There was a new Chinese restaurant in town. The Red Devil. Odd name for a Chinese restaurant but no difference; maybe it was a translation issue. There was a huge sinewy red dragon snaking around the edge of the sign after all… The Red Devil had gone in overnight without warning where the sleazy Fast Joe’s grease-fest burger joint had been, attached to the Lucky Strike bowling alley. Not the best part of town, on the outskirts, and the restaurant still had that greasy burger joint funk to it, giving off a vibe that one didn’t want to linger in.
Alex and her BFFs had ordered take out and had split as soon as possible, what with the slow older woman running the show taking her sweet time with everything. They were gathered at the picnic shelter in the park, which was notably less seedy and had fewer disheveled old men ogling them.
Their food was good, almost too good. But why? There was no real reason for it. It should have been just another greasy dish of standard Kung Pao Pork like any other generic Chinese American place, especially given the location. Yet Alex couldn’t stop eating, well devouring, it. It was almost as if she hadn’t eaten in days and this was just what she’d been waiting for. Hell, it tasted so good it almost seemed as if she’d been waiting for this Kung Pao Pork all her life. Her friends were just as immersed in their own food, and no one said a word until they’d literally licked their to-go foil pans clean.
Even after they’d decimated every scrap of food they had, no one said a word. Until finally Kari prompted, “Wait, what about our fortunes?!”
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” Alex replied. Trudi nodded along, her tongue still occupied with licking what remained of her General Tso Chicken from between her teeth. How could they neglect the fortune cookies? The fortunes were usually the best part of the meal. They savored each and every one, hanging on to every word and giggling as they added “in bed” to the end of each to glorify or chastise the fortune-reader about her suggested imaginary sex life and future exploits…
Kari tossed a fortune cookie to each of them. Alex caught hers and studied it intently. It was unlike any fortune cookie she’d ever seen. It still resembled a little folded over coin-purse wafer, but it was red and meaty looking, not cookie colored, and the outer plastic package printing made it look like a wide-grinning smile. The strangest part was the fangs printed to line up with the edge of the cookie, as if the cookie itself were lips parted slightly exposing vampire teeth. It was extremely well done, and quite unsettling. The other side of the package simply read, “The Red Devil.”
“I’ll go first,” Kari exclaimed briskly, shredding the wrapping and snapping the blood red cookie in two without taking any real notice of it… typical, seeing how Kari was always the one to jump head first into the deep end of anything without studying it beforehand. It was part of her charm, really. And it was a large part of why Trudi and Alex followed her. She drew attention wherever she went, and the whole school had taken note when she moved here earlier their Junior year.
“You will die tomorrow…,” she read matter-of-factly until suddenly taken aback. “Wait, what?!”
Kari paled, losing her usual snarky comeback attitude. She turned the tongue of paper over and back again. “You will die tomorrow,” she repeated. She handed the note to Trudi, who read back at her,” You will die tomorrow,” before tossing it abruptly back at Kari as if to rid herself of something that might be contagious.
“Not funny,” Kari stuttered, flustered. She pointed at Trudi, her finger trembling accusingly. “This can’t, er… you go next.”
Trudi gulped. She was always the next in line and obeyed Kari’s every word. She hesitantly fingered her fortune cookie.
“I said, ‘You go next!’” Kari echoed a little louder this time, her eyes staring daggers into Trudi. She wasn’t going to be alone in this. Trudi slowly tugged apart the sheath of plastic to expose the blood red cookie inside. She shook the cookie out into her hand and broke it in two. She looked at the tongue of paper and blanched, her eyes wide.
“Well…” snapped Kari. “What does Yours say?”
Trudi shook her head and opened her mouth as if to speak, but all that came out was a shrill sigh. Kari snatched the paper fortune and gasped. She tossed it away hurriedly. The paper twisted and twirled through the air as it fell in seemingly slow motion. Alex studied it intently as it floated towards the ground, making out the words.
Trudi whimpered. Kari suddenly exploded, grabbed the two fortunes, and set them ablaze with her lighter. They burned, shriveled to a charred black line, and then into a fine ash, which scattered like a hundred dandelion seeds.
“Well, that’s that,” Kari said matter-of-factly. She mustered a faint grimace and lauded, “Fortune smiles upon thee” as if knighting Trudi in some sort of bad joke movie. But it felt too forced, and she was just not her usual Comeback Queen self for all that she tried not to appear shaken. She ignored the remaining cookie in Alex’s hand and brushed herself off, signaling it was time to move on to bigger and better things. In actually, all she did was drive Trudi and Alex home, with the three of them sitting in silence the whole way. Trudi stared out the passenger side window. Alex huddled in the back and stared at the blood red pursed lip fortune cookie in her hand, squinting at it as if to try to focus on the tongue of paper enfolded within but to no avail.
Alex was dropped off at her doorstep in a whirlwind as Kari and Trudi sped off. She stumbled inside, gasped a rushed” Hi,I-haveto-homewrk…” at her parents as she dashed up the stairs to her bedroom and slammed the door behind her. She tossed the creepy fortune cookie on her dresser and stared at her reflection in the mirror for a long time before she buried herself in a cheap romance novel.
At some point, she must have gotten ready for bed and gone to sleep but she didn’t recall doing so. She woke abruptly the next morning, as if jostled from her sleep by a nagging sense of dread.
Kari picked up Alex at home and the trio drove to school together as usual, Trudi sprawled out in front gesturing wildly and singing along with the radio and Alex scrunched up in the back. Kari was still unusually reserved.
The day itself was uneventful. Alex couldn’t focus on her studies and kept ruminating on The Red Devil, the fortunes, and the sudden shift in Kari’s demeanor. The elderly Asian woman who worked the register and fried up everything for them in the back whistled quietly while cooking. Kari had heckled her, asking “C’mon Grandma, can’t you do it any faster?! You’d think she was building The Great Wall back there…”
The elderly Asian woman explained that she loved her work and put a little of herself into everything she did. “In due time,” she sang, continuing to whistle as she flipped and scattered the food in the giant wok. “In due time,” she whispered as she’d placed the fortune cookies in their bag. When they’d paid and erupted out of the restaurant, she’d echoed the same as they were leaving, “In due time…”
You… will… die… tomorrow…
The words were etched in Alex’s mind. She still hadn’t opened her fortune and wondered what was written there. She wasn’t all too eager to find out. She glanced over at Kari and Trudi passing notes in the back behind the teacher’s back. When the lunch bell rang, they sidled up to her.
“Let’s blow this joint,” Kari said. “We have a bone to pick with that Chinese lady…” Trudi nodded along.
They hopped into Kari’s hand-me-down Chrysler and blasted across town to the Lucky Strike Bowling Alley. The Red Devil was gone! Just a sign that said “For Lease” in the window remained. In fact, there was no evidence that there had ever been a Chinese restaurant there. No sign, no red sinewy dragon, nothing… just a vacant shell of a greasy burger joint.
“Dammit,” Kari shouted and kicked the rear front tire. A catcall whistled at them from a neighboring car.
“Lookin’ for someone?” a low voice snaked out of a shiny new Miata convertible, orange with black racing stripes – Brad. Of course it would be Brad. He was used to getting everything he wanted and he’d set his sights on Kari, following her like a lost prep-school puppy ever since she’d moved to Springdale.
Kari sighed and glared at him. She was not in the mood for casual flirting or “priming the payload” as she called it. “Get in,” she barked at Trudi and Alex. They did as she commanded. She was usually so uninhibited and this newfound sternness was out of place.
Brad smiled. “Aww c’mon. Why else would you lovelies bust out of school?”
“Not now, Brad,” Kari grumbled as she revved the engine.
“At least race me back,” Brad smirked as he whirled around.
Kari smiled wild in response, her eyes alight, “You’re on.”
The cars started off neck and neck but Kari’s beater couldn’t keep up and she knew it. But she had a secret weapon. She was going to take the shortcut, and she ripped onto the gravel road at breakneck speed.
“Wait!,” Trudi screamed as the car spun out and the world went black.
Alex awoke to a rhythmic beeping. Bright lights and visions of angels in scrubs hovered over her. “You’re going to be okay,” one of the angels said. Alex’s mom rushed over, her red face streaked with tears and grabbed her in a bear hug.
“Wh… what happened?” Alex quipped. “Where am I? Where’re Kari and Trudi?”
Her mom blanched. “They didn’t make it. It’s a Godsend you’re alive. The whole front end of that car was…” her voice faded out as she evaded saying anything more.
The angel-nurse looked Alex over. “You’re very lucky. All you’ve got to show for it are a few scratches and a broken rib. You can go home. Just try to rest and don’t overexert yourself…”
Alex’s mom escorted her out of the hospital and into their Ford “Capri Sun” as the trio used to joke. (It was even the right shade of turquoise.) Alex’s head was a blur. She didn’t remember getting home or the trek to her bedroom, but there she was, staring once again at the mirror. She glanced down to find the fortune cookie.
It lay there on her dresser, plastic wrapping split open like a flower unfolded, forking a tongue of paper at her like an invitation. Still foggy, Alex reached for it as if possessed and turned it over in her palm before it fully sank in what she was doing.
“In due time,” it read.