My family has eaten at Wong’s every Thursday since I can remember. We eat family style, my father ordering enough food to feed us three meals. We all pig out and then take the rest home. After the waiter takes the leftover food to pack up in clean white cardboard boxes, Mrs. Wong herself comes out to ask how the meal was. The meal is always fantastic and Mrs. Wong takes her weekly praise from us with a small nod of her head. Mrs. Wong then places the bill beside my father. She places the plate of fortune cookies in front of me. She knows it’s my favorite part of the meal.
I am the only member of my family who believes the fortunes in fortune cookies. I always try to remember who got which fortune and remind them during the week how it came true. They laugh at me, funny little baby of the family, still believes in fairies and leprechauns and fortunes!
This week I announce to the table at large that whoever doesn’t believe in fortune cookies may not have one. I guard the plate of cookies by hugging it to me and leaning over it. My father says not to be silly. Mom says that she is too full for a cookie, anyway. My brother Ted whines like a baby, instead of the 15-year-old that he is, “Mom! Don’t let Sarah hog the cookies!” My sister, Linda, smiles silently at me, not wanting to get involved. Her husband, Hank, says, “Sarah, what if you keep all the fortunes, but let us have the cookies?” Hank is a problem solver my father says.
“Great idea!” I say, “Then I’ll get all the good luck!” I pull all the fortunes out of the cookies, shove the tiny strips of paper in my pants pocket and pass the plate around. Mrs. Wong pats me on the shoulder and says, “You are wise. Fortunes always come true.” She turns and goes back to the kitchen.
My father says that he once got a fortune that read, ‘Help! I’m being held captive in a fortune cookie factory.’
“I hope that one wasn’t true,” he says, and we all laugh and stand up to leave.
In the car on the way home, I unfurl one fortune.
“Miles are covered, one step at a time,” I read out loud to my father, mother and brother.
“See!” I say, “This one is already true. I’m going on a hike and camping overnight with the Forest Scouts tomorrow.”
“How about that?” says my mother, smiling at me. “Try another one.”
I take another fortune out of my pocket and read it.
“’Soon, life will become more interesting.’ That must mean that the camping and hiking are going to be fun!” I say to my family.
“Beware of that one,” says my father, “There’s a curse that states ‘May you live in interesting times.’ It’s not always good when things get interesting.”
I ignore that. My family is entirely too normal. They don’t believe in magic or Santa Claus or fortune cookies. How boring is that? When I get home, I finish packing for the camping weekend. I have an extra, smaller backpack inside my bigger one that is filled with What-Ifs. What-Ifs are things you might need in an emergency or other unexpected event. I always have What-Ifs with me, but they differ, depending on the situation. My school What-If bag is a small zippered pencil case with Band-Aids and elastic bands and safety pins. Before my school instituted the no-tolerance policy about bringing weapons to school, I used to carry a pocket knife with 25 tools, including a corkscrew. I’ve never needed the corkscrew, and I don’t know why anyone else would need one, either. People buy wine and take it home where there is a corkscrew in a drawer. I can’t imagine that anyone has a craving for wine, buys a bottle to drink right away and suddenly realizes they need a corkscrew. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s one of those things I’ll find out is perfectly normal once I become an adult. Like grapefruit spoons. They seem silly, but they are very handy for eating a grapefruit.
A pocket knife is not primarily a weapon. It’s a useful tool. But when I tried to complain about the no-tolerance policy, all the adults shut me down. So, now I only carry the pocket knife outside of school.
I will carry my What-If backpack with me at all times while camping. It has a small first aid kit, and my pocket knife, of course. It also has a flashlight with zoom function, a compass, a neon reflective vest and a lightweight lifesaving blanket. The backpack itself has a whistle built into a clip on the front.
My father comes in while I’m packing my What-If bag and asks if I think I really need all that for a one-night camping trip. I say I like to be prepared. He asks if my troop leader, Des, doesn’t already have all this stuff. I say I like to be prepared, emphasizing the word ‘I’. My father sighs and leaves the room. A while back, my parents sat me down to talk about my ‘anxiety’. I told them I didn’t have anxiety. I didn’t worry that anything bad was going to happen. I just liked to be ready for anything.
My best friend Benji and I are excited about the camping trip. We squeal about it the next day in the back seat of the car until Benji’s dad says, “Girls! For the sake of my eardrums, will you please tone it down?” We try our best, but Benji lets out one more squeal.
“Benjamina!” warns her dad.
“Oops,” says Benji. We spend the rest of the trip nudging each other and whisper-giggling. Benji’s dad turns up the music to tune us out.
We are wiggling with so much anticipation for our hiking and camping trip I decide to read another fortune, just to calm us down.
“Depart not from the path which fate has you assigned,” I tell Benji.
“What does that mean?” she asks.
“It means don’t get lost,” her dad says as he pulls into the parking lot where our counselor Des is waiting with nine other scouts.
After a two-hour hike, we make it to base camp. Des splits us into groups for putting up tents, gathering wood for a fire and making dinner. Benji and I are on wood gathering duty. Des gives us a canvas sling for larger pieces of wood and a canvas bag for thinner kindling. She reminds us that “deader is better,” but don’t disturb fallen tree trunks and logs. We’ve already learned all about this kind of thing in the Forest Scouts; which wood makes the best fire and how dead, waterlogged stumps and large chunks of wood become homes for small animals. We want dry branches that have broken off from trees and fallen to the ground. I’m wearing my What-If backpack. My pocket knife has a small saw for cutting smaller twigs from larger branches. We cross the campsite and Des calls after us, “Don’t go past the path that runs along the top of the ridge! Ranger Sullivan said that it’s unstable because of all the rain we’ve had. Remember, it used to be a river bank, so the ground there isn’t as hard-packed as in other places. The ridge path is the boundary.”
Benji picks up her day pack. I already have mine on. We tell Des that we won’t go past the path and we head off into the woods. It’s still very light out, even in the woods, and we look around for suitable branches for our fire. Soon we come across a wide path that runs parallel to the direction we are going and realize that this is the ridge.
The ridge is not a cliff-like drop off. A person could scramble up or down it if they needed to. It’s pretty steep, though, and deep. The river used to run here about 300 years ago, according to Des. On previous hikes, we’ve found fish fossils in the woods, even though the river is now miles away. Des has also shown us fallen trees with a lot of sand in the roots. It’s pretty interesting being in the Forest Scouts. I might want to be a forest ranger when I grow up if my dream of being an investigative reporter doesn’t work out. Benji wants to be an actor or a playwright. She should be. She’s very dramatic.
“Look!” says Benji, “There a big, dead branch over there. We could cut it up and have plenty of firewood.” She points to the other side of the ridge path, where there is a strip of earth and sparse grass about three feet wide at the edge of the drop.
“No!” I say, grabbing Benji by the sleeve, “Remember the fortune cookie? ‘Depart not from the path which fate has you assigned.’”
Benji laughs, “Fate? Fate didn’t assign us this task. Des did.”
“Des is her nickname. Do you know what it’s short for?” I say, “Destiny. And destiny means fate.”
“Sarah, for Pete’s sake!” says Benji, “You’re pushing it now. Des said not to go past the path. I’m only going on the path. I can reach the branch without going past the path. Okay?”
We hadn’t been finding much suitable wood for our fire and that branch really was perfect. If we grab it and drag it to a safe spot, we could cut everything we need off it. We might even carry the main branch back with us to use the ax back at the campsite, so no one would have to go back out to get firewood again tomorrow morning.
“Okay,” I say, “Just on the path and no farther.”
Benji walks over and grabs the branch. She tugs hard, but it’s stuck.
“Benji, just leave it. We’ll find another branch,” I say.
Benji grabs the branch with both hands and yanks it.
“I’ve almost got it,” she says, “Oh! I see what’s wrong. It’s stuck on that root.”
She lets go and walks around the branch, which is now laying across the path.
“I think I can get it,” she says. She leans over to free the branch and takes one more step closer to the edge, and that’s when it happens.
The place where she put her foot down simply crumbles. Benji slips and slides down the former river bank. She’s gone without a sound, except for an “Oof” and an “Ow!” at the end.
I am stunned and immobile. I don’t know what to do.
Then Benji’s voice comes floating up.
“Sarah?” she says, tentatively, “I think I’m hurt.”
“Should I go get help?” I call out.
“No!” Benji shouts, “Don’t leave me.” She’s scared.
I’m not sure what to do, but I think I need to see where Benji is and what the situation is. How can I do that? I remember learning that if ice is thin, the way to save someone is to lie down in a chain in order to get to them. When you spread your weight out, you are less likely to break the ice. I figure that it probably works on crumbly earth, too. I lie down on the ground, worm my way over to the edge and look down. Benji is almost at the bottom of the ravine.
“Are you bleeding?” I ask.
“I’m scraped up, but it’s my ankle that’s the problem,” Benji says, “It hurts a lot. I don’t think I can walk.”
I look around and see, over to the left, a way that I can probably get down to where Benji is. It’s not as steep as where I am because it goes down diagonally and it looks like people have used it as a path. It also looks slick and muddy. I take another good look around at the ravine. I see a deer blind in the distance. It doesn’t look too far away, but it’s hard to tell. I worm my way back to the other side of the path and think about what to do. The daylight is fading. If I go back to the campsite, it will take time and I’ll be leaving Benji alone with no light. If I try to get to her, I might hurt myself and make things worse.
I reach into my pocket and pull out another fortune. I need guidance. It’s obvious to me we’re in this mess because we didn’t do what the last fortune said to do. I unroll the paper.
“A smooth, long journey lies ahead.”
Well, that can’t be any clearer. I need to slide down that muddy path. I walk over to where it starts, take my What-If backpack off my back and put it on the front of me, securing it tightly. Then I sit down and scoot on my bottom to the top of the ridge, take a deep breath, and push off.
It is more slippery and a lot more slimy and cold than I imagined, but it works. I slide down the incline, sometimes having to give myself another shove, but mostly it’s just the world’s most disgusting playground slide.
When I get to Benji, she is happy to see me, but it’s clear she’s been crying.
“Does it hurt that much?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “It hurts, but I was crying because I’m scared and I didn’t think you’d come down here.”
“It’s okay,” I say, “I’m here. And the fortune told me it would be okay, and it is. When we didn’t do what the fortune said, it was bad and when I just did what the fortune said, it worked, so that’s what we’re doing from now on. Okay?”
“Okay,” says Benji, “I promise to do what the fortunes say.”
She laughs and tries to get up, but it hurts too much.
“I can’t stand up. What does the fortune have to say about that?” Benji asks.
I take the second-to-last fortune out and read it.
“Do not underestimate yourself.”
“I think this one is for both of us,” I say. “I’ll find you a walking stick in a minute. First, I want to send a message to Des.” I pull out my cell phone, but I don’t have any reception down here.
“Uh-oh,” I say, “No bars.”
“Why didn’t you call her when you were up top?” asks Benji.
“I didn’t want her to tell me not to come down here to you,” I say. “If I don’t ask, she can’t say no.”
Benji reaches out and squeezes my hand.
“Thank you,” she says, “But, wait. Why are you going to find a walking stick? Where are we going?”
“To a deer blind I saw from the ridge. It’s going to get dark soon and I don’t know when they’ll find us, so we should find shelter. Do you have your mini-binoculars on you?” I take the compass out of my backpack.
Benji reaches into a side pocket in her Forest Scout uniform pants and pulls out a small leather case.
“Here. I hope they’re still in one piece,” she says.
The case has protected the binoculars. I use them to find the deer blind. It’s springtime, with only buds on the sparse trees that grow here in the ravine. I find the deer blind and take a compass reading.
“Pretty much due north,” I say. “It’s not far. We can probably keep it in our sights the whole walk. I’ll get the walking stick now.”
I don’t have to go far before I find a suitable stick. Benji can use it on the good foot side and I’ll be on the bad foot side. I take out my first aid kit and wrap Benji’s foot tight and put her shoe back on. I hope this helps stabilize her ankle as we move.
Benji and I struggle to get her up and moving. We have to practice figuring out how she should use the stick. Once we’ve got our rhythm down, I turn on the step counter in my cell phone and we set off toward the deer blind. We don’t move quickly, but we get there before it’s full dark.
The deer blind is in two parts: an enclosed hut and a high platform attached to the side. The inside of the deer blind is pretty comfortable. It has benches to sit or lie down on, a small wood-burning stove with a pile of wood stacked near it, a plastic container filled with tinder and a Swedish fire steel. Luckily, we had learned all about how to make fires in Forest Scouts. We recognized the fire steel for what it was, and both Benji and I knew how to use it, although Benji was better at it. I was always a little afraid of it. A fire steel is really cool, though. It’s a rod made of ferrocerium and a flat steel “striker.” You scrape the striker along the rod and it produces a bunch of sparks that can light almost any kind of tinder.
I build a nice pile of tinder and wood and let Benji do the sparking. She has the kindling burning quickly and I add wood from the stack. I take my phone out to see if I have any bars. It flickers from no reception to weak reception and back again.
“I think if I climb up to the platform, I might get reception,” I say. “It’s dark now. Reception might be better.”
“Okay, but don’t be too long,” says Benji. I can tell she is still upset about her ankle and our situation.
“Tell you what,” I say, “I won’t try to phone Des. I’ll write a text and then go up to the platform to send it. I’ll just write where we are and that we’re safe and that our reception is bad and that they can come for us in the morning, okay?”
Benji agrees and I write a text giving our location according to how far we are from the ridge, which I know from the step counter on my cell phone. Then I leave the warm hut and climb up to the platform. The reception is still not steady up there, but the bars occasionally go up to two and the message finally goes.
When I get back down to the hut, Benji asks, “What now?”
I take the last fortune out of my pocket.
“Sometimes waiting is the best action,” I read.
“It doesn’t say that!” Benji laughs.
“It does,” I say, showing it to her.
“Okay,” says Benji, looking a bit spooked, “We wait.”
I look around the hut some more and find a box on a shelf with a set of 5 dice in it.
“We could play Yahtzee or 24-18, but we can’t keep score,” I say.
“We can keep score,” says Benji, “I have a pad and pencil in my pack. A writer should always have a pencil and paper.”
“Great!” I say, “You don’t have any dinner in there, too, do you? I’m kind of hungry.” I wonder why I don’t carry food and water in my What-If bag. That’s stupid. Food and water are essential. I vow to always carry food and water from now on.
“No dinner,” says Benji, “But, I’ve got granola bars and a water bottle.”
I smile at Benji. I’m surprised in a good way. She had always given me the impression that she thought my What-If bags were crazy.
“I thought Des might make us fish for our supper, and I hate fish,” she says, looking a bit embarrassed. I’m just glad Benji doesn’t like fish.
Benji and I spend the evening playing dice games to pass the time. We eat half the granola bars. (She has eight of them in there!) and we sip some water, saving the rest for the morning. We have a pretty good time, considering that we’re lost in the woods.
Right when we are talking about trying to go to sleep, we hear noises in the woods, sounds of an engine, and then footsteps crunching their way toward us. Someone knocks on the door, although there is no lock on it and they could have simply opened it.
“Sarah? Benji?” a deep voice calls out, “Are you in there? It’s Ranger Sullivan.”
I open the door and let him in.
He asks us which of us is hurt, and then examines Benji’s ankle. Benji can’t go back to the campsite, he tells us. She’ll have to go to the local emergency room to have an x-ray. He asks me if I want to go back to the site.
I look at Benji and then say that, if it’s okay, I’d rather stay with her until her parents come.
We drive in the range rover to the hospital. I’m with Benji the whole time except in the x-ray room. When our parents arrive, Benji and I are back in a curtained area in the ER.
Benji’s parents are making a fuss over her and my parents are asking me if I’m okay. We both assure them we are fine.
My mother says, “Oh, girls! I was so worried! Anything could have happened out there! Maybe you are just too young for this kind of thing.”
Ranger Sullivan says, “No, ma’am. The girls had an accident, which anyone could have had. They reacted to the accident exactly right. They had food and water with them. The girls sought shelter and kept themselves warm. They sent a message with their exact whereabouts. I’ve rescued grown, experienced hikers who weren’t as well-prepared as these two girls.”
My father smiles down at me. “Sarah likes to be prepared.”
The next Thursday, we are eating at Wong’s like we always do. Benji is with us this time. She eats a double portion of fried tofu and passes on the fish. When Mrs. Wong brings out the fortune cookies, everyone reaches for one, except me.
“No cookie for you?” Mrs. Wong asks.
“No, thank you,” I say. “I think I’m done with fortunes.”
Mrs. Wong clucks her tongue and shakes her head.
“What a thing to say!” she says, as she turns and walks back to the kitchen.
Benji is holding her fortune slip and grinning from ear to ear.
“I think this one is for both of us,” she says, handing it to me.
“The secret to good friends is no secret to you,” I read aloud.
I turn toward the kitchen and see Mrs. Wong looking through the circular window in the swinging door.
She smiles at me.
© 2020 Liza Cameron Wasser