Chapter 7 – Respect

The weekend passed without words from Sophia. The others still took turns visiting Grandpa Chou for Sophia as they promised from the beginning while still waiting for words from her as Monday marched forward.

“Do you think we should call her?” Chen Yi asked, playing with the string on his hoodie.

Chen Yi was actually out at East Shore Café with Achel, Qiao Qiao, Yan Yan, Ehlo, Angela, and Kris. It was Monday afternoon, after work to be exact. They just felt like gathering there to discuss matters versus at Jacky’s place like usual. Chen Yi was sitting on the railing when he asked the question, scanning the others’ faces and waiting for their answers.

“I’m sure Jacky clogged her voicemail with whatever messages he could squeeze in already,” Ehlo pointed out. He was also sitting on the railing a distance from Chen Yi–with Angela to his left.

“Do you think she’s crazy like that one time?” Chen Yi continued with his questions, giving them another scan.

Ehlo shrugged. “Anything is possible.”

“Hey, you’re all here,” Tang Feng said as he approached them.

Qiao Qiao had told him about the gathering instead of heading to Jacky’s or some other places.

“We’re trying to figure out where Sophia is,” Chen Yi filled him in as Ehlo waved to Wallace who was not far behind Tang Feng.

“Jing jie has that habit,” Tang Feng said, his expression calm. “Just wait it out. She’ll show up sooner or later. Don’t worry about Grandpa Chou, if you guys don’t have time, I’ll visit him for you.”

“It’s not about that. We’re just worried for him, like what if he asks about her the next time and we don’t know what to say.”

Tang Feng smiled. “Leave it up to me.”

“You’ve been visiting him too?” Qiao Qiao asked, eyeing Tang Feng. “And why are you calling her Jing jie?”

Tang Feng shrugged. “I’m used to her calling her that. And I used to visit them a lot more years ago when I was here. I still see him when I came back, just not as frequent like I used to.”

The others had turned their attention on him.

“What you’re saying is you know her way before us?” Ehlo asked, not believing what he was hearing. “Like this is such a small world that we somehow know one another or have mutual friends all around?”

Tang Feng shrugged. “I don’t know if we have any other mutual friends. But she was the one who got me to quit my prankster life.”

Qiao Qiao’s interest had cranked up several more notches since she heard that Tang Feng knew Sophia a long time ago. Yet it made sense to her since she had detected the signs in the past few days. But having him crediting Sophia in the effort of steering him away from his troubled past life made it tenfold more interesting.

“Actually,” Tang Feng continued as the others had stopped all sources of side conversations to focus their attention on him. “Grandpa Chou tried to talk to me first when he and Jing jie were out one night eating hotpot. I was roaming around town during those times, causing trouble and doing mostly minor vandalism, thinking I was cool. Grandpa Chou gave me a major lecture. But it didn’t work. Not at first. It wasn’t until later when I observed their pair of grandpa and grand-daughter caring for one another so much and being the only family left to one another that got me thinking. I realized all the problems I had at home at that time were so minor comparing to them. It was then that I gave up those types of misdeeds and worked harder to make up for what I’d lost. Maybe I was lucky, but I managed to earn enough credits and passed before it was too late. Even got myself into a decent university.”

“How come you never told me all of these?” Qiao Qiao asked, still studying Tang Feng as if seeing him for the first time.

Tang Feng shook his head. “I didn’t see the point of bringing the past up anymore. Even when I saw how Jing jie had come to know everyone, I still didn’t have a chance to speak up about knowing her beforehand. And it got harder when I realized how you had misunderstood her. Speaking up for her would be even worse since you already formed your own opinions of her and would think that I’m just trying to add more points by telling such stories at that time. But after the other day, I know I can finally tell you.”

Tang Feng had looked at Qiao Qiao the whole time while saying those words and tuning everyone else out. Yet they couldn’t help but be touched by Tang Feng’s considerate nature, especially the female population. Qiao Qiao could feel herself tearing up at that point. She tried to sniff it away but the tears still rolled down her face. Tang Feng took that moment to wipe them away for her, still tuning the others out. And he wasn’t done–or so they thought. He continued after what it seemed like he was recollecting his thoughts.

“And you might still have your own negativity toward her, but that’s okay. I just want you to understand something. Jing jie’s not flaky at all. It’s just that she has lost so much in her life, so much more than any of us could ever imagine. That’s why she has chosen to make the best of what she still has, especially trying to take care of Grandpa Chou. And the opportunities that often present itself in front of her.”

“I’m so sorry,” Qiao Qiao whispered. “I’m so stubborn and I always think about my own problems that I’ve been taking it out on you too.”

Tang Feng shook his head. “Silly, it’s my job to be your punching bag.”

“Aww…don’t go all mushy on us,” Chen Yi jumped in–though he couldn’t help but felt like he could take some notes from Tang Feng.

“That’s right, we don’t want this place to flood, you know,” Ehlo chimed in with the joke.

Angela gave Ehlo a look, reaching out to slap his shoulder yet he caught her hand and kept it in his, smiling.

“So…should we go look for her?” Qiao Qiao asked, finally recovered from her emotional moment. “I meant with her routine and all, it’s not healthy. Maybe she could be starving herself without us knowing and…”

“Give her several more days,” Tang Feng said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “She’ll be fine.”

“But what if…”

Tang Feng shook his head. “Don’t worry.”

“We’ll stop by her place later, just to be safe,” Angela offered, looking over at Ehlo.

Ehlo nodded. “Sure.”

Chen Yi glimpsed at his watch real quick. “Time to head home before my parents worry.”

As he jumped off the railing, Achel and Kris got up as well.

“We need to go grocery shopping for Uncle and Auntie?” Kris asked.

Chen Yi shook his head. “No, we’re good. We can wait until this weekend, unless you want to eat something else.”

Kris shook his head. “I’m good. I’m already grateful that your parents agreed to take me in for the time being.”

Yes, Kris had moved into Chen Yi’s place because Kris had decided to stay behind for good, not just a casual visit anymore. It just happened that he met Chen Yi at the shop the other day in time to have an option of habitat and in convincing his uncle and aunt in letting him stay behind. It wasn’t like they were strict; they were just worried for him staying here alone. The both of them would leave by the end of the week. So it was about the right time that Kris moved in to the Chen resident. Aside from settling in and getting used to the ever-changing town again, Kris had also tried to socialize with Chen Yi and the others’ new friends hence he wasn’t so clueless during their conversation previously. He still hadn’t gotten used to some of the others’ personalities yet, but had fended fine thus far.

As for the remaining parties, Ehlo and Angela made a move first while Wallace stared at the others, still pondering about his own plan for the evening.

“Mr. Huo!” A familiar voice called out at that time from somewhere.

Wallace turned in time to see Yvonne heading toward his direction. He offered her a smile and a friendly wave. Ehlo was too far away to see or tease. Or even confront Yvonne–if he were to know she was the one responsible for his first precious item that one eventful day. Yet Wallace was still worried.

“What a coincidence,” Wallace rattled out as Yvonne came closer.

Yvonne nodded, her smile bright. “I’m waiting for a friend.”

Wallace nodded also. “Oh.” Then he realized the other three were staring at him. “Oh yeah, these are my friends.”

Each and every one of them got up from their seats and approached Yvonne, shaking her hand as Wallace introduced her to them.

“And you can always call me Wallace,” Wallace clarified after the introduction process.

Yvonne shrugged and smiled. “I’m not too sure if we’re friends or not.”

“Maybe we should go,” Qiao Qiao said, gesturing toward the parking lot.

Tang Feng and Yan Yan nodded at the same time.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean to interrupt your gathering,” Yvonne jumped in, her gestures somewhat nervous. “I just came over to say hi.”

Yvonne gave them another friendly smile before leaving.

“So, what do you say, Mr. Huo?” Qiao Qiao teased when Yvonne was already out of earshot.

Wallace knew that mischievous expression too well. He pointed at her with a warning look. “Don’t even think about it.”

Qiao Qiao faked innocent, playing with a strand of her hair. “What?”

“I’m still waiting.”

Qiao Qiao rolled her eyes but caught Tang Feng’s expression so she shrugged and made up an excuse to leave as well.

“I’ll drive you home if you want,” Wallace said, looking at Yan Yan after the other two left already.

Yan Yan smiled. “Thanks.”

Wallace had on his amused smile, pondering why she was so formal toward him after all these years. “Anytime, Miss Liu.”

As they were making their way to his car, he fished into his pocket for his keys. And as he turned out of habit to check out the café one last time, he spotted Yvonne talking to someone familiar by the far right corner. It was the place closer to the small bridge recently built for customers’ leisure. Then the other person turned, making Wallace gasp. Because the other person he saw with Yvonne was Detective Chen. Though he had aged but Wallace still recognized him. That image of the two of them and their somewhat secret meeting had stayed in the back of Wallace’s mind until a long time later. Even after he dropped Yan Yan off at her place.

*****

It was Wednesday before Sophia re-emerged in their lives again. She reappeared as suddenly as she had left them. It was in the afternoon and Wallace had let her in. He was at home like it had always been since the day he chose to manage his own time. She said she wanted to make a surprise dinner for everyone. It was the only reason why Wallace even went along with the charade of not knowing where she was. Only several more hours of worry wouldn’t hurt anyone. Yet he was wrong. Jacky was surprisingly the first to come home among the other three. As soon as he spotted Sophia in the kitchen, he practically flew to the kitchen and hugged her. Wallace almost got ran over because he was on one of his trips to the kitchen to get a drink of water. He had dodged out of the way in time.

“Hey, stranger,” Sophia teased as she succeeded in freeing herself again and had taken a safe step back from him. Her smile was still as bright as the days they’d known her.

“Where have you been?” Jacky asked, his indescribable happy smile shining on his face.

Sophia had on her casual smile. “Hiding and writing, of course. Sorry I didn’t respond to your messages. I was in the middle of finishing the last chapter.”

Jacky had on his alarmed his expression then. He took to studying her even more closely than before. “Have you been starving yourself all this time?”

Sophia shook her head. “I promised, remember?”

Jacky had on his smile again.

It was Sophia’s turn to unleash her series of questions on him. She had on her somewhat mischievous look then. “Have you done your assignments?”

Jacky’s smile widened. “Of course.”

“Might want to go change and search the files while I finish these.”

Jacky nodded, finally realizing that she was making dinner. Just like that, he made his way back toward the living room and eventually down the hall to his room. Wallace was still around and was still witnessing the scene–and had heard of their exchanges.

“And I’m here too,” Wallace added helpfully.

Sophia smiled, feeling foolish at last. “Sorry.”

Wallace waved it off. “I wasn’t talking about you, I meant him.”

“Even if the rainy season’s over doesn’t mean it won’t rain ever again this year, you know,” Ehlo’s voice chided from the front door. “It’s Rainy Taipei we’re living in, hello.”

Yes, Jacky had left the door ajar without noticing and Wallace was too busy gawking in bewilderment of Jacky’s behavior that he hadn’t cared to acknowledge that trivial matter either.

“Sorry,” Wallace mumbled, knowing too well he was losing it with not delivering his own snarky replies.

Ehlo had shut the door and locked it already. In fact, he was on his way to his room but was forced to turn and look at Wallace. “I’m sorry?”

“Hey, I just apologized okay, not mock you.”

“That’s why I think there’s something wrong. What’s with you, man? No snappy responses today.”

Wallace shrugged, still trying to figure the other thing out. “I’m still recovering from some shock.”

“I should be the one needing to recover.”

“You won’t believe what just happened.”

“What?”

“Oh, look, Sophia’s here again.”

Wallace had changed the topic on purpose, knowing too well Ehlo would eventually get it. He hoped.

“Hey, girl!” Ehlo yelled out and ran to the kitchen, abandoning Wallace–and his story altogether.

Yet Wallace didn’t have to witness some mushy reunion like a few minutes back, just some side questions. When he returned to Wallace’s side, Ehlo had on his thumbs-up signal, indicating he got what Wallace meant. It had helped that Jacky was actually whistling as he was making his way to the washroom down the hall.

“All is right in paradise again,” Ehlo mumbled and he headed for his room to change out of his work clothes.

Wallace took another glance at Sophia in the kitchen. She had her back to him at the moment and was tending to the stove. Yet he couldn’t help but smile as well. Yes, all was well again in paradise indeed.

*****

It was another hour or so before Angela arrived with Nic, Qiao Qiao, and Tang Feng. The other four were as happy to see Sophia, knowing that she was all right.

“Hurray, we can rest assured now!” Qiao Qiao exclaimed before the others could voice out their feelings after learning of Sophia’s well-being.

That had earned a glare from Nic toward Wallace and Ehlo–who were sitting at the sofa watching some TV show at the moment.

“What did I miss?” Nic asked, not being able to resist it.

It was too hard to blame Nic because of what he had witnessed previously with all the hostility between Qiao Qiao and Sophia. More like Qiao Qiao’s hostility toward Sophia. But now? He’d been gone these past days on a business trip for his company and had missed a major gap with Qiao Qiao’s discovery of Grandpa Chou’s situation as well as Tang Feng’s past with the pair of grandpa and grand-daughter.

“Let’s just say…” Ehlo drawled out dramatically. “All’s good in paradise again.”

Nic still had on his puzzled look.

“Tell you later,” Wallace whispered as he spotted Sophia coming out.

“Dinner’s ready,” Sophia announced with one of her bright smiles.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ehlo said, getting up from his seat and saluting in the process.

And that was the end of their exchanges. At least until after dinner. Angela had to go type up some report so she wasn’t able to help with cleaning up. But Qiao Qiao had volunteered to help Sophia as the others were scattered around the room to talk among themselves. Jacky had headed to his room to finish some final project plan so he wasn’t around either. It was a surprise to some of them, considering how they’d witnessed throughout dinner of Jacky’s unusual happy mood. But they decided not to probe–and tried to act as normal as possible.

“Hey,” Qiao Qiao attempted to strike conversation as she was washing the dishes.

Sophia could sense some traces of uneasiness so she turned her full attention to Qiao Qiao, waiting patiently for the upcoming words.

“Um…”

“It’s okay, whatever it is, you can say it,” Sophia encouraged. “I know I was so bad, I made you all worry, you have every right to chide me for being so irresponsible and inconsiderate.”

Qiao Qiao shook her head, stopping her washing task and shutting off the water temporarily. “It’s not that.”

Sophia had on her confused look, but she continued to keep patient and waited.

“I heard the others mentioned about your grandpa.”

“You’re not going to pity me, are you?”

That took Qiao Qiao by surprise since anyone out there would take that as a break and negotiate their way into sorting out past conflicts. Yet Sophia didn’t take it. It was now Qiao Qiao’s turn to display that confused expression. Sophia was now smiling casually, her confusion all gone.

“You don’t have to feel bad for me,” Sophia continued. “Or try to like me because of my past. I don’t think it’s right to take that as an advantage and earn more points. Because that’s like celebrating all my loss or something.” She paused to roll out one of her somewhat cunning smiles. “Besides, we can’t all like everyone in this world, right?”

It was then that Qiao Qiao realized Sophia had overheard her conversation with the other three guys in the living room that one night. It was just that Sophia chose not to stir things up–and she was definitely not so ignorant like Qiao Qiao had secretly accused her of previously.

“It’s not that I’m feeling sorry for you or anything,” Qiao Qiao found her voice again. “It’s just that…I’ve been so stubborn. Tang Feng reminded me what’s more important in life than just my attempts to sabotage others.” She paused briefly, trying to recollect her thoughts. “And I’m not used to having someone replace Sonia’s spot yet. I meant…I know it sounds evil, but I had somehow wished all these years that Sonia would return to Jacky’s side one of these days and…”

Sophia placed a hand on Qiao Qiao’s shoulder then since Qiao Qiao had looked down at the plates and bowls in the sink, probably feeing ashamed of herself. “I’m not trying to replace Sonia’s spot. Or anyone’s spot for that matter. It’s just that…”

Sophia’s hesitation forced Qiao Qiao to look up again.

“Call me a busybody,” Sophia continued, her confidence somewhat absent at that moment. “But I couldn’t just leave Jacky the way he was when he was standing on that bridge that night. I was like a moth drawn to the flame, not knowing who the other person was or if I should even interfere, but I felt like I had to do something.”

Qiao Qiao finally understood. She knew too well of Jacky’s devastation these past years. Anyone would want to help take all that pain from him, not just Sophia. She was sure of that.

“I can’t be sure if I would somehow get together with Jacky in the future,” Sophia said, her voice reflecting the same uncertainty on her face. “But right now, I can tell you that I just want to use some of the techniques I know to help him move on and be happy again.”

Qiao Qiao nodded at last, indicating that Sophia didn’t need to explain further. In fact, some traces of respect had crept onto Qiao Qiao’s face for the opposite party.

“Ice cream time, right?” Ehlo asked, appearing in front of them all of a sudden.

“And someone was complaining about cold earlier?” Wallace jumped in to sabotage Ehlo like many times before, his amused smile on.

“So sue me, Huo.”

“Maybe I will.”

Instead of getting ice cream, Ehlo grabbed two small juice bottles from the fridge and handed one to Wallace as they made their way back out to the living room again. Before Ehlo left, he had sent Qiao Qiao a secret wink, knowing too well she had made an effort to patch things up with Sophia. It was also then that Qiao Qiao understood why the other guys hadn’t volunteered to help clean up as well. They knew she needed to talk to Sophia alone. She didn’t need a show–or any source of embarrassment as it was so hard to muster up some courage already. And she realized how lucky she’d been all these times, having such a group of friends. Always considerate in their own ways, but never taking credit for the more important matters in life.

© Friday, November 2nd, 2012

Posted: Monday, November 5th, 2012

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