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It’s Saturday night, and we are sitting at the dinner table finishing up our Chinese takeout. Oddly enough (at least, for my family), we are silent as we sit there, replete and content. We rise from the table and start to clean up, throwing out the cardboard containers. My brother Eli is just about to toss the plastic bag that the food had come in, when he notices the fortune cookies. “Does anyone want one?” he asks.
“No thanks,” says my mom, starting to thumb through a catalog.
“Yeah, I’m good,” adds my dad, putting his glasses on to read the newspaper.
“I’ll take one,” I say, holding up my hands to catch the fortune cookie Eli tosses at me. He throws the rest away, and then flops on the couch. I unwrap the crinkly plastic and crack open the cookie. But… a slip of paper doesn’t fall out.
“What does it say?” calls Eli.
“Yeah, honey, read it aloud.”
I just stare, dumbstruck, at the golden brown bits of cookie in my hand, and what lies within them: a silver ring, with a large, clear stone. I feel like I’m in a dream as I hold it up, watching rainbow flecks of refracted light dance across the walls.
“Ummm… is this some kind of joke?” I ask, knowing full well that it can’t be. Eli is twelve; there was no way he could have orchestrated something this complex. And Mom and Dad? The idea of them playing a practical joke on anyone is almost laughable.
All three of them look up at me at the same time. Dad drops his newspaper, Mom, her catalog, and Eli, his itouch in perfect unison. “Where did that come from?” bellows Dad. “Audrey, are you seeing a boy? How dare he propose! You are seventeen, young lady!”
“Oh my God, Dad! I don’t have a boyfriend! What, you think this someone is actually proposing to me?”
“Proposing in a fortune cookie… Oh honey, that’s so romantic,” swoons Mom.
“Come back to reality!” I yell. “This obviously isn’t a proposal! What is wrong with you?”
“A diamond ring… That sounds like a proposal to me…” Eli says reasonably. I whip my head around to face him, and he holds up his hands. “I didn’t say someone proposing to you. But someone proposing to someone,”
My brain was slowly recovering from the initial shock, and I was able to form a coherent thought. “Wait a second. Maybe no one is proposing to me… But it could be someone else’s ring!”
“Wow, did you not hear what I just said?” Eli rolls his eyes.
“I’m sure they just mixed up the orders at the Chinese place,” Dad is pleased with having offered a reasonable solution to the mystery (or maybe because he knows his seventeen-year-old daughter isn’t going to marry her secret boyfriend) and picks up his paper again. “Hey, there’s a reporter named Samantha Jones. I wonder if she’s a relation. Although there are a lot of Joneses in America…”
“Dad, focus. Do you know what this means?” I say, lowering my voice to a hushed whisper for dramatic effect.
“Audrey, honey, you need to speak up. My ears are getting old,” says Mom.
Eli leaps off the couch in excitement. “It means that somewhere, a man is waiting for his future wife to crack open her dream come true, and instead, he’s seeing her read some crappy fortune that’s really just a badly translated Chinese proverb!”
I shoot him a look. “That was rhetorical you lameface. I was about to answer my own question,”
“But you paused,” Eli says, puzzled.
“Does no one in my family know the meaning of dramatic effect?” I ask, sighing loudly. “And anyway, you forgot the part about how we have to go back to the Chinese restaurant and return the ring! For love! For truth! For courage!”
“That last one didn’t make sense at all,” he points out.
“I know, but things sound better in threes. Anyway, you get the gist of it. Mom, Dad, Eli, come on. Get in the car. Let’s go, before it’s too late,”
“Audrey, I just sat down with the paper and I’ve just eaten my weight in noodles and dumplings. Unless you’re getting married, I’m not going anywhere,” responds Dad.
“He’s right, honey,” agrees Mom. “I want to stay in tonight. You can drive, can’t you?”
Eli snorts. “In the loosest sense of the word, yes.”
“Hey, driving is complicated, okay? I’d like to see you try! Anyway, so what if I turn on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal every now and then? It’s not like I’ve killed anybody!”
“Yet,” I hear him mutter under his breath.
“We’re wasting valuable time arguing. Come on, let’s go,” I stuff the diamond ring in my pocket for safekeeping and grab the keys to the car.
“One second,” Eli calls to me, as he runs up to his room. I tap my foot, eager to get moving. He finally comes down, and we race out and jump into the car. “What were you doing up there?” I ask as I start the car, somewhat worried at the bulges that have appeared in his pockets.
“Just gathering stuff for our mission,” he replies, shiftily.
“What could we possibly need?” I ask, looking over at him. “Are those weapons? Oh my god, if you blow something up, can I light the fuse?”
“Sadly, I don’t have any pocket-sized bombs. It’s just stuff that we can use to bribe anyone if necessary.”
“Is it money? Can I have some? I blew all of my savings on a dress last weekend.” A really, really cute dress.
“Audrey, I’m twelve. Where would I get money from?”
“What else can you bribe people with?” I reach for his pockets, alternating glances between them and the road, when I spot something out of the corner of my eye. “OHMYGOD SQUIRREL!” I slam on the brakes, Eli screams girlishly and covers his eyes, and we screech to a halt two feet away from… a stick.
Eli looks out the windshield from between his fingers. “You idiot. You almost killed us for a weirdly shaped stick.”
“It wasn’t a weirdly shaped stick; it was a squirrel-shaped stick. I’m pretty sure there’s a difference. Also, I’m fairly certain no one has ever died from someone stopping the car.”
“Don’t talk while you’re driving! Eyes on the road!” he yells, with unnecessary worry.
“I’ve got this under control,” I say calmly.
“That was a stop sign! You’re supposed to stop at those! Do you know how to read?”
“There was no one there, which means that stop sign was optional.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works,” he says skeptically.
“I’m the one who’s taken driver’s ed! Would you like me to start listing the state’s traffic laws? Because I will.”
“No! Don’t do it! We’re here! No traffic laws!”
We pull up to Happy Red Magic Dragon Chinese Restaurant. I park, and we run inside. I go straight to the counter where you pick up takeout food, stopping only to cram as many butter mints as possible into my pockets. I’m gasping for breath as I arrive at the counter, despite having only run about 50 feet.
A pimply teenager with red hair and dead eyes is standing there. His nametag says Ned. “Ned, we have a favor to ask you,” I say.
“Just-give-me-your-last-name-and-I-will-get-your-order-right-out,” he says in a monotone, as though reading from a script.
“Um, actually, can we get a list of all the orders that were ready at, uh, 6.30? Hm, let’s be safe, and make it from 6:20 to 6:40. Names, phone numbers, and addresses, please,”
“Sorry-I-can’t-give-out-that-information,” Ned states.
“Come on Ned! Work with us! This is for love! For truth!” Eli elbows me before I can say “for courage!”. I smile charmingly at Ned.
“Step aside Audrey,” Eli whispers to me as he shoves me out of the way. “And say hello to my leel friend.”
Only half of Eli’s face reaches above the counter. “Does this change your mind?” he asks Ned smoothly, tossing a mini box of Nerds onto the counter.
“Your leel friend was a box of Nerds? A mini box of Nerds?” I hiss at him. “Scarface’s leel friend was a machine gun!”
“There’s more where that came from,” Eli says to Ned, ignoring me.
“How much more?” asks Ned, narrowing his eyes. Holy crap! He isn’t speaking in a monotone! Go Eli, go! I turn back and forth, watching the exchange between them like a tennis rally. Eli extracts two more mini boxes of Nerds from his pocket. Ned shakes his head. Eli adds three fun sized chocolate bars to the growing pile. Ned shakes his head again.
“Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse,” says Eli, and he throws a full-sized pack of Skittles onto the pile. Ned looks in both directions, taps a couple of buttons on the computer in front of him, and runs to the back of the restaurant. He returns with a sheet of paper. I hold out my hand, but he ignores me and passes it to Eli before sliding the pile of candy into his lap.
Back in the car, I high-five Eli. “That was so cool! But where did you get all that candy from?”
“My lips are sealed,”
“Can I at least have a piece?”
“I’m all out. And don’t pretend like you didn’t grab at least twenty butter mints back there!”
I roll my eyes and scan the piece of paper. “Hartwell, Robinson, Dunlop, Cooper, Greenberg, hey look, there’s us, Jones. There so many people on here…”
“Should we call them all up?” asks Eli, his face suspiciously chocolatey for a person who just claimed he had no candy on him.
I continue scanning the paper. Suddenly I spot something. “Look!” I yell. “There’s another order for someone named Jones! Do you know what that means?”
“That the chefs mixed up the order because of our identical names, and accidentally put the diamond-stuffed cookie in the wrong bag?”
“Dramatic effect, turdface!” I smack him on the head with the sheet of paper. “Now, do you have any idea how to find 37 Pine Street, apartment 4d?”
He types it into to his itouch and finds directions. “It’s thirteen minutes from here. Let’s go! Except for when you see stop signs. Then, you should stop.”
“Just give me the directions,” I say, controlling my temper and backing out of the parking space.
“Okay, just remember that when I say turn, you should turn. That’s generally how following directions works,” he says as though explaining something to a two year old.
“You are the most annoying little brat ever!” I yell. “I’ll drive however I want to! It’s perfectly safe, and—” I’m cut off by a loud honking, as I narrowly avoid rear-ending somebody. I decide it would be in my best interest not to finish my sentence.
We finally pull up to an apartment building after having made only three wrong turns and running two stop signs. I leap out of the car, excited to finally return the ring, and promptly stub my toe on the curb and fall on my face. Undeterred, I stand back up and yank on the door to the apartment building, only to find that it is locked. Eli is still babbling about who-cares-what. “When I say right, all you have to do is turn right! Where in your mind does ‘turn right’ mean ‘drive for another minute and then turn left’? I’m twelve and I know that!”
“I’m ignoring you so that I can figure out how we get into the building.”
“Can’t we just get him to buzz us in?”
“Yeah, but then we’ll have to explain over the intercom, and his girlfriend will hear. We can’t ruin the surprise. We need a way of having a private conversation with Mr. Jones that no one else can hear.”
“You mean… like calling him?”
“Oh, and I suppose you’ll just produce his phone number from thin air?” I roll my eyes. Eli holds up the sheet of paper that Ned gave us.
I stare at him. “Since when did you become a competent human being?” Eli just rolls his eyes and takes out his phone to dial the number. He presses the speakerphone button. A panicked, frantic voice answers: “Hi this is Daniel Jones… Uh, now isn’t the best time. Can I call you back? Or you call me back? Um, yeah I’m looking for something… and—”
I cut him off. “Mr. Jones, we have what you’re looking for.”
“I thought I was going to talk!” Eli protests, elbowing me.
“Quiet!” I hiss at him. “Mr. Jones, I think I opened your fortune cookie tonight. Or, um, your wife’s. Girlfriend’s. Boyfriend’s?”
Eli elbows me again. “You are way too awkward for this!”
“I’m just trying to be politically correct!”
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” asks Mr. Jones. “Awkward politics? I couldn’t catch that.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Eli says, raising his voice. “What matters is Happy Red Magic Dragon mixed up our orders. See, our last name is Jones too. And they put your cookie in our bag.”
“Your wife’s cookie. Wait, girlfriend’s,” I add. “We’re actually outside your building right now, which is a bit creepy, now that I think about it.”
“Audrey, shut up!”
“Excuse me?” asked Mr. Jones, his voice full of confusion and worry.
“Not you, Mr. Jones. I want my sister to shut up. I think maybe if we could talk to you, we could explain better.”
“Um, okay, so I guess I’ll buzz you in. Because you are currently outside my apartment building.” He sounded like he didn’t really believe any of this was happening. Which is understandable, I guess. “I’ll come talk to you in the hallway. I’m on the fourth floor.”
We wearily climb the four flights of stairs. In the hallway of the fourth floor is a man wearing a light blue dress shirt and dark jeans. “So, from the little that I understood from our telephone conversation, you have my ring.”
“Yeah! And can you believe I almost threw it away?”
“Eli, why would you say that? Look at him!”
Mr. Jones’ eyes have bugged out, and there is a pained look on his now pale face. “My grandmother’s ring? You threw it away?”
“Almost,” I say. “But I have it right here,” I dig around in my coat pockets. “Wait, where did it go?” I fumble in one pocket, then the other, finally pulling it out triumphantly. Mr. Jones immediately grabs it from my hand and his facial expression returns to almost normal.
“Thank you!” he says. “Thank you so much!”
“Oh, it was nothing,” I say breezily.
“Well, I’m sorry to run, but my girlfriend is kind of waiting for me,” he nods towards his door. “She doesn’t exactly know what’s going on and she’s getting a bit suspicious.”
“Well, good luck!” I call to him, as he walks to his apartment door.
The second he turns his back on us, Eli shoves me. “I can’t believe you said it was nothing! I gave up half my candy stash!”
“Half? You told me you were all out. Wait a second. Look!” I point to the door of apartment 4D. It is slightly cracked, as if he nervously shut it, not hard enough for it to click closed. “Do you know what this means?” Eli is silent. “You finally learned the meaning of dramatic effect! Good for you!”
“Actually, I couldn’t hear you were whispering. But I saw you point at the door… Hey, it’s cracked!” He runs over to the door and inches it open. When the gap is wide enough, we peek through. Mr. Jones is down on one knee. I see the ring sparkle in his hand. His girlfriend has wavy auburn hair, but I can’t see the look on her face.
Mr. Jones must be talking in a whisper, because I can’t hear everything he says.
“Being with you… so… I can’t even… had the courage…”
“Did you hear that?” I mutter in Eli’s ear. “Courage. I totally called it!”
“If by called it, you mean you completely guessed and lucked out, then, yes.”
I see Mr. Jones’ eyes flicker towards the door, so I clamp my hand over Eli’s mouth. I guess he saw Mr. Jones eyes too, because his hand is stifling my mouth. In an impressive display of uncoordination, we both topple over into a heap on the floor. We slide back to the door, not wanting to miss a second, just in time to see his girlfriend jump up and down.
“Yes! Of course I’ll marry you!” she yells, her voice thick with tears. I close the door, and Eli and I grin at each other.
“Mission accomplished,” he says.