Our February Flash Contest was based on Prompt #190 (provided by intern Sage Millen), which asked that participants write a story about a character who falls into a bowl of tomato soup and into a magical land. The whimsical yet specific prompt served as the perfect vehicle of creativity for our participants as we received more submissions—43!—than we ever had before! While every story was naturally based upon the same premise, these stories could not have had more variety. Submissions ranged from an epistolary story addressing a corrupt king to the origin story for a pet rabbit to a story surrounding the subsequent events of the eerie, dystopian "Orange Day." As we received a record number of submissions, we found it extra difficult to choose only ten stories worthy of mention, so we added a sixth story to our honorable mentions. As always, thank you to all who submitted, and please submit again next month!
In particular, we congratulate our Winners and our Honorable Mentions, whose work you can appreciate below.
"The Magic of Tomato Soup" by Ananya Cronin, 9 (Fishers, IN)
"Dear King Solanum" by Sophie Li, 11 (Palo Alto, CA)
"Tomato Island" by Nova Macknik-Conde, 10 (Brooklyn, NY)
"The King Who Fell into a Bowl of Tomato Soup" by David Yu, 11 (Hong Kong)
"Ten Times" by Natalie Yue, 10 (San Carlos, CA)
"It Started with the Tomatoes" by Lui Lung, 12 (Danville, CA)
To"Clara and Whiskers" by Elizabeth Sabaev, 11 (Forest Hills, NY)
"Reality or Subconsciousness?" by Emily Tang, 12 (Winterville, NC)
"Colors" by Liyue Sally Wang, 11 (Newton, MA)
"Wish upon a Dream" by Eliya Wee, 11 (Menlo Park, CA)
"Gone Tomatoes" by Savarna Yang, 13 (Outram, NZ)
The Magic of Tomato Soup
Ananya Cronin, 9
“Brooklyn! Lunch is ready!” My brother, Mark, called from the bottom of the stairs.
“Coming! I yelled in return. I shut my green science book and hastily arranged my other textbooks, novels, papers, pencils, and notebooks. I glanced at the tiny snow globe sitting patiently at the edge of my desk. Inside was a miniature model of my pup, Henry, with snow piled around him and wearing a bright red Christmas hat. I looked down at his loyal hazel eyes, knowing that this ruffled pile of caramel brown fur would follow me anywhere. I gently dusted the snow globe and tenderly positioned it beside my gleaming laptop. My brother called again. “Brooklyn! Hurry up!”
“Okay, okay!” I replied. I stood up, then strolled out the door of my aqua blue bedroom, into the red hallway, down the wooden stairs, through the living room, and into the basil-colored kitchen. Dried herbs hung from the ceiling, cabinets lined part of the wall, and steaming bowls of tomato soup sat on the brown table. The smell of sizzling tomatoes and basil filled my nostrils as I sat at the table, eager to devour my food.
Within moments, all my siblings were at the table: Lilly, 8, Liam, 10, Mark, 12, and Will, 16. We silently stared at each other, communicating only with our eyes. We all began to devour our food at the exact same moment. The tomato soup tasted like summer in a bowl. A perfect balance of sweetness and creaminess. I dipped my spoon into the liquid substance and raised it to my lips. When I looked up, everyone appeared oddly entranced by their food. Then I heard it.
“Tap, tap, tap.”
It appeared to be coming from the laundry room. It grew louder and faster.
I glanced around, wondering if anyone else had heard the sound. But when I looked, Lilly, Liam, Mark, and Will were all gone.
A sense of dread flooded over me. I instinctively reached down to grab Henry’s collar, but my hand met nothing but empty pockets of air. My heart began to thud as I felt a bead of sweat roll down my forehead. I didn’t bother to wipe it away. I took a deep breath and looked down into my tomato soup just in time to witness the tip of my spoon disappear beneath the surface. I reached into the bowl of soup and attempted to retrieve my spoon. Instead of feeling the hard metal of the spoon or the smooth bottom of the ceramic bowl, all I felt was emptiness. I screamed.
I tried to pull my hand out of the red creamy substance that strangely gripped it, but found that my hand just went deeper and deeper into the soup, pulling my arm and the rest of my body into the unknown.
I don’t know how much time had passed, but when I woke up, I found myself in a soft pile of grass. It tickled my feet, and I giggled, just the tiniest bit. But within a moment I remembered what had just happened. How did I get here? Where am I? Will I ever go back home?
I got up hurriedly, feeling as stiff as a tin man in the rain. I used my arms to pull myself forward into a sitting position. I stood slowly. Something in my mind told me I should run. But the other part of my mind wanted to stay here forever in this curious, wonderful place to explore. I wasn't sure which part of my mind to listen to, but I was certain of one thing: I was very hungry. My grumbling stomach reminded me that it was still lunchtime, and I needed more than just a couple of spoonfuls of tomato soup. I glanced around me, trying to get the lay of my surroundings.
There were trees of all sorts, each with leaves of different shapes and colors. Some trees had knots in their trunks that looked like faces and animals, while others had lights that seemed like stars for leaves, each a different color. There were no flowers nearby, just weeds and trees as far as I could see. The air was sweet with the smell of grass and…and…and… I couldn’t quite distinguish the scent. It was different from anything I had smelled before. I decided to ignore it for now and instead tried to find something or someone that I could talk to.
I took one step forward and felt something hard and metal beneath my feet. I withdrew my foot from the soft grass and saw a shining metal spoon with bits of tomato soup on it. I laughed quietly to myself and continued on my journey. Suddenly, I heard a soft buzzing around me. It seemed to be coming from all directions. I looked around, trying to figure out the source of the sound. When I turned around, a tiny magical creature was sitting on a tall blade of grass. She was radiant. Four shimmering wings glistened in the afternoon sun as her chocolate brown hair flowed like a river past her shoulders and on for an eternity. A luminous yellow dress seemed to dance around her shoulders and down past her knees. Her warm smile filled me with joy.
“Hello. I don’t see visitors around much. What brings you here?”
“Uh-I-the…I-uh...” I stammered, unsure how to respond. “I fell into a bowl of soup while eating lunch and woke up here and have no idea where I am, so… can you help me?” I blurted out.
“Of course,” she responded. “But I think you should know who I am. My name is Girasole, and I am a Sunflower fairy. We are rare, and, in fact, almost extinct. There is a monstrous rabbit who has been destroying our last known field of existence.”
“Oh, that sounds awful!” I replied sympathetically. “Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“Yes. I will help you as much as you need.” Girasole reassured me. “But first, I will need you to chase this monstrous rabbit as far away from our field as possible. Once you have done that, I will assure you safe passage home. However, we cannot waste any more time. My family and everyone I know is in danger and we must go now if we are to save them.”
“Sure!” Surprising myself, I responded without hesitation. What else was I to do? Stay in that forest forever and starve?
I followed her silently and within a few minutes I was surrounded by a field of sunflowers. Thousands of small creatures exactly like Girasole were in the field, frantically running and screaming as they tried to escape the sizable brown rabbit heading right for us. Tremendous paws as big as dinner plates and desperate eyes the size of cantaloupes moved towards us. His long ears swayed in the breeze, and his fluffy coat looked as if it had been made of the finest silk in the world. I inhaled sharply and took one step forward. Then two steps. Then three. I found myself nose to nose with the giant creature. He glared at me.
“Get away from these sunflower fields right now!” I shouted, pretending to be more confident than my racing heart and sweaty palms would allow me to feel.
He whimpered and backed up, frightened by my voice. He looked confused, like an injured puppy. I lowered my voice and softened my tone.
“Oh, I am sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
His body relaxed slightly and he cried as he frantically explained, “I am so hungry! I was starving to death. I couldn’t find anything to eat, so I came to this place as a last resort. I am trying not to overeat, but it is so tempting and good! I just wish I could find more food. What will I do?”
I reached out to touch his fur gently, attempting to comfort him. He flinched. Withdrawing my hands, I covered the empathetic gasp trying to escape from my mouth. Poor thing. I reached out again. This time, he relaxed his body and closed his eyes for a moment. Then he quickly opened them and spoke.
“You know, sunflowers are not my first choice at all. My favorite food is tomato soup. It is a delight for almost every rabbit. But I don’t get it very often. Only one rabbit knows how to make it. Grandfather Thunder. He is an ancient rabbit. He only makes tomato soup when he has guests. But strangely enough, sometimes his guests disappear! It is a most fantastical trick. Perhaps if you come with me, as my special guest, Grandfather will make it for me. And I shall no longer be hungry for these sunflowers. By the way, my name is Pluto. Come, ride on my back, and I will take you to Grandfather.”
A few moments later, I was on his back, with wind whooshing through my black hair. I clutched onto the scruff of Pluto, bouncing through the fields, yet feeling safe on his back. It wasn’t long before we reached Grandfather’s home. Pluto gently tapped on the wooden door with his front paw.
“Tap, tap, tap.”
I heard footsteps and creaking floorboards. Grandfather opened the door.
Grandfather Thunder did not look as I had expected. He was a pure white rabbit with a pattern of linear blue streaks across his body and down his back. His kind, wise eyes studied us intently.
“Oh, dear Pluto!” Grandfather’s gentle voice greeted us. “Come in, come in! I see you have a special guest. Perhaps I shall make my tomato soup. I have just been tomato picking and have a fresh bushel. It is summer—the perfect time to make it.”
“Thank you, Grandfather Thunder, thank you!” Pluto exclaimed with joy.
We entered the house and within a few moments the aroma of fresh basil tomato soup filled the air. Grandfather laid the large steaming bowls of tomato soup before us. I shifted uncomfortably as I smelled the air, noticing how it smelled exactly like the soup my mother had made just before I got sucked into this world.
I hugged Pluto and whispered, “Thank you so much.”
He looked confused.
“I don’t know why you are thanking me, but I am so grateful for you. Thank you for being my guest. I promise to never eat sunflowers again.”
Before he had a chance to respond, I reached down and dipped my shiny silver spoon into my bowl of soup.
“Tap. Tap. Tap.”
Grandfather watched me curiously, yet knowingly, he tapped his spoon and the wooden table before us. He smiled a mysterious grin.
“Goodbye.” Grandfather mouthed almost silently.
My spoon fell in, and reaching in, my fingers disappeared beneath the surface. This time, I didn’t even fight it. Within moments I was back home. I looked around to witness my siblings slurping away at their bowls of warm tomato soup. Was it still lunchtime? I looked at the clock and saw only two minutes had passed. Oh my.
“Brooklyn!” Mom shouted. “Come up here. I have a surprise for you!”
Comforted by the sound of my mother’s voice, I galloped to my parent’s bedroom. I was so relieved to see her face.
“You have worked so hard these last few months to care for our sunflower garden that I wanted to give you something special. I have a gift for you.”
She moved aside, revealing a large box covered by a soft blue cloth. Excited, I rushed and gently uncovered the box. My eyes widened as I saw a cage with the most exquisite brown rabbit inside. This rabbit looked precisely like Pluto.
I bent down and whispered into the rabbit’s ear, “Is that really you, Pluto?”
He looked at me firmly in the eye and nodded ‘yes.’
I turned to Mom squealing with delight.
“I know exactly what I am going to name him! His name is Pluto!”
Dear King Solanum
Sophie Li, 11
Dear King Solanum,
I know you’re wondering where I am. Where Talon went. I bet you don’t even know that was his name. You called him Builder, and locked him into the dungeon each night. Pity that you don’t know how much more he could do for you if you provided him an incentive to do it. He isn't just Builder. He’s a Seer. He sees things beyond your wildest imagination.
I guess I’m sorry about my people killing all those tomatoes just for a world record. And I definitely wish my brother Zach hadn’t pushed me into that bowl of tomato soup, landed me in your world of tomato beings, and gotten me into that mess. But I’m glad that I met Talon.
You won’t be.
When you locked me up that night, Talon told me everything that happened in the Land of Vines. About your treachery, and about his little device that could help me leave this horrible place. He told me he designed everything, your huge Vine Palace, the villages, all the technology. He built all of it, all by himself. Yet he didn’t get the faintest appreciation.
Magically, Talon is a Seer. He can see glimpses of the future. It was why he never left and had continued to labor for you, despite his little device that could help him steal away into another world forever any time and never return.
You know what he saw? He saw me. He saw how I could help him get his revenge. But he saw no more, and waited for me to arrive ever since then.
The moment he had been waiting for all along finally came. I realized that the mass tomato picking that occurred for the world record of largest bowl of tomato soup happened at the same time almost one third of your population died mysteriously. The same amount of tomatoes that were picked in my world was the same amount that died in yours. I realized the connection.
So all we need to do is go into my world and find you. Talon’s been living with you for so long he knows exactly who you are. He can identify you by smell from hundreds of miles away and knows exactly what you look like. It won’t be long.
whose revenge has finally come
You must be shocked to receive this letter. You thought I had drowned, eh? I wonder if you regretted pushing me into that world-record bowl of tomato soup. That’ll teach you not to play any more pranks on me.
I never emerged from that giant bowl of tomato soup, did I?
I didn’t drown, surprisingly. Here’s what actually happened.
I never hit the bottom of the bowl. Instead I found myself transported into a different world, still with blue skies and green grass, but with shiny red creatures—tomato creatures. They had to wear armor to prevent their tomato skin from ripping.
I told my story to one of the tomato mutations and the next thing I knew, I was brought to the King Solanum, a super fat beefsteak tomato. The second he heard my story, he convicted me of participating in tomato genocide and locked me up in the dungeon.
In the dungeon I met Talon, a cherry tomato. He was an inventive genius but was abused by the king. He claimed to have built and designed the King’s entire palace and countless villages but was still living on meager scraps in the dungeon.
Talon told me that in exchange for helping me get back to my world, I would help him get his revenge on the King. How, I didn’t know, until he mentioned the death of over 1000 tomato species (for unknown reasons) that occurred a few days ago. Then I realized, THAT WAS THE SAME TIME THEY PICKED 1000 TOMATOES FOR THE SOUP! That meant that the two worlds were somehow connected.
There, Talon and I devised a plan and took action. We used one of Talon’s inventions to get to my world. Even in my world, Talon could sense the presence of King Solanum Tomato. The Tomato’s picked now, and revenge has been achieved.
Talon has gone back to his world already, and I guess it’s time I go back to mine. I don’t know if you’ll believe my story but I’m happy that it has all happened, even if it’s all because of a little prank.
Nova Macknik-Conde, 10
“Hello! You must be our first volunteer,” the scientist said cheerfully while glancing down at her paper. “Evelyn Hadi! The form you filled out says that you are from Arabia, you are 21 years old, and you prefer the pronouns she/her/hers. It also says your mother died in war when you were six, while your little sister is currently retired from the FBI. Which is why you volunteered, as this shrink ray is to be hopefully used as a tactic for the FBI and the military. Is this correct?”
Evelyn drew a shaky breath. “Yes, but I prefer to go by Evie, Dr.—ah...”
The scientist smiled. “My name is Dr. Wren Amana, but you can just call me Dr. Wren, Evie. Are you ready to be shrunken down to the size of a cherry tomato?”
Evie took a deep breath, drinking in the refreshing, lavender scented air like a person stranded in the desert for several days would gulp down water. And finally, after several minutes of gathering her courage and pressing it into a suit of armor around the mushy, blobby, and internally screaming ball of fear trying to crawl up her throat, Evie managed to choke out the word, “Yes.”
“Alright. Take a step backward, but be careful: there’s a table right behind you, and since I was in the middle of eating lunch before you came, there’s a bowl of tomato soup on it, and since I accidentally dropped an unknown substance I call chemical X into it right as I was getting up, there is no telling what it may do to you if you accidentally touch it.” Dr. Wren said gravely, her tone as dark as a pitch-black night.
Evie took the step backward, recalling bittersweet memories of her mom before she went to war, and a recent memory of going to a café with her best friend and sister for hot chocolate and one or two pastries each, to steady her nerves. Dr. Wren walked to the shrink ray machine and flicked a switch on its side. The device was cone shaped, with the point at the back of the shrink ray connected to a thick silver pole and lots of rings going around the cone. Whether they were decorations or an essential part of the shrink ray, Evie had no idea. A faint greenish-blue that was steadily becoming brighter and brighter until it was almost blinding was glowing on the wide part of the cone, which was facing her. Suddenly, she was lifted into the air and thrown backward. The last thing she remembered before everything turned black was being swallowed by a thick red liquid in a white porcelain bowl with a design of sky-blue flowers.
Evie woke in a strange orange bed in a strange red tent, wearing a strange yellow hospital gown. She had no idea how she had been changed into the hospital gown, and honestly, she didn’t really want to know. The tent was big and looked like it had multiple rooms. The front of the tent parted as two tomatoes with arms, legs, and faces walked in. One tomato was wearing a coat that looked like the kind one might find in a doctor’s wardrobe, but red, and the other was wearing orange scrubs. They were as tall as she was and wore surgical masks that matched the colors of their clothes. The tomato wearing the red medical coat (redical coat, Evie thought with a snicker) had her green leaves tied back in a bun secured by yellow hair clips. The tomato wearing scrubs only had a few lonely strands of “hair."
“Hello! I am Nurse Tusken,” the orange scrub-wearer told Evie.
“And I,” the female-looking tomato said cheerfully, “am Dr. Cardinal!”
Evie just stared. “Um—Hello, I guess. My name’s Evie.”
Dr. Cardinal cleared her throat. “So—now for the more, ahem, serious part. Do you, maybe, possibly, enjoy eating tomatoes?”
Evie blinked. “No, most tomato dishes I don’t like.”
Nurse Tusken sighed in relief, pressing his hand against his chest. “Oh, thank Mother Nature.” Tusken stuck his face outside the tent and yelled, “It’s okay! The weird looking thing that fell from the sky doesn’t eat tomatoes!” Which resulted in several voices cheering loudly.
Evie gulped. “So... uh, where am I, what is this place, and why am I in a weird tent thingy?”
“This is Tomato Island, and you are in one of the many medical tents we have scattered around it. You’re here because you fell out of the sky and passed out,” Nurse Tusken said while folding a purple shirt and black pants. “Here you go. Please go into the other room and change into these. After you are done, come out and give us back the hospital gown.”
Evie sat up, got out of the bed, and brushed aside the tent flap. The fabric was soft and felt as though it was made of cotton. Unlike the previous room, one could secure the flap closed. After doing this, Evie proceeded to change. The clothing felt amazingly soft and silken. It was worn and seemed well-loved. She undid the lock and stepped outside into the main room, but Cardinal and Tusken were nowhere to be found! Dr. Cardinal then walked through the flap, calling, “Hello? Evie, are you done yet—oh! There you are!”
“Hi, Dr. Cardinal! But I have a question, how in the world did you find clothes that fit me when our bodies are so different?”
Nurse Tusken walked in and said promptly, “There is a carrot, named Amethyst, who is in town on vacation, and they are about the same size as you. They have a hobby where they enjoy learning everything about other plants and cultures, and when I say everything, trust me, I mean literally everything. Anyway, Amethyst thought you were interesting, and asked me to tell them about you. When I asked them if they could spare some clothes for you, they promptly agreed. And no, I totally wasn’t listening in on your conversation.”
Evie smiled. But then she thought of something and immediately felt sick to her stomach for not realizing it sooner. “Guys—is there any way I can go back home? My sister needs me.” Evie said, her eyes abnormally shiny as she struggled to keep her voice even.
Cardinal and Tusken’s smiles melted right off their faces. Cardinal took a deep breath. “Well, there is a way,” she said hesitantly, “but as this is new technology you may get stuck between worlds, or you may die or become extremely sick because of the radioactive waves from the magnifying ray. On its own, the worst you might get from it is something equivalent to the flu. But combined with chemical Y, the opposite of chemical X...” Cardinal stopped there, choosing to spare Evie from the horrors she was imagining.
Evie clasped her hands. “I don’t care. My sister needs me and I need her. She’s all I have left of my family. At least with this there’s a chance I might be able to see her again!”
Tusken tilted his head. “I can see you’re determined. I’ll take you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Dr. Cardinal squeezed her eyes shut. “I’ll come with you.”
“Wow.” Evie breathed.
“It’s amazing the first time you see the magnifying ray, isn’t it?” Cardinal said, smiling playfully. And it really was. It looked like the inverse of the shrink ray. It was huge, with the light faintly shining from the pointy part of the cone, instead of the wide part. And although the shrink ray had a cyan light, the magnifying ray’s light was red.
Without warning, the magnifying ray switched on to the point to where the vermilion light was so dazzling Evie was sure everything she ever saw for the rest of her life would be strawberry-jello tinted. And within seconds, she was rolling on the floor of the science lab while Dr. Wren rushed toward her to help her up.
“How did you manage to fall in my soup after I told you to watch your step?” asked Dr. Wren. “We were so worried about you when we couldn’t find you in the bowl! And hours later you appear in a red flash rolling on my floor?!”
“Umm… uh…” mumbled Evie.
“You poor thing. Here, I will warm up a fresh bowl of tomato soup for you. I promise it won’t have any unknown chemicals in it this time. It’ll help calm your nerves.”
Evie blinked. “I am never eating tomatoes again in my life. And neither should you. I have something important to tell you…”
The King Who Fell into a Bowl of Tomato Soup
David Yu, 11
One day, the king was taking a stroll through the town he ruled when he saw that everyone looked so depressed. “What’s the matter?” He asked a young man.
“There’s been a famine, and now there’s barely any food left. Everyone’s so hungry.” So the king, empathetic towards his people, came up with an idea.
“Cooks! You have a great task at hand! Make a bowl of my favorite soup, tomato soup, ten feet high, to feed the town!” The cooks labored day and night, and eventually had made the huge bowl of soup.
Right before the king was about to invite the townsfolk to have this tomato soup, he realized that his solution wasn’t permanent; as soon as the soup was finished the problem would come back. So he commissioned the wizard to brew a concoction that could make anyone that drank that soup never have to eat again.
This was a perfect solution; the concoction was bitter and not plentiful, but the soup could act as a way to get many people to intake the concoction.
From a high balcony over the dining hall, the king watched the concoction get added. But right as he tried to get a closer look, he tripped, and fell into the bowl of tomato soup!
He rose out of the bowl, only to find that he was in no dining hall: he was in a forest of tomato soup! The trees had basil for leaves; the clouds were cream; the lakes were tomato broth; even the little pebbles were garlic!
“Oh no! This forest is all tomato soup! What has happened? At least let my town be safe!”
He walked for a while through the forest of tomato soup. He sailed over a lake of tomato broth with a hollowed-out garlic clove. He finally reached the outskirts of his city, but to his dismay, the houses were stacks of bread topped by tomato slices!
“Oh no! My town is all tomato soup! At least let my gold be safe!”
He ran through the streets of tomatoes before finding his castle. Of course, it was also made from the ingredients of tomato soup. Over the bridge, through the gates, into the castle keep. Running through the winding hallways, he found his servants—but they too were made of tomato soup.
“So even people haven't been spared?” The king asked nobody, too worried to think straight. But he was almost to his gold. Turning the corner, he was horrified. All his treasures were now made of tomato soup!
“Oh no! Not my treasure!” The king exclaimed. He realized that all of his world was now tomato soup. He fainted on the spot.
He woke up in bed. It seemed strangely...mushy. A comforting voice met his ears. “Oh, dear husband! You were sleeping for so long!” He turned, and saw the queen...
...but made of tomato soup.
Natalie Yue, 10
“Mom, can I pleeeaaase get their sweet potato soup?” I ask, tapping my sneakers impatiently on the smooth, white-tiled floor of the Xin Lang Taiwanese restaurant.
“Natalie, Xin Lang’s sweet potato soup is unhealthy, too sweet, and it simply tastes awful,” replies Mom firmly, and I cringe at her rude comment about my favorite restaurant in Taiwan. “We have not come to this restaurant for unhealthy food selections. Choose something that benefits yourself. Like a nice, crunchy salad.” I sigh. Seriously, what was the problem with just ordering a bowl of harmless sweet potato soup? Because Mom acted as if the bowl would all of a sudden come alive and attack me.
“Come on, just this once!” I plead. “I promise I’ll clean up Lucky’s litter every time I walk him!” But Mom knows all of my baiting tricks, annoyingly enough. Her lips press into a tight line, and she folds her hands sternly upon the table.
“I do not understand why you crave for such a sweet dessert soup,” she says, looking me square in the eye. “But how about you order a tomato egg drop soup? Or just plain chicken noodle soup? Those are healthier for you.” I scrunch my eyes up. I completely despise tomato soup. Okay, I think determinedly, here goes Plan C. Switch to droopy face. I lay my head on the table, scrunch my eyes up, and curve my mouth into a sad, droopy frown. I even pretend to sniffle as I whisper, “Please, Mom?” Mom sighs, and I swirl my dark black hair from side to side (my nervous habit). Finally, she smiles a little.
“Alright, Natalie, just this once—because I’m being generous,” she decides, and inside my brain there’s a dance party going on. There are ginger and other sweet potato soup ingredients rocking it out inside my head, screaming victoriously. And I grin. This is going to be the best meal ever.
A waitress in a baggy skirt and a long, tan t-shirt appears, with jet-black hair like us and pointy high heels.
“Nǐ hǎo, wò shì Jia,” says the woman exuberantly. The dance party in my head fades to a whirl of panic.
And then I realize…
“She assumes that we speak Chinese or Taiwanese, like everyone else in the restaurant!” I hiss to Mom, who looks just as flushed as me.
“Natalie, you know some Chinese,” Mom whispers back at me. “Just try!” Mom’s demand is like her telling me to frost a cake with mushrooms. But otherwise, I won’t get that sweet potato soup I had to persuade Mom about, so I guess I will make a probably fruitless attempt.
“Wǒ de mā mā xiǎng yào yī fèn shā lā, hái yǒu shí gè jiǎo zi,” I squeak, in a very awkward accent. To my relief, the woman nods and scribbles Mom’s order down. Then she looks up expectantly.
“Wǒ yào-” I pause, my mind whirling. How do you say sweet potato soup? Argh!
Thankfully, Mom steps in, rushing through Chinese words.
Mom nods at the waitress and the woman leaves, and the sound of her clicking pen fades away.
Mom slips her phone away into her pocket as a cheerful man with a bushy black mustache approaches our table and sets our three dishes down. I cautiously take my covered plate of potato soup and slide off the plate covering it. Steam rises, fogging the bowl, but as soon as it clears I give a startled rasp. The soup is red. And gooey. And thick. None of the qualities of sweet potato soup. Did the people make a mistake?
Mom glances over at my concerned face. She spots the soup, and her face twists into a frown. I gulp. Did the restaurant poison my soup or something?
“Natalie…you…it’s tomato soup,” she whispers, setting her sandwich down grimly. “The restaurant people must have heard me wrong. I must have mis-pronounced the word.”
“So…no sweet potato soup?” I ask gloomily, my insides burning and my limbs aching. All this pleading and the reward is a soup I despise? Mom starts talking rapidly, but a strong gust of wind suddenly pushes against me. Surprised, I lean in, trying to get rid of the wind, and my face plops right into the tomato soup, which starts to rise and overflow the bowl. Hot, sticky, red soup burns my face, getting in my hair and my mouth. My whole face feels on fire, sweltering—and then ever so suddenly the sticky feeling disappears. Shocked, I slowly look up, dazed. I squint and realize I’m no longer in the Xin Lang restaurant. Now there is a clear blue sky that reaches far beyond, emerald-green hills that roll, a sparkling crystal lake glistening under the warm sunshine, queer animals with funny cat faces and floppy ears that I don’t recognize, silvery green trees that glow in the bright streaming light, and a wide-open meadow that stretches on forever. It’s beautiful, even though I don’t have the slightest idea where I am. And how I fell through a bowl of tomato soup. Plus, the red paste has vanished from my face! Magic.
Then, suddenly, one of the funny cat-like creatures runs over to me swiftly, looking just like the fictional characters in The Jungle Book film-adaptation my mom and I used to watch all the time. Except…these strange creatures have tiny translucent wings.
“Hello,” rumbles the creature in a rich voice, and I jump back, perplexed. Animals, talking? Impossible.
“Hi,” I squeak, fiddling with my hair again. The animal smiles, revealing glistening white teeth. I take an alarmed step back, my foot sinking into the lush grass.
“So, you have finally come to visit here, how pleasant,” says the cat brightly, not seeming to notice that I had retreated. “The Fantasy Land of Tomato Soup. Perfect. You will be learning the great lesson today.”
“Um…I don’t see any tomato soup anywhere,” I remark, laughing nervously. I glance over at the lake, which is perfectly shimmering and a blazing blue.
“Oh, that lake is an illusion, it is actually filled with tomato soup,” replies the cat. “We have soup giants here who crave for our precious soup, and steal it. So, we simply hide it. But alas, not everyone likes tomato soup, tragically. Which is exactly why we have created this: the splendid world of tomato soup galore! Go ahead then, take a sip.” Is that animal crazy? Thoughts about soup and giants swirl in my head, and I close my eyes, trying to wake up from my dream. But when I open them, I’m still here, in the magical world that’s magical.
“What are you waiting for?” the cat asks gayly, over by the lake drinking. Eating some tomato soup from a mysterious pond like a moose is definitely not my thing. But then the picture of the creature’s white fangs appears in my head again, and I reluctantly trudge after the scuttling cat down to the lake. Leaning down and feeling that this land is preposterous, I take a little sip. Disgusting red fills my mouth; the mingling of tomato and carrot is warm and scorching. I nearly gag and pull away from the lake.
“Was it good?” the cat asks delightedly, lapping up some soup nearby me. It idly licks its paws and turns to stare at me with bright amber eyes. I stick my tongue out.
“No? Well, I thought so. This is the stage where most unexperienced children are quite repulsed. Go ahead. Try it again.” I glare at the strange creature. What point was it trying to make? Was this just some kind of prank these uncanny cats were playing on me?
Sighing heavily, I take another small sip and the red hits my throat again, nearly choking me. But every time I retreat from the lake, the cat nudges me forward, forcing me to keep tasting the soup. AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHY.
But something starts to change after I drink from the lake for a tenth time—the flavor. Now, each time I taste the soup it feels somehow more soothing, and, well, good. The taste on my tongue is refreshing and I like the slight burn in my throat as I swallow the tomato soup. Soon I am voraciously gobbling up the lake, eating faster than even the other cats. And the best part is, the lake keeps refilling itself the more I slurp.
“Tasty?” the cat inquires, and I jump back, my mouth smeared with the delicious red paste. I almost forget that the creature is still there, watching me motionlessly. I nod vigorously.
“Glad to hear it.” The cat beams. “And now that you love tomato soup, you should head back. Your mother is probably waiting.” I nod again, awestruck. The cat flicks its long, graceful tail and with a swish, the hectic sounds of the restaurant and the scrumptious smells of dumplings cooking on the sizzling stove return to me. I blink, realizing I am in my seat, curled up on the chair. Mom is hovering over me, her face pale.
“Natalie, are you okay?” she says anxiously, peering at me through her blue spectacles. “You curled up into a ball for like a minute and didn’t check in. I’m really, really sorry about the tomato soup mess-up.” My heart thumping, I realize that the time I spent in that magical land only passed as a minute here!
“Mom, I’m fine,” I say, and she smiles sadly. “And it’s okay. I apologize, too.”
“I know you don’t want the tomato soup anymore,” she continues, “so I was thinking to ask the waiters for a replacement.”
“Actually, tomato soup is great, so you don’t have to do that,” I reply quickly, as Mom gapes at me. “I don’t want sweet potato soup anymore. Tomato soup is the best! Now, let’s dig in!”
* Nǐ hǎo, wò shì Jia- ‘hello, I am Jia.’
* Wǒ de māmā- ‘My mom’
*xiǎng yào yī fèn shā lā- ‘wants one salad’
* hái yǒu shí gè jiǎo zi- ‘And ten dumplings’
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