The salty odor of frying noodles added depth to the tang of chargrilled pork and hoisin sauce. Sweet enough to cling to the back of Jim’s throat and just earthy enough to make his stomach rumble in anticipation.
Gaijin had the best Asian cuisine in San Francisco. No contest.
Jim’s stomach gnawed on his spine as he passed through the curtain of scents and flavors. Had he even eaten breakfast that morning? He must have. Barb never let him leave the house without forcing some pre-packaged conglomeration of carbohydrates and proteins down his throat.
But breakfast had been a long time ago. Like two whole hours. And his hollow legs were already aching for something more substantial than toaster pastries and pre-cooked bacon.
“Well, something smells good.”
Jim froze and bit his lower lip so he wouldn’t giggle like an idiot. Giggling like an idiot wasn’t manly or tough, and he needed to be both.
“Everything’s good here.” He glanced over his shoulder at the golden-haired girl at his elbow.
Meg Mitchell. The Meg Mitchell. He hadn’t even had a girl of his dreams until he met her.
He’d met plenty of girls, sure. More than half of Peregrine Academy graduates were girls. But none of them could hold a candle to Meg Mitchell.
He blinked, focusing on her heart-shaped face, her midnight blue eyes staring at him.
“Y—yes?” Was I staring at her? I think I was staring at her. God, don’t let me be drooling.
“Should we sit down?” She gestured to the scattered tables draped in vibrant red.
“Yeah. We sit. On a table. I mean, in a chair at a table.” He stepped forward, tripped on the carpet, and smacked into one of the tables, silverware jangling on its Formica covering. “Like this one.”
He beamed at Meg.
“This is a table, and it’s a good one.” He patted the top.
Meg arched slender eyebrows at him.
She really was pretty.
“Chair.” He grabbed the closest chair and pulled it out. “Chairs are for sitting.”
He turned back to her and paused, watching her grab the chair next to him and seat herself, her eyes drawn toward the brightly-shining paper lanterns on the ceiling.
Right. She doesn’t know you’re supposed to pull the chair out for her. He sat in the chair beside her. Besides, this isn’t a date. This is just lunch.
Maybe someday it would be a date. Maybe someday he’d be able to ask her out as more than just a friend and colleague.
Mental note. Research Celtican dating practices.
Meg wasn’t Celtican, but that’s how she’d been raised. And while most Celtican customs were strangely similar to the Hindi culture of Terran, some were breathtakingly different.
“Is this the menu?” Meg peered at the paper copy of the Chinese horoscope beneath the clear table covering. Her eyebrows bunched together over her nose. “Dog and dragon and rat?” Her eyes widened. “What are we eating here, Jim?”
“Uh. No.” He scooted his chair closer to her. “That’s the Chinese zodiac. Every year has an animal associated with it, and some folks think you can predict a person’s personality by their birth year.” He pointed to the diagram of the rooster. “That’s me. I was born in 1993, so I’m a rooster. And since you were born in 1994, you’re a dog.”
Meg raised her eyebrows at him. “I’m a dog?”
His face burned. “On their horoscope. Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t mean anything. Not really.” He cleared his throat. “This year, 2010, is the year of the tiger.”
Meg sat back in her chair. “Do you believe any of this?”
“No. It’s a belief system that grew out of some ancient religions, but I don’t take it seriously. It’s just kind of fun.”
“So, you’re a rooster, and I’m a dog?”
He cleared his throat again. “Dogs are good, Meg. They’re loyal and happy. I mean, they’re so happy they drool all over the place most of the time.”
Her eyebrows rose again.
Subject change. Let’s have a subject change. “So, have you ever had Chinese?”
Thankfully, Meg smiled. “No, never.”
“Not Vietnamese or Thai or Japanese?”
“I don’t know what any of that means, Jim.”
Jim set his elbows on the table and pointed across the room at the buffet line stretching the length of the far wall.
“One great thing about Gaijin is the buffet,” he said. “You can try a little bit of everything to see what you like. And it’s all you can eat, so you can go back and try different things each time.”
She scowled at the buffet like it was some kind of enemy to be defeated.
Meg wasn’t afraid of new experiences, but she did tend to treat them like a Centaur at full charge.
“Come on.” Jim pushed his chair back and stood. “It’s easy.”
Meg followed him to the buffet, and Jim grabbed a clean plate and handed it to her. Taking one for himself, he led the way down the buffet line, filling his plate with generous ladles of fried rice, egg rolls, sesame chicken, moo goo gai pan, and cashew beef. He piled the plate high and glanced back at Meg.
She’d taken smaller portions, but she had copied him exactly.
“Can you eat all that?” Her eyes twinkled as she walked beside him back to the table.
“I can eat twice this much.”
Jim smiled at the plastic tray waiting for them on the table. Inside the tray, two fortune cookies rested on top of a piece of paper. Jim pulled the paper out and smirked at the handwritten scrawl.
Meal’s on me, but that’s not your sister, Jimmy. – Tyler
Tyler Wallace, an old friend of Jim’s father, owned Gaijin. After Jim’s mother had passed away, Tyler had opened Gaijin to Barb and Jim for meals whenever they wanted them.
Good old Tyler. He knew Barb was likely to poison them both with her own cooking.
Now that Tyler had seen Meg, he was probably in the back room calling Barb to ask for details before he introduced himself.
That was how Tyler operated: Get all the details first and then play dumb. And with his sultry British accent, the man could get away with saying just about anything. Good thing the old soldier had been married for so long. His wife, Kim-Ly, had come from Vietnam, and they’d started Gaijin together.
“What are those?”
Jim glanced at Meg, who was inspecting the plastic tray’s contents.
“They’re fortune cookies.” He grabbed a set of chopsticks and snapped them apart. “You open them up, and they have a fortune inside.”
Meg blinked at him, astonished. “A fortune? Like money?”
Jim snickered. “No. A piece of paper that has some wise saying written on it. Sometimes they tell the future. Other times it’s just life advice to remember.”
He dove into his sesame chicken with gusto and savored the salty-sweet brown sauce coating the outside of the battered chicken nuggets. Nobody could make sesame chicken like Kim-Ly Wallace.
“Why would you need a cookie to tell you the future?” Meg picked the packaged cookie up and turned it over in her hand.
Jim smiled at her. “It’s easier than calling a psychic.”
Meg’s eyes widened again. “A what?”
He laughed and took a bite of his egg roll. “Come on. Eat up before it gets cold.”
“With sticks?” She pointed to his chopsticks.
“We’ll have lessons later.” He nudged a fork toward her.
Meg grabbed his wrist and pulled it toward her. She narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the way he held the chopsticks. His wrist tingled beneath the firm press of her fingers.
She released him, snatching a pair of chopsticks up from the table and snapping them apart. She mimicked the way he held them and scooped up some of her sesame chicken.
“Like that?” She raised her eyebrows at him.
Jim closed his gaping mouth and nodded. “Yeah. Just like that.” Geez, it took me four years to figure out how to use chopsticks. I should have known.
Meg made a satisfied noise as she bit into the chicken. “That’s really good.”
“Wait ‘til you try the rest of it.”
Meg grinned at him.
Conversation faded as they busied themselves eating. Jim rose and filled a new plate just as full as the first, and Meg did the same, only the second time she returned to the table with a plate full of Kung Pao Chicken, eggplant chili stir fry, and Sichuan beef.
“Uh, Meg?” He raised one finger just as she took a big bite of the beef stir fry.
Kim-Ly’s Sichuan beef could set someone’s hair on fire.
But Meg’s expression brightened. “Wow, Jim, that tastes like one of the curries from the Harna. That’s the best yet.”
Jim shut his mouth with another grin. Of course, Meg would like spicy foods. She’d grown up on curries far spicier than anything he could find in Frisco.
Mental note: Don’t eat the same food as Meg.
While he liked a bit of spice, the heat level of the beef she was currently devouring would disintegrate his tongue and tie his insides up for a week.
“Has one ever come true?” She gestured to the cookies with her chopsticks. “One of the cookies of fortune?”
He shrugged. “I got one once that said I would find a bushel of money.”
Meg straightened. “Did you?”
He set his napkin on the table. “Well, I found a quarter on the sidewalk when I left.”
Meg laughed. “When do we get to open them? Do we have to wait until we’re done eating?”
Her smile made him smile and warmed him from the inside out.
“We can open them whenever you want.”
With a cheeky grin, Meg grabbed the cookie closest to her, opened it the packaging, and snapped the cookie in half. She pulled out the little piece of paper inside.
Her eyebrows drew together. “I don’t think this makes any sense.”
“What’s it say?”
“In two days, tomorrow will be yesterday.” She held the fortune up to him. “How does that tell the future or provide wisdom?”
Meg set the fortune down and stared at it, nose scrunched up.
“That’s the beauty of fortune cookies,” Jim said. “They don’t always have to.”
He opened his cookie and snapped it in half. The fortune fell out on the table, and he glanced over the little blue letters.
“What does it say?” Meg leaned against him, peering at the fortune.
He held the fortune out so she could see it, smiling at the faint lavender scent of her hair.
“I cannot help you, for I am just a cookie,” he read.
Meg scowled up at him. “I don’t think these cookies of fortune know what they’re talking about, Jim.”
He tossed the fortune on the table. “You might be right.” He cocked his head at the buffet. “Want an almond cookie?”
“Do they predict the future, too?”
“No, but they taste better.”