Dining on Misfortune (short story)

DiningonMisfortuneGeorge Wisslow-Graham set his fork down on the empty plate with a clank. He folded his hands across his generous stomach and leaned back in his chair, smiling. He loved Chinese food, especially from Moon of China down on Main. He made sure to treat himself to sweet and sour chicken and an egg roll at least once a week. Often, he had it twice. He was lucky he got it at all today, though. When he went to pick up his food, he thought the bag felt lighter than usual. Before leaving the restaurant, he opened the bag and checked inside. Sure enough, those idiots had given him the wrong order. He was enraged. He was a regular customer—they should know better than to mess up his order. He told the girl at the counter as much, and demanded his correct meal and his money back. He’d go back, of course—they had the best food in town—but he told the girl he’d never come back if they messed his order up again. George didn’t like when restaurants screwed up his order. It was unprofessional, and worst of all, it inconvenienced him. He didn’t like to wait for food.

George let the chair’s two front legs touch his dining room floor once more and reached into the takeout bag for his meal’s finishing touch—the fortune cookie. Most of the time, the “fortune” really wasn’t a fortune, but rather a saying that barely made sense. Still, he liked the almost cardboard-like texture of the sweet cookie, and the “fortunes” were amusing to read.

He grasped the wrapper’s sides and pulled until the end popped open. He wrestled the cookie out, careful not to break it before he was ready.

“Okay,” he said, positioning one hand on each of the cookie’s ends. “Show me what you got for me.”

He flicked his wrists and listened to the crack of the cookie as it broke down the middle, revealing a white strip of paper. George popped one of the cookie’s ends into his mouth and chewed as he studied the fortune. To his surprise, the paper’s message actually could be labeled a fortune.

“An old friend will come knocking at your door,” he read with a mouth full of cookie crumbs. He popped the remaining half of the cookie into his mouth and crumpled the fortune up. He tossed it into the empty takeout bag and threw the empty food containers on top of it. “Well, there you go. An old friend’s coming my way. Sure thing.”

He laughed and pushed his chair back before grabbing the bag and heading to the kitchen to toss it out. As he let the trash can’s lid fall closed, he heard a knock at his front door. George raised an eyebrow in surprise. He was a bit of a loner and wasn’t used to hearing knocks on his door.

“Probably someone from work come to bug me,” he grumbled as he walked to the door. George worked as a telemarketer and his coworkers were always inviting him to go out with them after work. He turned them down most times, but would go to the bar with them on the rare occasion he felt social.

George pulled the door open, readying himself to tell whichever coworker it was that he had no intention of leaving his house to get drunk and listen to awful karaoke that night. Instead of speaking his mind, George gasped. Standing on his doorway was unmistakably his best friend from high school, Johnny Marsh.

“Well, you’ve gotten bigger,” Johnny said with a laugh as he patted George on the shoulder.

“And you’ve still got those idiotic freckles,” George said, returning the pat on his old friend’s shoulder. As he smiled and ushered Johnny through the door, he couldn’t help but think back to the fortune cookie. It has to be a coincidence, he thought.

He led Johnny into the living room, shooting nervous glances at the newspapers, books and magazines strewn about the room. He’d always been messy, so the room’s current state shouldn’t surprise Johnny, but George still wished the room looked a little neater.

“Have a seat,” he said, scooping a pile of magazines from the couch and placing them on the coffee table.

Johnny plunked down on the couch and put his feet up on the coffee table’s edge. George sat down next to him and leaned back against the couch’s arm.

“So what in the hell brings you here?” he asked. “Last I heard, you were working in some salt mine in Upstate New York.”

“I am,” Johnny said. “Mom’s boyfriend died and she needs help going through all his crap. I never liked the guy, but you know me—I’m a mama’s boy. So I told her I’d come down for the weekend. I’ve been missing Pennsylvania, to tell you the truth. Something just seemed to be pulling me back.”

“Something pulling you back, huh?” A shiver ran down George’s spine as he repeated his friend’s words. It sounded like Johnny hadn’t had full control over his visit to his old hometown. George shook the thought away. He was being ridiculous.

“I know it sounds crazy, man, but that’s the best way I can describe it.” Johnny stood up and reached out a calloused hand to George. “I should get over to her house, though. I just wanted to stop by and see how you were doing.”

“Yeah, sure,” George said, standing up and shaking Johnny’s hand. “Stop by any time you’re in town. My door’ll be open for you.”

George watched as his old friend walked out his door and back out of his life. He was glad they’d got to reconnect, if only for a few minutes, but he couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the whole thing. He tried to drown out his nervous thoughts with TV show after TV show. After two hours of mindless reality shows, he’d forgotten all about the fortune and the night’s strange event.

George stared at the cookie from across the table. He felt his mouth fill with saliva. He wanted that cookie and he wanted it bad. He dragged the edge of his fork across the tin, scraping up a trace amount of sweet and sour sauce. He licked the fork clean, but he wasn’t satisfied. He needed to end his meal the way he always did—with a fortune cookie.

Okay, what’s the worst that can happen? The paper says my Aunt Myrna is going to visit?

George licked his lips and reached for the cookie. He ripped the wrapper open and pulled the cookie out. He snapped it open and stuffed both halves in his mouth at once, relishing the sweet taste he’d craved. He stared at the slip of paper in his hand. The side facing him taught him how to say tiger in Chinese. He slowly flipped it over and read the fortune out loud.

“Be on guard for eight,” he read. “What the heck does that even mean?”

He laughed and tossed the fortune into the takeout bag. It looked like the normal nonsense “fortunes” were back. Nothing to worry about today, he thought, as he collected the bag of garbage and headed to the kitchen.

It was a Friday night, which meant George would spend it how he spent every other night—watching TV in his sweats until his eyes refused to stay open. It was a cold night, and George’s house was chilly, despite the heat being on. He decided to take a long, hot bath before settling down to a night of cooking shows and singing competitions.

He grabbed his fluffy blue robe from his bedroom and shuffled down the hall to the bathroom. He cranked the water to as hot as he could stand it and watched the tub fill up. George smiled as he inhaled the steam coming off the water. This is going to be great, he thought as he stripped down. He hadn’t taken a bath in months. He usually took a ten-minute shower before rushing off to work in the morning. This would be much more relaxing.

He stepped into the water and let himself sink down into the deep tub. Since he’d already washed himself that morning, he didn’t bother with soap or shampoo. Instead, he closed his eyes and let the hot water turn his body red. He imagined he was sitting in the ocean, alone, and the waves were slowly rolling over his body. He concentrated on tightening, then loosening every muscle in his body. He’d learned that trick from his coworker Dianne, who was one of the few he didn’t hate. As he finished relaxing his shoulder muscles, he noticed a tickling sensation on his left arm, which was hanging over the tub’s edge. He opened his eyes and glanced at his arm.

“Jesus,” he screamed, waving his arm wildly in an attempt to get the large spider off. “Oh, God. Oh, God.”

George didn’t know much about spiders, except that he hated them, but he was pretty sure the spider on his arm was a black widow as it was a shiny black color with red dots running down the top of its abdomen and white stripes down its sides. He knew he needed to get it off his arm without making it bite. Besides that, he had no idea what to do other than panic.

He sloshed to his feet, the spider still hanging on his arm, and leaped out of the tub. He rushed over to the toilet and shook his arm over it. The spider still clung to him. George’s breaths came in shallow, rapid bursts. He knew what he had to do. He closed his eyes and tried to steady his breathing for a minute. When he felt as calm as he could be in the current situation, he opened his eyes and raised his right hand to the spider’s level. He formed an “O” with his middle finger and thumb and aimed at the spider’s bulbous abdomen. He flicked the spider as hard as he could into the toilet. As soon as it hit the water, George slammed the handle down and watched the spider’s legs scuttle as it spun down into the toilet and out of site.

George let out a groan and sank to the floor, scrambling to get as far away from the toilet as he could. He settled against the opposite wall and hugged his knees to his chest. He’d always hated spiders, but had never actually encountered a deadly one until now. He’d heard stories of northern black widows showing up in peoples’ houses, but he never expected one to show up in his house, or on his arm. He shivered.

As he stood up and wrapped himself in his robe, he remembered the fortune cookie.

“Be on guard for eight… Son of a—” George felt sick to his stomach. He rushed out of the bathroom as quickly as he could and made his way to his bedroom. He flung himself down on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. It was crazy to think his fortune cookie fortunes were somehow coming true, but he couldn’t think of any other explanation. Once was a coincidence. Twice was proof.

I guess I won’t be getting Chinese anytime soon, he thought with disappointment. He flipped on the TV and curled up under the covers, checking them for spiders first. He wanted the day to be over and forgotten as soon as possible.

George woke to sunlight streaming through his window. He’d forgotten to draw the blinds the night before. He groaned and stretched before reaching for his bedside clock, which read eight a.m.

“Damn,” he said, slamming it back down on the side table. He liked to sleep in until at least ten on weekends, but now he was wide awake. George had been grumpy lately. He knew it had something to do with giving up Chinese food for two weeks. He hadn’t touched the stuff since the spider incident and didn’t intend to for a long time. As much as it killed him to deny himself that salty, greasy meal or two every week, he was too afraid of what might happen if he ordered it again. Sure, he could ask for no fortune cookie, but they never listened. They’d throw it in anyway. And sure, he could just not open it, but it’d be hard to resist. Besides, what if it cracked open during delivery? Would the fortune still come true? George didn’t know and he wasn’t about to risk finding out.

George crawled out of bed and mashed his feet into the fuzzy blue slippers his mother had bought him last Christmas. He’d thought it was a lame gift at the time, but his floors did get cold in the mornings and the last thing he needed today was cold feet.

He shuffled down the hallway to the kitchen and brewed himself a cup of coffee from the single-serve coffeemaker his mother had gotten him for his thirtieth birthday. Most of the nice things he owned were gifts from his mother. George wasn’t big on spending money on anything other than food and cable.

George cut himself a slice of coffee cake and carried his breakfast over to the living room couch. He turned on the TV and flipped to the sports station to watch their morning talk show. Sometimes he daydreamed about being a sports announcer. Heck, he knew he could write better commentary then those idiots on TV any day of the week. He picked up the piece of coffee cake with his fingers and bit off a large chunk. Just as he began chewing, the phone rang.

Who the hell is calling me this early? he thought as he tried to quickly swallow the sweet lump of cake in his mouth.

“Hello?” he answered, his mouth still gummy with cake.

“Hi G,” a cheerful voice chirped into his ear. “Hope I didn’t wake you, but I’ll be in your neck of the woods today and was wondering if you wanted me to bring you some lunch?”

George slowly recognized Dianne’s voice. She was the only one he allowed to call him “G.”

“Yeah, sure,” he answered. “That’d be great. Bring whatever you want. You know I’m not picky when it comes to food.”

“Oh, I know,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll see you around noon.”

George hung up the phone and smiled. Dianne was what he’d call a “knock out,” even if she wasn’t by conventional standards. She was of average height and a little on the chubby side, which George, being a bit more than chubby himself, couldn’t complain about. She had light brown hair and big brown eyes framed by circular glasses with thick black frames. She had a quirky sense of humor and was one of the few people at work who genuinely seemed to like him. Plus she had a great chest and behind on her. George scarfed down the rest of his cake and zoned out to the talk show as he waited for Dianne to arrive.

At exactly noon, George’s doorbell rang. He smiled and hoisted himself off the couch. You could always count on Dianne to be punctual.

“Whad’cha bring me?” he said as he swung the door open to let Dianne inside.

“Chinese,” she said, holding out a brown paper bag for him to see. “I was craving it something fierce and I know you love it. Sweet and sour chicken, yeah?”

“Yeah,” George said, swallowing a gulp of air and trying to hide the fear in his eyes. He didn’t need Dianne thinking he was some paranoid freak. “You know me well, Di.”

They emptied the bag onto the kitchen table and sat down next to each other. George pushed the fortune cookies to the far end of the table with his fork before opening his food. The scent of the sweet and sour sauce hit his nose as soon as he popped the lid off the container. His mouth watered and his stomach rumbled.

“Sounds like you’re as hungry as I am,” Dianne said as she twirled her fork into a pile of pork lo mein. “God, can I just say work is a bore? I don’t know how you’ve worked there so long.”

“Well, it pays the bills,” George said with a shrug. “It’s easy enough work. The trick is to leave as soon as the day’s over. Don’t hang around and interact with the slobs.”

“Oh yes, the slobs,” she drew out the word “slobs” and pronounced it with a snooty accent. “Some of them aren’t too bad to go to the bar with, not that you’d know, Mr. Homebody.”

“Hey, I have a lot of fun here. How do you know my place doesn’t turn into a night club after work hours?”

“You’re right, George. I don’t know,” she said with a laugh. “How dare I assume you just sit around watching sports shows and drinking beer alone.”

“I’m glad you finally see the light,” George said before shoveling the last bit of sweet and sour chicken into his mouth. He noticed Dianne had finished hers a few minutes ago. The fact that she ate fast and heartily was one of the many reasons he liked her.

George watched as Dianne began reaching across the table for the fortune cookies. His heart pounded as he tried to come up with an excuse not to eat the cookie. She tossed it in front of him and began unwrapping hers. George held his breath as she cracked the cookie open and peered at the slip of paper inside.

“These things are so dumb,” she said. “‘Your love life will come to a halt today.’ Oh, really, fortune cookie? My love life is currently at a halt. How can it halt anymore?”

She laughed and threw the fortune down on the table and turned toward George.

“You gonna eat yours? I know you love them.”

“Naw, I’m pretty full. You can have mine, if you want.”

“You’re full? Yeah, like I buy that.”

“Couldn’t eat another bite, I swear,” George said, holding his hands up in mock surrender. “I ate a big breakfast.”

Dianne stared not-so subtlety at his stomach and arched her right eyebrow.

“Oh, stop fooling around and eat the damn cookie, George. You’re going to make me feel like a fat pig if you don’t.”

She picked up the fortune cookie and shoved it in his face. He leaned his chair back so it balanced on the back two legs in an attempt to avoid the cookie.

“Come on, Dianne,” he shrieked. “I don’t want it, okay?”

“No, now you’re just being ridiculous,” she said, shoving the cookie even closer to his face.

George heard a popping noise followed by a crack as her tight grip popped open one end of the wrapper and broke open the cookie. George cried out and tried to hit the cookie out of Dianne’s hand. As he swung his arms out, he felt the chair tip backward. He tried to lean forward so the chair’s front legs would touch the ground, but it was too late.

George fell backward. He tried to jump from his seat, but his foot caught on the chair’s front leg and his body plummeted back toward the chair. As his left temple slammed into the edge of the chair’s back, the inside of his head burst with pain and his sight began filling with fuzzy purple and yellow dots.

Dianne leaned down next to him, letting the unwrapped cookie drop in front of his face. She touched his shoulder gently and told him she was going to call an ambulance. Her voice seemed miles away to George, who tried to flash her a reassuring smile, but could not. As she scrambled to the phone, George’s eyes fell on the fortune sprawled between the cookie’s two broken halves.

“Don’t fight the things you fear or else they’ll be your end.”

Son of a bi—

George’s mind went dark.

 

Copyright Rebecca McKeown 2013

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