The sun was just beginning to peak over the mountains as Qi Hua placed the cartons on the countertop. She sighed as the tension in her arms subsided.
It had been like this for seven months now. Wake up at four, buy eggs from the farm across the village, and return to the bakery just as the clock strikes five. Then mix the ingredients to form batter, spoon the batter into circles, and place them in the oven to bake. By this time, Zheng Yu would be up and slicing edible paper into strips, each with a message printed in edible ink. After fifteen minutes, he would be done, and Qi Hua would take the cookies out of the oven. She would then remove each cookie, flip it over, hold it out to Zheng Yu to place a strip in the middle, fold the cookie in half, and pull the edges downward over a chopstick before placing it in a muffin tin. By seven, 100 fortune cookies would be sitting on display trays. Villagers and tourists would stop by Taste of Fortune until the bakery closed at five.
Every time Qi Hua thought about life back in the city, she reminded herself that she chose this path and needed to continue. On her first day as Zheng Yu’s apprentice, he had given her a fortune cookie with the message “No regrets, don’t look back”, and that became her mantra. And really, she couldn’t complain. Zheng Yu was a fortune cookie expert and the inventor of the 100% edible fortune cookie.
Qi Hua was mixing the batter when she heard her boyfriend’s motorcycle outside. A few seconds later, Liu Xiao stepped inside carrying rolls of edible paper. When Zheng Yu found out that he worked in the city, Zheng Yu had asked him to get edible ink messages printed on edible paper with a machine since it was faster than handwriting each message. Liu Xiao had agreed, eager to see Qi Hua more.
Qi Hua and Liu Xiao had been together for a year. Her mother had set them up after discovering that her co-worker’s son was a wealthy engineer in the city. Qi Hua doesn’t think she will marry him, but she admired his confidence and thought they could at least be friends.
“It’s good to see you; it’s been forever,” Liu Xiao said as he set the rolls in the kitchen near the back door.
Qi Hua smiled. “You saw me last week.”
Liu Xiao leaned over to kiss Qi Hua, but she had turned to get the payment, and he ended up kissing her cheek instead. Clearing his throat, Liu Xiao went back to his motorcycle to wait. When Qi Hua returned, she handed him an envelope.
“Here’s your payment. Thanks for buying the supplies.”
“You know I only agreed to help Zheng Yu so I could see you.”
Qi Hua rolled her eyes. “See you next week.”
Liu Xiao waved before hopping onto his motorcycle. He wasn’t sure if it was just his imagination, but Qi Hua seemed more distant ever since she left the city. He was always the one visiting her, and whenever he brought up their future or tried to convince her to go back, Qi Hua would change the topic. Liu Xiao was planning to propose to her next week on her birthday, but now he wasn’t so sure.
Back in Taste of Fortune, Qi Hua and Zheng Yu were finishing up the cookies.
“Did your boyfriend bring the edible paper?”
“Yes, they’re in the kitchen.”
“Good. That’ll be enough for the cookie exchange in two weeks.” Zheng Yu adjusted his glasses before retreating to his room upstairs.
Ten years ago, Zheng Yu started a yearly cookie exchange and contest for the youth across the country. The winner would receive money to kickstart a baking business. Qi Hua had wanted to compete in the contest since she was fifteen, but her parents disapproved. They warned her that bakers have difficult lives, and she should find a real job. Succeeding in the cookie exchange contest would be Qi Hua’s chance to prove her parents wrong.
The next morning, Qi Hua went to the back of the kitchen to retrieve edible paper. Qi Hua hated going there. It was dark and cold, and there were probably rats scurrying around. But since edible ink faded in direct light, Zheng Yu insisted on storing them in the back corner, where there were no lights. Stepping closer, she heard a faint snipping sound. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she made out the figure of a man crouching next to the rolls.
Knowing that Zheng Yu was still asleep, Qi Hua thought that maybe Liu Xiao decided to make a surprise visit, so she tentatively asked, “Liu Xiao?”
The snipping sound immediately stopped, and the roll dropped to the floor as the man stood and attempted to go out the back door.
With one foot out the door, the man turned around. Qi Hua gasped. It wasn't Liu Xiao, though his face seemed oddly familiar. From the sliver of light, Qi Hua saw that he had dirt on his clothes and was barefoot.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Qi Hua asked. She had heard rumors of a bakery thief in the area, but she never thought she would encounter one.
The man sighed. “Let’s talk outside. Wouldn’t want the light ruining the ink.”
Qi Hua raised her eyebrows. “How do you know that?”
The man repeated, “Outside.”
Qi Hua furrowed her brows before following the man out the back door into the field leading to the woods. Looking at the man more closely, Qi Hua couldn’t help but compare him to Liu Xiao. Liu Xiao was scrawny, and his face was smooth and pale. This man was muscular, and his face was rugged and dark.
“You wanted to ask me something?”
Qi Hua blushed and blurted, “What were you doing? Were you trying to steal the paper? How did you know that edible ink can’t be exposed to light? Who are you? Where are you from?
The man peered into her eyes. Just as Qi Hua was starting to feel uneasy, the man said softly, “You can call me Ji.”
Qi Hua waited in case Ji decided to say more. But when he turned to face the woods, Qi Hua copied him and said, “Okay. You can call me Hua.”
“Hua,” Ji repeated softly to himself. “That’s a good name. You will surely prosper in the future.”
Qi Hua looked at Ji out of the corner of her eye. She remembered seeing a similar phrase on a fortune cookie message before.
“Ji is a good name, too. It means continuity. Hua is just a flower. It blossoms, but eventually withers.”
Ji turned toward her. “You asked me where I’m from. I used to live in the city, but now I live in the woods. If you follow me, I can show you something that will answer your other questions.”
Now it was Hua’s turn to study Ji’s face. She should have shooed him away with a warning a long time ago. She shouldn’t have followed him outside the bakery. And she definitely shouldn’t follow him into the woods.
But she found herself trusting Ji, and the words “lead the way” came out of her mouth before she could stop them.
The corners of Ji’s lips lifted slightly. Then he headed toward the woods, with Hua close behind. The sun had fully risen by now, and the sunlight danced across the leaves as they trudged through the woods in silence. Finally, they reached a clearing. Hua saw a small dome-shaped object made out of clay and stones, and it had a hole in the side.
“Is this...an oven?”
“An earth oven.”
As Hua admired the structure, Ji removed one of the stones and pulled something out, hiding it in his hands. When Hua looked at him questioningly, Ji opened his hands to reveal something that looked very much like a fortune cookie, only browner in color.
“A fortune cookie?” She asked, already knowing the answer.
Slowly, Hua reached out and took the fortune cookie. She broke it in half and unfolded the message. The words “Success is a journey, not a destination” were written in brown ink.
“It’s edible, you know.”
Hua suddenly understood why Ji was showing her all this. “You’ve been stealing edible paper from Taste of Fortune?”
“No! Well, not really. I’ve been making my own from potatoes but I ran out. I saw the motorcycle guy deliver…” he trailed off when Hua stepped back.
“Where did you get your other ingredients from?” Hua’s tone was harsher now.
Ji sighed. “Okay, yes. I’ve been taking them from nearby bakeries. But I don’t have money, and I thought they wouldn’t notice if a little bit is missing.”
Hua narrowed her eyes. “So you’re the bakery thief that people have been talking about?”
Ji scratched his head and looked down.
Hua eyed the cookie. “Why is it so brown?”
“I needed something easily accessible that adds flavor. Chocolate was an easy solution.”
Remembering the chocolate chip cookies sold across the street, Hua sighed and ate the cookie. As the chocolate melted in her mouth, she closed her eyes. It tasted good, maybe even better than Taste of Fortune’s, which always had the same vanilla flavor.
Hua opened her eyes to see Ji staring at her nervously. “It’s good.”
Ji’s face relaxed. “Thanks. I had a good teacher...”
Deciding not to bombard Ji with more questions, Hua nodded. Then, before she could stop herself, she said, “If you want, I can get some extra eggs for you each day.”
Ji’s face brightened. “Really?”
Hua smiled. “Meet me in the back corner of the kitchen at five in the morning.”
By the time Hua got back, Zheng Yu was already up and slicing the edible paper. He looked up when Hua entered the bakery. “You’re late.”
“Sorry, I was meeting a friend.”
“Does your friend bake? You should invite them to the cookie exchange.”
It hadn’t occurred to Hua to invite Ji. The chocolate fortune cookie was delicious, but would Ji be a rival? Hua decided to get to know Ji more before making a decision.
True to her word, Hua bought an extra carton of eggs each day. When she went into the kitchen, Ji would be waiting in the shadows. In exchange for the eggs, Ji would give Hua a fortune cookie with a different message inside, the latest being “Be aggressive with your kindness”. Hua began to look forward to going to the back corner of the kitchen.
On the morning of her birthday, Hua was on her way back from the farm when a group of villagers stopped her to sing “Happy birthday” and give her a cake. By the time she got back, it was almost 5:30 am. She was so focused on not dropping the cake that she failed to notice the motorcycle outside the bakery. After unlocking the door, she heard scuffling in the kitchen.
“If you don’t leave, I’ll call the cops.”
Hua’s eyes widened. She forgot that Liu Xiao would be visiting today. Ji had probably been waiting for a while. After setting the eggs and cake down, she tiptoed toward the kitchen.
“Please don’t hurt me. I’m just waiting for Hua.”
“Hua? Qi Hua? How do you know her?”
Before Ji could respond, Hua burst into the kitchen to find Liu Xiao pointing a knife at Ji.
“Don’t hurt him! He’s not trying to steal.”
Liu Xiao slowly put the knife back in the drawer.
“Why is he here then?”
Hua’s eyes shifted to Ji’s, asking for permission. Ji nodded.
“He doesn’t have money. Or a home. I’ve been giving him eggs.”
Liu Xiao scoffed. “Why does he have a fortune cookie?”
When no one answered, Liu Xiao snatched the fortune cookie from Ji’s hands and broke it in half. Taking the message out, he read aloud: “Your beauty is both outside and within”.
Liu Xiao glared at Ji, who avoided eye contact. Then he turned to Hua, who was looking at him with an unreadable expression.
“I’m going to report this thief to the police.”
“What?! No, you can’t do that!”
“Why not? He didn’t tell you that he was the one who stole the chocolate?” Liu Xiao’s voice grew louder. “He’s stealing ingredients from bakers, and now he’s trying to steal you from me!”
“That’s what this is about?!”
“I was going to propose today,” Liu Xiao whispered. “I see that you care more about baking and this village than me. But since it’s your birthday, I’ll let him go.”
Hua’s eyes softened. “Thank you, Liu Xiao.”
Suddenly, there was a thud, and then a groan.
“Mentor!” Hua cried out and rushed to the stairs. Zheng Yu sat on the floor, wincing and holding his foot.
“I heard yelling downstairs and wanted to see what was wrong.”
“Liu Xiao! Can you take him to the hospital?”
Liu Xiao glared at Ji once more before helping to carry Zheng Yu outside and onto his motorcycle.
After they left, Hua went back to the kitchen, but there was no trace of Ji, just the remains of the fortune cookie.
At the hospital, Liu Xiao sat next to Zheng Yu’s hospital bed.
“What were you two fighting about?”
“I don’t think Qi Hua cares about me as much as I care about her. I’ve been telling her that she can have a perfect life if she comes back to the city with me, but she doesn’t want to. I was going to propose, but that didn’t go well.”
Zheng Yu was silent for a moment. “Do you love her?”
Liu Xiao scratched his chin. “Love her? I mean… I wish she would listen to me and come back to the city so we can start a life together.”
After a long pause, Zheng Yu said, “I wanted my son to take over my bakery, but he insisted on coming to the city and starting his own marketing business. I learned to let go because I didn't want to lose him by forcing him to stay.”
Liu Xiao clenched his jaw.
“My grandson...he always tried to bake with me. He was there when I was perfecting the fortune cookie. But then my son moved to the city with his family. Before they left, I gave my grandson a fortune cookie with the message ‘Home is where the heart is’. I haven’t seen them since.”
Zheng Yu sighed. “The cookie exchange Hua is so excited about...is my attempt to find my grandson. He wanted to become a baker, and I’m hoping one day I will get to taste what he makes.”
The next day, Ji wasn’t waiting in the kitchen. The day after, Ji wasn’t there either. Since Zheng Yu would be staying in the hospital for a few days, Hua was left to take care of the bakery. But she couldn’t run the bakery alone, so she decided to ask Ji for help.
When Hua got to the clearing in the woods, Ji was tearing down the earth oven.
“Why haven’t you shown up? I had eggs for you.”
“I think I should leave.”
“Well, do you want a job?”
Fifteen minutes later, Ji was in the kitchen, slicing edible paper as Hua stirred the batter.
“How’s the old man?”
“He sprained his ankle. Liu Xiao said he’s still in the hospital but should be back in time for the cookie exchange.”
Hua paused her stirring. It was now or never. “Every year, my mentor runs a cookie exchange for young bakers.”
“Can I participate? I don’t have much experience, just what I learned when I was little.”
After Ji left for the day, Qi Hua went outside to dump the trash and was surprised to see Liu Xiao’s motorcycle. Stepping closer, she saw a note on the seat.
I'm sorry I yelled at you. Maybe we should spend some time figuring our lives out. I’ll focus on my tech career, and you focus on your baking career. This motorcycle is for whenever you want to come to the city.
Your friend, Liu Xiao
P.S. You should invite the “thief” to the cookie exchange.
It was finally the day of the cookie exchange, and Ji and Hua had spent the whole week experimenting with fortune cookie flavors before deciding on chocolate with vanilla, lemon with honey, and matcha with strawberry.
As the participants waited outside, Zheng Yu tasted everyone’s cookies, using a cane to navigate his way around the countertop. There were chocolate chip cookies, shortbread cookies, wafers...some were too sweet, others too buttery. Then he reached the fortune cookies. Zheng Yu surveyed the brown, yellow, and green cookies for a while. Then he took a green cookie and broke it in half, taking out the pink strip. “Home is where the heart is.” Zheng Yu blinked a few times before popping it into his mouth and closing his eyes. Zheng Yu then tried the brown and yellow cookies, finding the same message inside them. These fortune cookies tasted more exciting than his own and were just what he was looking for. Trembling, he hobbled outside.
“Who made the fortune cookies?”
Hua elbowed Ji, who shyly stepped forward.
“What is your name?”
Ji shifted nervously. “Ji.”
Zheng Yu studied his face for a few seconds. Then he took off his glasses, his eyes filling with tears. Looking between her mentor and Ji, Hua suddenly realized why Ji looked familiar.
“I, Zheng Yu, pronounce you the winner of this year’s contest.”
Ji’s eyes widened and he stepped toward Zheng Yu.
Zheng Yu let go of his cane and grasped Ji’s shoulders. “Zheng Ji, welcome home.”