I looked at the sign over the register and scoffed loudly.
It hung above the bowl of fortune cookies like a silent guardian, and it had never made any sense to me.
"Customers are cautioned to take only 1 fortune cookie. Taking more than 1 cookie may be hazardous to the customer's health and sanity."
I had been coming to Yǐnshí Guīzé for the last ten years, and that sign had always sort of made me roll my eyes. The food made this place well worth the five-minute walk from the house, and I had never gotten sick here as I had at some other Chinese food establishments. The food was great, the prices were fair, and the customer service was second to none. Yǐnshí Guīzé was the place I came to when I was depressed. It was the place I came when I was celebrating or when I just needed some comfort food at the end of a long day. It was my all-time favorite restaurant, and I couldn't think of anywhere else I'd rather eat.
I had actually met my wife here five years ago. Her date stood her up, and I was coming in for take-out. We both sat in the waiting area, her hoping for a table since the place was bustling and me just wanting my take-out and struck up a conversation. By the time my food came up, she had asked me to stay and eat with her, and I agreed. A year later, we were married, and we've been coming back to Yǐnshí Guīzé ever sense.
I was here again on a Friday night, date night with Lisa, waiting for our usual. Sesame Chicken with pork fried rice for her, General Tso with white rice for me, and an eggroll each. It was crowded, Yǐnshí Guīzé was always crowded. As I stood before the counter, that sign irked me as I saw it again. Probably because the cookies here are my favorite part of the meal. The owner is a world-class pastry chef as well as a great cook. He makes cakes for the shop, his fried cheesecake is to die for, but I think I love his fortune cookies the best. I know that some of you are going to tell me that fortune cookies aren't an authentic Asian delicacy, but this guy has embraced them at Yǐnshí Guīzé. He makes them from scratch, putting the fortunes in himself, and they're so buttery and delicious that I could eat about a ton of them. He refuses to sell them, saying they are only meant to be enjoyed one at a time, and I can't imagine how much money he loses making them.
Wrapped delicately in their paper holders, they mocked me from the bowl as I stood looking.
Leaning forward, I grabbed about six of them and popped them into my pocket.
I couldn't tell you why I did it, not really, but it was something I would come to regret.
"Your order, sir?" said the voice of Mrs. Khim as she came out of the back.
I jumped, looking guilty as I smiled and thanked her for the food.
As I turned to go, I heard her say something almost too low for me to hear.
"Be careful with those. Remember the rules, sir."
I turned back, but she had already disappeared behind the curtain that separated the front from the back. I shook it off. I must have misheard her, I thought to myself as I took my food and left. I traversed the streets, weaving between couples and clumps of people on their way downtown, as I made my way home. As I walked, I felt the cookies shuffling around in my pocket and decided to have one. I reached in and pulled out the hand-wrapped paper cover, looking at the little message scrawled on the outside. "Good Fortune" had been written on the outside, and as I opened the wrapper, I picked the fortune out and ate the delicious cookie in a single bite. It was still soft, still warm, and the cookie tasted fresh from the oven. They always seemed to taste like that, and I assumed that he made them fresh every day.
I looked down at the little paper and thought, for a moment, that it might be handwritten too. Did the owner handwrite his fortunes or something? That level of detail really made these that much more special. I smiled as I read the fortune. Even if it was handwritten, it was still kind of generic for a fortune cookie.
Tumultuous times are right around the corner.
"Aren't they always?" I said to myself, putting my key into the lock of my door and stepping inside.
Ten minutes later, I had the wine chilling in the sink, the food transferred to plates, and I had found the perfect movie on Netflix for us to cuddle up and watch together. I had it all arranged and ready for her. As I switched over to regular TV, the movie primed and ready to play, I looked at my watch and tisked. It was already eight-thirty. She should have been here by now. She had been working later and later these days, and I was beginning to become worried. I reached into my pocket and pulled out another of the delicious cookies. I stopped before unwrapping this one, reading the handwritten message on the outside before unwrapping it.
"One per visit, do not forget the rules."
I felt my brows furrow a little. That was weird. What an odd thing to write on the wrapping of a cookie. I shrugged and pulled it out of the wrapper, pulling the fortune out as I ate the cookie. This one was good but not as good as they usually were. It was buttery but a little dry. It tasted like a leftover from yesterday's batch. As Sports Center came on, I looked at the scrap of paper inside and blew air out in a little chuckle.
A loved one is thinking of you.
My phone rang about that time, and I picked it up, looking at the picture displayed on the home screen.
Lisa's smiling face decorated the screen, and I smiled to myself as I picked it up.
"Hey, hunnie, you almost here? I've got everything ready for date night."
Her breathing on the other end was heavy, and it took her a minute to compose herself, "Babe? I need to tell you something, and I need you not to interrupt me, okay?"
That made me nervous. Lisa sounded panicked, and I didn't like the thought of her driving while she was in that state. I could hear the sound of her engine in the background, and it sounded like she was driving very fast. I looked at the clock and realized it was later than I thought. Traffic could be nuts this time of night, and I wished she would pull over.
"Are you okay? You sound like you're…"
"Just...listen, and don't interrupt, okay."
"Okay," I said, hoping this would calm her down a little.
I took out another one of the cookies as she prepared to speak and unwrapped it absentmindedly, taking the fortune out with the deft hand of practice.
"I'm... I'm pregnant," she said, quickly and in a way that made me think she was expecting me to be upset.
Quite the contrary. We had been trying to have a baby for years but couldn't seem to make it stick. We thought we'd finally made it work a few months ago, but she had ended up miscarrying, and it had hit her hard. She had really fallen into her work, staying late and working on her off days, and these date nights had been the only time I really got to see her. The news that we were having a baby made me ecstatic. I was confused as to why she was so upset.
The cookie was dry as I crutched on it; this one was definitely stale.
"That's wonderful, dear," I said through a mouthful of cookie, "I'm so happy you…"
"It's not yours," she exclaimed, and the cookie turned to ash in my mouth.
I felt it stick in my throat, the dry pasty turning to cement, and I hacked it up and spat it on the carpet. It looked a little off as it sat in a congealed mess there, but my mind was not on cookies. Not mine? How could it not be…
"I've been having an affair for the last three months. When we lost...when we lost Daven, I just couldn't get over the depression. Someone at work had been flirting for a while, and...one night, I just...oh god, babe, I don't know what to do."
She was crying, and I could already hear that it was turning jagged and ugly.
I wanted to be angry, I tried to furious, but I couldn't in the face of her sobbing.
"Come home; we'll work this out, Lisa. We can…"
"Huh?" she huffed out, and I heard a loud pop of static before the line went dead.
"Hello? HELLO? LISA?"
But there was no one.
I sat forward, bumping the table and sending the plates I had made spilling onto the ground. I heard the dry snap of the other two cookies crumbling in my pocket, but I hardly noticed. I tried calling her back, but it went straight to voicemail. I called again and again, becoming more frantic with each phone call until I finally bounced it off the carpeted floor in my rage. What the hell was going on? What had happened to Lisa?
I felt something papery against my palm, and when I looked, I saw the fortune was plastered against it.
I caught sight of the words, and it quelled my rage with cold fear.
Your joy will quickly become ashes in your mouth.
What the hell was that? That was not a normal fortune. Fortunes from cookies were almost always benign or at least neutral. Did the owner write these himself? Who the hell would put a thing like that in a cookie? I stared at it for a few minutes before retrieving my phone and trying to call her back. The screen was cracked now, but that hardly seemed to matter either.
As my phone remained silent and hers remained unreachable, I became scared. What if something had happened? The fortunes continued to nag at me too. So far, each of them had been accurate in their own way. What the heck was going on here? This was too elaborate for a prank, and if it was, it wasn't amusing.
I had started to clean up the food I had spilled when the phone finally began to ring. I grabbed it up, praying it would be her face. Instead, it was a blocked number. It looked odd through the star pattern on the broken glass, and as I sat down, I could once again feel the broken cookies poking me in my pocket. I reached in and threw both on the table. One of them had come unwrapped, and the fortune stuck to my fingers as my hand came free. My curious mind would not allow me to ignore it, though now I wish I had.
You will receive two phone calls. Both will bring only sorrow.
I picked up the call on the fourth ring.
"Hello? Lisa?" I asked, hopefully.
"Hello, are you the emergency contact for Mrs. Lisa Callahan?"
"I...I am." I answered, unsure if I wanted to.
"This is Officer Winsmen. I'm afraid there's been an accident."
"Is my wife okay?" I asked, still hopeful.
The officer was silent for a few seconds.
"I'm going to need you to come down to St. Marks and identify her remains."
The phone slipped out of my hand again, and I could hear the officer saying hello from the carpet.
The last cookie sat on the table, ominous in its white paper holder. The edges of the paper were black, whatever was inside, having seeped into it. The covering bore a legend that made my breath hitch, and though I felt my hands reaching to open it, I wanted nothing so much as to throw it out the window unread.
The black letters on the front read, "Those who do not follow the rules are doomed to live with the consequences."
My shaking fingers found the white wrapper just as the phone went silent.
I've been lying on the floor of my appartment, smelling the aroma of old Chinese food for the last three hours.
I don't know what to do now. Someone came to knock on my door, but I ignored them. They said they were the police, but I don't care. Lisa is lost to me, and I fear that may not be the end. I'm almost glad that it may not be the end. The world outside has quieted some as the night stretches on, and I continue to lay on the carpet in the fetal position, using what may be my last few hours to write this message.
The black stuff that poured out of that wrapper, bits of moldy cookie floating amongst it, was nothing next to the message that oozed on the surface.
Your end will not be so quick as hers.
So if you should see a sign that tells you only to take one cookie, remember that rules are there for a reason.
And those who do not obey them may be forced to live with the consequences.
About the author
Writer, reader, game crafter, screen writer, comedian, playwright, aging hipster, and writer of fine horror.
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