Chapter 2 – Anniversary

It was July 24th, 2011, two years later from that eventful day. The day that they said goodbye for the last time as a couple and was no longer a couple. He walked along the bridge, feeling the cool breeze blowing in his face and looking down at the city night. Some things never changed, no matter how much time had passed. That night, just like that same night last year, he walked along the streets, not wanting to go home. At least not yet. He needed time alone, not wanting to alarm the others if he was at home. It was at this bridge that he could be himself again, his truth self. No hiding, no pretending to be brave–when he wasn’t. He had put up a better bridge, controlling his emotions after that night he came home, walking in on Ehlo’s conversation with Angela. They were still worried for him, always worried for him–regardless of how much he had reassured them. So he had promised himself to become a better actor, a chameleon even. Only when he had mastered those skills would he allow himself a break. He knew the feeling of worrying for others to the point that he couldn’t do anything else or the unease feeling that wouldn’t go away, so he had promised himself not to make those around him suffer that fate again–at least not because of him.

“You’re not going to jump, are you?” A soft voice asked him–with underlying traces of teasing.

It reminded him of the time the three angels had approached him when he was enjoying the morning’s breeze. The difference was obvious now, only one voice–even if he had waited a little longer to turn. The other obvious difference was night versus day. Still, he intended to turn around and reassure the other party, not wanting her to be alarmed–just like the three angels once did on that fateful morning. But when he finally turned, he saw Sonia extending her hands toward him–even offering a sweet smile. And that was all it took him before he stepped forward and embraced her. There were many things he wanted to say but he couldn’t. It was too much. His emotions were taking over. He only knew to hold her tight, not wanting to let go–ever again.

“Are you all right, sir?” A timid voice asked, traces of worried enveloping those words.

It was also then that Jacky realized it wasn’t Sonia. But the girl had allowed for him to hug her, even patting his back in a comforting manner. As his senses kicked in, he knew more than anything that it was impossible. Yet how come he felt so safe hugging this stranger? Or was he so taken with his grief that he had mistaken it for security? He finally let go of her and took a step back, not wanting to alarm her any more than he already did. Though he wasn’t sure what was worse.

“I’m sorry,” He apologized, rubbing a hand down his face to calm himself down–and taking in her features.

“It’s okay,” The girl said, not out of politeness often rattled out by any person with manners intact out there–aka the usual rehearsed protocol. She gave off the feeling that she was genuine with her words. “As long as you’re all right.” She paused, studying him more carefully. “But you don’t look all right to me.”

Jacky directed his eyes elsewhere, catching a glimpse of darkness behind him, not knowing what to say. But he didn’t have time to think up of an excuse for his bizarre behavior or need to because right then, she reached out her hand and grabbed his.

“I know how to cheer you up,” She said, her voice excited then, no longer timid or worried, tugging on his arm and guiding him away from the bridge–and back into civilization.

He didn’t know why, but he followed her anyway. What could happen?

Twenty minutes later, they were at some stalls in the streets, eating hotpot. He must admit, he felt much better while eating. Not better that the pain would magically disappear. But somehow, he felt much more relief. Must be the obvious reason that he was letting out more steam while eating all the spicy ingredients added into the pot.

“Much better, right?” The girl asked, placing into his bowl another shrimp.

He nodded–and meaning it.

She smiled, pleased with her achievement. “I know it would work. Any time I feel unhappy, I would come here and eat. Afterward? I already forgotten what it was that I was so worked up about in the first place.”

Jacky smiled at her innocence. If only it was that simple with his situation. It wasn’t about being mad at some small matter. Or any matter for that reason. Therefore, her current technique could only erase his pain for the time being, not permanently. Yet he didn’t want to be ungrateful. He had to admit he did feel better. But he didn’t want to be all fake about it either. For some reason, he didn’t want to deceive this stranger. He stopped eating and let out a sigh. “If only it were that simple.”

She stopped eating also. “What is it that you can’t let go of?”

He sighed out again. “I already let go, that’s why I’m even miserable.”

“Love?”

Apparently, she wasn’t that naïve like he thought. She caught on much faster than he predicted. And her next words caught him off guard as well.

“Your face said it all. I’m not that clueless, okay?”

He smiled, admitting guilt. “I apologize.”

Her smile was still bright on her face, not offended at all. “Don’t we all have one of those relationships where we sink so deep that we can’t even pull out of?”

Jacky nodded, studying her face–and feeling mischievous. “How about you? How many relationships have you been through then?”

“Twenty five.”

He nodded, understanding why she was so experienced in handling situations. “I guess you do qualify to be the adviser then.”

She let out a laugh then–as if she had conned him.  “All in my books.”

Yes, that stumped him all right. Who would count those as relationships? And her next words got him again.

“Hey, I always feel the pain that my protagonists go through with each novel I wrote.”

“You’re an author?” He felt a tug of the past coming back once again, chewing on his mind. What are the chances that each time he was down in the dumps, an author comes into his path and reassures him?

She nodded. “I wrote mostly children stories but sometimes I would make an exception for romances.”

He smiled, wanting to make a joke–if it would work. “Too much on the heart?”

She looked surprised, gasping. “How did you know? People always laugh at me when I say that!”

He was as surprised. “I was joking.”

Her face fell then. “Oh.”

He knew he shouldn’t stomp on her confidence. After all, she did help cheer him up. “But I don’t see anything wrong with getting too attached with your characters. After all, don’t the rest of us readers get so attached to our favorite characters that we end up fighting with one another? Who’s to say what is normal or right?”

Her smile lit up again. “Exactly.”

He glimpsed his watch then. “It’s getting late. Maybe we should go.”

She realized the placid of the area also, so she turned to the stall owner and sent an apologetic smile his way. It was like he’d known her for so long and her habits that he sent a smile back, indicating he didn’t mind. When she turned to Jacky again, she spotted him pulling out some bills from his wallet. She reached across the table and grabbed his hand, stopping him.

“This is on me,” She said when he turned his attention to her.

“You already cheered me up,” He reminded her.

She shook her head. “No. If you don’t let me pay, we can sit here all night like this.”

He felt more amused than ever. He turned toward the owner’s direction, feeling the man’s pain. He turned to the girl again and nodded, letting her have it her way. And it was then that she was reassured and let go of his hand, a bright smile forming on her face.

“So, where do we go now?” She asked him when they already left the stall.

“It’s almost midnight now, where do you want to go?”

She turned to him, staring at him intently with a disapproving look.

“What?” He asked, pondering of her current dark moods.

“I didn’t judge you about your strange suicide attempt and your taking advantage of me. So I would appreciate it too if you don’t judge me by how late I stay out. Or what I do.”

They had stopped walking and were staring at each other. She wasn’t an angel anymore. Her attitude was obvious. Yet he knew she wasn’t being fake either. It was a reasonable reaction. He would be mad too if anyone was judging him when they didn’t know that much about him.

“I’m sorry,” He said at last.

Her bright smile made its appearance again. She hooked her hands through his right hand and dragged him along again. “It’s all right.”

He’d never met anyone who changed that fast in his life before. That reminded him of one time how Ehlo was comparing girls to spinning wheels. And for some unknown reason, he didn’t mind if she was close to him. It wasn’t because he was attracted to her either–or one of those typical guy things that people often talked about. But it wasn’t because she wasn’t attractive. She was in her own way. Her style was so casual yet she made it look so graceful. He didn’t know what, but he was comfortable with this stranger while they walked back toward the bridge.

“You live on the other side of town, right?” She asked, breaking through his thoughts.

He nodded when she turned to wait for his answer.

“So…want to tell me what happened earlier?”

He wrinkled his face in confusion. “I thought your whole scheme was to let me forget about it.”

She tugged on his arm–as if using that as a torture method. “There are no free meals in life, so ‘fess up.”

He played along. “I knew I shouldn’t have accepted when you wanted to pay.”

“Or we could be sitting there the rest of the night.”

She got him there. “I guess I can’t win.”

She tugged on his arm again. “You don’t have a choice so stop changing the topic.”

“Well…”

And he finished his tale when they reached the bridge again. He had told of his tales millions of times already. Okay, it wasn’t that much, but it was more along the line of hearing others recounting it for him than telling it himself. He must admit, after saying it all out–his version of the story, he felt much more relief.

“You shouldn’t have let go of her,” She chided him–a typical line he heard since two years ago.

“Everyone has been saying that.”

“No, what I mean is you haven’t really let go of her yet anyway, so why severe the ties?”

“I…”

They stopped walking again since she had pulled him back. They were at the end of the bridge where it led back to his side of town.

“What I mean is…” She said, wanting his attention on her before finishing. “You wanted to do what was right and you did. But it’s eating you inside out, don’t you see it?”

Like he didn’t know. It had been like that for the past two years. But he didn’t say anything. That moment was the first time that he felt she had some connection with the other people around him. And that little magic of the first moment had vanished. Just like that.

“And I know you’re thinking right now that you have the right to miss her because that’s part of your memory too. But there are ways to reminisce. You felt you’d done the right thing, but you haven’t moved on because you’re still thinking of what you lost and of a possible future. But do you know what? You have to get rid of that thought and only think of the good memories only. If you keep thinking about what could have been, then you’ll eventually go crazy.”

And just like that, the light of magic reignited itself once again. Jacky couldn’t stop staring at her. She had turned the table on him again, surprising him into speechlessness. Sure, the others had wanted him to forget and move on, but it took time. He had used that excuse himself, in fact for the last two years. But here this girl was telling him that it was all right to keep those memories with him.

“So come on…” She urged, grabbing his hand to go again.

Jacky didn’t know what to think of it all either. He allowed himself to be led away from the bridge, back into his side of the town.

“Where’s your car?”

He pulled himself out of the trance long enough to look around, attempting to locate his car. He had parked it not far from the bridge. When he finally found it, she got in the passenger side, stumping him again.

“I thought you’re just walking me to the car,” Jacky said, knowing it sounded lame. But he guessed since she said he lived on this side of town–that meant she was going out of her way to send him to his car, right?

She buckled up before answering his question. “I’m coming with you.”

What? And he didn’t mind saying it out loud. “What?”

She grabbed his hand again. “I decided to become your personal therapist. The first place to start changing is your house.”

“Okay…” He dragged out the syllables on purpose. Though there wasn’t much.

“I’m not crazy! You’ll see that it will work.”

Another memory flashed into his mind then. More than two years ago. Or was it three? It was the time he drove Sonia and Sam home after Sam’s first recording. They had bumped into Bianca. He remembered his exact words then when Sonia forced him to take in the stranger, which were: Texas Chainsaw Massacre anyone? He had the same feeling now – regardless of whether this girl here looked like some psycho killer or not. They never pasted their real identities on their foreheads, right?

“Come on!” She spoke up, urging him–and tugging on his hand once again.

He still wasn’t moving–though he remembered closing his car door already. But he didn’t need to make his decision because she made it for him again. She unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the door.

“If this is making you uncomfortable, then I’m sorry,” She said, leaving.

Before she could disappear from view, he reached across the way and grabbed hold of her hand. “Wait.”

She turned around, kneeling to face him better. But she didn’t wrestle her hand out of his grasp–like any typical girl would do.

“Get in.”

She didn’t ask the reason for his change of mind but just got in, her smile returning to her face.

*****

An hour later, the girl was in Jacky’s room, sitting on his bed–and sorting through his personal stuffs. What about him? He was outside in the living room, sitting on the sofa, pretending to be watching TV–while Ehlo was doing his own narratives nearby. Wallace hadn’t come home yet–though it was already past midnight.

“You want to turn the sarcasm down a bit, buddy?” Nic asked, walking by the living room then.

Yes, Nic had moved in with them–into Johnny’s old room. It happened several months after Johnny’s wedding. He had opted for the escape route because he could no longer stand Uncle Zhe’s constant nagging. Ehlo had offered it when Nic brought up something about his nerves on its last wits that one time–and Wallace had agreed. If they didn’t mind, Jacky didn’t mind either. After all, they would feel strange if they didn’t have four members in their house.

“It’s my house too, you know,” Ehlo said, reminding Nic of his freedom to speak up his thoughts. “I’m not like someone, having no control over their life.”

“They know each other, that’s why she’s here,” Nic reasoned, stopping in his tracks.

Ehlo scoffed. “Who are you kidding here, man? I know every one of his friends since childhood. I would know this girl…” He stopped and pointed toward the general direction of Jacky’s room. “…too if she’s a friend from the past.”

Jacky got to admit he was in for good this time. He had no idea why he let her go through with it. Then he wondered if it was pity seeing her all alone, roaming around places at night. But then he started to ponder why she was wandering around at that time of the night for.

“Snap out of it, man,” Ehlo said, snapping his fingers in front of Jacky’s face for emphasis.

Jacky turned to his left–where Ehlo had been sitting since he returned with the girl. “What?”

“What’s her name?”

“Uh…”

“I’m not going to kick her out in case you’re wondering.”

Jacky scratched his head then, not remembering if he had that habit in the past or not. “It’s not that.”

“Then what?”

“It’s just that…uh…” He scratched his head more furiously, not knowing how to say it…still.

“Don’t you trust me? Come on, man. What do you take me for? Have I ever gone back on my words?”

That was true. Ehlo had never done that in his life. But the thing was…

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” Jacky repeated what was going through his mind. “But the thing is…”

Ehlo’s patience was in the low now, way low–on the negative side even. “What?”

“It’s just that…uh…I don’t know her name either.”

That was when Ehlo exploded. He jumped up from his seat literally and pointed at Jacky. “You brought home a girl in the middle of the night to rupture our sleep. And the worst of it all is…you don’t know her name!”

Nic moved toward them then, standing in between the guys, attempting to stop a possible fight. “Hey, break it up.”

Ehlo turned to Nic. “Did you just hear what I said? He brought home a girl in the middle of the night…”

“I got it,” Nic cut Ehlo off. “But what could we do now?”

“Uh…kick her out?”

“You just said you won’t.”

“That was when I thought he knew her.”

And as if the girl operated on her own time and schedule–and possibly own universe, she walked out of Jacky’s room then, waving a book in front of them. “Hey, you actually bought one of my books!”

Ehlo was about to give her a piece of his mind, but upon hearing about book–and seeing the familiar cover, he sped past Nic and came to her side. He snatched it out of her hand and studied it, nodding his head. “It’s mine.”

The girl looked beyond happy. “So how did you like it?”

“Uh…it was pretty good actually. This chick sure could write.”

The girl looked pleased but somewhat shy at the same time.

“Wait,” Ehlo said, bringing his hand up to stop all activities–though they weren’t doing much, except breathe.

Everyone stayed silent.

“You said your book.”

The girl nodded, still smiling.

“Oh my god, you’re her!” Ehlo advanced toward the girl and hugged her to him then.

That was also when Jacky jumped out of his seat and separated the two. When he finally had her behind him, shielding her with his hand, he turned to Ehlo. “What are you doing, man?”

“She’s my favorite author, hello!”

“You didn’t react that way when you met Xiao Qiao or…”

“That’s different. Xiao Qiao’s your favorite, not mine.”

“Well, try to keep it down. You wouldn’t want to scare her, would you?”

“Hey, stop being so protective of her like she’s a kid.”

“But I’m not scared,” The girl spoke up then, defending herself and stepping out of Jacky’s protective shield.

Ehlo pointed toward the girl but was still looking at Jacky. “See? She’s not scared.”

“She’s being polite,” Jacky jumped in again, his right hand sliding around the girl’s shoulders with the protective shield back on.

Ehlo’s face wrinkled, but his expression wasn’t anger or frustration. It was confusion. “Are you sure you two just met? Why are you being so possessive?” He didn’t let Jacky had a chance to reply though. He went right on. “Oh…all those times when you came home late, you were with her, right?”

“I just met him today,” The girl spoke up for the both of them. And she didn’t bother to remove Jacky’s hand from her shoulder. And it wasn’t because she seemed to enjoy the show either, but it seemed like she was comfortable with it, not caring about others’ opinions–or interpretation. “He was…”

“Getting some fresh air,” Jacky filled in.

She smiled, nodding, not appearing like she was puzzled by his distortion of events either. “So I invited him to some hotpot, and he invited me home to meet you guys.”

Jacky winced, knowing she got him again. When in the world did he invite her to come home and meet the guys anyway? But if he clarified himself, that meant he would be digging his own grave. One way or another, he can’t win.

“Nice of him,” Ehlo remarked, his sarcasm still surging high.

The girl nodded–like she didn’t notice of Ehlo’s sarcasm at all.

Ehlo shrugged, feeling somewhat surprised by this girl’s passivity–or unusual positive vibe. “You got a name, girl? We can’t be calling you Zi Ling Lan (紫鈴蘭) all the time, right?”

The girl smiled at her own silliness–possibly for the first time. “Oh, of course. Just call me Sophia.”

“Sophia.”

The girl–Sophia–nodded, still smiling.

Ehlo had diverted his eyes toward Jacky while repeating the girl’s name. It was like he was questioning Jacky’s taste in girls. Jacky had also loosened his grip on Sophia’s shoulder. She finally noticed it and turned to him.

“Guess what?” She asked–without the intention of getting an answer. “I got it all mapped out already.”

Jacky didn’t ask, just waited for her to continue. Even Ehlo and Nic were staying silent–with Nic coming over to their little group already.

“I’m going to lock up all of your sentimental possession right now, only releasing it one by one when you’re ready for it,” She rattled out–as if that was a done deal already.

“What?” Jacky asked, surprised–though he didn’t know why he was surprised since he had already given up on guessing her next moves. She was always so unpredictable.

She grabbed his hand then, hauling him toward his room. He only had time to turn and give Ehlo a look. Ehlo gave him a shrug, not sure himself.

“Don’t look at me, buddy,” Ehlo said. “You brought her home.”

And it was true.

“What is it?” Jacky continued with his question as they entered his room. “Can’t you just tell me?”

“Here,” She said, pointing at a secret compartment he had under one of his drawers.

He turned to her. “How in the world did you find it?” He turned and shut the door behind him, not wanting the others to know.

“I write mysteries, you know,” She reminded him, smiling.

“I thought you write children’s stories…and romances.”

She shrugged, still smiling. “I forgot to tell you about the mystery ones.” She didn’t wait for him to react. “Anyway, I sort through some of your stuff and divided it into two piles. One safe to view at any time without triggering past feelings. And the other not so safe. At least not at the moment. So it goes into that drawer over there. Nice?”

“Uh…”

“Trust me, okay?”

“Uh…”

“It’s not like I’m taking it home and not giving you back your stuff, it’s just sealed here, okay?”

Jacky finally nodded, not even sure why he agreed.

She smiled and let go of his hand then. “I’m keeping the key though.”

He knew it. There was always a catch.

“If you don’t want me to help you, just tell me I’m a nosy person and that it’s none of my business. And I’ll be out of your house.”

She stumped him again. He didn’t want to do that. It was never in his nature to do that. Yet she had dared to speak up what others might be thinking at the moment, especially during such circumstances. Or was that what they always called ‘reverse psychology’? It also meant that she was making him feel guilty on purpose.

“I’m not trying to make you feel guilty by saying those things,” She spoke up again, reading his mind. “I’m just telling you all of these because we all have a choice in what we want to do. And I’m not some clueless idiot who doesn’t know that she has trespassed.” She paused, letting out a sigh–a first time ever since they met, like she was normal like them, not so energetic and positive like he’d thought. “It’s just that since you hugged me on the bridge, I had a strong urge to help you overcome the worst. And I’m sorry I want to push that idea into your head so fast. Because I’m just some stranger.”

After that, she turned to leave. He watched as she reached for the door handle, not knowing why he was missing her already. And what was worst, he couldn’t bear seeing a smile not present on her face. But was that all a charade? A part of her plan since she would know that he would eventually call her back anyway? He didn’t have time to linger because they heard some loud commotions in the living room again. How could he not notice it before?

She turned to him again, her face full of surprise. “What’s going on?”

That was when he unfroze from his spot and made his way to the door where she was standing at. He reached for the door handle, not caring that he’d touched her hand when he pulled the knob. He stepped out first–with her right behind him, and he intended to keep it that way since he saw Ehlo and Wallace engage in some disagreement. It seemed serious.

“What’s going on here?” Jacky asked, looking from Ehlo to Wallace – and then Nic. “You guys know what time it is?”

“I have a good reason to make noise at this time of the night, you know,” Ehlo defended himself, turning to give Jacky a look. It was obvious that he was saying that Jacky was crazy.

“What’s going on then?” Jacky urged, wanting to get right down to the problem.

Ehlo waved something in his hand. “He broke my phone.”

“I’m telling you it was an accident,” Wallace jumped in. He was also holding a bag. “I already went to half of the stores in town to get this new one for you, okay?”

Ehlo scoffed. “Like that would make a difference. You know how much stuffs I have store in there?”

“Who in the world would store stuffs in their phone anyway?” Wallace shot back.

“Hey, hey,” Nic interfered, stepping over to the two again.

It got interesting as that because Nic had taken over Johnny’s role as the peacemaker of their household. It was like he and Johnny had somehow had a secret torch passing ceremony where Johnny had bestowed upon Nic’s shoulder to take care of everyone from now on since he was moving onto a new phase of his life now–and could not look after them as actively as he once did.

“It’s my phone,” Ehlo repeated. “I have the right to get mad.”

“Will you at least let me explain?” Wallace asked, his voice less intense like before.

Ehlo turned to Wallace. “Sure, talk all you want. I have all night.”

“It’s just a phone and you’re letting it get in the way of your friendship?” Sophia jumped in, not realizing what she’d gotten herself into.

It was then that Wallace realized there was a girl in their house–like at that time of the night. He looked from Ehlo to Nic for an explanation–as if they were buddies again. Ehlo shrugged while Nic turned to Jacky.

“This is Sophia,” Jacky rattled off introductions as both parties stepped forward to shake hands.

“It’s not about the phone, okay?” Ehlo picked up the argument again. “It’s a matter of principle. I trusted him with the phone, that’s why I lent it to him at all. And now? It’s not about replacing an item, but about some irreplaceable data stored in there, okay?”

“Okay, okay,” Sophia took over the peacemaker role this time around. “But will you let him explain first?” She was looking at Ehlo of course.

As if Sophia had some kind of magic to her, Ehlo softened his face and nodded. It was then that Sophia smiled and directed everyone back to the living room again, making them sit on the sofa–with her sitting at the rocking chair nearby.

“Okay, start explaining, Huo,” Ehlo ordered, his eyes still threatening.

“You have to stay calm and not give him pressure,” Sophia chided Ehlo, her grim expression on.

Ehlo saluted then, his sarcasm still high. “Yes, ma’am.”

Sophia didn’t look too happy but she turned to Wallace with a smile. “Go ahead.”

“It all happened like twelve hours ago,” Wallace began.

“And we apparently aren’t living happily ever after,” Ehlo snapped.

Sophia turned to him with a glare–one of her sharpest glares they’d come to know.  She was reminding them of Angela more and more. Was that why Ehlo was even scared of her? Or at least listened to her? But they didn’t have time to wonder. She turned back to Wallace with an encouraging smile.

“Go on,” She said, her voice as soft and soothing as always.

Wallace cleared his throat and started again.

© Tuesday, November 1st, 2011

Posted: Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

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