Chapter 5 – Happy Birthday

Friday afternoon, Wallace stepped out of the same building with Yvonne like he had about less than a month back. It was their last day seeing each other since he was done with helping them in the consulting area. The next part was up to them whether to go forward with the project or not.

“I guess this is it, huh?” Wallace asked, looking at the parking lot–and remembering back to that one eventful afternoon.

Yvonne seemed to be thinking along the same line because she took out an envelope and gave it to Wallace. Surprised, he took it from her and opened it, revealing some bills inside.

“What is it for?” Wallace asked, turning to her.

“Compensation for your phone,” Yvonne explained.

Wallace closed the envelope and gave it back to her. “You didn’t do it on purpose.”

Yvonne didn’t take it, but shove his hand. “But I broke your phone anyway.”

“Forget it.”

Yvonne shook her head again. “It took me awhile to get the amount together but I don’t regret it because I know I’m doing the right thing.”

Then Wallace realized it. He often pondered in the past weeks if she had forgotten on purpose since she never mentioned the incident again, except that little apology at the parking lot after it happened. Though he said he didn’t want the money but he’d always thought it was human nature or some unsaid basic instinct to offer compensation. So Yvonne was pooling her resources to get the amount. Though he barely glimpsed the bills but he knew it was the right amount–probably extra to show sincerity. She was an assistant of this company after all. She would know how to research and return the right amount to him. Then he realized something else. It wasn’t that she had forgotten, but she didn’t see the point of empty talks when she could prove it to him with the actual evidence now. And he was definitely guessing about her intention but he just had a feeling it was in her nature not to make excuses–or rattle off with those empty words.

“Well?” Yvonne prompted, pulling Wallace out of his thoughts.

It was also then that Wallace realized she was still holding his hand. He knew if he didn’t take the money, she would always feel unease about it so he nodded.

“That’s better,” Yvonne said, her troubled expression vanishing–and then replaced with a smile full of relief.

“But I want to make another deal,” Wallace said, not letting her off easily.

Her smile didn’t fade. It was like she was already prepared for whatever punishment he was going to dish out. “What?”

“How about lunch?”

Yvonne glimpsed at her watch. “But it’s too late for lunch. In fact, we could be having dinner in a bit.”

“You’re going by the clock. I haven’t even had lunch yet.”

She gasped, remembering why. It was her boss not letting Wallace off earlier hence the delay. “Okay.”

Wallace made his way toward his car, knowing she was following him. When they got into his car and he was ready to back out, his cell phone rang. He put the car into parking mode again and answered it, sending Yvonne a smile that he needed to pick up the call.

“Hello?”

“Huo, you’re off right?”

From the authoritative tone and the way of greeting, it was obviously Ehlo.

“Yeah,” Wallace answered. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t come home too late, we’re having a meeting tonight to plan for Jacky’s birthday.”

“That’s two days away.”

“That’s why we’re planning, hello. In fact, we’re late.”

“Okay, I got it. But we usually don’t plan anything anyway, I meant we would just give him stuffs on that day or go with the flow.”

“Like I want to sit around and have a tea talk like some girl.”

“Let me guess, Sophia got to you?”

“Yeah. But I agree with her.”

Wallace shook his head, his amused smile on – though Ehlo couldn’t see it. “Sure.”

“Whatever, man.”

“I’m hanging up.”

Wallace didn’t have to say it because Ehlo already hung up on him since the ‘hang’ part. But Wallace didn’t mind. That was Ehlo. He tossed his phone into the empty slot under the radio slot before focusing on backing out again.

“I thought you said you got a new phone already,” Yvonne said, having noticed Wallace’s phone.

“I did,” Wallace said, his eyes still on the road.

“But…”

“The one you broke was my friend’s phone, not mine. I had to borrow his because my broke previously. I just got my new phone recently too.”

“Oh…”

“Yeah.”

“You two must be good friends.”

“He did give me the third degree.”

Yvonne gasped again. “I’m so sorry.”

Wallace knew she meant it. He just smiled. “Don’t worry about it anymore. Lucky his girlfriend backup his data already or I’ll be dead, compensation or no compensation.”

Yvonne seemed reassured since she went right into her nosy mode. “Sophia?”

Wallace smiled, knowing she couldn’t help it. “No, his girlfriend is Angela.”

“Then…”

“It’s complicated.”

And Wallace wasn’t lying. He didn’t even know who Sophia was anymore. His head had been spinning since Day 1 when she entered their lives. As if understanding Wallace’s difficult situation, Yvonne didn’t ask anymore. She stayed quiet–or tried to–as they were sitting in traffic and the rest of their time together. Though Wallace did strike up some sort of a conversation, so she wouldn’t be so bored.

*****

Indeed, the others were in the living room when Wallace got home, even Chen Yi and Qiao Qiao. No Tang Feng, which Wallace found strange.

“Hey, man,” Ehlo greeted him when he settled down on the sofa. “You’re just in time.”

“What’s the big deal with the planning this year?” Wallace asked, getting straight to the point.

Ehlo shrugged. “Hey, might be fun?”

Wallace unloosed his tie as he scanned the room. “The planning or the actual thing?”

“You’re Mr. Optimistic all right.”

Wallace didn’t reply. Instead, he pulled out some bills from his wallet and handed it to Ehlo.

Ehlo wrinkled his face in confusion. “What?”

“Your compensation. Yvonne pooled her savings and some more together to compensate you because, you know.”

Ehlo handed the money back to Wallace. “I have the new phone. I don’t need her money. Keep it. Since you used your money to compensate me, right?”

“What about that bet?”

Ehlo shook his head. “Forget it. I was kidding.”

“Sure?”

“Maybe you should pay for Jacky’s birthday celebration then.” And Ehlo was so joking.

Wallace smiled, taking the bills back from Ehlo. “Okay then.”

“Here it is, everyone,” Sophia said, walking into the living room with a tray of full glasses of some dark green liquid substance at that time. She set them down on the table, allowing the others to grab one each. “So, we can start now?”

“No,” Qiao Qiao objected, not taking up a glass at all.

Ehlo turned to give Qiao Qiao a look but she ignored him. He took revenge on her by giving her supposed glass to Wallace instead.

“What is this?” Wallace asked, taking a sip out of it. And he regretted in not waiting for the answer first. Because he wrinkled his face seconds later.

“Pennywort,” Ehlo replied–with Wallace chanting along with him.

“That’s right,” Sophia said, smiling at them both.

“Looks dangerous,” Qiao Qiao noted.

“Tastes a bit strange but refreshing in a sense,” Chen Yi inputted, contradicting Qiao Qiao by accident.

“It won’t kill you,” Ehlo said, looking at Qiao Qiao in particular.

“Wallace doesn’t like it either,” Qiao Qiao argued.

“It’s not that I don’t like it,” Wallace spoke up for himself. “It’s just a bit strange.”

Qiao Qiao turned to Ehlo. “See?”

“Says the person who likes lemon grass for a drink,” Ehlo mocked.

“It’s healthy, hello.”

“It’s one of those herbs that’s supposed to be good for you though,” Wallace continued–without caring about Ehlo and Qiao Qiao’s side argument.

It was Ehlo’s turn to taunt Qiao Qiao. “See?”

“Now that we got it out of the way, along with some heath lessons,” Nic summarized, his sarcasm subtle but noticeable. “How about that plan?”

“I’ll get another glass for you, if you want,” Sophia said, looking at Qiao Qiao. “I was going to make another one for Wallace when he gets home anyway.”

Qiao Qiao waved her hand. “Forget it.”

“You sure?”

Qiao Qiao nodded. And Sophia settled down at a chair nearby.

“Okay, first item,” Nic began, like he was their leader now. “How are we going to do it? Some surprise approach or…”

“He wouldn’t fall for it,” Wallace interrupted Nic. “We did one for Ehlo like two years ago so…”

“It wouldn’t hurt to try, you know,” Ehlo contradicted Wallace.

“So scratch out the surprise approach?” Nic asked, scanning their faces.

“I guess.” Though he had said otherwise seconds ago.

“How about we ask what everyone wants to do for Jacky instead?” Chen Yi suggested. “Then we can narrow down what works and what doesn’t.”

“Good idea,” Qiao Qiao agreed. “I wouldn’t want to go with an already prepared script.”

Ehlo cleared his throat then. “I never knew there was one.”

“Okay, everyone,” Angela said, stepping toward them at that time. She had been in Nic’s room, using his computer to retrieve some information. After the last incident, she didn’t want to cause anymore misunderstandings between her brother and Ehlo hence being more careful now. “I got some locations mapped out.”

“Great,” Ehlo said, taking the paper from her.

“What’s this?” Angela asked, but took a sip from Ehlo’s glass anyway. “Oh, Pennywort! I love these!” She got excited and turned to Sophia. “You made it?”

Sophia nodded. “I think it might be too sweet.”

Angela shook her head. “I think it’s perfect.” Then she turned to the others again. “I used to make ‘em for the guys. Wallace hates it though.”

“I don’t hate it,” Wallace clarified–again. “I just find it strange. I wasn’t used to them yet.”

Angela shrugged but let Wallace off anyway. She turned to Qiao Qiao. “Where’s your boyfriend?”

“That’s why I didn’t want to start yet,” Qiao Qiao said, eyeing Ehlo.

Ehlo shrugged. “How should I know?”

“We’re doing this for Jacky anyway, so it doesn’t make any difference if we’re all here or not,” Nic interfered. “We can pass the words around later.”

“Exactly. Besides, what is this? Time to vote? Everyone has to be present or we lose our rights?”

“All right,” Angela yelled out. “We will never get anything done with you two fighting like this.”

“Right,” Nic agreed. “Chen Yi was saying how we should each voice our opinions and then narrow down the list.” He did the recap mostly for Angela.

“Okay, then Chen Yi should start and the rest of us will follow, you take notes?” She meant Nic.

Nic nodded and they all turned to Chen Yi. The planning went on for another hour or so–with more or less of the lapses of banter between Ehlo and Qiao Qiao. But the rest managed to steer it right back onto the main topic. When they were done, it was in time that Jacky and Tang Feng came back. They were actually over at Sam, helping Sam with something. Though Jacky detected some conspiracy going on, but he didn’t want to expose them, knowing they were doing something for him.

“Hey, what’s this?” Tang Feng asked, stepping over to the coffee table and seeing glasses of liquid–with only some lying unfinished. He turned to Qiao Qiao. “Which one is yours?”

“The one Ehlo grabbed and handed to Wallace earlier,” Qiao Qiao said, pouting.

“You’re silly,” Tang Feng said, smiling and patting her head.

“Well, it’s true,” Qiao Qiao whined.

“I’ll make you some later then.” He turned to the others. “What is it really?”

“Pennywort juice,” Ehlo replied.

“Really? I love that stuff. I haven’t had it for a long time.”

“Ha!” Ehlo had pointed at Qiao Qiao when he said that.

“I missed something again?” Tang Feng asked, eyeing them cautiously.

“Nothing,” Qiao Qiao said, hooking her hands through Tang Feng’s left hand. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Good idea, I want to go to this one place for dinner.” Then he turned to Sophia. “Sorry, Jing jie, we’re going to stay for dinner another time.”

Sophia smiled. “No problem.”

Qiao Qiao looked confused but followed Tang Feng to the door anyway. She didn’t bother saying goodbye to Jacky–or the others.

*****

Two days later, the others set out to make Jacky’s birthday a perfect one. Or so they liked to think. Ehlo and Qiao Qiao’s side battle subsided for the sake of Jacky’s sanity. Or more like from the others’ threats. Though making a big deal out of planning but they did not roll out any earth-shattering event to entertain Jacky. It was just mostly hanging out with the usual people. But a scale had enhanced to include more adventurous activities than the usual gatherings. Of course, like they had agreed since two years ago, the places they covered did not extend to the ones that would trigger Jacky’s memory of Sonia. Yet after lunch, Jacky excused himself from their presence and went to meet up with Sophia at the bridge. Yes, Sophia did not come with them because she did not want to interfere with their activities, especially after what happened the other night. She wasn’t so clueless after all and did not want her presence to trigger Qiao Qiao further. It was also like Jacky had known as well so he did not say exactly where he was going or who he was meeting, except that he appreciated their effort but had to go meet up with someone because of previous arrangements.

“You sure you want to come with me?” Sophia asked when Jacky showed up at the bridge.

Jacky nodded. “Of course.”

“It’s nothing special, you know.”

“And I thought you want to help me with finding distractions for me to do.”

Sophia smiled, knowing he was teasing her. “Let’s go then.”

They walked toward the other side of town, more specifically her side of town. They arrived at a nursing home around half an hour later. It was actually near the hot pot stall they’d been to twice in the past. Just about a block more, then it was the nursing home.

“Grandpa,” Sophia called out to an elderly man as they were in the recreational area of the facility.

The elderly man in which Jacky soon called Grandpa Chou lightened up as soon as he spotted Sophia walking across the room. And that was how Jacky spent the rest of his afternoon, chatting with Grandpa Chou and taking him to places. They returned to the nursing home around sunset. They stayed a little longer, making sure the elderly man had taken his medications before taking leave. Yet they did not part ways at that time. Not quite. They headed toward the familiar hot pot stall and had dinner. It seemed like a habit thus it would feel weird if they didn’t at least make a visit so they made their way back to the bridge until they said goodbye.

“Thanks for today,” Jacky said as they stopped at the brink of the bridge.

Sophia didn’t say anything–unlike since the minute they met up earlier in the day. She just smiled and nodded.

“I’ll be going then,” Jacky said, gesturing his hand toward his side of town–though unnecessary.

Sophia nodded. And then she turned to leave before he could do so himself first. It seemed like it was the first time she left before him, except for their first meeting at his house.

© Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

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