The highlight of Nicholas' days were the routine trips he took to The Gluttonous Panda for lunch. These excursions to procure greasy Chinese food were more than a habit or a routine: they were an addiction, plain and simple. Nick daydreamed of the restaurant's signature Dictator Mao's Chicken like an alcoholic would daydream of six-packs glittering in the light filtering through a convenience store's windows. While at work, he would anxiously check his Timex watch with increasing frequency until the blessed minute arrived and he could bolt.
Nick walked through the dented sliding doors, his palms sweaty with anticipation. His worn tennis shoes squeaked noisily against the scuff-marked linoleum tiles as he approached the buffet. There were only two people in line: a bickering Caucasian couple with elaborate dragon tattoos snaking around both their arms. The guy had a Chinese character tattooed on the side of his neck. Now, Nick was no expert on Oriental languages (yet), but he was taking Chinese lessons, and those lessons told him that the character meant 'soup'.
...well, at least the tattoo job was good. The lines were clean and dark, and he didn't see any swelling or redness. Nick wondered idly if maybe he should get a tattoo. Maybe it would make him look cooler? Maybe it would impress-
The couple's arguing hit a crescendo. From Nick's eavesdropping, they'd apparently decided to end a dedicated, seven-year relationship over honey walnut shrimp. Interesting. With a last, infuriated huff, the girl shook her head, sending neon blue hair flying into Nick's face. She stormed off, flipping off Soup Tattoo and disappearing through the sliding doors.
Soup Tattoo seemed at a loss for words for a moment, gaping at the space where his ex-girlfriend was like a floundering tuna. He looked remorsefully at his half-filled plate, before throwing a five-dollar-bill on the counter and leaving as well.
Suddenly the store was uncomfortably quiet. Where loud curses and extremely private information had been before, there was now only the low buzz of the wooden fan spinning diligently on the ceiling. Oppressive awkwardness filled the air-conditioned atmosphere.
Nick started piling his plate on with every food available in a desperate attempt to justify his presence in the store. Only once he was positive that he could not possibly finish even half of the oily overly-fried grub he was buying, did Nick approach the cashier. A veritable Mount Everest of assorted entrees and sides wobbled on his tray.
Amanda, the cashier girl, eyed his plate with some trepidation. "Just… put it there," she said, gesturing to the scale with a gloved hand. Nick gingerly placed his enormous lunch onto the scale, watching the the digital numbers on its side climb higher and higher
19.3 pounds?! Holy guacamole! That's ten times the amount I usually get!
Nick swallowed. "Uh… how much would that be?" Amanda poked some buttons on the calculator fastened to the counter. "$151.80 plus tax." She pronounced the words solemnly, like a coroner would pronounce someone's death. Nick hissed an expletive through his teeth, before drooping resignedly and reaching for his already-overburdened American Excess Card. He could practically hear his credit score crying out in anguish.
"Wait!" Amanda lurched forward, holding Nick's wrist firmly and stopping him from swiping his card on the register. Their eyes locked for a single moment, and Nick felt his heart jackhammering violently in his chest like it wanted to crack his ribcage open. "You come here all the time," continued Amanda. "I think I can take twenty percent off of your total for being such a loyal customer." She smiled beatifically, ivory teeth dazzling bright in the neon lights of The Gluttonous Panda.
Nick blinked once. Twice. "I… would like that, yes." Then Amanda - still smiling - reached under the counter, pulled out a '20% off' coupon, and handed it to Nick. He stared at the multicolored slip of paper and handed it back to her. In a short, jerky motion, he placed his card on the terminal and dragged it all the way from top to bottom.
PURCHASE SUCCESSFUL, announced the terminal cheerfully. "You're good to go," beamed Amanda, dropping two plastic-wrapped fortune cookies on Nick's tray. "Thank you," he said, placing his card back into his faux-leather wallet. He slowly lifted his wobbling plate from the scale, and made his way over to a small booth with faded stains on the table's vinyl tablecloth.
Nick ate slowly and contemplatively, moving his roasted eggplant around his dish with a bendy plastic fork. Sauteed mushrooms, sweet-and-sour pork, fried potstickers, black pepper broccoli - obscure Scandinavian royalty would kill for this kind of food, he was sure. It didn't make him want to eat it any more, though. The truth was, Nick didn't like The Gluttonous Panda. It was too spicy, too exciting for his mild and bland palate. No, the only reason he went there so ludicrously often was…
His gaze wandered over to Amanda. Her glossy, chocolate-colored hair fell in thick, coiffed waves over her shoulders, her lipstick was the perfect shade of watermelon pink, and her almond-shaped eyes were playful and sparkling. Nick let out a dreamy sigh. She's absolutely perfect… so perfect that he was even subjecting himself to ridiculously expensive Chinese lessons, just so he could speak to her in her native language.
He sighed again, but this time it was sad and gloomy. He had no chance with her. Why would she go for a socially awkward geologist with no hobbies other than finding vaguely interesting rocks? Oh, right. She wouldn't. Nick finished off his water and stood up, pushing his plate away from him. He grabbed a fortune cookie from his tray and dejectedly left the restaurant, popping open the cookie's wrapper as he exited. The treat inside was a wonderful, toasty gold color, smelling of sweet vanilla and promising a delightful crunchiness. Nick snapped it in half, fished out the fortune inside, and threw both ends inside his mouth.
He walked over to a nearby trashcan, ready to throw out the fortune. But then, the strangest thing happened. He decided not to. Maybe it was because he decided he wanted some good news in his life, even though it was completely fake. Maybe he was simply curious about the mysterious and entirely bogus fate he was apparently going to have. Either way, he uncrumpled the tiny slip of paper and read the words printed inside.
You miss all the shots you don't take. True love will appear in your life… if you are brave enough to chase it.
Nick stared at the fortune. It's almost like it knew… No, that's ridiculous, he corrected himself. But even if it wasn't personalized for me, that doesn't mean it doesn't have some value. He turned his head to look at the distant shape of The Gluttonous Panda. The obese black-and-white bear on the sign seemed to be mocking him. I bet you won't do it, you pansy, he imagined it saying, waving its chopsticks at him infuriatingly. In a burst of irrational anger, Nick turned around and started running straight for the restaurant's entrance. By the time he entered through the sliding doors, he was panting and breathless. His normally pale face was flushed cherry-red with exertion.
"Amanda!" he gasped out, using a chair as a crutch to hold himself up. "Will you... will you go on a date with me?" He looked at her earnestly, forcing himself not to look away. His limbs were trembling, his heart was quaking, his brain was spinning. Please, please, let that fortune be correct…
Amanda opened and closed her mouth a few times, as if she were going to speak. At last, she shook her head, a rosy crescent smile on her face. "I was wondering when you were going to ask! I mean, I would've asked you myself, but that's against store policy." She laughed. "Of course I will, Nick. Of course I will."
And though it would probably cause him to die of diabetes at age forty, at that moment all of Nick's trips to The Gluttonous Panda were worth it.