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Chapter 1

Ten years later…
Calvin stared at the horizon where the clear blue sky was touching the edges of the sea water. It was a shame he was only able to see patches of that here and there because of the many houses along the seashore that made it hard to appreciate the view in its own rights. It was stranger that he was an architect and was defending part of nature, not wanting to see traces of civilization contaminating it. He sighed out and realized his conflicting thoughts. Running his hands through his hair for the last time, he finally turned and made his way back to the parking lot. During the drive, he silently prepared himself for his next presentation.
The meeting lasted a little over an hour. He made it back to his office without any questions from his co-workers. Powering up his cell phone again, he realized he had one missed call and a message. He wondered if it was the contact his boss was talking about this morning. He punched in his code before placing his phone over his ear again. Attempting to undo the stress lines forming on his face, he had closed his eyes on purpose while rubbing his forehead yet he was forced to open them once again upon hearing the message.

*****

“What?!” Jiro asked in disbelief. “Say it one more time.”
“The call was from Mom,” Calvin repeated, gesturing his hands – as if trying to explain something very simple to Jiro – who had temporarily gone dumb.
Jiro nodded. “Your mom called. I got that part. I meant the last part.”
“Mom promised Auntie Zeng that I would be the best candidate to take care of Qiao Qiao,” Calvin repeated one of the many phrases he said since the last hour.
Jiro threw his hands up in dramatic gestures. “What about us? Doesn’t she trust us?”
Both Calvin and Chun gave Jiro a look.
Jiro shrugged. “Okay, okay. So she doesn’t trust me but what about Chun?”
It was Calvin’s turn to shrug. “I don’t know. I don’t even know why they can’t find some other relatives out here or like some responsible girl to take Qiao Qiao in.”
“We’re the closest people to relatives here, remember?” Chun reminded Calvin and Jiro.
Jiro scratched his chin, seeming to be deep in thoughts. “They’re up to something. We haven’t been back in two years and suddenly Qiao Qiao comes out for a visit? She’s probably spying on us for your mom.”
Calvin shook his head. “She’s not just visiting. She wants to come out here to find a job just for the summer…and possibly take some courses later.”
“What? She’s living out here?” Jiro asked, his face all wrinkled up. Then his eyes brightened. “Ooohh…tough luck, man.”
“What?” Calvin asked, eyeing Jiro cautiously, knowing too well of that look.
“She’s pinning her future daughter in law on you already!”
Calvin wrinkled his face. “Aww…quit it already.”
“She’s teaching Qiao Qiao the ropes before you guys get married.”
“Come on. We need to think of a way.”
“What else could we do? Call your mom back and say that you can’t help her? She’ll think up of something else.”
“You meant Qiao Qiao or Auntie?” Chun jumped in.
“Both actually.”
Chun turned to Calvin at that time. “When is she coming though?”
“Tomorrow, by bus,” Calvin answered, tapping on the table.
“That fast?!” Jiro exclaimed in disbelief once again. “I was right! I was right, man! They’re leaving us no time for a plan.”
“Calm down, will you?” Chun called out, nodding his head apologetically toward someone at a table near them.
They were actually at a coffee shop near Chun and Jiro’s house. Calvin texted them to set up a meeting after work, claiming it was an emergency. Both guys rushed toward the place to be greeted with such news. However, Jiro, being his dramatic self, was taking things for more than it actually was. His outbursts had caused some stares from surrounding tables hence Chun having to dispel suspicions from themselves.
“How could I relax?” Jiro asked, combing his hair with his hands furiously. “He needs his space for his work. He didn’t even want us there, how could he even stand her? Even if she’s his future wife.”
Calvin kicked Jiro under the table since he did not want to draw anymore attention to them if he had yelled out in protest.
“What?” Jiro lashed out, staring at Calvin unmoved. “I’m just saying. Like you don’t need your space to work on your designs and other stuffs.”
“Not that, but…oh nevermind.”
“How about we all calm down and take it for what it is?” Chun suggested. “Maybe she’s just here to explore the city. Maybe she doesn’t like it here any better than our good old town and will pack her bags and go home in several days? Then Ah Ru can have his space back and we can go on with our lives, right?”
Jiro turned to Chun at that time. “Hey, wait…”
“What?”
“She hasn’t been around the last few times we came back to visit. What has gotten into her these last 5 years or so?”
Chun shrugged. “How should I know?”
Jiro turned to Calvin this time. “Do you have a picture of her or something? How would we know it’s her?”
Calvin shook his head.
“But she shouldn’t change much, right?” Chun reasoned.
“She’s a girl, what are you talking about?” Jiro asked, shaking his head as if Chun just committed some major offense and should be put away for it.
“Well…maybe we can make a sign or something. She’ll see it when she gets off the bus.”
Jiro threw up his hands in frustration. “You kidding me? Us waving some lunatic sign at the bus station? Count me out!”
“You don’t have to come, you know.”
“I’ll call Mom back,” Calvin jumped in, attempting to stop their senseless argument.
“So she can fax you a picture?” Jiro asked, turning to Calvin.
“Tell her where we’ll be waiting so Qiao Qiao knows where to look.”
“Oh.” Jiro placed his chin into his hands, waiting for Calvin to dial. Then his head popped up again. “We?”
“We’re friends, right?”
Jiro sighed out. “Whatever.”
Chun clapped Jiro on the shoulder. “Come on, man. It’ll be fun to see how that girl in braids turned out.”
Jiro rolled his eyes – an obvious indication that Chun was committing another unknown crime again.

*****

Calvin and Chun leaned against the railing while Jiro paced back and forth in front of them. They were at the bus station, waiting for Joanne’s arrival. They were there since an hour ago. Jiro claimed that they had to get ready for the battle, knowing the enemy was the most important thing. They needed to come ahead of time and prepare. Though Calvin and Chun thought Jiro was crazy but they did not dare to state their opinions. Calvin was already glad that Jiro wanted to come – contrary to his objections at the coffee shop the previous afternoon. Chun? Chun knew Jiro’s ‘Drama King’ episodes too well.
“Stop pacing, man,” Chun finally spoke up at last, glancing at his watch again. “Her bus should arrive in 5 minutes.”
“Finally?” Jiro asked, his voice dripping of mockery.
“You were the one claiming that we should come early,” Chun reminded him, gesturing toward the general atmosphere.
Jiro sent Chun a glare that said something along the line of “No one asked for your opinion.” Chun shrugged and smiled, looking past the crowd and toward the entrance that he and the others knew Joanne would come out from.
“Here she is now,” Chun spoke up again ten minutes later.
Jiro stopped from his pacing rampant and turned around to face the entrance. “Smile and wave, guys. She might pass us by without knowing.”
“Tough luck,” Calvin mumbled.
“She’s making her way towards us now,” Chun whispered to them. “Da Dong, stop being mean.”
Chun was right. Joanne was making her way toward them with a bright smile on her face. The girl in braids was still in braids. But there was a definite difference about her. All three guys could not help but stare for a few seconds as her features became clearer to them. Chun broke the silence by sending her some casual greetings and offering to carry her suitcase. Calvin took the hint to grab the smaller bag she was carrying. Jiro, being so loud and impatient earlier, was not able to come up with any smart words to attack Joanne. Instead, he was walking with Calvin in silence as Chun and Joanne engaged in conversation several steps ahead of them. It was until they placed Joanne’s belongings into Calvin’s car trunk that Jiro finally found his voice again.
“I guess someone hasn’t changed much, huh?” Jiro asked casually.
“Ignore him,” Chun jumped in, offering one of his overly friendly smiles. “Where do you want to sit?”
“Sure, ignore me,” Jiro mumbled under his breath. He walked to the left side of the car, knowing too well of Joanne’s reply, but he spotted Calvin’s anxious signal so he had to circle around to the right side again. “Sorry, Qiao Qiao, but I like to sit in front more.”
“Left or right?” Chun asked, gesturing toward the backseat of the car.
“Right,” Joanne answered.
Jiro saw Calvin sighed out as he entered the driver side. Jiro buckled up while Chun opened the door for Joanne.
“You think you’re safe,” Jiro said, looking over at Calvin.
“What?” Calvin asked, still fidgeting with his seatbelt – though it was a task he’d done so many times in the past without thinking.
Jiro reached over and attempted to whisper. “It’s a better view for her on the right than it is left, Idiot.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Chun asked, staring at them suspiciously – since he finally managed to get in on his side and buckled up.
“Nothing,” Jiro said quickly, edging back to his side of the car.
As Jiro was answering to Chun, Calvin turned toward Joanne to see what Jiro had meant earlier. He was greeted with Joanne’s sweet smile. He had no choice but to smile right back, pretending to check if she’d buckled up yet.
“All right,” Calvin said casually, turning front again.
“Want to drop her off so she can unpack and the three of us can go to the beach?” Jiro asked, ignoring Chun’s warning glare.
Jiro did not want to be mean, but after several hours of cleaning out the guest room – which Calvin used for storage, Jiro felt that he was more than entitled to be hostile.
“Is the beach here nice like the one at our town?” Joanne asked.
“Can’t compare,” Chun answered, not taking a chance with Jiro’s sarcasm. “Our place is less infected by civilization.”
“You’re a novelist all right,” Jiro snapped.
“You are?” Joanne asked, turning to Chun.
Chun nodded, his smile somewhat shy.
“What is your pen name?”
“Prince Boring,” Jiro jumped in.
“Thanks a lot!” Chun shot back.
“They’re arguing like always,” Calvin jumped in. “Nothing has changed.”
“Thanks a lot,” Jiro uttered out this time. “If I knew you two are getting along so well, I wouldn’t have come.”
“What would you’ve done then?” Chun asked, turning his attention to Jiro.
“Catch up on my sleep,” Jiro replied without thinking.
Calvin tuned the two guys out again and focused on his driving. He almost wished he could sleep in the rest of the day like Jiro said. But then he remembered he still had some plans to draw and reports to finish. It wasn’t like he had a free day to start with. Though this little trip was not helping either. Then he realized Joanne was so quiet. Was this the result of growing up or was she just letting Chun and Jiro talk at the moment to learn about their current affairs? He managed a glance her way to detect any signs of trickery when they stopped at a red light. She sent him another smile before he turned to face front once more. Both Chun and Jiro saw that but did not speak up to tease him like when it was just the three of them. They knew better than to tease him when Joanne was present.
They arrived at Calvin’s house half an hour later. Like when Joanne first arrived, Calvin and Chun took Joanne’s belongings out of the trunk.
“This place is really yours?” Joanne asked, taking in the view surrounding the house.
“It’s not much, but it’s somewhere I could concentrate on my work,” Calvin said, looking around the place as if taking in its view for the first time himself.
Joanne smiled. “It’s nice.”
“Let’s go in before we grow old here,” Jiro interrupted them, making his way toward the front door.
Calvin increased his pace to the door, opening it with his key. He pushed it in wider so the others could enter first. Jiro switched on the light as he stepped in. Though he sounded fierce toward them, but he let Joanne and Chun passed first before he made his move.
“You better appreciate this,” Jiro said as Joanne inspected the living room. “We spent our precious afternoon yesterday cleaning it up. Not to mention we had to find a different place for Ah Ru’s junks.”
“Masterpieces,” Chun corrected him, not wanting to offend Calvin.
“Whatever,” Jiro mumbled, making himself comfortable on the sofa.
“I’ll show you to your room,” Calvin said before Jiro could make anymore smart comments.
Joanne nodded, following Calvin down the hallway to the left of the living room. Chun followed behind, still wheeling Joanne’s luggage along.
“We vacuumed and changed the sheets yesterday,” Calvin said as they stepped into the room to the left. “If you don’t like the colors or patterns, we’ll stop by the store to get a new set later.”
“I like it,” Joanne reassured him, smiling.
“I’m across the hall,” Calvin continued. “If you ever need anything, just knock on my door.”
Joanne nodded.
“And hope you like this flavor,” Chun added.
Joanne had a puzzled look on her face.
“Air freshener,” Chun clarified, smiling. “It had been awhile since someone occupied this room. Calvin used it as a work room for some of his projects so we had to put in something to get rid of the smell of glue among other things.”
“Oh. This flavor is soothing. My favorite.”
“Don’t be polite,” Calvin said. “You’ll be staying for a while so if you don’t like it, it’ll be very uncomfortable to live in.”
“I’m serious. It’s my favorite flavor, how did you know to prepare ahead of time?”
“Uh…”
“Must have still remembered since we were younger,” Chun chimed in, attempting to help Calvin from his nervousness.
Calvin nodded, glad for the lifesaver Chun handed him. “That’s right. I guess I’m lucky that you still like the same thing.” He let out a nervous chuckle. “Oh yeah, bathroom is the last room down the hall. Can’t miss it, it’s the one in the middle.”
Joanne nodded again, seeming too obedient. Or was she just getting used to her new environment before returning to her usual chattery self again? But they had not seen her since years back. Many things could have happened.
“I guess we should leave you alone to unpack,” Calvin said, gesturing his hand. “We cleared out the closet already so don’t worry.”
Joanne nodded again – as if that was the only thing she was capable of.
Calvin and Chun left the room after that. Calvin closed the door behind him as Chun made his way back to the living room. Calvin made a trip to the bathroom to wash his face before heading back to join the other guys in the living room. Reaching for his face towel, he realized he had moved it to his room. He opened the door and made his way to his room again. As he reached for the towel this time, he heard the door across the hall opened.
“Ah Ru, can I…” Joanne began.
“What?” He asked, having wiped his face already.
Joanne’s face had lightened up several more notches – if that was even possible. “You still keep it?”
“What?” He repeated, still confused.
“The wind chime.” She pointed at a spot past him.
He turned around to see the wind chime hanging by the window. It was the seashell wind chime she gave him ten years ago. The same night he and the others delivered the sand castle to her house. Now that she mentioned it, he wondered why he still kept it around. Was it just out of politeness or was it an old habit? He had no idea.
“Yeah,” He answered her finally after a moment of reflection.
Joanne’s smile brightened more than he thought possible. He then felt strange. Too strange for comfort. He broke the stare, gesturing toward the living room. For some reason, it was like she understood what he meant and nodded. He made his way to where Chun and Jiro were waiting for him. And for some strange reason, he still had the feeling that Joanne was still staring at him as he walked.
© Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
Posted: Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

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