Joanne took the magnetic pin off the wall and relocated it to the opposite side. It was Bryant’s name. She was rearranging it so that they were out of each other’s line of importance. It was about time she made this change. It had been three months since their little gathering at Ehlo and Angela’s place. Before leaving the place, Joanne had made them promise to move on with their lives, no more conspiring, no more scheming. She was done. She didn’t want them to become so entangled into her problems that it would lead to an even worse situation than they were in. The majority managed to nod or give her a word of reassurance. However, both Ehlo and Wallace had turned her down. They both knew they couldn’t keep it since they were too invested. Wallace had emphasized that he didn’t want to lie, especially what he had said before the New Year toast. She was, however, successful in convincing Chris and Margaret to let go and continue on with their adventures—something she knew they loved because of their free spirits.

As she was thinking of what Jacky had told her before he dropped her off that night at Alyssa, she took the pin that was supposed to be Sonia’s and placed it next to Angela’s in a way that matched with their friendship, including Bianca. She had returned Sonia’s pin to Jacky’s side after learning of Sonia’s decision to divorce James. It was mostly a joke, following up with what Ehlo had emphasized many times that they were going to get back together. However, Jacky had told her that he knew better, and it was time to let go. It had been seventeen years already. He didn’t want to carry that baggage anymore. Not after all that had happened. Joanne also knew he told her that to encourage her to move on as well. Because sometimes, in life, there were no answers. If one sat around and waited, it would just be another waste. He didn’t want her to go down the same path that he did.

The third pin that Joanne rearranged was that of Cyndi. Considering what she witnessed at Tony and Esther’s wedding and how Wallace had already forgiven Cyndi, she thought it was about time she let go as well. It wasn’t like she had tossed Cyndi’s pin out after what happened five years ago. She just placed it to one side without caring to put it properly next to Tang Feng’s pin. Now, that she was ready to let go, she returned it to its original spot.

After placing the last pin, she stepped back and studied it again. Then she checked her watch. It was like she was expecting something. Because she soon grabbed her bag and rushed out of the house.

“I’ll be back later, Alyssa!” She yelled on her way out of the door.

“Be careful!” Alyssa yelled back before the door shut.

Joanne had hauled a Taxi to a place out of town. She got off a mile or so before her actual destination and walked the rest of the way. She had stopped along the way to buy some flowers. As she made sure she got everything, she made her way to the cemetery nearby. Walking slowly down the path, she soon realized she wasn’t there alone. It was a Monday so usually, there weren’t a lot of people coming there. And it wasn’t like she wasn’t prepared if there were indeed other people there. After all, it was a public cemetery, anyone could come and visit their loved ones. She wasn’t entitled to the place to herself. But the person she spotted was none other than Bryant. A Bryant who had been avoiding her since that day. The person who had convinced everyone that he was leaving town and leaving behind everything they’d come to know of him. Yet there he was, standing there looking like he belonged. Why?

Bryant didn’t see Joanne or realized anyone else was there until she was less than a foot from him. He turned to look straight into her eyes. They hadn’t seen each other since that night. He knew exactly why she was there. Yet he had no explanation as to why his presence dared tread past into this particular territory.

Joanne wanted to speak up and told him off. She wanted to tell him he didn’t have to be there. It was not of his concern anyway. Yet no words came out. She remembered their first meeting and how she’d had behaved. If Tang Feng had known, he would be sad, she had reminded herself. That was the sole reason why she had stopped herself from doing anything rash. Instead, she knelt in front of his tombstone and placed the bouquet of flowers to the left side. She noticed another bouquet of flowers to right the side. She had a feeling that it was Bryant’s. She wanted to brush it aside or shoved it back into his hand, telling him not to care. It didn’t concern him anyway. Yet she once again stopped her urge. It wasn’t right of her. Bryant had every right to be there. Anyone could be there. That tombstone wasn’t hers to worship alone.

“Sorry, I’m late,” Joanne said, focusing on Tang Feng’s tombstone.

She was six days late. It was because of work. But that was a poor excuse. It was probably why Bryant wanted to come then? He probably thought she’d come sooner, and they wouldn’t be running into each other like that.

“What are you doing here?” Wallace’s voice asked then.

Joanne turned around, still at a kneeling position—and saw Wallace and Yvonne walking toward them. That was when she got up from her spot and waited, her face troubled.

“I was just passing by,” Bryant rushed to explain as the other two were closer.

“Was he bothering you?” Wallace asked, looking at Joanne.

Joanne shook her head. “I just got here.”

“Bryant!” Janine’s voice called out then.

They turned toward that side to see Janine, Eddie, Novia, and Jun walking up to them. Not far behind were Jacky, Angela, and Ehlo. And Ehlo didn’t look happy. Far from it.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Ehlo demanded.

“I was just passing by,” Bryant repeated his answer from earlier.

“Huh, I thought someone said they were leaving town.”

That was when Joanne used herself as a shield in front of Bryant, seeing how Ehlo was getting even closer, not stopping. It was also when Janine stepped in front of Ehlo’s path.

“It’s a public place,” Janine reminded him. “You can’t tell people what to do. Besides, you don’t own this town either.”

Ehlo had on an amused smile. “I wouldn’t be surprised that none of the people in your family knows how to keep a promise.”

“Ehlo,” Joanne spoke up then. “We shouldn’t be doing that here in front of Tang Feng’s grave.”

Janine turned to Joanne at that time, her expression far from friendly. “Stop pretending. I know you’re all just acting. You kept saying you don’t want any trouble, but he’s been harassing Bryant nonstop. You’re just saying that, so everyone continues to pity you and side with you. I should have known that girls like you are only pretending to be innocent. No one’s that naïve. It’s actually a blessing that we finally learned the truth about you. Maybe it was a miracle that Bryant managed to break free of you first.”

“You’ve gone overboard,” Jacky spoke up then, stepping toward Joanne and sliding a protecting hand around her. “What Ehlo did is not what Qiao wants. Just because he’s your brother doesn’t mean you can twist the truth. Who’s playing victim here? What’s with all the nonsense about some promise from his mom?” Jacky paused to display his mocking smile. “In case you forgot, your brother stole that plot from a TV drama! You even admitted it yourself. Why are you turning around and blaming it on Qiao now? Did she go out of her way to seduce him?” Jacky had used his hand to point at Bryant. “I’ve had enough from your side, thinking you’re having some kind of high ground.”

“So, she’s a royal princess no one can touch?” Janine returned. Her anger had reached another level. “You’re as fake as she is. No wonder you’re siblings!”

“You’re someone to talk about being fake,” Ehlo jumped in again. “You think you have the moral high ground here?”

“What are you going to do then?” Jun interrupted at that time, stepping in between Ehlo and Janine, like he was trying to shield Janine from Ehlo’s attack. “Are you going to curse her whole family again? How could you be so petty?”

Ehlo turned on Jun, not threatened by the latter’s presence. “Oh, it’s okay she’s attacking Qiao, but I can’t say anything?”

“Enough already!” Joanne finally yelled out.

The others were actually quite taken aback by her volume. Even Jacky had let go of her. She turned and shove Jun out of her way, facing Janine again.

“I didn’t come here today to hear all of you argue over who was right or wrong,” Joanne said, her expression determined. “It’s over now. I don’t care anymore. So I got tossed aside like some recyclables. So what? Life goes on.” She paused a little—as if catching her breath before continuing. “I’m only here today to visit Tang Feng and that’s it. Should I have come six days ago instead of now? Probably. But who could predict the future here? Is it my fault that he’s also here right now?” Joanne had pointed at Bryant but was still looking at Janine. “I only want to visit and then leave. Did I tell everyone to come here and argue? You did that on your own. Now you’re blaming me? What are you going to blame me next? That I killed Tang Feng and had him buried there so I could act like some pitiful widow? Or are you going to say there’s nobody in there and I set it all up to earn some points from everyone?”

“Qiao,” Yvonne stepped forward then and placed a hand on her shoulders.

Joanne—as if already on a roll—brushed Yvonne’s hand off. Yet she didn’t realize she’d been crying. Her tears were rolling down her cheeks, but she continued to stare at the others one by one.

“You all say you care about me or him, but you’re just using us as excuses to argue. If you want to be right, go ahead. Don’t hide behind us anymore. Let us be. Let us all move on.”

After saying that, she shoved Jun out of the way again and rushed out of there.

“Qiao!” They all yelled—even the ones who were condemning her before.

They ended up running out of there and headed toward the streets. Joanne was almost by the lights. Ehlo, Wallace, and Yvonne were the ones who were able to gain a little speed as Joanne was waiting for the lights to change.

“Hurry, she’s almost crossing,” Eddie yelled seconds later, coming up to them.

“I don’t see your face up there right now,” Ehlo shot back.

“Why don’t you two just run faster?” Yvonne scolded both as she ascended the last of the steps leading toward the streets.

“Qiao!” Eddie yelled upon seeing Joanne about to cross the street.

That was when some of them saw it.

“She’s going to get hit!” Eddie yelled out.

Yes, a car was turning. That was when they saw Bryant rushing past them on the stairs. He almost ran into traffic, but Jacky grabbed him back in time.

“If you die because of some accident, it’s not going to be on my watch,” Jacky said before letting go of Bryant.

Some of them had managed to catch up to the two at that time and had ended up on the ground, gasping for air. That was when Bryant spotted Joanne across the street, safely with Tony and Esther. There was also Wallace. Wallace was actually the only who managed to catch up and grabbed Joanne out of harm’s way. It was just their luck that it was the late afternoon and rarely any cars were there. The only car that had almost hit Joanne was slowing down, so that had given Wallace time to grab her before something happened.

“I haven’t run that fast since high school,” Ehlo complained, still trying to control his breath.

“Old man,” Eddie said, sitting somewhere around there.

“Like you’re any better than me.”

“I just didn’t want you to feel bad sitting here.”

 “Come on, Eddie,” Janine said a minute later as she had caught up to them.

Eddie was still on the ground, not too far from Ehlo. He looked at her standing there, seeing that Jun and Novia were nearby as well. Instead of getting up to join them, though, he shook his head.

“What?” Jannie asked, confused.

“You all can walk home,” Eddie said. “I’m done.”

“What are you saying?”

Eddie got off from the ground then and faced Janine. “Don’t you think you were way over just now? Your brother dumped Qiao, after all. Why did you accuse her of all these ridiculous things? What if she’d gotten hit just now? It would have been your fault.”

“Eddie…” Janine managed, feeling like she’d been betrayed by her best friend.

“I didn’t agree with what Ehlo did at the wedding reception that night, but I also have the sense to not make the same mistake as him by blaming others. What you did was the same as him. You don’t get to take the high ground. Not anymore.”

“You don’t understand what’s going on.”

“Then tell me!”

“Eddie, it’s not that simple.”

“What’s not simple? I supported you the whole time because we’re friends, because I trust you, because you’ve gotten my back plenty times since we were in high school. But I can’t just accept it blindly anymore. Not this. Just because you want to support your brother doesn’t mean you get to twist the truth. Jacky’s right. What had Qiao done to him? Don’t I deserve to know? That’s all I’m asking right now as your friend.”

Bryant stepped toward them then, putting himself between Eddie and Janine. “Eddie, don’t blame her. It’s my fault.”

Eddie turned to look at Bryant at that time. “Then why didn’t you say anything when Qiao was here?” He pointed across the street and then realized that the other four were gone. He scanned the surrounding areas as well and realized Yvonne had left also. She probably crossed the streets after the latest lights change. Yet he didn’t have time to think about all those details now. He turned back to Bryant. “You enjoyed it that she got attacked by your sister just now? In front of her dead boyfriend’s grave too.”

“I…”

Eddie shook his head in disappointment. He scanned both siblings’ faces before turning away. “Forget it.” He was about to walk away but stopped himself. “Like I said, walk home.”

After that, he walked off for real.

That was when Ehlo got off from the ground. He’d been listening intently and had somewhat enjoyed the development. It wasn’t like he wanted to enjoy it. But after what happened to Joanne, he’d also wanted to yell at the others. Since Eddie already did the honor, he found no reason to continue.

“I’ll drop you guys off at your place,” Jacky said at long last.

The others were a bit surprised by his offer, so they turned to him.

“This is not some elaborate plan to extract information out of you,” Jacky said. “It’s getting dark. There are no Taxis coming this way until tomorrow morning.”

“Jacky, I…” Bryant managed as Jacky made his way toward the lights.

“Save it,” Jacky said, his expression still grim. “You can thank Tang Feng for this one.”

Ehlo exchanged a look with Angela after Jacky and the others left.

“That went well.”

Angela gave him a look.

“What? Like it was my fault.”

“You didn’t help.”

Angela sighed out deeply before leaving also.

*****

Jacky dropped Janine off first. They didn’t talk at all during the car ride. Jacky was done being civilized after what had happened, especially the accusations coming from Janine. But, like he said, he wanted to do that last favor in Tang Feng’s honor. That was all.

“Thanks,” Janine uttered after she was out of the car.

Jacky just nodded to indicate that he heard her. She was going to say something else yet seeing his expression, she didn’t. She just waved at Jun and Novia real quick before stepping aside.

“Perhaps, we should try to talk this over,” Jun said after they were on the road.

“We’re way past that now,” Jacky said, no longer caring to keep the peace anymore. He knew he broke his promise with Joanne, but he didn’t care anymore. They just had to push past the barrier.

“I thought you’re one of the reasonable ones,” Jun tried again.

“When someone comes around insulting your sister and then suggesting that you be civilized, and you’re able to keep calm, then you can tell me about that high ground.”

After that, Jacky didn’t reply anymore. He saw Novia’s worried expression in the rearview mirror, but he didn’t care. He no longer cared. It was like something had snapped inside of him. And something Angela said from years ago came back to him. Why are you just standing there? Why are you just taking it? Don’t you care at all? Zhu Fan Gang, you’re a coward! He was indeed a coward. Why bother being civilized when people just kept pushing past the barrier? They didn’t deserve his civility. He was done.

That was also when he chose to go the long way to drop Jun and Novia off first. Because he had enough of Jun’s rants. At least with Bryant, he knew for sure Bryant wasn’t going to try and talk. If Bryant had wanted to talk, he would have done that ages ago. It was like what Eddie said. Why didn’t Bryant just speak up for Joanne earlier? What was wrong with him? Was he so cold-blooded that a little word or two was going to kill him? But why was Bryant at the cemetery in the first place? It wasn’t like anyone of them own the cemetery. Janine was right about that. That was probably the only thing she was right about at the time. Yet, he felt like something was wrong. Bryant had wanted to distance himself from them all along, why show up now? Of all the time, it was around Tang Feng’s death anniversary.

He risked a look at Bryant once before they pulled into Bryant’s place. Still no traces of whatsoever.

“Thanks,” Bryant said when he got out of the car. “I’m really sorry about earlier.”

“It’s a little too late for that,” Jacky returned.

Bryant didn’t say anything else. He closed the car door and stepped aside. And Jacky left.

*****

As for Joanne, after she got home, she did one thing. She went back to her room and covered her so-called relationship link tree with a large piece of cloth. It was meant for her new project, yet she was glad she hadn’t cut it. She had used some nails to pin onto the corners and some additional so that the cloth wouldn’t fall off. She was done. Done with everyone. Done with the world. Just done.

The next thing she did was turned off the lights and crawled into bed, not caring to change. She hid under the covers and finally let her tears roll freely. She missed the carefree days of the past. Missed all the times she and her friends argue over some senseless things. Missed when the only thing of importance was actually trying to get the latest tickets for some S.H.E. concerts. Or when she argued with Chen Yi about some senseless movie plot. Or when Yan Yan wanted her to help with some shopping trip. It wasn’t like she was some fashion experts, but that was just their excuse to get out of the house after a long week of studying. Or when Xiao Yu wanted to sneak out of the house for ice cream, because her parents were too strict. Missed so much were the old days of no dramas.

Then a memory hit her so strong that she hugged her covers tighter. It was when Tang Feng was still alive. He’d taken her back to his old house in the countryside. They sat in the back and enjoyed the cool breezes. He told her about some old legend having to do with a bamboo tree. Its moral was about patience and perseverance. Yet what she felt now wasn’t any of that. She didn’t want to be patient or understanding. Not when all that did was allow others to hurt her. Only he loved and protected her. No one else. She was done. Done.

© Sunday, August 9th, 2020

Posted: Wednesday, January 13th, 2021

PART VII | CONTENTS | NEXT CHAPTER