Chapter 3 – New Competition

About two weeks later, which was one week before Lunar New Year, something happened. But it wasn’t relating to the ongoing war between the Sun family and the Zhao family. Although it did have something to do with the shop. They found out about it during lunch time. Or it was more like some of them found out about it at lunch, because Cynthia had already discovered the happenings since that morning as she was opening up for business.

“Competition,” Andy commented as soon as he joined them by the sidewalk in front of the shop. He had to park a bit further from the shop since it was indeed a busy day.

Yes, competition. It was actually a shop across the street from them. They weren’t too sure of the business carried out since there were just too many boxes and mixed signs were displayed temporarily at one spot or another.

“Who knows?” Joanne said, shrugging her shoulders.

“If it was Alyssa’s shop still, you wouldn’t be shrugging your shoulders,” Andy snapped, reminding Joanne of her rash past self and what they’d gone through in an attempt to save the shop.

Another set of old memories washed over Joanne as she bit back tears. She covered that up with a cough, and in the process put on her annoyed look–just to play along with Andy’s attacks. “Excuse me?”

“Hey, guys, come inside,” Cynthia hollered their way.

They turned to see Cynthia with a relaxed smile on her face. She was holding the door for them.

“Aren’t you worried about your new competition?” Andy asked as he made his way toward her.

Cynthia shrugged, her smile still on. “Who knows? It might be good for the business.”

Andy shoved his hands into his jacket pockets then. “You sure are optimistic.”

Joanne gave the store across the street another glance, still trying to figure out what they were selling, before stepping toward Cynthia and the door she was still holding.

*****

The moving and arrangements of the shop across the street continued on for the rest of the day. In fact, the moving crew only left around 3 that afternoon. It wasn’t until they were all off work that Wallace discovered of the incident. He came by to pick Ehlo up since Ehlo’s car was in the shop, and Angela had to go take care of some stuffs.

“So new competition,” Wallace noted as he saw Ehlo walking out of the shop with Andy.

“Looks like it,” Ehlo returned. He was also staring at the shop.

And that was around the time the shop-owner stepped outside and crossed the street, making her way toward them.

“What do we do?” Andy whispered under his breath.

Ehlo and Wallace exchanged a look before shrugging. They found it extremely amusing that Andy was scared of the so-called “new competition.” After all, it wasn’t like it was their shop like in the past. Okay, Wallace was the current owner of the establishment, but it wasn’t like they were being driven out of town at that very moment.

“Hi,” The shop-owner greeted them with a heart-warming smile.

“Hi,” Wallace returned, extending a hand toward her.

“I’m Novia.”

“Wallace.”

After they let go of one another’s hand, Novia reached for Ehlo and Andy’s hands. Though both guys didn’t care to introduce themselves. They just shook her hand and nodded in a polite manner. At least Andy acted polite. Ehlo’s eyes had turned into a radar, monitoring Novia’s every movement.

“So, you’re the new competition in town,” Wallace remarked, waving his hand toward her shop.

Novia smiled and shook her head. “Not exactly.”

Wallace had on a light teasing smile. “Oh?”

“I might be able to help all the businesses around here.”

“Is that so?” Ehlo jumped in, ready to cause trouble.

Novia didn’t seem frightened or offended by Ehlo’s comment. She reached into her belt and pulled out a plastic card. She handed the plastic card to Wallace–all the while still wearing that bright smile.

“Sign-maker,” Wallace read aloud, nodding his head in approval. He studied the card a little more before handing it back to her.

Novia shook her head. “Keep it.”

Wallace pocketed the card while still staring at Novia. “I’ll pass the word along.”

“Thanks.”

Then she was gone. Or more like she gave them another polite nod–still maintaining that same overly sweet and friendly smile–before turning to leave.

“So…” Ehlo said, dragging out the word for dramatic emphasis.

“Interesting,” Wallace commented. “Very interesting indeed.”

Ehlo took that time to hit Wallace on the shoulder.

“What did you do that for, man?” Wallace yelled out, turning to Ehlo for an explanation. He was definitely off guard. One of the rare times he was off guard.

“May I remind you that you have a girlfriend?” Ehlo rattled out in an as a matter of fact tone.

Wallace’s face had turned from annoyed to amused. “Since when did you become such an auntie?”

It was Ehlo’s turn to look annoyed. “Hey, when Yvonne slash you into pieces, don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Then he turned to Andy. “Come on, kid.”

“Hey, don’t call me that,” Andy protested.

But before Andy could say anything more, Ehlo dragged him away from the scene by the shoulder. That also meant he decided to go home with Andy, not Wallace. So Wallace was left alone. But he still had on his amused smile. He returned his attention to the mysterious shop across the street. Though he just learned of the unknown business, but he was still puzzled by the owner.

“Hey, what are you staring at?” Yvonne asked as she walked up behind him.

Wallace turned around and grabbed a hold of her hand. “The next following days will be quite interesting.”

Yvonne knew too well of her mischievous boyfriend, but she still gave him a look. “What?”

Wallace retrieved the business card he just pocketed and handed it to Yvonne. They made their way back to Wallace’s car as she was studying it.

“Where’s Ehlo?” Yvonne asked after she was finished with analyzing the card. “I thought he’s going home with us.”

“He changed his mind,” Wallace answered, swinging their linked hands back and forth.

Yvonne sent Wallace a side glance. “What did you do this time?”

“Why is it always me?”

“Because you’re you.”

Wallace didn’t mind that Yvonne was blaming him. He just smiled as they continued to his car. It wasn’t like he drove Ehlo out of town. Ehlo would be home in several hours. And the other reason why Wallace didn’t feel too bad about Ehlo missing was because he and Yvonne could go ahead with their plan earlier this morning–instead of having to drop Ehlo off at home first before heading out again.

*****

Several days went by and it seemed like Novia was still setting up, nothing earth-shattering happened. It was like they were getting anxious to wait for some drama to happen. Or at least some of them were, especially Ehlo and Andy who were debating of what might happen. On the other hand, Cynthia didn’t seem to care. Although she was quite involved with the discussion regarding Tony’s business, but she seemed quite relax about the whole situation. Not to mention how she was more curious about Novia’s creativity after meeting Novia and had a little talk one time during lunch. Perhaps because both were into art so they got along quite well. Or was that just a polite attempt to greet one another?

Just when Ehlo couldn’t stand it anymore, Novia finally made her move at long last. She opened her shop right on Lunar New Year. One of the busiest days of the year. That also meant while everyone else was around and about enjoying themselves and basking in the bliss of a new start, some of them were seen eyeing the shop with much curiosity. And the others? Well, they took a more direct approach and entered the shop to check on the competition.

Wallace actually took Yvonne there so he could introduce them both, considering how Yvonne hadn’t met Novia yet. Jacky actually went with Wallace and Yvonne, which gave Ehlo an excuse to tag along. Yvonne brought Novia a gift for good luck with the opening and business and more. Novia thanked them and still maintained a positive attitude, even with Ehlo’s suspicious stare.

“I heard the others talked about the place,” Jacky said after he introduced himself–and had already shaken Novia’s hand. “Welcome to our town.”

“Thank you,” Novia said.

“Lady Boss!” Someone called from somewhere around the shop at that time.

Novia gave them a polite nod before heading toward that direction.

“Nice place, huh?” Wallace asked, sending Yvonne a side glance.

“Kind of small but it’s all right,” Yvonne returned, eyeing the place like she was casing the joint.

“Old habits,” Wallace muttered, shaking his head, knowing Yvonne was still operating under her cop radar.

“Tease all you want,” Yvonne said, walking toward a corner of the shop.

Jacky had also walked away from the group and was heading toward the opposite corner from Yvonne. He was no longer smiling but had on an anxious expression. Like he just discovered something. Or more specifically a sign hidden behind a pile of boxes. He didn’t hesitate or wait for Novia’s permission, but just pushed the boxes aside to make way for the sign behind it. When the spot was cleared away, Jacky gasped. It wasn’t like him to be displaying traces of shock or surprise, especially in recent years when he had learned how to become so passive it wasn’t possible.

“Great sign, huh?” Ehlo interrupted Jacky’s thoughts. “Or more like corny to death.”

“You’re here to sabotage competition, right?” Yvonne’s voice spoke up at that time.

It seemed like Jacky had been standing there for a while, because Wallace and Yvonne had already made their way around from the other side of the shop. It was also around the same time that Ehlo spotted Jacky standing and gaping that he stepped over to unleash some teasing.

“Haha,” Ehlo said, his sarcasm on high.

“I saw this sign before,” Jacky finally said, colors coming back onto his face again.

Wallace was standing next to Jacky, crossing his hands together. He was also thinking like it seemed familiar. But it was impossible. “Hope For Sale, what could it mean?”

“Don’t tell me you’ve seen it before as well,” Ehlo teased.

Wallace shook his head. “No, more like I remember someone talking about it before.”

“That was me,” Jacky admitted of his guilt. “Remember I told you guys the reason why I chose to turn into the town where Xiao Qiao and the others live?”

“Hope For Sale,” Wallace rattled out, things finally snapping into places for him. “Oh my god, we solved the puzzle!”

“What are you two talking about?” Ehlo asked, looking from Jacky to Wallace and back, still waiting for their explanation.

Wallace removed his eyes from the sign and looked at Ehlo then. “Don’t you remember at all, man? After he came back from Xiao Qiao’s place, he told us about seeing the sign. We always wondered about it since that was what led him to meeting the girls and we ended up knowing them and how Sam benefited from that too. Come on, you’re not that slow. Novia’s a sign-maker, obviously from her card when she introduced herself to us last week and now the sign out front. Then we see this sign here, that means she connects all the dots.”

Ehlo was still wrinkling his face. “What?”

Wallace had kept it vague about some details on purpose, especially the part involving Sonia. Even if it had been years already, but he knew better than to stir up old wounds. And while Wallace was waiting for Ehlo to put two and two together, Jacky was looking across the shop toward Novia–who was busy helping some of the potential customers.

“It’s not like I don’t want to believe it, Huo,” Ehlo said at last when it seemed like an hour had passed already. Yet in reality, it had only been 20 seconds of buzzing conversations scattered around the shop. “But it has been years already. Who cares about it anymore? And you know what?”

Wallace had somewhat of an idea, but he let Ehlo continue on without interruptions.

“Sonia, Sophia, now Novia, are you kidding me?”

That was when Wallace smiled. He knew Ehlo had been playing dumb on purpose. Or at least Ehlo went into full denial to block those strange coincidences to save himself from the madness.

“Not to mention Novia is starting to make you feel like she’s Sophia?” Wallace asked, his eyes back on the sign.

“Tell me about it.”

“Hey, you guys find anything you like?” Novia asked at that time. It seemed like she was done with whatever it was and decided to check on them again. “What’s with the…”

“Oh, sorry,” Wallace apologized as he saw Novia’s expression changed as her eyes brushed past the space in front of the “Hope For Sale” sign. “We were curious.”

“It was my fault,” Jacky jumped in, recovering at last. “I saw this years ago when I was on the road and was wondering who made it. So when I saw the familiar border, I just have to take a look.”

Novia’s eyes brightened as soon as she realized what was going on. Her smile intensified as well. “That’s so strange. I was passing by the place earlier that morning and someone wanted to use it to attract visitors. I made a duplicate of the sign, of course. No way am I going to let him have the original.”

And that was when Ehlo and Wallace exchanged a look. Jacky understood what that look meant, which read: So not Sophia. Yes, Novia’s friendliness might have to do with the fact that she wanted to draw in business and maintain peace with the neighboring shops. Her all business attitude was totally so unlike Sophia.

“How could you remember so precisely of the details?” Ehlo asked, his expression projecting curiosity and not an attempt to cause trouble like previously.

Novia kept her smile. “My father made the sign for me so I always keep it with me. So when something like that happened, especially so early in the morning, of course I remember.”

“Where have you been all these years?”

Novia shrugged then. “Around and about.”

“What made you decide to come back?”

No hesitation this time, the smile was back on Novia’s face. “My cousins invited me back. Actually, more like Bryant invited me back because he’s relocating and want to meet up. I came back to visit and felt like starting something here as well.”

“What is this, an interrogation?” Yvonne interrupted Ehlo as his mouth was about to move again.

Novia smiled again. “It’s normal to be curious. I meant, after all, you guys did ponder about my sign for a while.”

“Exactly,” Ehlo said defensively. “We have every right to.”

“Yeah, like after I reminded you about it,” Wallace mumbled, his sarcasm on the low and amusement on the high.

“Haha, Huo.”

“Anyway, we should be going,” Yvonne spoke up for the four of them. “Once again, nice to meet you. And we’ll be seeing a lot of you in the future.”

Novia smiled and followed them to the front of the shop. Ehlo was still reluctant to leave. It was like he was on a roll to find out about this new girl. And the only thing stopping him was Wallace practically hauling him out of there.

After they left the shop, they made their way over to Cynthia’s shop to check on her. They gave her some well-wishing with the business before bidding their temporary goodbyes. Because they were all meeting up later that night at Alyssa’s house for a somewhat late celebration, considering the other times were reserved for family and all. And it was also because they didn’t want anyone to feel left out, considering how the Chang siblings already gone back home to celebrate the lunar new year with their parents.

*****

That night, some of them gathered at Alyssa’s place to celebrate with her. Cynthia and Yvonne had come earlier than the time they agreed on to help Alyssa set up. Of the guys, Wallace arrived first. It was obvious to them why. Jacky and Ehlo arrived next with Joanne. Johnny and Bianca won’t be there tonight, because they were still somewhere out of the country. They were actually on vacation, not one of Johnny’s photo shoots again. They won’t be back until the following week. Andy, Esther, and Kris weren’t coming either. Esther had plans with her parents. The same with Andy, but Kris was also at the Chen household with him.

“Welcome to the party hold for those of us who had been abandoned tonight, right?” Ehlo commented as he sat down at the chair between Wallace and Jacky, his voice on the smart-aleck side.

“Sure,” Wallace returned, looking over at Ehlo with an amused smile. “You could’ve stayed home.”

“Oh, come on, what’s the fun? It’s not like my parents have anything new to say. It’s always the same.”

“Those so-called high class society parties are always like that,” Joanne jumped in.

“Well said,” Tony’s voice spoke up at that time.

They looked up to see Tony walking in with his usual raincoat style. It was one of those rare times that Tony came to their gatherings lately. It wasn’t like they weren’t mature enough to socialize with one another after Tony and Esther’s breakup. But it seemed strange for the two, even after so many months. Or more like Tony didn’t want to make things awkward for Esther so he didn’t appear at those gatherings, and only appeared whenever Esther wasn’t around. The reason why he showed up at all that night was because he knew Esther would be occupied.

“Hey,” Jacky muttered as Tony settled down at a chair between Joanne and Alyssa.

“Long time no see, man,” Ehlo greeted Tony as well, his mischievous tone not subsiding at all, far from it. “I thought you’re supposed to be spending the night with your mom tonight. After all, it’s a special event.”

Wallace scoffed. “Speak for yourself, Huang.”

“She’s at the party with yours and yours families,” Tony replied. And he was definitely hinting at the irony of the situation with how their families were mingling together at the so-called high class society event of the night. “I couldn’t be bothered to socialize with those flakes.”

“Coming from you?” Ehlo challenged. And Ehlo wasn’t calling Tony a flake. He meant the “arrogance” part.

“Guys,” Alyssa interfered. “It’s new years, come on.”

Ehlo shrugged and ended up eating like the others. Yet he wasn’t discouraged by Alyssa’s reminder. He soon had on his mischievous look again. “Guess what?”

Ehlo was actually looking at Joanne so she wrinkled her face.

“We solved a puzzle today.”

“Or more like Jacky discovered it first,” Wallace sabotaged. “And I had to remind you since you have a mind of an old man already.”

“Thanks, Huo,” Ehlo snapped, his sarcasm running high.

“What puzzle?” Joanne asked, ignoring the side attacks between both parties.

Ehlo quickly recounted the events to Joanne and the others who weren’t present at the shop earlier. Of course, Wallace had to chime in to correct some details that Ehlo exaggerated.

“You guys serious?” Joanne asked after they were finished. Although Jacky had nodded but Joanne still didn’t want to believe. “I meant after all these years?”

“It’s a sign,” Ehlo said dramatically.

“Really?” Wallace asked, giving Ehlo a look.

It was then that Ehlo realized what he just said. “No pun intended! I swear!”

“Sure, Huang.”

After that, they continued to eat and talk about other topics. When they were finished with the meal and helped Alyssa cleaned up, they gathered around in the rec room on the second floor to watch TV. It was one of those Lunar New Year shows. They were only half watching since they were chatting about some random topic again. It wasn’t until Ehlo changed the channel during one of the commercial breaks that they found something to talk about regarding to the TV shows. Or more like a particular TV show that had caught their attention.

“Hey, it’s Bryant Chang,” Cynthia blurted out as the camera zoomed in to someone in the kitchen.

“Are we supposed to know him?” Ehlo asked.

Cynthia shrugged. “I watch his show.”

“So do I,” Yvonne chimed in.

Ehlo turned to stare at Yvonne for a full minute before speaking up again. “Seriously?”

Yvonne wasn’t scared of Ehlo–far from it. “Is it so hard to believe?”

Ehlo smiled then. “I guess it’s not impossible. But we all know for sure who definitely doesn’t watch his show.”

For some reason, Jacky and Wallace turned to stare at Joanne upon hearing that. Joanne made a face at Ehlo before staring at the TV set.

“Well, he’s not that talented anyway,” Joanne attacked the chef on the screen.

“He had won some awards already,” Cynthia clarified.

“Hmp.” Joanne pouted. “Some people win awards for best acting too but it’s questionable.”

“You can’t lie with food like it’s with those acting,” Ehlo pointed out.

“You can still buy off the judges,” Joanne argued.

Ehlo shook his head then, knowing Joanne’s touchy side whenever it came to her culinary skills. Or lack of one, that was. Jacky took it into his hand to do the damage control this time.

“Relax sis,” Jacky assured Joanne, slipping a hand onto her shoulders. “You know Ehlo. He’s kidding.”

Joanne didn’t care for Jacky’s reasoning. She shrugged off Jacky’s hand and crossed her arms. “Hmp.”

The others just smiled, knowing Ehlo was in for good this time. Yet it just ended there. Since Alyssa finally changed the channel. Of course, the others didn’t argue. It was almost the end of the show anyway.

© Saturday, April 12th, 2014

Posted: Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

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