skin. Yeah, John was a wreck. But dying? I must have been hearing things. He rolled his eyes at my reaction, making me think I hadn’t. Obviously, we were skipping the small talk. Honestly, what do you say to something like the sudden ‘I’m dying’?
I settled on a disbelieving, “Seriously?” and stared down at him, my eyes probably popping out of my head. John seemed to be oblivious to any hint of awkwardness his flippant comment had caused.
“Yes,” he said, his voice eerily calm. “The doctors give me a few weeks.”
“Why aren’t you in the hospital being pumped full of miracle drugs?” I found myself asking.
“There’s nothing they can do,” John sagely informed me. He regarded my bewildered face over his depleted bowl of ice cream. “Are you okay?”
“I’m good,” I assured him, not completely truthfully. “Why are you so calm about this?”
John shrugged. “It’s just death. The #1 killer in the USA,” he joked.
“Aren’t you scared?”
“Terrified,” he admitted, eating faster. His Superman was melting, looking more like a puddle than anything.
“That’s not what it seems like,” I pointed out.
“I’m a good actor.” His eyes were sparkling. Was he about to cry? God, I hoped not. “My mom is worried enough about me. I feel bad for her, you know? I mean, when I’m gone, I’m gone. But she’s still gonna be here, without me.”
That’s when the waterworks started. Tears poured from John’s blue eyes, streaming down his cheeks. Honestly, I was a little shocked. John had seemed so together, so stoic. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s what normal people do when their pretty much guaranteed to end up six feet under. They cry.
“Oooh,” I crooned, slipping around the table to put my arm around his shoulders. “Hey, it’s going to be okay.” I patted his messy red hair, whispering the meaningless words. John knew as well as I did that it wasn’t going to be okay.
When John’s tears slowed, he extracted himself from my arms and scooted away. I understood. However much he had confided in me, I was still that random girl from the scary pink ice cream parlor.
“Thanks,” he muttered, avoiding my gaze. “You didn’t have to do that.”
“You think I was just going to sit there and let you bawl?”
John looked down, obviously trying to hide a blush that was evident on his white skin.
I grabbed his now empty ice cream dish and ruffled his hair. “Want another one?” I asked, forcing a chipper note into my voice. “On the house.”
John, not surprisingly, nodded. As a general rule, people—especially kids—don’t turn down free sugar. I went to fetch the ice cream, throwing a concerned glance over my shoulder.
When I rejoined John at the table, I handed him the dish and asked, “Are you doing okay?”
“Would you be?” he snapped, violently attacking the Superman with his spoon.
I winced. Stupid question, I berated myself. C’mon Beckett, you can do better! “What’s wrong with you, anyway?” I asked, ever sensitive and understanding. Not.
“Doesn’t matter,” John said, and his pretty eyes focused on something over my shoulder. It was like a punch to the gut as I remembered my earlier assessment of John. He was never going to grow up, never get to charm a girl with those eyes. “My mom’s back,” he informed me and scooted out of the booth.
The soft, childlike, John I’d been talking to for the last ten minutes disappeared. The brave mask was back, full force.
I followed John over to his mother. The woman didn’t look anything like him. She was tall and solid, with dark skin and eyes.
“Thanks for watching him,” she said to me, smoothing John’s overlong hair away from his face.
“He was an angel,” I assured her. At the fleeting spasm of pain that crossed her features, I instantly regretted my choice of words. I attempted to rally, saying, “I mean, he was great, not a problem at all.”
“Right,” his mom said, putting her hand on John’s shoulder and steering him towards the door. John pulled away and shuffled back to me.
“It really was nice meeting you, Beckett,” he told me shyly, and threw his skinny, sticklike arms around my waist.
“Ditto,” I said, half laughing. I’m not sure what the other half was. I patted the boy gently on the back, trying to return his hug as weakly as possible. He looked like one good squeeze would shatter him. Finally, John released me and hurried after his mom.
“See ya,” I called, even though I knew I wouldn’t.
The salmon-colored door swung shut after them, chiming cheerfully. The sound seemed out of place, like a pink sundress at a funeral. I grabbed my apron and resumed my post behind the counter, dishing ice cream for what proved to be a steady flow of rude customers.
I spent the rest of the day like a robot. I scooped the ice cream, handed it to the customers, and took their money. I didn’t really say much, and I caught Jessie Winkle gawking worriedly in my direction. Shooting her a grin, so she didn’t freak out and call 911 or anything, I tore off my apron and made my way to the back booth.
I stared at the place where John had sat, leaning his head against the pink cushion. Somehow, his impending death didn’t seem real. Maybe he’d been lying. No. Those tears couldn’t have been faked, not by a ten-year-old.
Tracing the patterns on the table, I tried to think of something other than John. I wasn’t about to cry in the middle of Sprinkles of Heaven. I have a reputation around here—and I don’t want to ruin it. But foremost and insistent on my mind was the image of a tiny, child-sized coffin.
“No,” I snapped, standing up. “There are miracles, Beckett. He’ll be fine.” I knew that wasn’t true. I’m not an idiot. But it seemed so wrong, a little kid dying. John liked Superman ice cream, wore Star Wars t-shirts, and had an adorable dry wit. He would never grow out of that phase—the ice-cream-guzzling, Star-Wars-watching, wise-cracking age. I mean, ten years couldn’t be the extent of John’s existence. It just couldn’t. He needed time to change.
We all do.