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Chapter 4

Chun stepped into the publishing company with his usual calm pace. The aura he led on did not measure that of a novelist but more of a model. Several people popped their heads out of their workstations and stared at him. He continued down the long hallway that led to his editor’s office. He rarely entered the publishing company because he despised the stares. They were treating him like some strange object that needed to tend to. He did not want those. He only stopped at the desk in front of Editor Wang’s office.
“Is Editor Wang in?” Chun asked.
The secretary finally looked up at him. She was the only one not treating him like some weird object that needed to be studied under a microscope.
“Could you wait?” The secretary asked back. “He’s meeting with someone right now.”
Chun glimpsed the work area once before turning back to the girl. “Five minutes only. If he’s not done, I’ll come back later.”
The girl nodded and went back to typing. Chun took a step toward the wall to the right and stationed himself at that spot. He wanted to have a good view of the office and not attract too much attention. As warned, five minutes he was ready to go. However, as he turned to leave, he heard the door behind him opening. He turned in time to see a girl stepping out of the office. He stepped gracefully out of her way without colliding path with her. She nodded and smiled upon seeing him. He returned a polite smile and stepped toward the door. Editor Wang was still sitting at his desk.
“Chun!” Editor Wang called out. “What brought you here?”
“Can we talk?” Chun asked, getting to the point.
Editor Wang looked at his watch real quick before answering. “Ten minutes. I have a meeting.”
“That’s all I need.” Chun closed the door real quick and settled down at the chair in front of Editor’s Wang desk.
“Problem?”
Chun shook his head, bringing his hands together. “This might seem to be a crazy idea but…”
Ten minutes later, Chun walked out of Editor Wang’s office and back down the hall where the many glancing eyes were waiting for him. He kept his eyes pinned at his destination and continued on in a calm manner. When he made it to the front entrance, he breathed out a sigh of relief again. He shielded his eyes from the razor sharp sun threatening to scorch his eyes if he let it. He just had to choose this time to come in and see Editor Wang. A time when a Taxi was rare. He made his way out further into the street, hoping to have better luck. He strolled along the sidewalk lazily, letting his guard down altogether since he knew he had to walk awhile. Then he saw a Taxi within view, he quickened his pace and managed to grab the door handle, getting in. However, before he could shut the door, he heard someone yelling out. He stopped and looked out. He saw a girl reaching for the door handle. She opened it wider.
“You mind sharing?” The girl asked. “I have to be somewhere soon.”
Chun had no problem with that so he slid to the other side of the car, making way for her. She got in and closed the door at last.
“Thank you,” The girl said after settling in, offering him a sweet smile.
Chun was able to detect the impatience in the driver’s eyes. He turned to the girl. “Since you’re in a hurry, go ahead.”
The girl smiled again before turning to the driver, telling him of her destination. The driver looked less threatening than a minute before. Possibly because he had something to do at last.
“Thanks again,” The girl said, turning to Chun once more.
He returned one of his own friendly smiles. “Glad I could help.”
She gestured her hand casually. “I saw you in the office earlier. Were you looking for Editor Wang?”
Chun nodded. He had recognized her from earlier. She was the girl who stepped out of Editor Wang’s office while he entered. He found it necessary to introduce himself just like any normal person would do upon meeting another person for the first time. He extended his hand out to her. “I’m Wu Zun. My friends called me Chun though.”
The girl took his lead and returned the handshake. “I’m Hebe Tian.”
They withdrew their hands after that, continuing on with some initial questions that any normal persons would do with the first meeting.
“So…” Chun managed after about 15 minutes into their conversation, attempting to find another topic to fill the time. He just realized how long they’d been on the road. Her next destination must be really far. No wonder she was desperate to get ahead.
“Do you work at the publishing company?” Hebe asked.
“It depends on how you look at it,” Chun said. “I only come in when I have to turn my work in or something comes up.”
Hebe nodded. She looked like she was mulling things over. Then she turned to him again. “I do the same.”
He gestured his hand casually. “Are you…”
As if understanding his question, she fished out a card from her wallet and handed it to him. He retrieved it before doing the same. They studied each other’s cards in silence.
“What genre do you write?” Hebe asked after having placed his card into her wallet.
He let out a nervous smile. “Romance.”
She smiled. “Nothing strange about that.”
He could feel the tint of familiarity in her eyes. “What do you write then?”
“Science fiction.”
He smiled, realizing they had swapped roles – at least to society. He let that sink in before continuing. “I wonder what people would think if they see our pen names.”
After that, it seemed like they did not have to hold back on formalities at all. They had touched the same ground. It was like meeting someone that had the same frame of mind. The feeling was indescribable. In fact, they were so caught up in their conversation that the Taxi driver had to remind Hebe when the car had already stopped for a minute or so.
“I’ll get it,” Chun said, extending his hand to stop her from pulling out some bills from her wallet.
“No,” Hebe returned sharply. She was a girl of principles. She wasn’t going to let him pay her fees just because they got along so well on the first meeting.
“Save your money to buy my novels,” Chun joked, his smile lighting up. He silently thanked Heaven for letting him know Jiro. He felt Jiro’s sense of humor was rubbing off him.
Hebe reconsidered before closing her wallet. “I know your number. I could pay you back next time.”
Chun smiled. “And I know yours.”
They heard the driver cleared his throat slightly. Chun turned to the man and repeated his offer, pulling out some bills. While waiting for the man to be done counting the money, he returned his attention to Hebe, waving her a goodbye as she got out of the car.
On the way back to town, he smiled to himself, knowing of his next destination before he could head home, which he had already told the driver after the man pulled out: the bookstore.

*****

“Mirror, mirror on the wall…” The song travelled over the sound system.
Jiro jumped up from his place, raced to where their stereo system was kept – in the center. He snapped it off and reached toward a compartment below, finding a different CD. It was when the tune of Beethoven reached his ears that he was reassured of his sanity. He returned to his workstation and turned the machine back on, finishing his pot.
“Hey, that song was good!” Mark protested from several stations over.
“Mark…” Jiro drawled out for dramatic effects. “You don’t know what good music is.”
“But this classical stuff is making me sleepy,” Mark whined.
Jiro continued on, unmoved by Mark’s plead. “It keeps my inspirations alive. Your music drives my sanity off the wall.” And he had placed the emphasis on ‘music’ on purpose.
“Five minutes to shut down!” Their manager yelled out as he walked toward their group.
“Got it!” Jiro responded. It was all he needed.
Five minutes later, Jiro shut off the machine. He and Mark were the only two around since the manager came around announcing the time. He was able to tune Mark out also. But then again, Mark wasn’t the type to get mad at others. Mark was actually cool. That was even why he chose to offend Mark in the first place.
“You want to head for the KTV longue later?” Mark asked, joining Jiro by the wall where they kept their finished pots – waiting for the firing process tomorrow. “I’m going with some of my friends from high school. I could introduce them to you. It’s sort of our reunion.”
Jiro shook his head while making way for Mark’s creation.
“Don’t want to interfere with our gathering or something? Don’t worry. We can bring guests.”
“I have to go pick up someone and join up with Ah Ru and Chun later.”
“Oh.”
“Maybe another time.”
“Okay.”
Both guys cleaned up their work areas before heading out the door. Jiro had turned off the CD player also.
Twenty minutes later, he arrived at a shop not far from his workplace. He knew Chun should be at Calvin’s place already. They had a surprise for Joanne. If she only knew. Jiro felt funny that they were treating her like a little princess like once upon a time. In fact, she was their princess to protect for the time being.
“We’re closed, sir,” A girl rattled out naturally as soon as Jiro passed the entrance.
“Should’ve closed the door first, ma’am,” Jiro teased, coming closer to the girl.
The girl was none other than Joanne. She turned around to face him, her face lightened up. “Why are you here?”
“You’re in for a special treat,” Jiro replied vaguely, returning her smile.
Joanne studied his face cautiously. “What are you up to again?”
His face still wore the same mischievous expression. “Oh, nothing much.”
Joanne knew she wasn’t going to get it out of him so she returned to her closing tasks. He followed her around the shop. As they reached the next aisle over, he saw another girl standing there. He knew everyone in the shop – from his previous visits. Or was she new? They weren’t hiring recently. He couldn’t have missed that much.
“I thought you’re closed,” Jiro said, gesturing casually toward the girl.
“She’s one of the last customers,” Joanne whispered to Jiro.
He smiled, feeling a surge of energy rising. “Need help?”
Joanne knew that look. He was going to resort to his ‘driving away customers’ technique that he often talked about.
“No, thanks,” Joanne said, her tone carrying traces of a warning. Like if Jiro was going to do anything rash, he was dead with her.
“How come you’re fierce with me but you can’t take care of yourself in front of Ah Ru?” Jiro asked, still able to keep his voice at a whisper.
Joanne turned the corner, walking back to the front counter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Jiro followed her, not dropping the subject at all. “Who are we kidding here, Missy?” Then he spotted someone entering the shop. “We’re closed, Miss!”
“Not so loud!” Joanne scolded Jiro.
“In case she’s hard of hearing?”
The girl who Jiro yelled at advanced toward the counter at that time. “What happened to my friend?”
“Huh?” Jiro managed.
“She’s still in the back,” Joanne replied with a polite smile, pointing to her right.
The girl nodded with gratitude and turned in that direction. She did not have to go far since her friend appeared at that time, heading toward them.
“Did you find it?” The girl who just entered asked.
The other girl shook her head. “Those vases are too plain.”
“More plain than her shirt?” Jiro asked, forgetting to whisper.
Joanne jabbed Jiro in the sides with her right hand. Too late! The girls heard him. Both girls walked to the counter. The girl who just entered not too long ago – the one in blue – gave Jiro a glare. One of those glares that said not to mess with her. The girl in pink – the one whom Jiro saw lingering in the back earlier – extended a hand to stop her friend, tugging on her arms.
“Ever heard of customer satisfaction?” The girl in blue blurted out, ignoring her friend’s interference.
“Ever heard of We’re closed?” Jiro shot back.
“Da Dong!” Joanne yelled out. She turned to the two girls. “I’m really sorry, Miss. He’s just a friend, visiting me.”
“Just a friend?” Jiro asked, giving Joanne an accusing look, sounding wounded. “I’m practically your brother.”
“We’ll take care of this at home, Mr. Drama King,” Joanne said, giving him a stern look. She quickly returned her attention to the two girls. “I’m really sorry again. What are you two looking for? Maybe we have to order it from…”
“It’s not here,” The girl in pink jumped in before Joanne could finish. “I apologize for making that comment. It’s just that I’m finding something different from those typical vases.”
“Ever heard of using pots in place of vases?” Jiro jumped in.
“Da Dong!” Joanne called out again.
“I’m serious!”
“Pots in place of vases?” The girl in pink repeated, her expression thoughtful. “It would be interesting to see. Can you do it?”
“How desperate are you?”
“We’re not desperate people!” The girl in blue jumped in at that time, obviously offended by Jiro’s choice of words.
The girl in pink turned to her friend, placing a hand on her shoulder to calm her down. “He doesn’t mean that.” She turned to Jiro at that time. “How fast could you make it?”
“How about a week?” Jiro asked, reaching into his pocket for something. “I have to finish some other projects too.” He finally took out a card and turned to Joanne. “You have a pen?”
Joanne finally removed her eyes from all parties present. She was so worried of offending the customers that she did not dare to be less alert. Now that Jiro asked, she snapped out of her trance and looked around on the counter, not realizing a pen is pinned to the clipboard she just placed down minutes ago. Luckily, Jiro saw it and reached for it. He turned the card around, revealing its white surface and scratched down some words.
“That’s my shop in front,” Jiro explained. “But my number’s in the back if you want to track me down.”
“Jiro Wang?” The girl in pink read.
Jiro finally let out a smile, extending his hand politely. “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Selina Ren,” The girl in pink said, returning the courtesy. She turned to her friend. “She’s Vanessa. We have the same last name but we’re not related in any way, strange, huh?”
“I’m not surprised.”
Vanessa shot Jiro a hateful glare.
Jiro ignored Vanessa totally and kept his eyes on Selina. “And I apologize for my earlier behavior. Someone who’s appreciating art can’t be bad, right?” He offered her another smile.
Selina smiled again and then turned to check her watch. “We shouldn’t bother you anymore.” She tapped on the card still in her hand. “I’ll get in touch with you later.”
Jiro nodded.
Joanne waited until both girls left the shop before letting out a sigh of relief. After she recovered though, she did not forget to take advantage of the situation. “Da Dong!”
“What?!” Jiro asked, annoyed.
Joanne pointed at him with a mischievous smile of her own. “You were staring!”
“Was not!”
“You sound defensive.”
“All right, Missy. Let’s lock the door and get out of here.”
“Wait until I tell the guys,” Joanne mumbled while she head for the door.
“Wait until I strangle you in front of them,” Jiro retorted, tugging on Joanne’s braids.
They continued to Jiro’s car in that same playful routine.

*****

“Guys, we’re back!” Joanne called out as soon as she entered the house.
“We’re in here!” Chun answered from the kitchen.
Jiro and Joanne joined Calvin and Chun after they closed the door.
“What are you guys doing?” Jiro asked, settling down next to Chun.
“Guess what, you guys?” Joanne asked in a cheerful tone, sitting down next to Jiro.
“Guess what, you guys?” Jiro repeated the phrase, reaching for Joanne’s braids at the same time. “I’m going to strangle her and you guys get to witness it.”
Chun’s head snapped up from his current task and stared at both Jiro and Joanne. “What are you two up to this time?”
“Da Dong has…” Joanne began.
Jiro went for Joanne’s throat, but only placed his hands on her shoulder as if sending a mild warning.
“What?” Chun urged. “I’ll get him if he dares to touch you.”
Joanne grabbed Jiro’s hand to ensure her safety before yelling out, “Da Dong has a girlfriend!”
“Really?” Chun exclaimed, his voice mixed with surprise and excitement.
“Don’t listen to her,” Jiro jumped in, fighting with Joanne to free his hands.
“That’s nothing to be ashamed of, man,” Chun said. He took that time to aim his pen in front of Jiro’s mouth, trying to use it in place of a microphone. “How does it feel like to be teased by friends instead of the other way around, Mr. Wang?”
Jiro slapped Chun’s hand away before continuing his brawl with Joanne.
“Stop goofing off, you two,” Chun interfered. “I have something to tell you guys as well.”
“What?” Jiro and Joanne asked at the same time. They had stopped their fight – temporarily.
Chun still had on a secretive smile on. “I just met this girl today.”
“And?” Jiro prompted.
“And I managed to grab all her books at the store.”
Jiro sat back down in his chair – properly this time since he had been all over place while fighting Joanne. “Big deal. You and your colleagues getting together.”
“No, no, I think there’s something going on this time.”
“Did she confess to you yet?”
“I just met her today.”
“So how would you know it might be something if she didn’t say anything? You know how slow you are. By the time you say something, she’s already married.”
“Hey!”
“The truth hurts, pal.”
“With your mouth, I don’t know how you could get a girlfriend.”
“Just because you couldn’t get anyone doesn’t mean you can stomp me down, man. Besides, she’s not mine yet BUT….she will be.”
Chun shook his head, knowing of Jiro’s exaggeration.
Jiro looked around the room at that time, noticing something. “By the way, what happened to Ah Ru?”
Joanne noticed it also. Strange that she didn’t realize that he had somehow left the table. Was it during the time when she was occupied with fending off Jiro’s attacks? Just then, she heard a click and then the lights were out. Then she heard a scream.
“It’s okay, girl,” Jiro reassured her, tapping her on the shoulder.
It was then that she realized she was the one screaming.
“What was that?” Joanne asked, trying to gain her composure. She did not want to be called a scaredy-cat – even if it was in front of the guys who knew her best since they were little.
“Don’t know,” Chun replied somewhere in the dark – probably still sitting in the same place.
“It might be…” Jiro did not continue, using his hand to tap Joanne’s shoulder.
She held back the urge to scream, but ended up shaking out of fear instead.
“Stop scaring her,” Chun warned Jiro. “I’ll go check it out.”
They heard Chun getting up from his seat. Then some light came on. Not from overhead though. It was possibly from a candle. No, more like lots and lots of candles. Then the singing began. Joanne was no longer afraid. Instead, the feeling was replaced with more than warmness could be used to describe the moment. She could see Calvin holding the cake in his hands and walking toward her. Chun and Jiro continued to sing as Calvin placed the cake in front of her.
“Blow out the candles, girl,” Jiro urged a minute later.
Joanne snapped out of it and took in her surroundings again – as if she just returned from a distance planet and needed a reality check. She finally blew out the candles after making a quick wish in her mind.
“Woohoo!” Jiro shouted out.
Then the light came on again overhead. She realized Chun had a remote control in his hand. Was he the one turning off the light earlier? It had to be him. It must have been a cue for Calvin to enter the room.
“Happy 22, girl,” Jiro said – though unnecessary since they all knew Joanne’s age by now. “Welcome to the real world. This is a double celebration, by the way. Your birthday and your success in finding a job so fast at this place. On your own too.” Then he turned to Chun. “I told you to get trick candles!”
“Hey, I’m not evil like you,” Chun returned.
Joanne was still speechless. She did not know what to say. Yet she knew she had to say something. “So you guys were all in on it!”
“Gotta love us, right?” Jiro asked, turning to Joanne again. “Wait until you see my gift for you. Then you won’t be mad anymore.”
Joanne was not mad. She was not mad at all. And she knew Jiro was joking about her being mad. She still could not move as the others made their way around the room, getting plates and cutting the cake up. She was still too overwhelmed, too drown in happiness to operate. She felt like she was at home, finally fitting in with the guys – though she knew they had gotten along all these years. But after such a long time of separation, there was a definite gap. This sign of them reaching out to her was the sign of acceptance. She did not care if the cake was perfect or not. She did not care if the foods were good that night. She did not care if the gifts were enough either. What she found the most touching was the efforts the guys had gone through for her.
© Sunday, July 25th, 2010
Posted: Sunday, October 24th, 2010

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