That afternoon, Ehlo was walking with Wallace again. This time, they weren’t going to some shop to pick up a certain item or whatever. They were just walking.
“You think Tony will win the bidding war?” Ehlo asked, sipping his coffee cup.
Wallace shrugged. “Hard to say.”
“You’re stalling, aren’t you?”
Wallace sighed. “I don’t know.”
“What did Alyssa say when you talked to her earlier?”
“She didn’t say anything. She looked troubled.”
“I don’t know why she bothered with those yoyos. They totally deserved the backlash. After all these years getting away with the craziest stuff, it’s about time something happened.”
“I know you have a personal gripe against him, but do you think it’s extreme to wish imprisonment on him?”
“You know how people can’t be punished for their personal matters?”
Wallace gave Ehlo a look then.
“Okay, fine. Divorce clauses are crazy here, but aside from that, why do we always get punished for materialistic stuff but never when we hurt someone so badly that it affects their livelihood as well?”
Wallace took a quick sip at his own coffee before answering. “Last I checked, Huang, murder is still illegal.”
“I’m not talking about physical well-being. I’m talking about emotional stuff.”
“What do you want them to do? If we let the authorities interfere and dictate what we can feel or not, it gets muddled.”
Ehlo scoffed. “Sure, whatever helps you sleep at night.”
“I don’t know why you’re mad at me for, it’s not like I told Vincent and his family to be cruel to Alyssa.”
“You still talk to him.”
“I don’t hang around him 24/7, Huang. I talk to him for the same reason our parents talk to him. Or more like yours.”
Ehlo rolled his eyes then. “Well, the giant is falling so the rest of us can stop caving into social pressure, which might or might not jeopardize our standing within the business world.”
Wallace smiled then, not wanting to argue with Ehlo anymore. Not to mention how they’d already arrived at the destination and settled down at a table. It was Uncle Ben’s stall. He was still stationed at the same area after so many years. He still loved what he’d been doing all these years, so they continued to come support him.
“Hey, you guys are right on time,” Yvonne said.
“Where’s my wife?” Ehlo asked, looking around.
Wallace smiled then, pointing his thumb toward the area where Uncle Ben had the soup pots set up. Ehlo’s smile turned off as soon as he saw her. He didn’t have a problem with her. Far from it. He had a problem with the person standing next to her. It was Chris.
“For the love of…” Ehlo exclaimed. “Why is he everywhere?”
“You can thank Novia,” Yvonne answered. “I love that girl, but she just had to tell Chris about Uncle Ben, so he wanted to come too.”
“So, you finally had your first run in with him?”
Yvonne nodded. “And you exaggerated greatly. He’s harmless.”
Ehlo glared at Yvonne. “You want to side with him too?”
“Hey, come on, he’s just tall.”
Ehlo had on a wounded look. “Seriously?”
“Ehlo, I love you, but seriously you’re being really insecure lately. Don’t you trust Angela?”
“How would you know? You haven’t been here. And I do trust Angela, I just don’t trust him. He’s a walking poster board of what’s too good to be true. Can’t you all see it?”
Before either Wallace or Yvonne could answer, Angela and Chris were finally finished talking to Uncle Ben and Aunt June. They walked over to the table at that time.
“Nice little place here,” Chris commented as he sat down.
“The best,” Ehlo bragged, his smile shining. Like he was so proud of their town. He took a quick glance around the area before speaking up again. “By the way, where’s Margaret?”
“Babysitting for Bianca,” Angela answered. “Better her than me, right?”
Ehlo smiled. “Good point.”
“Margaret does love kids,” Chris remarked.
Ehlo turned to Chris then. “Do you like kids?”
Chris’ smile turned even brighter. “Of course, who doesn’t?”
Ehlo turned to Angela with a smile. “You never know.”
Chris had caught on to Ehlo’s glance toward Angela. He smiled but let it go. He turned to Wallace. “You?”
“On the fence,” Wallace answered.
At that time, Aunt June brought out some drinks for them. They halted their conversation and passed the drinks around.
“Thanks, Aunt June,” Angela said after the tray was cleared already.
Aunt June nodded and looked around out of habit. “Where’s Jacky?”
“He’s home, working on his segment,” Ehlo replied. “Again.”
Aunt June glanced toward her husband at the soup pot before looking at them again. “Check your schedule and tell me when you’re all free.”
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “Why?”
“Come over for dinner.”
“We could come at any time.”
“Can you drag him out of the house?”
“Doable, just trick him.”
“Well, whatever you do, tell me ahead of time.”
Ehlo nodded again. It seemed like Aunt June was satisfied with the answer, so she left their table and headed back to tend to the other customers.
“What was that about?” Chris asked, eyeing them curiously.
“Intervention,” Ehlo answered, playing with his glass.
Ehlo was looking elsewhere, thinking about matters, so he wasn’t really paying attention. But since Chris kept asking, he finally turned to him. “It’s for Jacky. Also, personal.”
Chris seemed to get the message, so he raised his hands up. “All right, I’m not going to pry.”
Ehlo rubbed his face then, closing his eyes to think. “I hate this so much.”
Angela reached across the table to take Ehlo’s hand into hers. “It’s going to be all right.”
Ehlo opened his eyes then and removed his other hand from his face. “Is it?”
“I know you’re feeling helpless because you can’t interfere, but it’s his choice, Ehlo.”
Ehlo nodded. “I know.” He paused and rubbed his face again, mostly trying to rub the wrinkle lines away. “But sometimes, I just miss the old days so much.”
“We can’t hide from reality forever,” Wallace spoke up then. “It doesn’t matter how much it sucks. We promised him, remember?”
“I promised, you guys didn’t,” Ehlo reminded Wallace.
“You want us to interfere through a loophole?” Yvonne asked.
Ehlo sighed out at that time, finally removing his hand from his face and had also let go of Angela’s hand. He got up and made his way toward where Uncle Ben was.
“Uncle Ben, give me two bowls of your special,” Ehlo said.
Uncle Ben eyed Ehlo cautiously before speaking up. “Are you sure? Ming Dao’s not here.”
Ehlo nodded. “I’m sure.”
The others sat in silence until Ehlo came back to the table.
“So, who’s Ming Dao?” Chris asked, seeing that no one was going to say anything.
“A friend,” Wallace answered. “He has a big appetite. Probably Uncle Ben’s biggest fan. Too bad he moved back home already.”
“Who mentioned my name?” A familiar voice spoke up then, a hint of teasing could be heard.
The others turned to see Matthew walking toward them. He was with Joanne, Andy, and Achel.
“When did you arrive?” Ehlo asked, standing up and walking toward Matthew. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“If I told you guys ahead of time, it wouldn’t be a surprise.”
Ehlo eyed Joanne, Andy, and Achel suspiciously then. “You told them but not me?”
“I just ran into them when we parked,” Matthew answered.
That was also when Uncle Ben brought over the orders that Angela placed earlier. “Ming Dao! We were just talking about you.”
“Hi, Uncle Ben,” Matthew greeted him. “My usual order?”
Uncle Ben smiled and nodded. He looked like he just won the lottery. Ehlo helped him carry the rest of the contents over to the table and distributed to the others while he returned to the soup pot. Joanne, Andy, and Achel also took that time to move some tables together as well. It was almost like old times. The others took that time to introduce Chris and Matthew to one another. After that, Ehlo returned the tray to Uncle Ben. He even took it into his hands to deliver some other orders to the nearby tables.
“How’s it been?” Matthew asked when Ehlo sat down at the table again.
“Still alive,” Ehlo answered.
Matthew let out a chuckle. “Drama King.”
“Speak for yourself, man,” Ehlo returned. “How’s your wife? How are the twins? You drown in madness yet?”
Matthew pointed at Ehlo. “Real nice. My wife and kids are fine. Thanks for your concern.”
Matthew shook his head. “It’s like you guys haven’t changed.”
“Oh, you wouldn’t believe what have been going on,” Wallace said.
Matthew turned to Wallace. “Oh?”
“The way I see it,” Andy said, shoving his hands into his jacket pockets out of habit. “We should do a cleansing to get rid of this bad vibe.”
Ehlo had on his amused look then. “Seriously, kid?”
“Why don’t you go burn some sage too?” Wallace suggested, his smile as cunning as Ehlo’s.
Andy threw his hands up in the air then. “Hey, you guys were the morbid ones, not me. I’m just trying to help.”
“Whatever, kid,” Ehlo said.
“Food’s here,” Uncle Ben announced at that time.
“That was fast,” Matthew commented.
“I took Ehlo’s orders earlier,” Uncle explained. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Ehlo shook his head. “I wasn’t going to finish all anyway.”
“So, you were planning to waste food?”
“I was going to bring it home for dinner.”
Uncle Ben looked like he didn’t believe Ehlo. But he didn’t pursue the matter. He turned to Matthew again. “How long are you going to stay this time?”
Matthew shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe a week or two. I can’t stay long. Was just passing by after meeting with some suppliers. I have to get back and tend to the shop.”
“When did you adopt him?” Ehlo jumped in then.
Uncle Ben ignored Ehlo still and went back to his soup pot.
“Nice,” Ehlo mumbled.
“You brought it onto yourself, Huang,” Wallace said, smiling.
Ehlo shrugged. “Fair enough.”
“Wow, no talk back,” Matthew noted. “How bad is the situation?”
“Really bad,” Andy answered in Ehlo’s place. “We found Sophia.”
“Oh? That’s good news then.”
Andy sighed out. “Yeah, but she’s married. Good for her, I guess. But bad for Jacky.”
Matthew had on a sign of understanding. “No wonder he’s not here right now.”
Matthew turned to look at Joanne then. “You’re not tagging him like the old days?”
Joanne shook her head, not feeling like engaging with Matthew’s teasing. “He told me not to.”
“And you listened?”
“I have to think for Bryant too, you know.”
Matthew nodded, understanding. “How’s Bryant doing?”
“Still the same, but he loves his job so that’s good, I guess. We just dropped him off at the studio earlier. A reel was damaged, and he had to film some segments again.”
Matthew shook his head. “That’s painful.”
Matthew noticed Joanne wasn’t up to socializing so he turned his attention back on Ehlo and Andy. “What about the others?”
“Most are fine,” Andy continued with his updates. “Except for Sonia.”
Matthew wrinkled his face. “I feel like I stepped back a few years.”
“Yeah, same drama, different year,” Ehlo said, sighing out again.
“Sonia and James are getting a divorce,” Andy provided the answer again.
“I thought they’ve been doing fine.”
“They were but Sonia didn’t want to hold him back.”
“She’s acting like Jacky,” Ehlo said, sighing out again.
“I think I could come back here tomorrow and do a painting,” Chris said then, settling at his seat again. He’d been doing a quick walk around the place on his own hence the others talking freely without caring to hold back. “After all, what’s better than everyday-life moments like these?”
“Good luck with that,” Ehlo said.
“In other news,” Wallace said, looking at Matthew. “Vincent’s company went bankrupt. You might have heard.”
Matthew nodded. “It’s hard not to. But the details are so muddled, I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
“Tell me about it,” Ehlo agreed. “The vultures are definitely moving in. The only person I feel sorry for being dragged into this situation is Alyssa.”
“I feel like we already had this conversation,” Andy said, wrinkling his face.
“We already did,” Ehlo confirmed. “It’s just that we have to update Ming Dao.”
“Sorry,” Matthew said, his voice sincere.
Andy shook his head. “It’s just weird having to hear it again.”
“For the umpteenth time, you mean,” Joanne chimed in.
Just then, Ehlo’s phone rang. He picked it up and immediately rubbed his face again. “Yes, I’ll be there.”
Angela reached for his hand again. “What’s wrong?”
“Uncle Zhe fired the latest girl again so we have to cover.”
“I thought you love Unlce Zhe,” Andy reminded Ehlo.
“Not today,” Ehlo said, getting up.
“We’ll go with you,” Angela said, looking at the others.
“No, it’s okay.”
“Come on, he’s my uncle after all.”
“I would love to visit Uncle Zhe again,” Chris chimed in.
After saying that, he went to pay.
Although Angela said “we”, but only she, Andy, Achel, and Chris went with Ehlo. The rest stayed behind to talk to Matthew. They had also promised to help Uncle Ben and Aunt June closed up, so they promised to meet up at a later day.
A phenomenon happened when they arrived at Uncle Zhe’s shop later. Or that was how Ehlo put it as he whispered to Andy when they were standing at the counter, waiting for Uncle Zhe to finish talking. Because he never stopped the minute he saw them walking through the door. At first, it was just, “What took you all so long?” Then it was, “You still have the audacity to show up here? You broke my poor niece’s heart.”
Apparently, Uncle Zhe wasn’t a big fan of Chris. That was why he had been blasting Chris for the past ten minutes already. Luckily, there weren’t any customers around at the moment. Or possibly that was the reason why he’d been going on for ten minutes already. Ehlo was seriously enjoying the show. He had one hand on Andy’s shoulder and a crooked smile on his face. It was only a matter of finding some popcorn at that time.
“We weren’t that serious anyway,” Chris said at one point to Uncle Zhe.
“So, you’re the expert now?” Uncle Zhe had said. “You left right after you dumped her and left us to pick up the pieces. She cried for months.”
“I wasn’t crying,” Angela chimed in, trying to correct the record. “The breakup was mutual.”
“You don’t have to cover for him,” Uncle Zhe said, ignoring Angela’s version.
Angela turned to Ehlo then, gesturing toward Uncle Zhe and Chris’ backs. “Do something.”
Angela was whispering but her expression told Ehlo he needed to interfere, for real. So, he stepped forward and placed himself between Uncle Zhe and Chris. “Look, Uncle Zhe, you have to think of the upside.”
Uncle Zhe turned on Ehlo then, like he felt betrayed, like Ehlo should have backed him up. “What upside?”
“If she and Chris didn’t break up, Angela and I would have never met, and we wouldn’t be where we are right now, right?” Ehlo reasoned.
Uncle Zhe’s annoyed expression turned off then. He seemed to like that idea. He reached out and clapped Ehlo’s shoulder. “You’re right. We don’t need that heartless, unreliable asshole in our family.”
Ehlo nodded and smiled. “Right.”
Although Ehlo seemed to enjoy the attack at Chris’ expense, but he had gestured with one hand behind his back for Chris to step away from the situation. Chris didn’t seem to get the hint so Angela and Achel had to pull him away from the counter area. Luckily for him also, several customers walked in at that time. So Uncle Zhe had to go tend to them instead of engaging in some past conflict with Chris. Ehlo also made sure to stick around and helped with tending to the customers as well.
“How did he do that?” Chris asked the other three when they were safely by the back area, where some of the shelves were blocking their view. “No one could get Uncle Zhe to calm down when he’s mad.”
“Ehlo’s actually the first person—aside from Angela jie, but she’s family so it’s different. But you know, the first person ever to get through to him,” Andy whispered. “Once he gets started, he never stops. And I mean never.”
Chris nodded. He didn’t need Andy to explain it to him. They all grew up together—almost, plus or minus several years that was. They all knew Uncle Zhe’s wrath—regardless how old they were at a particular time. Uncle Zhe never caved. However, they came to realize that Uncle Zhe particularly favored Angela. So, over the years, they’d relied on Angela to dissipate most of the awkward moments in their lives. Now, the second person was Ehlo.
“He’s golden in front of Uncle Zhe,” Andy continued.
“Why are you all loitering around back there?” Uncle Zhe’s voice boomed toward them then. “Get over here and help me.”
For some strange reason, there was a crowd pouring in. Probably a late crowd coming by after work. So, they were forced to abandon their hiding place and go help.
For the last half hour of the opening hours, it was almost like a game with Chris and Eho trying to get more customers to buy something. Of course, they weren’t competing, but it might look that way if one saw. Chris was actually quite good in the convincing department. His good looks helped plenty, but his charm had aided him greatly in scoring the sales. Ehlo eventually realized what was happening so he stopped trying so hard and ended up by the cash register, waiting to check people out instead of browsing around the shop. Besides, Chris had Angela, Andy, and Achel to help him.
“The brat’s always getting away with everything,” Uncle Zhe’s voice boomed into Ehlo’s ears then.
Ehlo barely had time to take a sip of water before he realized Uncle Zhe was standing next to him. He was fast for an old man. Ehlo stayed silent as Uncle Zhe fumed on.
“I don’t know why Xiao Han doesn’t just kick him out the minute he shows up in town,” Uncle Zhe continued after Ehlo finished ringing up another customer.
Ehlo shrugged. “He’s just passing by. He’s not staying long anyway.”
Uncle Zhe turned to look at Ehlo then. “Why are you acting so passive? It’s like you don’t care.”
Ehlo shrugged again. “I think I’m over it now.”
Just then, Andy came up to the counter with another customer ready to check out. Andy helped that person as the other two stayed quiet.
“How come you didn’t give Wallace such a hard time when he dumped Angela?” Andy asked after that customer left already. “I mean, Angela jie actually cried a lot more that time than she did with Chris. Actually, she never cried when she and Chris broke up.”
Ehlo brought his hand up to his face at that time, rubbing it out of habit, closing his eyes and bracing for it as Uncle Zhe turned to Andy.
“I just realized I haven’t finished inventory check earlier, why don’t you go finish that up for me?” Uncle Zhe said, gesturing toward the backroom.
Andy saw Ehlo’s hand gesture, so he nodded. “Yeah, okay.”
After that, no one dared to question Uncle Zhe’s intentions again. At least, no one spoke up until they were closed. They were late with closing because some of the customers were undecided, but the upside was Chris had convinced all who lagged behind to buy something.
“Just because you helped brought in some business for me today doesn’t mean we’re good,” Uncle Zhe said to Chris after he’d finished his end of day tasks by the counter and was walking toward them in the middle of the room.
“I didn’t do it to earn any points,” Chris said. “You needed help, so I just thought I did my part, since I’m here anyway.”
“Always the smooth-talker.”
Uncle Zhe wasn’t amused. He turned and went to the backroom, looking for Andy.
“Well, that could have been worse,” Ehlo said, gesturing behind Uncle’s Zhe’s back.
“That was the worst,” Andy muttered as he came out from the backroom and walked toward them.
“He relieved you of the duty, didn’t he?”
“Yeah, but still…”
“Don’t remind him why his logic isn’t logical then.”
“Why are you the voice of reason now?”
Ehlo had on his threatening glare. “You’re saying I’m unreasonable?”
“Hey, you were the one who have been acting hostile since…”
“Not the point, okay?”
“Guys,” Angela interfered. “Let’s get out of here first. We need to get back to help Uncle Ben.”
“Can we not?” Ehlo asked, following the others out. “Huo’s there.”
“We promised to return,” Angela said.
“At least Uncle Ben and Aunt June will feed us, right?” Andy said, shoving his hands into his pockets again.
“Probably,” Ehlo said, scratching his chin.
“We should go grocery shopping first,” Angela suggested. “Knowing you two, you’re going to eat Uncle Ben and Aunt June out of their inventory.”
“I’m a growing man,” Andy protested.
Angela gave him a sharp look before continuing to the car.
Ehlo shrugged and clapped Andy’s shoulder. “Seriously, it’s not your day today, kid.”
After saying that, Ehlo followed Angela. He got in the passenger side as the other three got in the back. They headed to the nearest grocery store and stocked up on some much-needed items for Uncle Ben before heading to his house. Ehlo had actually called Wallace up to check on the status and also told him that Angela had volunteered them for the grocery shopping trip. That had also earned a jab on the shoulder by Angela, which he only smiled because it didn’t hurt. She was just doing it out of routine.
“We’re doing this today then,” Ehlo said, after getting off the phone with Wallace outside the grocery store. He had to call Wallace back to ask about substitute items.
“What?” Chris asked.
“Jacky’s on his way over.”
“Wallace called him?” Andy asked, puzzled.
Ehlo shook his head. “No, Uncle Ben personally called Jacky. He said if Jacky didn’t come over tonight, he’s going to cut Jacky off.”
“What? Isn’t that a bit extreme?”
“You know Uncle Ben. He’s not messing around when it comes to intervention.”
“Will Jacky ge be mad at us?” Achel asked timidly after they’d already unloaded all the groceries into the trunk. “He did tell us not to interfere.”
“Well, he can take it up to his uncle if he doesn’t like it. We’re just the messengers.”
“I’m just there for the food, okay?” Andy said as he buckled up. “I’m not going to interfere.”
“Fine,” Ehlo said. Then he turned around to look at Chris. “You coming with us or you want out?”
“Ehlo,” Angela chided.
Ehlo turned to Angela at that time. “I’m not being mean. It’s going to get ugly, you know it. I’m not going to force him to go along with us.” He turned to Chris again. “Uncle Ben and Aunt June live in the countryside, so it takes about half an hour or more to get there, depending on traffic. So, if you want out, we can take you home now.”
Chris was staying at the hotel at first, but Bryant and Derek had volunteered to take him in after learning that he was staying around for a while.
“I’m fine with going,” Chris replied. “But if you guys don’t want me there, just drop me off.”
“There’s food, at least,” Ehlo said. “But it’s a large property, so you can just take your plate and go outside to eat—if you don’t mind mosquitoes.”
“There are bug repellents,” Angela chimed in.
“I’m fine,” Chris said. “Don’t worry about me.”
“All right then,” Ehlo said, buckling up finally.
When they arrived at Uncle Ben and Aunt June’s place, Jacky wasn’t the only one who supposedly showed up. There was also Sonia. Wallace opened the gate for them and helped them unload the groceries.
“Who called Sonia here?” Ehlo whispered to Wallace.
“Bianca and Johnny thought it was a good idea to get her out of the house for a bit,” Wallace responded. “Margaret’s babysitting still.”
“Margaret’s here too?” Ehlo asked.
“Why? You have a problem with her?”
“Can’t I ask questions around here?”
Although Wallace said that, he had walked away from Ehlo after saying that.
“Sidebar,” Ehlo said as he walked by Yvonne on his way to the kitchen.
“What are you up to again?” Yvonne asked, eyeing Ehlo suspiciously.
Ehlo didn’t respond to her but proceeded to the kitchen.
“More people coming?” Angela asked as she glanced at the already crowded room.
Ehlo shrugged after he was done unloading the latest.
“Outside or inside?” Wallace asked, looking at Uncle Ben.
“Wherever you kids want to sit,” Uncle Ben said.
“Definitely outside,” Ehlo jumped in. “I will suffocate if all of us pile in here.”
“Drama King,” Wallace muttered on his way to get the extra-long table in the back.
Ehlo ignored Wallace and headed back outside where Yvonne was waiting for him along with some others.
“So, what’s the plan?” Ehlo asked, looking at them.
“You tell me, you were the one who called for this whole sidebar thing,” Joanne said, gesturing around their little circle.
“Why are you all standing around here while we’re trying to move the table?” Wallace asked at that time.
Ehlo jumped then. But he recovered and turned to Wallace. “Stop sneaking up on me, man!”
“Seriously,” Ehlo repeated. “Stop.”
Wallace threw his hands up in exasperation. “Okay, then.”
At that time, Jacky walked out of the house and joined in with helping Wallace lining up the tables. Somehow, Chris had made his way back front after a tour of the house with Aunt June, so he helped them as well.
“This is wicked,” Ehlo commented to the others still standing in the little group.
“What are you talking about?” Andy asked. “If you’re going to be cryptic without wrapping up soon, I’m out.”
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “What’s your hurry?”
“Some of us have to eat and get home?”
“When did you turn into such a pig?”
“I haven’t eaten all day, okay?”
Ehlo shook his head. “Just go, kid. Before you drive me insane.”
Andy shrugged and left, seeing how Ehlo’s face had turned several shades already.
“Well?” Joanne prompted after Andy left already.
Ehlo sighed out, feeling like he was losing it again. “If anything goes wrong, he might just lose it completely, so I suggest we choose wisely with our seating arrangements.”
“We so didn’t need a sidebar for that one,” Joanne said, walking away from them then.
“You’re starting to sound exactly like Huo,” Ehlo yelled after her.
“Stop dragging me into it whenever you lose an argument, man,” Wallace said upon hearing that.
Ehlo scoffed. “Whatever.”
Wallace smiled, not caring to argue anymore. He and Jacky were trying to spread a tablecloth out to cover the two large tables they managed to put together earlier. It took them about fifteen minutes more before they settled down. Then there was the cooking part. Some of them already started making dinner while waiting for Angela and the others to come back with more supplies. They’d used the ones from stock, so the ones Angela and the others brought back were replacements.
“What’s the occasion for today’s gathering?” Eddie asked them as they settled down to eat at long last. He’d been out of the loops for the most part recently. Esther and Janine had invited him over when they were texted about the gathering.
“It’s my birthday,” Ehlo answered.
“Oh, it’s your birthday?” Chris asked, his smile brightening. “Happy…”
“It’s not his birthday,” Eddie jumped in to set Chris straight. “He’s trolling you. We just celebrated his birthday before he and Angela went on vacation.”
Chris had on his confused look again, shaking his head. “I will never understand your group.”
“And we like it that way,” Ehlo said, sounding proud.
“Seriously,” Eddie said, looking at Ehlo. “What’s the occasion?”
“Sometimes, Uncle Ben gets lonely out here so he’s just making an excuse to get us together, okay? Is that too much to ask?”
Ehlo was about to start eating, but he saw something that almost made him dropped his chopsticks. He turned to Joanne and the others. “Seriously?”
“What?” Janine asked, seeing his expression since she was sitting next to Eddie—and Eddie was sitting across the table from Ehlo.
Ehlo pointed to his left. He was sort of at the end of the table, only several seats down. But to his left was the other side of the table and they could see that Jacky was actually sitting next to Sonia.
“What’s wrong with them sitting together?” Janine asked, confused.
“I thought you were smart.”
“Hey! You’ve gone overboard.”
Ehlo shook his head, feeling defeated. “Never mind. Forget what I said.”
Janine gave Ehlo a puzzled look, yet she decided to drop it since they were eating. She, instead, turned her attention to Eddie and they ended up talking about something completely different.
As for Jacky’s side of the table, he was indeed sitting next to Sonia and they were discussing something. Across the table from them were Johnny and Bianca. Next to Sonia was Matthew, who was sitting next to Uncle Ben at the head of the table. Uncle Ben hadn’t seen Matthew for several months now, so he was very happy to chat with Matthew as they ate. Uncle Ben seemed to have forgotten why he summoned them all there that night. However, no one—not even Ehlo—reminded him of the reason.
“I bet you anything that Producer Lin will seek you out within the next week or so again to talk to you,” Jacky said sometime later.
“What did you tell him?” Sonia asked, turning to Jacky.
“It’s not a matter of me telling him anything. He’s persistent. It has been years now, but he still can’t get over it.”
Sonia smiled. “You can’t blame him. We left one by one and then somehow you and Angela came back. He has some hope, so…”
Jacky had on his amused expression. “He wants to get the old band back together?”
Sonia reached out to hit Jacky’s hand then. “Stop. He’s just trying to survive.”
It almost felt like the old time again. Some of them had paused in their conversation and was looking at the two. Yet, they pretended they were listening in on the conversation.
“Maybe he can close the station and retire already,” Jacky continued with his train of thoughts. “Then he doesn’t have to sweat about ratings anymore.”
Sonia had on her chiding look. “He can’t just close it down. You know how many people will be out of work?”
Jacky shrugged. “How many?”
“Young Master Chu, if you insist, there are at least fifty people at the station—more or less. Just because there are only about fifteen DJs—more or less, depending on their schedules and contracts—doesn’t mean that’s it. There are behind the scenes crew too. You, of all the people, should know.”
Jacky had on a puzzled look. “I should?”
Sonia hit his hand again. “Seriously, you’re getting old. We did a segment about how hardworking the behind the scenes crew are like ten years back.”
“That was ten years ago. I don’t even remember what happened yesterday, nevertheless, ten years ago.”
Sonia shook her head. Instead of continuing in her criticism of him, she ended up putting a piece of meat into his rice bowl. Jacky didn’t mind and ended up giving her his shrimps.
“You two get along so well,” Margaret spoke up then. “If I didn’t know better, I would have thought you two were a couple.”
That was when Jacky and Sonia realized what they just did and somewhat edged away from one another. It was hard, considering how the table was so crowded with seven other people on their side to share the space with.
“Sorry,” Jacky and Sonia blurted out at the same time while they were trying to put distance between one another. “It’s okay.”
Ehlo, at the other end of the table, rubbed his face and closed his eyes briefly. “This is why they can’t sit together.”
“You think they’re getting back together?” Janine whispered in Ehlo’s direction.
“No,” Ehlo said, opening his eyes and having already removed his hand from his face. “At least, I don’t think so.”
“But they get along so well,” Chris noted, keeping his voice on the low.
“That’s the problem,” Ehlo said, sighing out.
Chris wrinkled his face. “Why?”
Ehlo shook his head. “It’s complicated.”
As if Margaret’s words had reminded Uncle Ben of something so he finally turned his attention to Jacky and Sonia. That was also when every single side conversation at the table died down and they directed their attention toward Uncle Ben.
“You two thinking of getting back together?” Uncle Ben got straight to the point.
“Uh…” Jacky managed. “No?”
“You’re asking me or you’re answering me?”
Jacky turned to Sonia then. “Well, Miss Sui, are we getting back together or no?”
Sonia sent Jacky a chiding look. Most of them hadn’t seen that type of interaction from them for a long time now. It was something they’d never realized they missed so much.
“We’re all adults here,” Uncle Ben said.
“Some of us more than others,” Ehlo muttered from the other end of the table.
Because the atmosphere was quiet, Uncle Ben was able to hear Ehlo’s words clearly. He turned to Ehlo. “All right, Mr. Smarty-Pants, I’m moving on to you next. You don’t have to volunteer.”
Ehlo shrugged. “I got all night, Uncle Ben.”
Uncle Ben knew Ehlo too well, so he didn’t waste anymore time on Ehlo. He turned back to Jacky and Sonia. “There’s no need to act all weird or whatever. If you need me to back you up with your parents, I need a little heads-up first. If you come in there unprepared, considering your history, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Jacky and Sonia exchanged a look before Sonia turned to Uncle Ben.
“I know things have been really complicated these past few years,” Sonia said. “And I was the cause for some of those conflicts. But right now, I’m not thinking of anything regarding to romance, Uncle Ben. I just want to get my life back together and focus on who I really am.”
Uncle Ben nodded then. “I do really like you, Sonia. So, I hope you the best, whatever it might be. Our Jacky isn’t too bright when it comes to relationship matters and his mishandling of it in the past has led us here. But I do hope you two can return to being friends again, like in the past.”
Sonia smiled and nodded toward Uncle Ben. “Thank you, Uncle Ben.”
“You can just stop at ‘our Jacky isn’t too bright’,” Ehlo muttered around the same time Sonia answered Uncle Ben.
Angela poked Ehlo’s on the side then.
“Ow,” Ehlo yelled out and turned to his wife. “Seriously? Like I’m wrong.”
“All right, Huang Yu Rong, stand up,” Uncle Ben said around then.
“What did I do?” Ehlo asked innocently, standing up anyway.
“You want the spotlight on you, so you got it.”
Wallace had on his mischievous smile then. “Good luck, Huang.”
“Wallace, you’re next.”
Wallace got up upon hearing that—although no on asked him. “Aw, why?”
“If I’m going down, I’m bringing you down with me, Huo,” Ehlo said, his threatening glare searing through Wallace.
Wallace rolled his eyes. “Whatever, Huang.”
“Since you both refuse to shut it, I could focus on both at the same time,” Uncle Ben said.
Ehlo and Wallace sighed out at the same time.
“All right,” Ehlo said, brushing some unseen particle on his shirt. “I accept my fate, Uncle Ben, have at it.”
“He doesn’t need your permission, Huang,” Wallace jumped in again.
“I didn’t say he needed my permission, Huo.”
“Dishwashing duties after dinner,” Uncle Ben said all of a sudden.
“What?” Ehlo and Wallace exclaimed at the same time.
“That’s for starters,” Uncle Ben clarified. “Since you two repeatedly interrupted me for the past ten minutes.”
“It has only been five minutes,” Ehlo mumbled.
“Seven tops,” Wallace followed.
“You’re edging toward eight,” Ehlo sneered.”
“You need a calculator on top of a dictionary, Huang. I don’t know how you could be a successful architect without any mathematical skills.”
“You need to get a grip, Huo. Preferably around your own throat, because you refuse to shut up.”
“Why should I shut up when you haven’t shut up yet?”
Angela was clutching her forehead in defeat by then.
“And that’s ten minutes,” Eddie muttered under his breath.
“Whatever you need to tell them, I think you need to hurry before they kill each other,” Aunt June spoke up at that time.
Uncle Ben turned to his wife. “It’s not like I could get a word in.”
“Wallace, what has gotten into you lately?” Aunt June asked, turning to Wallace at that time.
Wallace eyed Ehlo cautiously before turning to face his aunt. “He started it.”
“Oh, how mature, Huo,” Ehlo returned. “Why don’t you blame the blazing weather on me too?”
Wallace had on his challenging look. “I might.”
Ehlo threw his hands up then. “Does this ridiculous day ever going to end?”
“Not until you answer my questions,” Uncle Ben said.
Ehlo sighed out again. “Please ask.”
Wallace was about to start another round yet he caught Aunt June expression, so he closed his mouth again. Chris saw that and was surprised that Wallace actually obeyed, considering how they’d been going at it for ten minutes already without caring if they offended Uncle Ben or not.
“Are you done with your jealous episodes yet?” Uncle Ben asked, staring at Ehlo with much seriousness.
“I’m jealous of him?” Ehlo asked back, pointing at Wallace.
“No, I meant him,” Uncle Ben answered, pointing toward Chris’ direction.
Chris was sitting on the opposite side of the table from Ehlo and Wallace, so it was too easy to distinguish Uncle Ben’s gesture.
Ehlo turned to look to Angela—who was sitting at the spot next to him—before turning back to look at Uncle Ben. “We’re doing this here? Now?”
“You don’t seem shy at arguing your way through Christmas minutes ago.”
“Huh, that’s actually a good expression,” Ehlo said, thinking it over.
“Huang Yu Rong,” Uncle Ben gritted. “Don’t change the topic.”
Margaret—who was currently sitting between Suzie and Aunt June—had turned to look at Chris when Uncle Ben pointed him out. That wasn’t strange since the others had done the same. However, Chris had spotted her teasing expression, realizing how he was stuck in some drama and wasn’t able to get out. What surprised both Chris and Margaret even more was how slick Ehlo was—and possibly even thick-skinned as well—since he didn’t seem to be embarrassed when he was called out by Uncle Ben. Angela—contrary to her usual brave self—was covering her face with her hands at that point, pretending she wasn’t there.
“What was the question again?” Ehlo asked—as if he had forgotten already.
“You also need a new brain, Huang,” Wallace jumped in again.
Ehlo turned to Wallace with much hostility. “Are you calling me dumb, Huo?”
Wallace wasn’t threatened by Ehlo’s expression. “I’m just saying you need a new memory card for your brain.”
“Then why didn’t you just say so? Why did you say I need a new brain?”
“What difference does it make now? You can’t seem to understand anything, might as well replace that brain too.”
By this time, even Joanne was clutching her forehead.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” Joanne mumbled. “Just answer the question already.”
“What was the question though?” Ehlo asked, turning to Joanne this time.
Joanne had on her bored expression as she braced her head with one hand on the table. “Are you still jealous of Chris?”
Ehlo wrinkled his face. “Whatever gave you that bizarre idea?”
Joanne sighed out. “Seriously, Ehlo?”
Ehlo flashed on his mischievous smile then. “Okay, fine. No, not jealous anymore.”
“What makes you so sure?” Andy asked—although Uncle Ben had uttered some words of approval regarding the question.
“After watching him being attacked by Uncle Zhe for ten straight minutes, I could laugh my way through New Years Eve,” Ehlo responded. In fact, he had laughed out loud and ended up sitting back down at his seat to catch his breath. It took him about two minutes before he could recover. Then he turned to Chris. “Not so powerful now, are you?”
Chris shook his head, not knowing what to say either. He pointed at Ehlo. “I never meant to compete with you or anything.”
“You seriously are petty,” Wallace said, hitting Ehlo on the shoulder.
Ehlo turned to Wallace then. “You want to start with me again, Huo?”
“It’s not like my objections will make you stop.”
Ehlo shrugged. “Whatever.”
“Since you’re all good now, you can go back to eating,” Uncle Ben said.
Ehlo saluted. “Thanks!”
After that, the side conversations resumed once more.
“And that’s how it’s done,” Ehlo whispered to the others sitting near him.
Wallace sat down again at that time since he’d been standing the minute Uncle Ben summoned him. “If there’s a next time, don’t expect me to bail you out, Huang.”
Chris looked confused then but kept his voice low. “Wait, that was an act?”
“I knew it the minute they started arguing,” Eddie said, turning to Chris. “They have a pattern.”
Ehlo gave Eddie a “thumbs-up” sign for not exposing them earlier.
“I still don’t get you two,” Chris said, shaking his head again. “You get along really well, but you want to single me out?”
“Hey, I didn’t single you out, only he did,” Wallace clarified. “If it wasn’t for me, he already tore you apart.”
“You weren’t here at the beginning,” Andy said. “But it was really bad at first with them too.”
“Wasn’t that bad,” Wallace contradicted Andy.
Andy turned to Wallace. “Now you want to twist the facts too?”
“Oh, come on,” Ehlo interfered. “I was only mad at him because he was siding with those people and plotting against Jacky. Not because of Angela.”
“I wasn’t willing, okay?” Wallace returned. “Angela and the others forced me into it.”
Ehlo turned to Wallace again. “Oh, really? Like you didn’t suspect Jacky too.”
Joanne went back to clutching her head again while Angela turned to Andy.
“Nice going, Chen Yi,” Angela complimented Andy—though her expression said otherwise. “Now you reminded them how they were at odds in the first place. I hope you’re happy.”
After she said, Angela got up and left the table.
“Hey!” Ehlo called out, getting up also. He turned to Andy when he was sure Angela wasn’t coming back. “Seriously, kid, stay out of it.”
After saying that, Ehlo followed Angela inside the house.
“That went well,” Wallace said, his sarcasm on high.
“Like you weren’t guilty,” Yvonne said then. She had been silent the whole while because she knew the guys were in some schemes together. Yet now they were at odds for real, so she had to interfere.
“What did I do?” Wallace asked, turning to Yvonne with an innocent look.
“I’m going to help clean up,” Yvonne said, getting up also.
In fact, the others had started to leave. Tony had apologized to Uncle Ben for not being able to stay longer to help but Uncle Ben had reassured him that it was enough that he came for dinner. After Tony and Esther left, it was Johnny and Bianca’s turn. They had an early start in the morning, so they couldn’t stay either. But they made sure to bid everyone goodbye. Bianca even thanked Margaret profusely for helping with Suzie the whole day. Margaret ended up staying behind with others to help clean up.
“This is the craziest dinner I’ve been to,” Chris said as he was helping Andy and Eddie transferring the chairs to the storage room in the back.
“That just means you haven’t been around much,” Eddie said. “It took me awhile too. So, my advice to you is good luck.”
Chris smiled, shaking his head. “I don’t think I could ever get used to them.”
“Oh yeah,” Margaret spoke up at that time. She took a quick glance place before turning to Eddie again. “Why is that Wallace seemed to be scared of Aunt June? I saw the look she gave him earlier and he just stopped.”
“She’s his aunt,” Janine answered on Eddie’s behalf. She was also helping with carrying the chairs inside—and had come back at that time hence overhearing their conversation.
Chris and Margaret looked surprised then.
“Really?” Chris asked in disbelief.
“I thought they told you.”
Chris shook his head. “I would have thought Uncle Ben’s Ming Dao’s uncle. That’s why he’s so close to him and how you all came to be close to them.”
“Uncle Ben’s Jacky’s uncle.”
Chris and Margaret had surprised looks on their faces again. They exchanged a look between the two of them before Chris spoke up for the both of them again.
“Interesting, so Jacky and Wallace are cousins by marriage?”
Janine nodded. “Uncle Ben’s close to Ming Dao because Ming Dao loves his noodles and used to come to his stall a lot to support him. That was before Ming Dao moved back home.”
Janine nodded again. “Yeah. It takes awhile before you get their relationships straight. Qiao has a relationship link tree on her wall. If you ever visit her place, you can check it out.”
Chris had on his amused expression. It was like he was fascinated with everything they had to say. “Oh?”
Janine nodded once more and smiled. “Luckily, she did the names in magnetic pins or it would be hell to fix it now.”
They were moving items and chatting at the same time, so when Janine was done explaining to Chris, they were also done with transferring chairs inside. When they were back outside, Ehlo had come back with a bucket to put dirty dishes in. Uncle Zhe wasn’t kidding with putting Ehlo and Wallace on dishes duty since Wallace also had a bucket in his hand and was collecting his portion at the other side of the table. After they were done, Jacky and Sonia ended up being the ones folding the tablecloths. They, of course, didn’t put it back into storage. They had to bring it out back to wash it. Chris and the others swooped in to dislodge the tables and putting them back into storage after Jacky and Sonia left.
“This is nice,” Chris commented after they were done and were standing outside under the stars.
“Still think it’s a crazy dinner?” Eddie asked.
“Still think so. But…it’s also nice.”
“That’s us,” Janine said, her voice proud.
“Since when do you get to speak up for us, Miss Chang?” Ehlo teased at that time.
He was done with dishes, so he headed back outside to take a break. Wallace wasn’t far behind from him but had opted to stay quiet as the others interacted with one another.
Janine turned to Ehlo with a smile. “It’s been years, don’t I get a say?”
“Not even if you share my wife’s last name.”
Janine knew he was kidding, so she just shook her head.
“I think I might have to stay here for the night,” Andy said, walking toward them at that time. He even stretched and yawned. “Seriously.”
“How are we going to get back now?” Margaret asked, looking at Chris.
“You guys can come with Janine and me,” Eddie said. “Since Yan’s not here anymore. We have space.”
“Sure,” Janine agreed. “I have to drop some stuff off for Bryant anyway.”
“You’re coming with us, right?” Andy said, looking at Matthew.
“Do you mind?” Matthew asked.
Andy shook his head. “It’s the least we can do. We did drag you here with us earlier.”
“I wanted to visit with Uncle Ben too.”
Andy shrugged. Then he turned to Joanne. “Qiao, you’re coming with us, right?”
Joanne nodded. “Looks like it.”
Ehlo seemed to realize what was happening. “That means…you guys…are…”
“Leaving Jacky and Sonia together,” Wallace finished, his impatient running low with Ehlo’s rate.
Yes, the current arrangement would leave Jacky with Sonia because both Ehlo and Wallace had driven their own cars earlier. Even if for Ehlo’s case, Ehlo was the one driving. But that was still two cars left and it just didn’t make sense to leave it here and make some excuse to go with Jacky.
“All right then,” Ehlo said, heading toward the direction of the front gate. “We’re so going to their wedding.”
That was the last of Ehlo’s declaration as Wallace and Yvonne took leave as well. The rest of them exchanged looks among themselves before bidding Uncle Ben and Aunt June goodbyes—and then heading out as well.
© Sunday, July 12th, 2020
Posted: Monday, September 28th, 2020