Chapter 4 – Mission Paranoia

Tang Feng and Qiao Qiao’s little plan actually went forward the following weekend instead–as most of the others knew of. (Or more like those who were at Uncle Ben’s noodles stall that one afternoon, plus some more.) It was Saturday to be exact. The shop was actually closed that weekend. They did a switch around on Saturdays, agreeing on letting one Saturday be work day and the next not.

To make sure things went well–or not reduced to a series of equally embarrassing moments like during working hours, Qiao Qiao prepared herself with the most fool’s proof precautions as possible. She had not worn sneakers or any sort of sports shoes that had strings. She also made sure her attire was neutral and appropriate for whatever event that was they were attending. Yes, Tang Feng had failed to mention it until now. He had said something about letting her know by then. But ‘by then’ had meant Friday–to which he had conveniently forgot again. She was about to call it off (regardless of whose curiosity she was helping to scratch–hers or Wallace’s) when Tang Feng called her last night, telling her of the meeting location.

She arrived early, not wanting him to pick on her for anything, such as girls always so slow, holding up things. Like she would care that much if it were others, but he was different. He could be such a stingy boss that had forced her to prove her capabilities on more than one occasion. She was not going to resort to violence–yet. Or reducing herself to some childish person who wanted to use other senseless tactics to make him see it her way. She was not going to do any of those, unlike how she’d perceived herself in the past. As she was standing at the entrance of the park waiting for him, she realized she had finally stepped out of her comfort zone. Despite the fact that she was still residing at a local area but it was another matter with her career. Sure, her friends were there. It was almost like they were operating a family business, almost. But it was so different with this new boss. He was somewhat fun at first, she admitted to herself. But he had gone all weird again somewhere along the way, regardless of how she tried to act normal.

“Waited long?” Tang Feng’s voice reached her ears from somewhere.

“No, I just got here,” Qiao Qiao rolled out the casual standard response that she was taught since whenever with those typical, boring professional lectures. And for the record, ‘just got here’ was thirty minutes ago, not counting parking time.

For some reason, Tang Feng found amusement in her response because he flashed on his usual teasing smile. Scratch that, he was always amused with whatever she was saying regardless. It took every ounce of restrain to not lash out at him. She was there for a reason and she decided since she’d gone through so much effort with the preparation process, she should not waste it.

“What’s so funny about my answer?” She finally spoke up, not wanting him to think she’d phased out on him. So she didn’t want to blow her chance yet it wasn’t like she wanted to change her attitude either.

He shook his head, playing safe. “Let’s go.”

“Where are we going?” She asked, following him anyway.

He gestured toward the amusement park ahead. “Isn’t it obvious?”

She studied the surroundings. “You’re meeting someone here?”

“No, it’s just us.”

That was when she stopped dead. Like literally. Okay, maybe not the dead part. And she didn’t care if he was going to come up with one of his smart comments again, making her look like an idiot. “What?”

He turned around to face her. “I said it’s just us.”

So the others were right? “I thought it’s a business meeting of some sort.”

He had on the amused look again, the most overused expression on his face of recent. “At a park?”

What an understatement, she thought. Not just a park, an amusement park. And she was more in the ‘amuse’ zone than the park itself. And since she wasn’t going to react anytime soon, he went right on.

“I thought since you’ve been misunderstanding me these past weeks, it might be a good idea to spend some time together so you wouldn’t be so paranoid anymore.”

She scowled. “I’m not paranoid!”

That annoying amused smile turned on again, taunting her. “Defensive, eh? Relax. How about going on one of those rides? If you don’t like it after the first round, we could get out of here and go separate ways then.”

She didn’t find any harm in that. And while she was at it, she could extract some information. The better that they weren’t at some professional event. Her plan was going better than she thought. Or she sure hoped he wasn’t putting her on. “All right. But no rides yet.”

He frowned, just slightly. It was the amused frown and not the serious one. “Oh?”

She didn’t care to elaborate. She headed toward the tickets booth first, paying for her own fare–though he had insisted on paying since it was his idea. She had to draw the line somewhere. And trying to spy on him while taking his money for the day’s adventure wasn’t really her style.

Somehow along the way, she’d forgotten why she was even there for. Not that she wasn’t enjoying the day. But it was more like she’d forgotten her purpose there, like her top priority with extracting information. They moved from one booth to the other without slowing their pace–regardless of the number of rides or games they participated in. Between the two of them, it was hard to tell who had more fun. After some games, they were actually seen by a lurker eating ice cream together, possibly taking a break from the much energetic adventures.

“I can’t believe you could still eat after those rides,” Tang Feng said, surprised.

“You’re doing it too,” Qiao Qiao returned, not missing a beat of the banter.

Tang Feng smiled, shaking his head. “You seriously never let your guards down.”

“Thanks.”

“That wasn’t a compliment. It’s just saying you have some serious trust issues.”

“Like I need anyone to tell me who I should trust and who I should not.”

“You don’t trust anyone for that matter.”

“If people would stop acting so suspicious.” She suddenly remembered her purpose for today.

“Are you judging me now?”

“I didn’t even mention your name.”

He stopped eating altogether and turned to observe her. “What happened again?”

She shrugged, avoiding his eyes, staring straight ahead instead. “Nothing.”

He resumed his steps again. “You should’ve kept the teddy bear I won for you earlier.”

“Like that’s going to make things better?” So much for trying to cover her tracks. She had given the so-called prize teddy bear to a crying kid earlier because he had lost his somewhere among the crowd. But then she wondered if what she was saying was worse or something like: Like I couldn’t win one for myself.

Before he could return his fire, his cell phone played some weird tune that she didn’t recognize. She watched silently as he answered the call. They were making their way back to the entrance at the moment. While she was at it, she tuned him out on purpose, wondering why she was failing so miserably at extracting information. Since when was she afraid of someone judging her? Or cared what others think of her? As soon as he as much displayed some sign of disapproval, she was already gone, abandoning the scheme like a coward, so unlike herself. She was so deep in thoughts that she didn’t realize he was calling her until she felt his hand on her arm. Alarmed, she turned to him, her face all puzzled.

“I have to go,” He said, removing his hand from hers since he already got her attention.

“Oh.”

“Think about what I said with trusting people, okay?”

She shrugged. It wasn’t like she was going to let him win. But it seemed like he didn’t care if she was gaining victory or not since he just turned and left. It was like he was in a great hurry to get out of her sight. Then she scolded herself for being paranoid since that call must be the reason. And she scolded herself once again for not even making an effort to listen. If she had, she would know who it was and what the problem was.

*****

With the day being unfruitful, Qiao Qiao returned to Jacky and other guys’ place to crash. It was the weekends and she still didn’t feel like going home. Her parents were planning one of their trips again, thinking it was okay that some of the servants were around with her. Though it didn’t make a difference since she was seen around and about most of the time. But maybe she was a little glad that some people were around with her when she was home.

“Hey,” Wallace greeted her as he opened the door.

Qiao Qiao nodded, feeling too tired to answer, not even sure why her energy drained so easily because she was ten times more energetic earlier when she was participating in the games than now. As soon as she stepped into the room, she realized the guys were playing Wii again. And Chen Yi was around with Achel. Wallace resumed his place between Chen Yi and Ehlo after closing and locking the door. Qiao Qiao entered the room on her own, sitting down at the sofa and watching the guys play. They were standing up to better focus–whatever that meant. A quick scan of the space told her Sonia, Angela, and Achel were by the kitchen counter. She wasn’t sure where Jacky was yet knew he should be around since she saw his car parked outside.

“So how did it go?” Ehlo asked–and not Wallace or Chen Yi or anyone who showed more interest when she mentioned about her plans. “I guess that you enjoyed your ice cream.”

Qiao Qiao jumped out of her seat–literally. “How did you know?” Just to make sure she didn’t spill any contents of the said ice cream on her shirt, she took a quick glimpse at herself while waiting for Ehlo’s answer.

“What’s my favorite place again?” Ehlo asked instead of answering her question. Yet that had said enough already.

Qiao Qiao wrinkled her face, staring into space, trying to recall the details of the day. Then her eyes returned on the guys again. (Or more like their backs because their eyes were still glued to the TV screen.) “You were there?”

“Hey, Angela and I have a date there today, okay? That wasn’t spying.”

That was true since even she didn’t know of the meeting location until last night.

“Well?”

“It was weird.”

“So it was really a date?” Jacky’s voice asked from behind them.

Qiao Qiao jumped again. She was sure getting too jumpy for her own good nowadays.

“I live here too you know,” Jacky said, answering her unasked question. He had already stepped out from her blind spot and was making himself comfortable on the sofa. “Well? How was your date?”

“Uh…” She settled down next to Jacky, still stalling. Or more like she didn’t know what it was about either. “I don’t know.”

“You were there, you know,” Ehlo said, his sarcasm apparent.

“I don’t know what to make of it. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just too weird. And I didn’t get to ask at all. Then he got this call so he took off.”

“You were there for almost a day, you know.”

Qiao Qiao shrugged.

“Leave her alone and stop gossiping,” Angela interfered, stepping into the living room.

It was then that Qiao Qiao finally noticed that Angela had cut her hair and also had a perm. “You had a perm.”

“Last week,” Angela answered, though her expression had suggested that Qiao Qiao should’ve known already.

“You’ve been phasing out on us?” Ehlo asked. It was like it was his duty to speak up Angela’s thoughts.

“Uh…” Qiao Qiao managed again. Her attempts to cover her tracks were getting too rusty. Or had she ever acquired those skills in the first place? Then she was wondering if she would get exposed just like Ming Dao and Sam if she were to spy on Tang Feng herself. Anything was possible. Considering her current state.

“Hey!” Ehlo called out, snapping his fingers in front of her.

Qiao Qiao jumped, looking at him. She knew from everyone’s stare that she had missed something again. It was too obvious. Not only that but the guys had apparently finished the game they were playing and were all gathered around her. Even Sonia and Achel were present in the living room.

“Are you all right?” Achel asked, walking toward her with a look full of concern.

Qiao Qiao nodded, settling down at the sofa again. “Just tired.”

As if knowing her discomfort, Jacky placed a protective hand around her shoulders and gestured for the others to scatter out. Wallace took the hint and turned to the others to emphasize the point while Ehlo and Chen Yi exchanged a look between the two of them. Instead of clearing the way, Ehlo walked toward the sofa and settled down on Qiao Qiao’s right. Chen Yi had pulled Achel toward the kitchen and was whispering something to her. Sonia and Angela remained in the living room but at a safe distance, their worried expression on.

“So, what have you found out?” Ehlo asked, his voice less on the curiosity level and more of concern.

Qiao Qiao turned to him, puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Are you kidding me girl?”

“Huang Yu Rong,” Angela called out, her warning look on.

Ehlo turned to her with one of his charming smiles. “I’m not the one who made her upset here, why are you targeting me?”

Qiao Qiao suddenly felt too foolish to have Jacky support her like that. It wasn’t like she minded in the past since she had done the same for him. Yet now she realized how that might have looked like in the past. She pulled herself together and shrugged Jacky’s hand off her shoulders. Clearing her throat to regain herself before speaking up. “I’m all right, everyone. No need to be alarmed. Just tired. Really.”

This time, it was Jacky and Ehlo who had the secret exchange. Ehlo took it into his hands to check on Wallace’s presence before turning his attention back on Qiao Qiao.

“If it’s too much to let him know,” Ehlo said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Then maybe we should have a secret meeting later?”

Qiao Qiao contined to stare at Ehlo. Was her face reflecting such a dreadful expression? That was why everyone thought it was the worst scenario? She shook her head. “It’s not about them.”

“Is it about you then?” Jacky asked, wanting to place that supportive hand back on Qiao Qiao’s shoulder but resisted at the last moment.

Qiao Qiao shook her head again. It wasn’t like her to be so off. “I don’t know.”

“If you keep at this rate, we can’t help you, girl,” Ehlo said, his voice not suggesting of a smart-aleck. It was edging more and more along the line of nerve-racking. In fact, it was mirroring Angela’s expression.

“I don’t know,” Qiao Qiao repeated before getting up. “I guess I’m going home.”

Jacky and Ehlo got up then. But Sonia and Angela stepped forward to stop them.

“What?” Ehlo asked, looking at Angela.

Though Jacky wasn’t asking but he was also looking at Sonia. Sonia shook her head then.

“Let her be,” Angela responded in Sonia’s place. “I think it’s more about her than Wallace this time. And we should let her have some space to sort out her feelings.”

“What?” Ehlo repeated of his confusion. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand her words. At least not in the matter of not understanding the language. It was more about the situation. “What in the world are you talking about?”

“She likes Tang Feng?” Jacky asked, his voice lacking so much confidence. In fact, it was like how he had sounded during the days when he was deeply troubled by his own problems.

“What?” Chen Yi jumped in, having overheard the conversation. He and Achel had joined them in the living room after witnessing Qiao Qiao’s departure.

Knowing that all of the parties present weren’t strangers, considering how much they’d been through these past years, Angela knew she couldn’t hide it from them. She nodded. “Isn’t it obvious already?”

“But she can’t be serious about liking him?” Chen Yi said, his words coming out in a jumble. Although he had mentioned the possibility of Qiao Qiao liking Tang Feng to Ehlo days ago, but hearing Angela saying it now made it surreal. Like it was okay to gossip about it yet it wasn’t okay for others to acknowledge it was really happening. “I meant okay he’s kind of fun to hang out with but he’s uh…”

“Don’t say old,” Ehlo warned, pointing a finger at Chen Yi.

“I didn’t mean that.”

“Then what do you mean? And I thought you said you think she likes him. So this just proves it. So why are you against it anyway?”

“Guys, is it even time?” Angela interfered.

“We need to straighten it out so we could help the poor kid here,” Ehlo argued. “Are you guys going to abandon her when she was there for us in the past? You might say that I’m nosy or that some of us are nosy or whatever. But don’t you guys care at all about her well-being? She looked quite devastated earlier, can’t you tell?”

“But she doesn’t want our help,” Jacky spoke up–instead of any of the other supposedly reasonable voice.

“What?” Ehlo exclaimed, turning to give Jacky one of his glares. “And you call yourself her brother?”

“She brushed my hand off earlier, didn’t you notice?” Jacky asked, his calm composure still intact.

“She thinks she doesn’t need help,” Ehlo clarified. “It doesn’t mean she doesn’t need help.”

“We can’t argue about this anymore,” Angela interrupted again. “We have to cheer her up using a different method than just attacking her with questions.”

“Finally,” Ehlo said, sighing out. “I agree with that one, but cheering her up using senseless methods only work for a while, you know.”

“I’ll get Yan to talk to her,” Chen Yi volunteered.

Just then, Angela’s cell phone beeped. She retrieved it and checked her messages. After that little delay, she turned to Achel, tapping at her phone. “We have to go.”

“Now?” Achel asked, sounding disappointed.

Angela nodded. “Someone’s lost.”

“What about our plan?” Ehlo asked, turning to Angela.

“You two go together,” Angela said–and that seemed to be final because she grabbed Achel’s hand and led her out of there.

“We know who’s in charge now,” Jacky joked–despite the situation.

Ehlo sent Jacky a nasty look while Chen Yi stared at a reluctant Achel being pulled to the door.

“I’ll call you later,” Chen Yi yelled out before the door slammed shut.

“Saving your face?” Ehlo stabbed after the door shut.

Chen Yi scoffed. “Speak for yourself, Huang.”

Then he was gone as well, leaving the others standing in the living room. Wallace had disappeared from their sight but now reemerged again, giving them a puzzled look.

“What?” Ehlo asked, feeling like snapping at someone just for the sake of it.

“Why are you guys still standing around here?” Wallace asked, sensing the hostility.

“We’re admiring the new carpet, okay?”

Wallace had to laugh at that. “Nice, Huang.”

“It seems like our day just got ruined,” Ehlo said, feeling defeated–and crashing down on the sofa again.

“More like the night,” Jacky reminded him, sitting back down on the sofa also.

“What in the world are we going to do now?” Then Ehlo turned to Wallace. “No date tonight?”

Wallace shook his head. “Couldn’t reach her.”

It was then that Ehlo jumped up from the sofa–literally.

“What?” Jacky asked, eyeing Ehlo suspiciously–though bracing himself for another dramatic moment from their ‘Drama King’.

“Qiao said he got a call and left,” Ehlo replied.

“He?” Wallace asked.

“Tang Feng.”

“And?”

Ehlo wrinkled his face in frustration. “Put two and two together, will you?”

“Yu Rong,” Jacky warned, not wanting Ehlo to go there.

Ehlo sighed out heavily, not caring if he had to offend anyone anymore. “Fine. Everyone just go back to your rock and pretend nothing’s happening.”

Then he made his exit just like the others who had already left before him.

“What’s with him?” Wallace asked after they removed their eyes from the door and back on each other.

Jacky shook his head. “He’s just too worried.” After that, he turned to Sonia. “Still want to take in that movie?”

“Let’s go somewhere else,” Sonia returned.

“Where?”

“Have you ever wondered if the sea’s the same at night?”

Jacky smiled, understanding that he needed the break. He got up from the sofa and reached for her hand. But before going, he turned to Wallace. “You all right alone?”

Wallace gave him a strange look. “You kidding me?”

Jacky smiled again, feeling foolish. “Blame it on Huang.”

Wallace let out another amused laughter. He followed Jacky and Sonia to the door, shutting and locking it after them. It was also after they left that his smile faded from his face. And he silently blamed Huang as well. Paranoia was indeed contagious.

© Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Posted: Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

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