Xìngbié; part 12 (of 13): Ultimatum

The inside of the restaurant was cool, even through Nathan’s (Tyler’s) sweatshirt, and dimly lit. There weren’t a lot of people about, possibly due to it still being nine in the morning. Nathan had made sure that the restaurant was open before he came, but it was only now occurring to him how odd it was for a Chinese restaurant to be open so darn early in the day.

There was a man at the counter—Chinese, fittingly enough. He glanced up when Nathan came in, but quickly returned to his crossword puzzle. Nathan came up to the counter and opened his mouth, but closed it again once he realized how dry it was.

“Can I help you… miss?” the man asked, taking a moment to gauge Nathan’s sex.

His disinterest cleared up, however, once Nathan’s face turned red.

“I’d like… to see… the owner,” he stuttered, almost not even trying to contain his anger anymore.

“I’m the owner,” the man said, “My name is Brian Lee. How can I help you?”

Nathan took a deep breath…

…and realized that he had absolutely no idea what to say.

Absolutely nothing he could say at this point would sound sane or rational. No matter how hard he believed it, it simply did not make sense that a fortune cookie from a takeout Chinese place (that admittedly had a pretty nice-looking buffet inside) could transform him from a boy into a girl. And there’s no way something like that could happen without anyone noticing the effect it was having on him.

Maybe he had multiple personalities. Or what was it called? Dissa… Diss… something Disorder. Maybe he only thought he was a boy because he had convinced himself that to hide a traumatic memory, and now the false memories were just bleeding into reality. Sure, when he squeezed his legs, he could still feel his manhood, but everything else about being a boy felt real too.

Maybe this was Hell. He’d gotten killed in a car accident and his punishment for his sins was for his personality and memories to be slowly wiped away, and he was only allowed to recognize it right before the end. And then he’d be gone permanently, not just dead.

How did he know this hadn’t happened before? That he’d been born a girl and first transformed into a boy? Or maybe it started in the opposite direction every time the transformation ended.

The man was still looking at him, waiting for an answer. Nathan couldn’t just say nothing.

“Mr. Lee, my name is Nathan Chan, and… and I…”

Mr. Lee held up a hand to stop him from talking. For a moment, he looked down at Nathan, examining his face and outfit.

“You said your name was Nathan Tran?” he asked.

“Chan,” Nathan corrected in a small voice.

“But Nathan, right?”

He squeaked out a “yes.”

“And over the past few weeks, you’ve noticed some odd… changes in your life?”

Nathan lit up, nodding his head frantically.

“Yes!” he cried, “You know, don’t you?! You know!”

“Hush, Nathan!” Mr. Lee snapped, glancing over to one of the few occupied tables in the restaurant. Nathan looked around, and indeed everyone there was looking at them.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

“Just come into the back,” Mr. Lee instructed, gesturing Nathan to follow, “I’ll explain what’s going on.”

Nathan’s gut twisted at the thought. Following a strange man who claims to know what’s going on with him? That was almost the definition of “stranger danger,” wasn’t it? But a moment ago Nathan had been doubting his own sanity, and it seemed like this was the only chance he had of really learning the truth. So he followed.

There were other people in the kitchen, working on food. The owner walked over to a corner of the kitchen, where someone was working on making fortune cookies. Mr. Lee whispered something into his ear, and the worker took a long glance at Nathan as he walked away. Nathan once again tried to make himself look as small as possible.

Mr. Lee was searching through a batch of fortune cookies for something. He didn’t even look at Nathan as he asked, “Do you remember what the fortune said?”

“Something about… meeting my true love?” Nathan’s voice was almost too small to be heard.

“And the word on the back?”

“I think ‘gender’ or something.”

Mr. Lee finally turned around, holding an off-colored fortune cookie. It was darker than a normal fortune cookie, almost brown instead of tan.

“And it looked like this?”

“Yeah!” Nathan cried, perking up for a moment, “I mean… yes, it was.”

The owner placed a hand on Nathan’s shoulder, bending down and looking into his eyes.

“Let me explain what happened,” he offered, “We make our own fortune cookies on site here. Every now and then, we find one that’s the wrong color. They don’t come out of the oven this way, or it wouldn’t be a problem. No, they only turn brown after we’ve placed the fortune inside of it, so we don’t know what fortunes are affected.”

Mr. Lee took a deep sigh and muttered, “Honestly, we don’t know if they really turn brown or if they’re being replaced. Just that when we count, we always have exactly the number we’re supposed to.”

He stood up straight again and continued, “At first, we didn’t think anything of it. Then a few people started coming in and telling us that things about their lives were changing, and they always mentioned it starting with a brown fortune cookie. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to understand the connection.”

“Whatever the fortune said came true,” Nathan guessed.

“Yes. Although it’s impossible to predict how. Nobody keeps the slip of paper, of course, but it seems like you got a pretty straightforward fortune. Some of the changes are… odd. But everybody always mentions the same problem.”

“They don’t realize what’s happening to them,” Nathan supplied.

“Right. There have got to be people who go through the entire transformation without ever noticing. Of course, it could be as simple as getting the winning lottery ticket, and I’d have no way of knowing. Not without having someone crack one open and trying to measure the results myself.”

“But nobody noticed when I started turning into a girl!” Nathan whisper-shouted.

“No, they wouldn’t have. Nobody ever notices. Even the people who aren’t involved. The transformation is that complete. It could have happened to anyone you knew and you’d have no idea.”

He paused, allowing Nathan to take in the full extent of what that meant. Anybody in his life—his friends, his brother, his parents, maybe even the president of the United States could have been transformed without the world even noticing.

“But how?” he asked.

“I still don’t know,” Mr. Lee admitted, “Fortune cookies are the culmination of several different cultures, some of which were renowned for supposedly having access to magic. I used to be a rational man, but since these cookies started appearing…”

“Then stop giving them away!” Nathan practically exploded.

“I’ve tried!” Mr. Lee threw the fortune cookie into a nearby trashcan and turned to point at the counter, where it had suddenly appeared yet again. “And I can’t just break them without risking them working on me. I stopped making them myself, and then they just started arriving with the cookies that we bought from other companies. So I moved across the country, and they followed me. I’d have quit my job if I knew how to do anything else. At least this way I feel like I have some awareness of what’s going on.”

“And I just got unlucky, right?”

The bitterness in Nathan’s voice made Mr. Lee wince. But the man retained his composure and held up a finger (“one moment, please”) to Nathan before turning around and opening a drawer.

From the drawer he pulled a half-empty vial of translucent pink liquid and held it out for Nathan to see.

“This is the antidote.”

Nathan’s heart leapt. He reached forward, but Mr. Lee pulled away.

“Not so fast.”

Nathan’s heart sank.

“It’s not as simple as taking a drink. This potion is very hard to mix, but it can undo the effects of the cookie’s fortune. But… as far along as you are, Nathan… it won’t undo everything.”

This time Nathan did wipe the tears from his eyes.

“Well why not?!” he demanded, “Why the fuck not?! Just make more of it you stupid… stupid…”

A sob escaped his throat and he lowered his head to cry freely. Mr. Lee again put his hand on Nathan’s shoulder, but Nathan pulled away and turned from him.

“Nathan,” Mr. Lee said softly, “We are making more. Constantly. But it takes time. A lot of time. And ingredients have to be imported from all over the world. This is all we have. If we wait any longer, it will be too late for you. You can only forcibly slow down the spell for so long.”

“I just want to go back to normal,” Nathan whispered.

“That’s just not possible the way you want it to be,” Mr. Lee insisted, “If you don’t drink, you’ll finish the transformation and then being a girl will be normal. If you do, it will undo as much as possible, and you’ll still think your life had always been that way. And then that will be normal.”

“…what will happen if I drink it then?”

Mr. Lee sighed again and tried to explain, “It’s unpredictable, but I can guess based on what I’ve seen. You might become a very effeminate boy, or an intersex child, or a girl who wants to be a boy. No matter how it plays out, you’re going to keep elements from both your old and new identities. But you won’t truly be one or the other.”

Nathan was quiet for a minute. The kitchen continued to work around them, hustling and bustling as if nothing was wrong. They’re probably seen it all before.

“How?” he asked.

“How what?”

“How do you make this antidote?”

“Oh. It’s a long and complicated process—”

“How do you know how to make it if you don’t even know how these fortune cookies work? If you can’t even break one open to study it?” He looked Mr. Lee right in the eye as he spoke, and Mr. Lee was faltering.

“It’s taken me a long time,” he claimed.

Nathan wasn’t convinced.

“And if the antidote really does erase all memories, how can you have seen it work before at all? You know more than your telling me,” pointing a dainty but accusatory finger at Mr. Lee.

Instead of denying it, Mr. Lee just sagged his shoulders. His eyes glazed over and he repeated, “I used to be a rational man, Nathan.”

“You haven’t answered me,” Nathan said.

“It doesn’t matter,” Mr. Lee insisted, “You already don’t trust me. No point in making things worse. But everything I did tell you is true, and you really do have to make a choice. Are you happy enough as a girl, or do you want to risk the random outcome?”

Nathan knew that he couldn’t trust Mr. Lee. But he knew that much when he’d agreed to come back into the kitchen. But if he was going to lose his memory anyway, the worst thing that the potion could do was kill him. Or maybe he really could overcome this on his own, and the potion would just wipe his mind and let the transformation continue unchecked.

But if Mr. Lee was telling the truth…

None of the decisions that Nathan had made over the past weeks… none of them had really been his, had they? His entire life had effectively been hijacked; it was no longer his. It belonged to a girl that was using his body and making it into her own.

But at the same time… he had been feeling kind of… happy, lately. Much more so than before this all began, for sure. And Gavin… even if he only thought of Gavin as a friend, he still remembered the tingle of that boy touching his arm. Part of him wanted to believe that they could be happy together if he just let Gavin have a chance.

Nathan had always been ambitious and hardworking, and not just because his family demanded it of him. But Nat was… relaxed. He—alright, she—actually belonged with her friends instead of just hanging around them for company. And even though she was timid and easily embarrassed sometimes, Nathan knew that there were hints of a playful streak within her wanting to come out, if only in the way that she teased Gavin occasionally.

Of course, if drinking the potion really did undo only part of it, he might be able to keep all the good stuff without having to actually give up being a boy. Like, a 1 in 3 chance, according to Mr. Lee.

“Has anyone ever turned down the antidote before?” Nathan asked.

“Not that I can remember,” Mr. Lee said sadly, “Just because the cookies follow me doesn’t mean I’m immune to their effects, unfortunately.”

Then, with a sad flicker in his eyes, Mr. Lee asked “Do you know what you want to do?”

Nathan looked into his eyes. He couldn’t tell how old Mr. Lee was, but at that moment he looked like he had seen civilizations rise and fall before his eyes, and it made him look tired.

“Yes, I do.”

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