Chapter 8 – A Season for Memories

It took the guys thirty minutes before they could all settled down inside a private room at a fancy restaurant for their little gathering—or more like Ehlo had declared it as a guy-talk. It mostly had to do with the fact that they came into a rush of traffic. Jacky ended up at the restaurant first and had requested a private room for them—since he thought they needed it if they were going to talk. It was one of those rare times they even opted for a private room.

“So, what do we do now?” Ehlo asked, tapping on the table after he arrived with Wallace and sat down at a corner of the long table. “Just stare at each other in awkward silence while we wait for our food and drinks?”

Jacky shook his head, his amused smile on. “Sometimes, I wonder about your attention span, Ehlo.”

“Come on, man,” Ehlo reasoned. “It’s not like we have anything else to do.”

Wallace loosened a button on his shirt before looking over at Ehlo. “Seriously, Huang.”

Ehlo turned to his left and wrinkled his face. “What, Huo? Why don’t you spit it out?”

“You guy are arguing already?” Derek asked as he stepped into the room. He and Bryant just managed to find a parking spot. “Chen Yi and Eddie are parking right now.”

Bryant saw that Jacky and the others had sat at the left corner of the room, leaving the right side empty for him and the others. The room was kind of dark and created a weird feeling. He wasn’t sure why, but he hesitated before sitting down and sliding over toward where Jacky was, not opting for the side tables nearby.

“What’s with the light turned all the way down like this?” Derek asked, gesturing toward the overhead lights.

Ehlo shrugged. “It’s more romantic that way?”

Derek was still staring at Ehlo, knowing Ehlo was trolling him, and was waiting for the real answer.

“It’s habit,” Ehlo confessed finally, possibly two minutes later.

It was also that time that Andy and Eddie joined them. Eddie was the one sliding into the booth to sit next to Derek while Andy was at the end of the table.

“You guys ordered?” Andy asked.

“Yeah,” Ehlo replied. “With your long list of requests, of course we have to order ahead of time.”

“Haha.”

“No lights?” Eddie said, gesturing toward the dimly lit lights above them.

He must not hear Ehlo’s response as he opened the door.

“It’s nicer that way,” Andy said, smiling for some unknown reason.

That was when Bryant, Derek, and Eddie exchanged a look among themselves. It was like even the lighting situation had some sort of secret too.

“Feng ge used to come here with us, you know,” Andy spoke up again, his eyes haunting. It was like he was living through a memory. “He liked the lighting that way.” He stopped to smile. It was a somewhat bitter smile. “Tony used to tease him about it.”

That was when the other three realized what was going on.

“I have a feeling we walked right into celebrating his death anniversary, but you guys are trying to spare our feelings, so didn’t want to exclude us,” Derek said, knowing he was rambling.

Andy shook his head, removing his hands from his pockets before putting one hand the table and the other playing with the strand of yarn on his jacket. “No, his death anniversary was in March.”

Although the other three had known them for several years already, they’d never been included in on whatever it was the others were doing at times, especially things regarding Tang Feng. This was probably one of those rare times that they even mentioned him in front of the other three. They had guessed over the years that it had to do with Joanne. To show respect, they never really asked, unless the others had shared. So, it was somewhat strange that they got to hear some details now.

“In March?” Bryant asked suddenly. It was like he was catching up. It was like a minute later that he reacted. “March what?”

“The 20th,” Wallace answered from the other side of the table. It was his turn to tap the table.

“Remember when some of us met you for the first time and we went to this restaurant too?” Ehlo asked, looking at Bryant.

Bryant nodded. “We sat outside though.”

Ehlo nodded. “Qiao was really rude that day. But later we realized what was going on and went after her.”

Bryant nodded, knowing where it was going, but he had to be sure.

“That was Tang Feng’s death anniversary and we forgot.”

Bryant nodded again, feeling like he had stepped past a barrier and entered a forbidden zone. He’d never really asked much of Joanne’s past either. He didn’t want to force her to share. He just knew Tang Feng was important to her and everyone else in the group. “She apologized to me later and explained what happened.”

Ehlo nodded. “Yeah.”

At that time, a waiter brought in their food and drinks, so they stayed silent and helped passed the dishes and glasses along. After the waiter left, Ehlo took a sip from his glass before turning to the others.

“It’s funny that we’re doing a reverse celebration today,” Ehlo said, looking at Jacky and Wallace in particular.

“What?” Derek asked, confused again. “So, we’re actually celebrating something today?”

Ehlo shrugged. “Happy coincidence.” He looked at Jacky at that time. “I can’t believe we celebrated your birthday on Tang Feng’s birthday.”

“Tang Feng’s birthday was supposed to be on Saturday?” Bryant asked, shocked. “Qiao didn’t show any signs of…”

Wallace had on his sympathetic look then. “She’s trying.”

“Yeah, give her some more time,” Ehlo said. “If you want.”

“What do you mean if he wants?” Andy asked from the other side of the table. “You want them to break up?”

Ehlo, unlike himself, didn’t have on his teasing expression or anything bordering on the obnoxious nature. “I’m not saying that. But let’s get real. Some people can’t be patient all their life.”

“Look, guys,” Bryant said, looking down at his folded hands on the table. It was like he was thinking. He looked up seconds later and scanned each one of them real quick before speaking up again. “I know Tang Feng was very important to you guys. I wished I’d known him. But I will never be able to meet him now, and that’s a shame. But I’m not trying to replace him.”

“You couldn’t if you wanted to,” Ehlo said, his teasing smile back on—to which Wallace had hit his shoulder. He directed his eyes on Wallace then. “What?”

“The guy just delivered a meaningful speech and you shot him down like that?” Wallace returned. It was like he didn’t know who Ehlo was anymore. Or ever?

Ehlo shrugged. “It’s the truth.”

Jacky shook his head then before turning to Bryant. “Don’t mind Ehlo. What he means is you and Tang Feng are so different. It would be really strange to compare you two.” He paused before continuing. “Also, I know it’s hard being stuck in this loop of not knowing the full picture at times, but I think it’s because most of us still can’t talk about what happened. We didn’t try to be cryptic on purpose.” He gestured in the general direction. “Although we promised years ago in front of the shop that we would move on and all that talk about time will heal all wounds, but it’s just to reassure one another. It was good pep talk at that time. When one of your friends dies, it changes you. Especially, when it was so abrupt and so nonsensical. Even if you move on with your life, you’re never the same again.”

Bryant nodded. “I understand.” He suddenly felt self-conscious again, wondering if Tang Feng had sat at that particular spot before.

“No,” Ehlo answered without Bryant even asking.

“What?” Bryant returned, confused of Ehlo’s sudden word.

Ehlo smiled. “If you’re wondering if Tang Feng ever sat there before, the answer is no.”

Andy gestured toward the two tables to the other side of the room. “He used to sit over there. We used to tease him for being the weird one, not picking the booth.”

“He used to joke that he liked to sit over there because he could be the center of attention,” Wallace said. “You know, being the odd one out.”

Bryant smiled, looking at the spot where Andy pointed out. “What was Tang Feng like?”

The four who knew Tang Feng closely stopped and thought about it. It was like they were trying to find words to sum up Tang Feng in a way that wouldn’t leave a bad rep or something. Well, that was except for Ehlo since when he realized the others weren’t speaking up, he jumped right in.

“Tang Feng, huh? He was so cunning, so slick, so annoying. But we managed to beat him in the end.”

That comment earned another hit on the shoulder by Wallace. “Nice way to talk about the dead guy, Huang.”

“What do you want me to say?” Ehlo returned, not missing a beat. “He was all those things.”

Jacky shook his head then, knowing if he left it up to the other two, they would never get to the point. He turned to Bryant at that time. “Tang Feng was really great. He was very clever. He used to be a prankster but, of course, used his brilliance to run such a successful business later.”

Wallace smiled and added, “He could be really serious too if he wants to.”

“Yeah,” Andy agreed. “Feng ge was really mad that one time I pulled a prank on the girls. He made me clean it all up.”

Bryant, Derek, and Eddie exchanged a look among the three of them before Derek spoke up.

“Oh? What was that all about?”

The others took turns telling the other three what happened.

“So, it was actually Wallace’s fault that it happened,” Andy concluded.

“I didn’t see you coming up with any plans to stall for time, Chen Yi,” Wallace reminded Andy.

Andy shrugged. “Still your fault.”

“So, that shop, where is it now?” Bryant asked. “What happened to it after, you know, Tang Feng passed away.”

The others only told the story about saving a shop and using such cheap tactics to stall for time earlier. They didn’t mention which shop that was, so that was why Bryant and others didn’t know which shop they were talking about.

“It’s still there,” Ehlo said, placing a hand on Wallace’s shoulder then. “I forgot to mention, but…” He had paused for dramatic emphasis. “Meet the new owner of the shop, the famous Mr. Huo.”

Wallace shrugged his shoulders so Ehlo’s hand would drop off him. “Yeah, Huang, I’m not famous.”

“The crazy girls clinging to the shop said otherwise.”

Bryant was still processing what Ehlo just told him, so he hadn’t spoken up immediately. He knew Ehlo was an unreliable narrator, but since Wallace didn’t deny the ownership part, he knew it had to be true. In fact, he and the other didn’t know the exact history of the shop either. At least, not all of it. They only heard the others mentioned that it used to be Alyssa’s and that when she got married to Vincent, she had to close it. They just thought that Wallace had bought it from her to save it from going into a stranger’s hand. They believed this because about two years ago, Wallace and Alyssa had a talk about it and Wallace had asked if Alyssa wanted to take the shop back. It was also two months after they had gathered and celebrated Ehlo’s birthday. So, this new information had thrown them off as well.

“Tang Feng bought the shop from Alyssa, not Wallace?” Derek jumped in, interrupting Ehlo and Wallace’s banter again.

Ehlo nodded. “The shop was actually really popular, because of its location. Despite the Zhao’s slandering of it, thanks to Tony, it had received a lot of attention. The value was really high, so of course, we didn’t have the money to buy it. I meant, we wanted to buy it ourselves, but with all our savings combined, we don’t think we could outbid the other buyers. That was why Wallace even resorted to that lame tactic in the first place.”

“Then how did Wallace end up with the shop?”

“He inherited it after Tang Feng passed away.”

There were gasps at that time. Wallace had been focused on eating the whole while Ehlo filled the others in on the details. But he finally looked up at that time.

“I didn’t want it,” Wallace admitted. “But it was Tang Feng’s last wish. He didn’t need to compensate me. I don’t care about those materialistic stuff. That was why I wanted Alyssa to have it. But she turned me down each time I asked her. The conversation you heard that one time was just one of the occurrences.”

Ehlo, instead of the usual teasing he delivered, reached out and placed a hand on Wallace’s shoulder. “We know, man. We know.”

Ehlo’s voice was even sincere, sensitive even. The other three were equally surprised. That was a really good opening if Ehlo had chosen to make it into a joke. Instead, he even appeared quite supportive toward Wallace. And Wallace’s reaction, a slight nod, was even more confusing to them. They expected Wallace to brush Ehlo’s hand off his shoulder like the last time.

“What compensation?” Eddie asked—like five minutes later. It was probably less, but it felt like so.

“Some things happened between Tang Feng and his sister before he passed away,” Wallace said, sighing out. His eyes had turned somewhat red. It was like bringing up all these memories had caused it. “I don’t want to go into details since it’s between them.”

Eddie and the others nodded as they waited for Wallace to continue.

“But I was also caught up in it and Tang Feng somehow felt he needed to compensate for what happened. If he hadn’t passed away, maybe things had turned out differently.”

“How did Tang Feng…” Derek started to ask and then gestured with his hand. “You know.”

“Car accident,” Ehlo answered.

Bryant wrinkled his face then, like he couldn’t believe it. He knew people died in car accidents. It wasn’t like a brand new concept or anything. But he had never heard them mentioned it. He just knew they talked about Tang Feng over the years with pieces here and there. So, it was once again, the first time he and the other two heard of the real cause. “Car accident?”

Ehlo nodded. “He was on the way to buy some gift for Sophia to celebrate her latest book sales success. We had it all planned out. He was going to meet us at the restaurant for lunch.” Ehlo paused and smiled. “It was one of those rare times Sophia agreed to go to some fancy restaurant too.”

Jacky looked toward the door then. As if he was expecting Sophia to show up or something. “It was supposed to be this room.”

“Did they ever find out who did it?” Derek asked, leaning closer to the table, his expression intense like some of the others.

Ehlo nodded. “It was some brat. Drunk driving and drugs. The typical combo.”

Bryant’s shocked expression turned to paleness at that time. It was like he was really surprised about all of these developments. Was he thinking of how they had to deal with so much at that time? That was probably the worst. Knowing who the culprit was yet couldn’t do anything because it was so unexpected and so frustrating.

“You okay?” Derek asked then, placing a hand on Bryant’s shoulder. “You’re shaking.”

Bryant finally exhaled, not realizing that he was holding his breath. He reached his hand up to rub his face a little before nodding. “I’m sorry. It’s just that this is the first time I heard about this. I mean, I never pried before, so Qiao never told me. She just told me it was some sort of accident, but not the details.”

Ehlo looked at Wallace and then Jacky before speaking up again. “Yeah, I know, it’s hard. Any human being learning of that tragedy would be as upset.”

Bryant nodded and seemed like he was trying to recollect his thoughts. “March 20th, car accident.” He turned to the others again. “What year was that? I think Qiao mentioned it in the past, but I don’t think I could recall correctly.”

“2012,” Andy replied. “It’s five years now. I can’t believe it.”

Bryant’s lips quivered then. “Five years?”

Andy nodded. “I know, we talk like it was yesterday, but it has been that long already.”

“I think we need a subject change, right?” Ehlo asked, looking around the room. “It’s not easy talking about it.”

“I will say one last thing about this,” Wallace said.

Ehlo turned off his awkward smile and turned to Wallace. “What?”

Wallace scanned the room quickly before looking at Bryant again. “I can forgive Tang Feng’s sister for what she did because I was partially blamed for what happened. And because I need to take responsibility for my own actions. But I will never forgive that person who killed Tang Feng.”

“Cryptic, man,” Ehlo said, patting Wallace’s shoulder and attempting to dispel the awkward atmosphere.

“I understand,” Bryant said, his voice sincere.

“And just so you know,” Wallace continued. “Qiao’s not only a sister to Jacky, but also to us. If you hurt her, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Getting super creepy here, Huo,” Ehlo said, grabbing onto Wallace’s shoulder now—and no longer patting. He knew it was serious, but he couldn’t help trying to hold Wallace back. He was actually looking in the direction of the two side tables. “Did Tang Feng’s ghost enter you without our knowledge?”

“There are ghosts here?” Andy asked, looking at the two tables at the other side of the room.

Ehlo turned to Andy then. He had dropped his hand from Wallace’s shoulder already. “Seriously?”

“Okay, let’s finish eating and get out of here,” Jacky interfered. “I think we scared them enough already.”

“Good point,” Andy said, pulling his jacket closer to his body.

As if that was set, the others finished their meal in silence and left shortly afterward. It was indeed an unusual talk and something they didn’t expect, especially Derek and Eddie. They hadn’t seen Wallace so hostile before. Sure, they saw plenty of Ehlo and Wallace’s banter. But they had come to realize over the years that those were just side, nonsense arguments that the two liked to engage in to lighten up the atmosphere. It was their perception of creating humor for the rest of them. It was also how the two talked. But now? Wallace was indeed creeping them out.

And Ehlo didn’t have to pay the full bill. The others chipped in. Ehlo said he wanted to keep his promise, but the others said they wanted to contribute. After another few minutes of the polite talk, Ehlo finally agreed to let them help. Then they parted ways and headed home, each lost in his own thoughts.

*****

Several months later, on mid-autumn festival to be exact, the group gathered to celebrate. Well, some of them were. The location was local this year, not going all out like some of the past years. After all, this year was already a stretch for some of them with the amount of dramas unfolding. They just wanted some peace. They actually chose the same spot they’d chosen nine years ago. Considering how some of them ended up together that night, it was a good memory. However, they didn’t say it out exactly like that. Ehlo, for once, only said that they’d been there before so it was a good location to consider. It was a small group, comparing to past events, so it made sense to choose that place.

There were only sixteen of them this year. Yes, it sounded like a lot, but to include everyone else, it was lacking. Jun and Novia, who hadn’t seen each other much lately, decided to not join them. It was the same with Nic and Cynthia. They understood too well, so they didn’t press it. Of the ones who were missing, Johnny, Bianca, and Suzie had visited with families of both sides, so they weren’t there either. That also meant anyone else who was celebrating with their families was not coming. Matthew and his wife, like Johnny and Bianca, had taken their kids to celebrate with family. They didn’t have time to come—even if they wanted to. The twins were keeping them quite busy. Sam? He was with Joyce’s family. The same with Viva and Jade. What about Chris and Margaret who promised to keep in contact? They bailed as well, because they were on another adventure with their group of friends. It was life. On the other hand, Andy had somehow managed to get in touch with Kris again and Kris actually showed up to surprise when they were at the entrance. He had been busy these past few years with his modeling career. At first, he was just doing it to pass time and also think of his future path. However, he ended up enjoying doing that and had signed another contract with the current agency to continue the collaboration. He’d been around and about and sometimes visited them. This time, he just returned from Europe, and saw Andy’s message after months of being buried in his latest project. So, that was why he came to surprise them. They were more than happy to see him and chatted excitedly after entering the venue.

“This here,” Ehlo said when they stopped at a spot to check out some surrounding booths. “This was where I got together with my wife.”

“How epic was it?” Eddie asked, turning to Wallace for a more accurate recount.

“I wasn’t there at that time,” Wallace confessed. “I actually came from the other side.” He pointed toward the opposite path and the area that led to one of the back entrances.”

“Oh?”

“He was with Cyndi at that time,” Ehlo said before he realized it. Then he saw Yvonne’s smile turning off. “I mean, anyway, Johnny and Bianca were here though. In fact, they were here too.” He pointed toward Jacky and Sonia.

Jacky and Sonia exchanged an awkward smile as the others turned to them.

“Anyway,” Ehlo continued. “They all thought I was going to confess to Wei Ru. It was hilarious.”

“Aha,” Angela said, crossing her hands in front of her then, her annoyed expression on.

“I wanted to make it a surprise, so of course I didn’t tell all these nosy people,” Ehlo said, placing a hand around Angela’s shoulders then. “Come on, you got to admit it was really good. And you still wear the bracelet, so…”

The others could see Angela was indeed still wearing the bracelet. They were sure she didn’t wear it all the time and had kept it well over the years. Because the bracelet looked all nice and clean still.

“I could, you know, stop wearing it,” Angela said, her voice teasing.

“Oh, come on,” Ehlo protested, sounding desperate. “You don’t mean that.”

“You never know,” Angela returned and started walking again.

The way they were walking and the others staying a distance from them was almost like nine years ago. Yet this time, Ehlo wasn’t drawing any additional attention to them. He just followed Angela and tried to calm her down.

“Is it going to be like this all night?” Kris, asking turning to Andy at that time.

“Nah, it doesn’t have to be,” Andy returned. “Let’s ditch them and go to that game booth over there. We haven’t played something like that for a long time now. You game?”

Kris nodded, agreeing. He followed Andy and Achel toward the right side.

“I’ll meet you guys at the big tent later,” Andy hollered before they were out of sight.

The others somewhat separated from time to time. It was either to play games or tried some snacks nearby. They held side conversations at times and would join in the main conversation when they felt like it. There were only some of them at that time. Tony and Esther didn’t show up until they were by the big tent. It was more like they had come together and had agreed to meet up with the rest of group for old times’ sake. Andy, Achel, and Kris met them by the big tent like promised about half an hour back.

“Are we going to watch the show like last time we were here together or no?” Ehlo asked, gesturing toward the tent.

“How about heading to the bridge for fireworks instead?”

“That flimsy bridge over there?” Eddie asked, pointing toward somewhere behind them.

“No,” Ehlo answered. “That one, over there.”

That was when Eddie, Bryant, Derek, and Kris turned to check.

“I’m in,” Eddie said after he returned his attention to them again.

“Feels like old time, huh?” Jacky asked when they were already by the bridge. He was actually standing in between Sonia and Joanne like nine years ago. The only difference was the amount of personal space between them all. He couldn’t help smiling at the familiarity of it all.

“What are you smiling about, Young Master Chu?” Sonia asked, her voice teasing.

Jacky turned to Sonia then, his smile as mischievous. “Nothing, Miss Sui.”

The only difference? The fireworks hadn’t started yet. They were too early. Last time, they were witnessing the end of it.

“I feel like we’ve been through this before,” Ehlo said. He was standing next to Sonia—contrary to how he usually let Angela stand next to Sonia. “Like you guys said all these before.”

“It was nine years ago, Ehlo,” Sonia reminded him.

Ehlo scratched his head then. “I guess so.”

“What? No comeback?”

Ehlo smiled, not used to it either. “I’ll think of something.”

“Hey, did you ever reach out to Producer Lin again?” Angela asked, looking at Sonia. “He said he should have brought me along too. He acted so morbid the other day, I thought the station was going to declare bankruptcy soon.”

“You never know,” Jacky said. “With this day and age.”

They were still waiting for the fireworks to start, so they were sort of scattered into small groups.

Sonia reached over to hit Jacky on the shoulder then. “You’re always jinxing others.”

Jacky shrugged. “What am I supposed to do with my free time then?”

“Maybe take up basket weaving?” Ehlo suggested.

“Really?”

Ehlo shrugged this time. “You can try.”

“Actually…” Sonia said.

The others sensed some nervousness, so they turned to give her their full attention.

“You thought of your next goal in life?” Angela asked.

Sonia nodded.

Angela smiled, feeling hopeful. “What is it?”

“I’m going to write.”

Angela wrinkled her face. “Write? As in novelist or…”

Sonia shook her head. “I met someone earlier this week and she needed someone to help her write the advice column for her. Her latest intern left already. I thought I tried.”

“What newspaper is this?” Ehlo jumped in. “Are they crazy like those who have been writing about Unex?”

Sonia shook her head. “It’s just a regular local newspaper. They’re really small but I like how they operate.”

“If you’re sure, I’m happy for you,” Angela said, her bright smile on again.

Ehlo nodded, agreeing. “This calls for a celebration.” He turned to Jacky then. “Don’t you wish you could snap a finger and a class of champagne lands in your hands or something? That’s what I want right now.”

“It’s okay,” Sonia said, knowing Ehlo was trying to cheer her up. “Spending time today with everyone is enough.”

Ehlo did a quick scan of the group. Some of them were still scattered around the area. The night was really setting in for them. The others were still smiling and carrying on side conversations, though.

“I think the curse is lifted at long last,” Ehlo said, turning to their small group again.

It was then that he felt a hand hitting his shoulder. He turned to see Wallace smiling. It was his mischievous one, not the sincere one.

“What was that, Huang?” Wallace teased. “You’re getting superstitious again?”

“Hey, you can’t say that it’s not true in our case,” Ehlo defended himself. “Things have been turning around lately, right?”

Sonia smiled then, she had on her thoughtful expression. “I think Ehlo’s right.”

Ehlo was still looking at Wallace with his challenging expression. “See?”

Wallace shook his head. They didn’t get to argue more since they overheard Kris’ conversation with Tony and Esther. Kris was handing something to the two. Tony and Esther exchanged a look before Esther took the box from Kris.

“With my schedule lately, I don’t think I can make it,” Kris said. “So, I think this is my chance to send you two my blessings.”

Tony reached his hand out to shake Kris’ extended hand. “Thank you.”

Kris had on a sincere smile. “You two better not open it now. You have to wait until then.”

“Is it a bomb?” Andy jumped in then.

That was when Joanne hit Andy on the head.

“Ouch!” Andy yelled out.

The others were laughing then. It was indeed a nice change of atmosphere, even if a little immature.

“I kind of miss this type of interaction,” Kris said after Joanne and Andy stopped their disagreements already.

“Well, you can come and visit us any time for more of this,” Andy joked.

“Look!” Achel yelled out at that time.

They all turned to the where her finger pointed. The fireworks were starting. They soon lined up by the bridge like before and enjoyed the show in awe.

“The others so missed this once in a lifetime chance,” Ehlo said when the show was over, and they started some type of conversation again.

“Once in a lifetime chance, except the part where we created it once again after nine years,” Wallace mocked Ehlo.

Ehlo scoffed before flashing on his own cunning smile. “Sure, Huo. Let’s count all the people here and are still together with whoever they were with nine years ago.”

“Three couples,” Andy jumped in helpfully—for Ehlo.

Ehlo pointed at Andy but was still staring at Wallace. “See?”

“We’re here too, you know,” Jacky said, feeling like he needed to say something.

Ehlo turned to Jacky then. “Are you back together though?”

“I’m sure we’ll go form a Singles Club right now to mope over our sad state, so you and your Couples Club can live in peace,” Jacky joked. In fact, he had turned to some others behind him. “Who’s with me?”

Eddie, Janine, and Derek raised their hands up around then.

“Miss Sui?” Jacky prompted.

Sonia looked at the others real quick before nodding.

“So, we’re separating then?” Andy asked, looking from one to the other.

“Looks like it,” Joanne said.

“I better get going then,” Kris said then.

The others stopped whatever they were so focused on and turned toward Kris.

“I’m sorry,” Kris said, his voice and expression equally sincere. “It was just that I could only stop by here for two days. I have to fly out tomorrow again.”

The others nodded and gathered around Kris to bid their farewell to him.

“Thanks, Kris,” Esther said, pointing at the box still in her hands.

Tony nodded also, showing his gratitude as well.

“You’re both very welcome.” He turned to the others with a mischievous expression. “You all better eat for me at that universe scale banquet I kept hearing Chen Yi talk about.”

The others laughed. Then Kris turned and walked into the night.

“Great guy,” Andy said, feeling nostalgic already.

“It’s not like we won’t see him again in the future,” Joanne reminded him.

Andy nodded. “That’s true.”

“Hey, you guys want to go hang out together like we did last time?”

Andy shrugged. “Sure.” He made sure to turn to Achel before responding though. “What about you, Bryant?”

Bryant had on a distant expression. “Um, I need to talk to Qiao first, though. Join you guys later?”

Andy nodded before looking at Joanne. “Old place?”

Joanne nodded.

“I guess we’re dismissed since Bryant is probably going to use this romantic bridge to propose,” Ehlo narrated—although no one asked him. Then it was like he noticed their attires. “No wonder you guys are dressing up.”

They weren’t really dressing up. It was just that Joanne had been wearing dresses or skirts more often lately. Also, the reason why Bryant seemed dressed up was because he just finished filming a segment before joining them at the entrance along with Joanne and Derek.

“Let’s go, old man,” Wallace said, dragging Ehlo out of there before he said anything else that made things even more awkward. He had remembered to send Joanne a smile before leaving.

It was obvious that Angela and Yvonne followed the other two. Jacky clapped Joanne’s shoulder as support as he walked by her with the others.

“Don’t let Ehlo make you nervous,” Jacky whispered into her ears before he left for real.

“Thanks,” Joanne whispered back and smiled.

“So, where are we going?” Eddie asked once they were out of earshot already.

“How about that hotpot place we went to that night?” Sonia asked, looking at Jacky.

“If it’s still there,” Jacky said.

“So, secret location?” Eddie probed. “Inside jokes? Who were you with that night then? Just each other?”

The other three could see Jacky and Sonia had been much more comfortable interacting with one another these past days, so that was why Eddie was taking a little risk with his questions.

“Johnny and Bianca,” Jacky answered.

“So that meant Ehlo and Wallace went with Angela that night?”

Jacky nodded. “And Cyndi.”

“Cyndi?” Derek asked, confused.

“Tang Feng’s sister.”

Although some of them heard about Cyndi in the past, but not all of them did. There were pieces here and there. Also, it was because of Wallace and Yvonne that the others didn’t really mention too hence the confusion from Derek.

“It doesn’t matter,” Janine interrupted, seeing Jacky’s unsure expression. “What matters is we’re going to see this hotpot place for ourselves in a bit.”

“Right,” Eddie agreed.

They descended the final steps of the bridge and followed Jacky and Sonia in silence after that.

“Nice place indeed,” Eddie complimented as they all sat down at a table.

They were scattered around the table. Only Eddie and Janine were sitting together. Yet because of the long wooden chair, they still had plenty space between the two of them.

“So, I guess it’s still here, but will the food be as good?”

Jacky smiled. “We’ll see, huh?”

The waiter came out at that time so they ordered some simple dishes to share along with the famous soup pot. After that, they were each staring around and exploring their scenery with their eyes. It was a nice little shop somewhat near a waterfront leading into the river. They guessed this place must have been used for a filming location too, the way it was designed with its ancient look. Even the utensils were as ancient-looking.

*****

Back at the bridge. It took awhile for everyone to clear out of there. Well, at least their group were fast. But there were some other groups around there.

“What is it that you wanted to talk about?” Joanne asked, looking at Bryant.

Bryant looked around at the small crowd still at the left corner of the bridge. “How about we take a little walk first?”

Joanne felt a little unease at Bryant’s serious demeanor, but she realized she was letting Ehlo scare her. She took a deep breath before putting on a smile. “Sure.”

Bryant reached for her hand then and they also descended the bridge on the right side. It was the same side the others had used to leave the area. However, when they were at the bottom of the bridge, Bryant had turned the opposite direction and gestured toward that side. Joanne nodded, not minding. She knew he didn’t want to get caught by Ehlo. The ways things were, they could get teased even worse than earlier.

“So,” Bryant said when they were back at the same spot again.

It was the stairs they descended earlier. It had been half an hour now. Possibly more. She wasn’t sure anymore. She tried to stay relaxed and enjoyed the scenery and the random comments about the area as much as she could. But she knew there was something definitely wrong. Before, she just thought it was just Ehlo’s words bothering her. But the more they walked around the area, she realized there was something wrong with Bryant. He wasn’t cheerful or at least making an effort to share with her about his day. It was like he was lost in thoughts.

“What is it?” Joanne repeated of her question from earlier. “You can just tell me.”

Bryant took both of her hands into his at that time. “I want you to know that no matter what happens, I never meant to hurt you.”

Joanne’s suspicion was finally confirmed. She knew something was really wrong. She wasn’t paranoid. Yet she tried to control her emotions. She looked at their linked hands once more before staring up at him again. “What’s going on?”

“I’m sorry for all the pain I caused,” Bryant said, his voice wavering. “I shouldn’t have tried to pursue you or ruptured your life even more when you were already…”

Joanne yanked her hands away from him then and even put some distance between them. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying? Are you breaking up with me?”

Bryant tried to take a step forward, but Joanne also took a step backward.

“Why?” Joanne demanded. “That’s the least you could tell me.”

“My mom called the other day,” Bryant attempted.

“What? She’s coming here? She doesn’t like me? Is that what you’re going to say? Or is it because she looked into some horoscope stuff and said we’re not a match?”

“What?” Bryant said, his turn to be confused.

Joanne shook her head, her amused smile on. She was far from happy; tears had started flowing down her cheeks. But it seemed like that she didn’t realize it. The tears mixed with the crooked smile made it even more tragic—for lack of words.

“What did your mom say then?” Joanne asked.

“She reminded me about the promise she made to her best friend’s family, that I should make my decision soon, that she doesn’t want to go back on her words.”

“What promise?”

“A promise that I would marry her best friend’s daughter.”

“What?” Joanne exclaimed. “This is what we’re dealing with? Arranged marriage? That’s our formula?”

“Qiao.” His voice was pleading, and he attempted to step toward her again.

“No,” Joanne said, stepping back again.

“I…”

“Are you saying you’re giving up on me?”

“I didn’t mean to hurt you, I just…”

“You just what?”

“I just thought I could escape after coming here and wanting to start over.” His eyes were red now, but no tears. “But it seems like I can’t.”

“So you lied to me all along? You lied to us all along?” Then she remembered something. “Janine and Novia knew but didn’t even bother telling me?”

Bryant shook his head. “No, they don’t know. My mom told me about it before I left to pursue a different career than she expected. She told me I had to think it over and not ruin my life, but I told her I would succeed and prove to her. That was when she told me about the promise, that I must be back to take over the family business regardless. Novia, of course, doesn’t know either. Do you think my mom would tell Novia that?”

Joanne was shaking then. She reached a hand up, trying to wipe her tears, trying hard to control herself. Bryant tried to reach for her once again, but she took another step back. “Just leave.”

“Qiao.”

“Go!”

That was when some people turned to look at them. It was kind of dark at that corner and only some lights reached it to show not more than a foot if lenient. That was why no one realized anything wrong. Now that they heard Joanne’s outburst, they finally turned to check. Bryant, taken aback by the crowd, put his hands up for everyone to see that he wasn’t pulling anything.

“I’m leaving,” He said, looking at Joanne again.

Joanne didn’t say anything except reaching the other hand up to cover her face as well. Then she forced herself to take her hands away from her face and stared at Bryant’s disappearing back. She didn’t know how long she stood there, but it was getting cold. She wanted to go home. Maybe if she had a good rest, maybe she would wake up and the world was right again?

“Miss, are you all right?” Someone asked.

Joanne nodded and turned in the opposite direction. That was when she saw Jacky and the others coming back. Jacky rushed over to where she was and hugged her to him.

“What happened?”

Joanne didn’t know why. But upon hearing those words, she cried harder than before. She leaned into his shoulder and let it all out. She didn’t want to respond.

“What’s wrong with me?” Joanne asked after about five minutes or so, choking through tears.

Jacky continued to pat her shoulders and held her tightly to him. “Nothing is wrong with you.”

“The asshole broke up with you?” Ehlo asked, though unnecessary.

The others gave Ehlo a look, but they didn’t say anything. That was also when Ehlo turned to Wallace.

“You’ve gone too far, Huo,” Ehlo said. “You scared him away.”

That was when Joanne detached herself from Jacky and turned to Wallace. “What did you say to him?”

“I…”

“What did you say to him?”

Jacky had to hold Joanne back since she was ready to attack Wallace. Or she looked like it.

“I just told him that we’re like your brothers,” Wallace said, his voice leveled. “That if he hurt you, he’ll have deal with us.”

Joanne stopped fidgeting then and turned to Ehlo. “What else?”

“That was it,” Eho said. “I mean we talked the other day after you girls abandoned us. You know, guy talk, then we ate. Nothing special.” Ehlo had been studying Joanne’s face for some answers, but it seemed pointless. So he opted for the straightforward approach again. “What did he say to you?”

“He said that he’s in some kind of arranged marriage that he couldn’t get out of. He said he was sorry for leading me on. Then I told him to leave.”

“What?” Ehlo exclaimed. “That’s outrageous. How come we never heard of it before? I mean if he was deceitful like that, he wouldn’t tell us, but what about…” Then he remembered. He turned to Janine, pointing at her. “Hey, you have some explaining to do, Miss.”

Janine looked as confused as the rest of them. “I don’t know what’s going on either.”

“He’s your brother.”

Joanne studied Janine’s face before speaking up. “He said she and Novia don’t know anything about that. His mom only told him about it before they left home.”

“What?” Janine said again. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

“He’s lying?” Ehlo asked. Then he realized what he said. “Of course, he’s lying. Why am I even asking? He’s lying either way.” Then he turned to Jacky. “He just pulled one of the pages out of your book. You didn’t tell him what happened, did you?”

Jacky shook his head. “No, you think I would broadcast that to Bryant? Or just anyone for that matter?”

“We have to get to the bottom of this,” Ehlo said. “Or my name isn’t Huang Yu Rong.”

“Start the name changing process, Huang,” Wallace jabbed.

Ehlo turned to Wallace then. “Oh, shut up, man! I’m trying to help here, unlike you.”

“We definitely have to get to the bottom of this,” Wallace said, his voice serious and he was looking at Joanne.

“That’s right,” Janine agreed. She stepped forward and grabbed onto Joanne’s hand. “Qiao, please don’t be upset. I know something must be really wrong for Bryant to act that way. I don’t know why. But if he doesn’t have a good reason for all of this, I’m going to cut ties with him.”

After saying that, she let go of Joanne’s hand and walked toward Eddie. She didn’t have to say anything, just gestured her hand.

“I guess we’re leaving,” Eddie said.

The others waved, knowing exactly where Janine was going.

“Don’t worry, we got you covered,” Andy said then, attempting a smile.

That was when Joanne realized that everyone was back, not just some of them. Well, everyone except for Tony and Esther.

“Why are you here?” Joanne asked, confused.

“I called you and you didn’t pick up, so I called them up,” Andy explained. “We went to the hotpot shop where they were at and saw Ehlo and the others there too, so, of course, we went searching surrounding areas. Then Derek reminded us that you guys might still be here.”

Joanne reached for her phone then. She checked her alerts to see it popped up with the message: 4 missed calls from Chen Yi.

“Let’s go home first,” Jacky urged. “Get some rest and we’ll deal with this tomorrow, okay?”

Joanne saw that the others were equally worried for her, so she nodded. It was also then that she spotted the tissue Jacky was trying to give her. She took it and attempted to clean up. As they were making their way back to the parking lot, which was way across the bridge, Jacky placed a protective hand around Joanne like before. Andy had taken that time to call up Tony and Esther to update them. He didn’t say much but he told them they found Joanne, so the other two wouldn’t be worried. Tony and Esther had parked at the opposite side, so Andy told them not to come back to check on Joanne since they got it covered.

It wasn’t until they were almost to their cars that Ehlo spoke up again.

“And I thought our curse is broken,” Ehlo whined. “How could this be? Do we seriously have to go burn some sage now?”

Wallace hit him on the shoulder for that comment. Yet Ehlo’s scrunched up expression had caused Joanne to laugh. It was a surprise for some of them, but they were glad that had broken the ice.

“I’ll drive you home,” Andy whispered to Derek before glancing toward Joanne’s direction briefly.

Derek understood why Andy had to whisper. He just had to be the roommate of the guy who just dumped their favorite princess in the whole wide world. Yes, he really had to be careful about his future moves from now on.

It was an unsaid thing that Jacky and Sonia were taking Joanne home. Sonia was especially protective of Joanne as she had taken the backseat with her while Jacky was firing up the car.

*****

“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t break both of your arms right at this moment,” Ehlo said two days later at Bryant and Derek’s place.

Yes, they were having the confrontation—finally. Bryant had been dodging them, including Janine and Novia. Derek had to be the inside person in order to corner Bryant in that day. In Derek’s defense, Ehlo threatened him. And it wasn’t like Derek didn’t care for Joanne’s well-being, but the way he saw Bryant carried on lately, kept making mistakes at the filming segments that he couldn’t just ignore it. He resisted Ehlo’s threat at first. He only agreed to help later when he realized the others were right that they needed to talk to Bryant regardless. He thought, perhaps, they could get through Bryant and find out what was wrong.

“I know it was my fault,” Bryant said, not looking at them but at the countertop in front of him. “But you said…” He looked up toward Wallace then. “…that I shouldn’t hurt her. If there was any other way.”

Ehlo turned to Wallace then, shaking his head. “How do you like that, huh, Huo? He turned that one right around on you.”

“You’re lying,” Janine said. “I know you’re lying.”

Yes, Janine was also there. She didn’t care about the others saying stuff about guy talk or anything like that. It was her brother’s situation after all. There was no way she was sitting this one out. In fact, even Novia was there. Others who were present included Jacky, Andy, Eddie, and of course, Derek. They had agreed that it was better if the rest of the others didn’t come, because it would be like ganging up on Bryant too much. In fact, the others were either still working or were with Joanne at the moment, making sure she wasn’t doing anything stupid. It wasn’t like she would, but the way things were lately, it was better to keep an eye on her. By now, Tony and Esther had obviously been clued in on the details. They felt bad for not knowing then. Tony even chided Andy for not saying anything that night. However, what was done was already done. So, the only thing they could do was look out for Joanne until the matter was resolved.

Bryant turned to his sister then. “I’m sorry you had to find out this way. But I can’t keep hiding it until the inevitable wedding.”

“Huh,” Ehlo jumped in again. “How noble of you.”

“Why would Mom suddenly tell you about some arranged marriage?” Janine asked, wrinkling her face.

Janine was pacing by then. Novia was sitting at the counter and was studying Bryant closely.

“We haven’t seen Auntie in five years,” Novia said. “What would she want from us that she can’t get from him?”

Janine stopped pacing then—as if realizing something. “That’s right.” She looked at Bryant with a sign of recognition on her face. “It’s the brat, isn’t it? Is he up to no good again? She needs you to bail him out again?”

Bryant looked panicked at that point. It was like Janine had hit a nerve. “No, of course not. Mom didn’t talk about that. She just wants me to come back to fulfill the promise with her friend. In fact, I’m going to leave soon.”

“You’re leaving?” Ehlo exclaimed. “After what you did?”

Wallace had to hold Ehlo back around then since he was advancing on Bryant. Bryant wasn’t threatened by Ehlo’s behavior though. He looked at them with sad eyes.

“Because of what I’d done, the more I have to leave. If she keeps seeing me here, she won’t be able to get over me that easily.”

“Huh, now you’re an expert in understanding her,” Ehlo snapped. “Yeah, that’s not her routine. Her number one routine is hide in her room. Then let’s see, not eating. What follows? Can anyone that was here five years ago tell me the next step?”

“Crying,” Jacky muttered.

“We’re way past the crying now,” Ehlo said, his voice rising. “I’m thinking it might be other self-harming methods.”

Ehlo turned to Wallace then, seeing that Wallace was deep in thoughts about something. Wallace seemed to be mumbling also. However, he didn’t have the patience for that. He shrugged Wallace’s hands off his shoulders. “Are you going to say anything or what? Yeah, it’s been five years now. Do I need to keep repeating myself?”

Whatever it was that Wallace was mumbling about, Ehlo had manage to catch the last bit of it. Whether the context was the same or not, Wallace didn’t clarify. He turned to Bryant then. “Your sister and cousin obviously understand you better than all of us here, and they confirmed that you’re lying. So, either treat us like your friends and tell us what is really going on or…”

“Or what?” Ehlo jumped in again. “Just stare at him in disapproval until he gets out of here and marry some ugly, rich snob?”

“We don’t know if she’s ugly,” Jacky said.

“Or rich,” Wallace chimed in.

“Or…” Eddie began.

“Shut up,” Ehlo said, putting a hand up. “What are you three doing? You’re not taking this serious at all.”

“We’re trying to wear him down with our randomness?” Eddie asked, unsure why Jacky and Wallace were breaking out into a completely different topic either.

Ehlo shook his head in annoyance. Before he could continue with his attack on Bryant, though, all of their phones chimed.

“What the hell?” Ehlo muttered as he reached for his own phone.

“Renounced analyst Ricky Chang is wrong for the first time in forty-five years,” Andy read aloud the message that was flashing across all their screens.

Forgetting that they were at odds, all of them exchanged looks among themselves before proceeding to unlock their phones. Andy was the one reading for them—although they were able to see the text on the screens themselves.

“The much-delayed auction for the acquisition of Unex finally commenced earlier this month. However, because of the mid-autumn festival and the number of proposals sent in, there were additional delays. Many had thought it would take up to two more weeks before all could be sorted out. Even Ricky Chang himself had said that the situation had changed after the trial. He was confident, though, that Sunrise will win the bidding war. Unexpectedly, the decision had come out one hour ago, shocking everyone within the industry of its outcome. Lucie’s Dormitory had emerged as the rising star. They had successfully acquired Unex and would be gaining a major advantage within the industry in the upcoming battle to the top. Ricky Chang had been reached for the comments. As of the current time, we still haven’t received words back from the man himself or anyone from his team. We will update further developments in future issues.”

“Tony lost?” Eddie asked, looking at the others for answers—although he heard every word Andy had read.

“Just lovely,” Ehlo said. “This situation couldn’t get any worse. Huo and I just lost a contract too.” He turned to Bryant. “You’re seriously jinxing us really bad.”

“You didn’t want the job in the first place, Huang,” Wallace reminded him. As he was saying that, he was also dialing a number on his phone.

Ehlo wrinkled his face. “Who are you calling?”

Wallace shushed Ehlo with a finger on his lips. Wallace had his phone on speaker so the others were able to hear the dial tone clearly. However, Tony didn’t pick up. Instead, they heard a generic message: This is Tony Sun. Please leave a message after the beep and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

“Call Yan,” Ehlo urged.

Wallace wrinkled his face but pressed ‘end’ on his phone anyway. He was about to dial Esther’s number, but Andy had put a hand up. He was actually on his own phone at the moment.

“She’s not picking up either,” Andy informed them seconds later as he lowered his phone from his ear.

“Let’s go check on them ourselves,” Ehlo said. “I don’t like standing around and pondering.”

“Calm down, man,” Wallace said. “Their batteries might have died.”

“At the same time?”

As remembering something, Ehlo turned to Bryant at that time. “I’m so not done with you yet. Don’t you dare leave town. Just so you know, if something happens to Qiao before we pry the answers out of you, I will not only break both of your arms, but I will also cut out that tongue of yours and stuff it back down your throat, pro chef!”

Wallace grabbed Ehlo’s shoulder then. “Let’s go, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.”

“We’ll stay,” Janine said, walking the guys to the door. She, of course, meant herself and Novia. “We’ll get to the bottom of this. Maybe it’s some private family stuff that’s why he’s embarrassed to say it in front of you guys. I’ll pry it out of him and give you an answer later.”

“You better tell us,” Ehlo said.

“She’s helping us,” Jacky reminded Ehlo. “Don’t be so fierce.” He turned to Janine then. “Thanks.”

Janine nodded before shutting the door. The fact that she kicked Derek out too made him even more puzzled.

“Um…” Derek managed.

“Let’s go,” Eddie said, clapping Derek on the shoulder. “We can’t do anything anyway. Let them talk. They’re family after all. We’ll come back later to check on them after we check on Tony, okay?”

Derek nodded, knowing Eddie was right. He followed the other guys to where some of their cars were parked.  

© Friday, August 7th, 2020

Posted: Sunday, October 4th, 2020

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