Lo Mein is always better if you get it with beef. Everybody knows this. But sometimes I don’t have the extra $1.85 it takes to get the beef. So I’ll just order plain noodles. They’re still good, but without those strips of rubbery beef, it’s not quite the same.
The place I’m getting my beefless Lo Mein today is not a good Chinese place. It’s just the cheapest. Plus, they usually give me a handful of fortune cookies instead of just one that most places do. I’m not sure why some restaurants guard them like they’re Chinese gold, judiciously handing out a single cookie like they’re bestowing some great, vanilla-flavored honor upon the bearer. Maybe it’s just me, but when they slowly place one cookie in my take-out bag, they always seem to give me a look that says, perhaps if you’d spend more than $4.10, I’d give you more cookies. Maybe I’m imagining it. I’m pretty sure I’m not though.
Today, however, I only get one. I grab the bag out of the cashier’s hand with contempt and fire a glance that conveys I just may take my four dollars elsewhere, which will undoubtedly be the downfall of this palace of cat meat.
At home, I fork noodles into my mouth as I stare at a TV that was considered nice two decades ago. I like to watch Steve Harvey on Family Feud. His blank facial expressions in response to idiotic answers makes this the best half hour of my day. I’m also oddly fascinated by his mustache.
I finish my noodles right before the Fast Money round. I would nail all these questions. I just need four more people to claim to be my family so I can get on the show. After I calculate how many points I would have gotten, I crack open the cookie and pull out the fortune. I like it when the phrases on the little pieces of paper are written in broken English. They seem more authentic. Today, however, it is textbook grammar. It reads:
“The world is about to unfold in front of you.”
I contemplate that.
Well, of course it is. It’s always unfolding in front of me. What a useless, say-nothing fortune. In fact, it’s beyond useless. It elicits within me a kind of disappointment normally reserved for times when Family Feud gets preempted for a political debate.
I’m about to crumple it up when I notice there is another fortune underneath – two stuck together. Maybe the other one will be more prophetic. But when I pull at it, I realize my fortune was doubled over. I unfold it. It reads:
It unfolds again. And again. And again. Shortly, my fortune is the size of a sheet of notebook paper. I keep unfolding. Again and again. And again still. I’m subservient to every “Keep going.” My fortune is now poster size. More unfolding and more unfolding. I peel layers at a furious pace. It is the size of a bedsheet and still growing. My studio apartment is draped in this fortune.
A stiff gust of wind shoots in behind me. The fortune inflates like a hot air balloon and begins escaping through the window. I grasp two corners and get pulled along. Out the window. Into the sky. You usually don’t get this kind of behavior from a paper fortune.
Below my feet, I see my building. From street-level, it always appears tired and cloaked in decades of city soot. But from here, it looks like the kind of building that people used to say had “character,” followed by, “they just don’t build them like they used to.”
I shoot higher still, clouds circling my chest like a frilly shirt. I am at a height where the din of the city does not reach me. It is silent, save for the flapping of the fortune edges. The climbing ceases, and I am able to look down at pinpoint areas of the city, as though I am peering through a mariner’s spyglass.
I see a woman I do not know among the masses of people. Even from this height, I can see her as clearly as if she is sitting across from me on the subway. She is diminutive but seems to stand ten feet taller than the blurry hoard she is wedged within. I notice her soft features, as well as a bob haircut that offers a perfect view of her delicate neck. I have a sudden desire to move in behind her so I can place a gentle kiss on the back of it. I cannot, but instead, she turns and looks at me. I see grace in her green eyes. I don’t want it to stop, but the fortune pulls me away. Her gaze etches upon me, permanently.
The next thing I spot is a man in a bookstore. He is leafing through a black hardcover, flipping to the back, pausing on the flap about the author. He closes it and places it back on top of a 200-foot pile of identical black books. He steps away but changes his mind, returning to grab a copy. One-by-one, the rest of the stack gleefully flies away like butterflies.
The city turns to ash and tumbles, like the end of a smoked cigarette. A mountain flips into sight, as though the View Finder clicked to its next frame. Three teeny, tiny dots on that giant mountain become bigger dots. The dots grow arms and legs and helmets and boards on the bottoms of their legs and weave back and forth, giggling. When they are done, the word “contented” is left behind in the icy, white carpet.
With a jarring and haunting howl, a hole gets ripped into the fortune, and I plummet downward. As my eyes water from the wind of gravity, I think I’m about to fall through a pack of clouds, but I land on the ivory pages of an open book. It is wordless and empty. And it closes upon me. I find myself in darkness, one hand still grasping the fortune, the other desperately reaching through the black to find the slender, soft hand of the green-eyed girl. I cannot. So I shout out to her, even though I don’t know her name, fearful that I will not hear a single sound.
There is no answer.
So I relent. I allow myself to fall. Faster and faster. Collision awaits. But my fall is slowed when three sets of hands sew up the rip in the fortune, using licorice ropes and tying it securely in a pattern that reminds me of stitches on a baseball.
I gently land, back in my confining apartment, letting go of the fortune in the process. It flies away, as though I accidentally let go of the string of a taut kite. All that remains are broken pieces of cookie and the original small strip of paper, tightly pinched between my thumb and forefinger.
“The world is about to unfold in front of you.”
I begin to unfold along with it.
Tom Witkowski lives in Minnesota and is typically found avoiding respectable careers by working as a writer in advertising. His work has appeared in The Daily Drunk, as well as on his site, 9CirclesFiction.com.