For the past two years, I’ve been taking creative writing classes and working on a children’s fantasy fiction novel. I’ve put my project on hold because I’ve been stuck making the plot and dialogue work. So, lately, I’ve been practicing my writing by creating short stories. Yesterday, I submitted my assignment for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. The genre for me was drama, the theme scapegoating, and one of the characters is a ghostwriter. I ended up writing a story about a young man who lives pay check to paycheck as a fortune cookie ghostwriter. He harbors guilt from his deceased parents who often blames him for his career choice for their predicament.
Here’s the story.
Ru sat at his desk, overlooking the busy Chinatown street. What will be today’s fortune? The grey sky outside his apartment window made him feel hopeless. Coming up with predictions that went inside fortune cookies was pathetic. Any sane person knew these fortunes weren’t imbued with magical foreshadowing powers. Even if the predictions came true, it was because the fortunes were generic enough to apply to anyone, like “Good things will come if you wait long enough.”
Ru’s client was the Chinese restaurant downstairs, Chen’s Restaurant. His apartment always stank of cooking oils, but he didn’t mind. The smell of steamed pork dumplings and stir-fried seafood made him feel at home, minus the sweltering heat in the summer with no air conditioning. The good food was one of the few perks of living in this dingy cramped room, which was more of a shoebox than an apartment.
His computer screen stared back at him blankly. He hadn’t typed a single word. Some days the words came gushing out, his creative juices flowing. He’d come up with something clever or poetic, like inventing a fake Chinese proverb – something people ordinarily wouldn’t expect from a regular fortune cookie. Today wasn’t one of those days.
Ru’s phone rang. It was his client for his other writing gig.
“Hey Ru, this is Betha from ReNu Magazine. How are you doing?”
“I’m doing fine. You?” he responded. He never understood these formalities. He didn’t think anyone who asked this really cared how he was doing.
“Great. Thanks for asking. First, thank you for your last article, the one on the state of Canada’s water reserve.”
It was hard for Ru to forget that assignment. It was the dullest piece he had written. It was only a step above data entry. Most of his research was pulled straight from Wikipedia.
“I sent the payment for that piece to your bank this morning. I’m actually calling to let you know that moving forward, we’ll no longer require your service.”
“No, why not?” Ru wasn’t expecting this. After all, ReNu Magazine had been his client for almost a year.
“It’s nothing personal. We recently hired someone internally full-time.”
And that was that. The conversation ended. Ru had lost another client. It was hard freelancing these days. There was a lot of competition. Anyone could call themselves a writer. He didn’t even like ghostwriting. It made him feel like a soulless entity, contributing to the online noise with commercialized content that stole people’s precious attention. Screens hypnotized them as their minds decayed.
Ru tried to convince himself that he’d be okay. He’d have to find another gig to supplement his income, as writing fortunes for fortune cookies wouldn’t be enough to survive. But still. The client’s words stung. Ru was no longer needed. I am no longer useful.
It was a phrase all too familiar. His parents often spoke these words, “You’re so useless.” His chest pains returned. Ru glanced at the framed photo of his family by his desk. His dad’s brows were furrowed in perpetual disappointment. His mom’s expression was cold and stoic. They continued to haunt him even beyond the grave. If his parents were still alive, they’d scold him for being a failure. Maybe they were right – that he had made their life a living misery. Would they still be here if he’d listened to them?
He was consumed with guilt and regret. His life was like a long checklist full of empty promises. He had not established himself as a successful writer. He could barely make a living for himself let alone support his parents. If only he wasn’t so selfish and naïve and had made himself useful. He recalled the argument he had with his parents. When he was in university, he lied to them about what he was studying. On graduation day, they were furious when they discovered that he had been studying English the whole time.
“Why do you waste our money? An English major?” his mother cried. “We are poor because of you! How can you do this to us?”
“I hate how you tell me what to do with my life,” Ru argued. They never supported his interests. Ru did not want to study to become a doctor or an engineer like they wanted. His family were immigrants from China and didn’t have a lot of money. They worked day and night and had made countless sacrifices so that he could live a better life. They often reminded him of this narrative.
It had been only three years since his mother passed away from a stomach ulcer. His dad had died of lung cancer shortly thereafter. They couldn’t afford treatment for their illnesses because they used their savings to pay for Ru’s education. It felt like Ru’s fault that his parents were dead. If only he had listened. Maybe he could’ve paid for their medical bills. But he was stubborn and rebellious in his late teens and early twenties. His parents gave him everything, food, shelter, tuition money, and he gave them nothing in return. Not even pride. His delusions about writing had led him down this pitiful path. Ru opened a bottle of Coors Light and took a swig, trying to stop his tears from welling.
Ru stared at the empty screen. He was sick of living a lie, writing platitudes, giving people a false sense of hope and comfort. There was nothing magical about his work. He chugged down the bottle of Coors Light, followed by another. He wrote his first fortune for the day, “Reality is merciless. Beware.” And then he wrote some more bad fortunes:
“It’s better to curse the darkness. Hope is nowhere in sight.”
“The path to your success is grim.”
“You will lose your feathers like a dying peacock.”
“If you keep swimming, you’ll drown.”
He wrote dozens more. Most of them were rather bleak or nonsensical. Ru printed the lines, cut them up haphazardly, and sent the pieces down the chute which led to the kitchen downstairs. He gulped down his last bottle of Coors Light. Then, he passed out.
It had been two days since Ru deployed those fortunes. The afternoon sun reached the floorboards, where Ru was lying in bed looking for freelance gigs on his phone, when he heard a loud banging on his door.
“Ru! Open up.” It was unmistakably his boss and landlord, Mr. Chen.
Ru knew he was in trouble. He hadn’t considered the consequences of sending out those bad omens. He’d acted in the heat of the moment. Writing them and sending them off into the world felt good somehow. A part of him wanted to see his career disintegrate so he could start all over. Ru opened the door and saw Mr. Chen fuming with rage, his face burning red.
“What is this?” He held up a crumpled fortune in his hand.
Ru looked at the small piece of paper with the text: “Don’t rely on your looks. You have none.”
He’d been so hungover that day. He barely remembered writing this fortune. But he knew it was his. Because this line was also a familiar phrase that he’d often heard. It was one that was directed at him as a constant reminder that Ru wasn’t a pretty boy, not that it mattered. He had made peace with this reality a long time ago.
Mr. Chen made Ru go downstairs to apologize to the offended customer. It was a middle-aged woman wearing heavy makeup and designer clothing. Ru could tell she spent hours in front of a mirror.
“I can’t believe you’d hire this man. This is beyond inappropriate,” she said, glaring at Mr. Chen.
Ru wanted to apologize, but the woman wouldn’t stop talking.
“And you know some people have a history of mental illness. These fortunes can be dangerously triggering. Sorry just won’t cut it.”
Mr. Chen tried to reassure the customer by repeatedly saying “Yes ma’am,” while putting on his best fake smile. But the sweat beading from his forehead betrayed him.
“Yes, you’re very right. I made a mistake in hiring him. Ru, you’re fired!” Mr. Chen was unabashedly loud. Ru felt everyone’s eyes in the restaurant fixed on him. It felt as if they could see him in his underwear. Embarrassed, Ru bolted out the restaurant door, wanting to get away as fast as he could.
“Hey, wait!” he heard a voice call from behind.
Ru ignored it and kept walking down the busy street. He had forgotten how cold and damp early spring in New York was. He was shivering without his jacket.
“Why are you walking so fast?”
Ru turned around and saw a young woman, likely in her early twenties, catching her breath. She looked gothic with her dark purple hair and black lipstick. She wasn’t Ru’s type, yet he found her strangely compelling.
“I saw you just get fired at Mr. Chen’s Restaurant,” she said.
“Yeah. So what?”
“Well, I think we should chat. I’m Astral by the way. I’m a huge fan of your fortunes.”
This was a first for Ru. He didn’t think he had any fans.
“Are you serious?” he asked.
“Yeah, that’s why I come to Mr. Chen’s all the time. I love opening the fortune cookies and reading the fortunes; they’re so fresh and original. Even the bad fortunes are good. I actually think they’re pretty funny, like the one warning me of the dangers of eating pregnant fish.”
Their breath was visible in the cold air.
“How about we grab some tea? It’s freezing out here,” said Astral.
Ru didn’t know where he was going anyways. Grabbing a hot drink sure beat walking in the cold.
The two of them found a local bubble tea shop and made themselves comfortable, seated across from each other at a table. They introduced themselves properly. Ru learned that Astral recently graduated from college in graphic design and was trying to break into the creative industry.
“I never knew who the mysterious person behind these fortune cookies was. When I was a kid, I thought they were written by a fortune teller. So, it’s neat to meet someone who does this – I mean, used to do this – for a living.” There was a sweet-sounding airiness to her voice. Ru blushed. He never had someone take such an interest in him or his craft before, and he was embarrassed that she saw him get fired.
“How did you get into fortune cookie writing anyways?” she asked.
“It was through a friend of a friend who owned the restaurant. When I graduated, I wanted to work for a well-established publishing company but got turned down,” he paused, “a dozen times.” Each rejection withered his confidence as if he were a dying tree losing its bark.
Astral continued asking Ru about his family and writing career with an unrelenting eagerness. Ru wanted to burst.
“Look, writing ruined my life… and my family’s. If only I had listened to my parents. Things would’ve been better for all of us.” He then added, “I hate the writing industry! It’s all fake and commercialized.” He was surprised that these words escaped his lips. Why was he spilling so much to a stranger?
“Ru, I think you’re making excuses. You shouldn’t blame writing for your failures.” She waited for a moment before continuing, “nor should your family have blamed you for theirs.”
This was too personal. Who did she think she was? His therapist?
“Look, I’m not interested in your life coaching. Thanks anyway, but I’m good,” said Ru. Just like writers, too many people were calling themselves life coaches these days.
Astral was taken aback. Ru was about to leave before she spoke again.
“Sorry, don’t take it the wrong way. I’m not trying to fix you. I just think it’s too bad that you think you dislike writing. It’s something you’re good at. And whether you know it or not, it gives people like me inspiration. I’m sure it gives you inspiration as well.”
Ru thought about what drove him to study English and become a writer in the first place. It was his passion. He fell in love with reading and writing when he was in high school. The written language revealed hidden truths about the world and humanity, reaching a deep place in his soul that he didn’t think was reachable. The written language enabled an exchange of thoughts and ideas. Ru’s innermost thoughts solidified into words, words that expressed his individuality and creativity without restraint. Writing gave him this sort of freedom. He had forgotten that.
“You’re right. I love writing. It has saved me on many occasions.” Ru astounded himself again by how much he revealed to Astral. He spoke of the dark periods in his youth and early adulthood when the weight of his parents’ disapproval seemed too much to bear. He found solace through reading and writing. He could escape his family situation and travel to Middle Earth or pour out his teenage angst with heavy metal music lyrics. There was so much of the world to explore through language. By the time he entered university, he couldn’t help but take English classes, even against his family’s wishes.
Astral gazed at Ru. She smiled as though she had hit the jackpot.
“I could tell we’re kindred spirits. I think we should team up.”
“What do you mean?”
She had piqued his interest.
“I mean, I’m a graphic designer and you’re a writer. There’s a lot we can do if we combine our skill sets. You don’t have to do this alone.”
Astral took another sip of her milk green tea. They had been talking for more than an hour. Ru smiled tentatively; he couldn’t quite believe that only earlier this afternoon they were strangers. Meeting someone who understood him was a breath of fresh air. Astral had convinced him that he didn’t have to abandon his writing career entirely. He didn’t have to walk away from his passion.
“So, what do you have in mind?” he asked.
“Let’s find out. There is so much to explore.”