About an hour later, they were all settled down at Uncle Ben and Aunt June’s house.

“So this is Perkins’s tent, huh?” Jan asked as she sat down at the spot between Ehlo and Mark.

“Yup,” Ehlo said, feeling proud as he stared at the stars high above them.

Jan smiled. “It’s beautiful.”

“If only you had shown up the last time.” As he was saying that, Ehlo turned his glare toward Wallace who was sitting across the table from him.

Yes, Wallace was also there. Uncle Ben made Jacky and Ehlo call Wallace up as well. Since Wallace got the call, of course, it would trigger the rest of the group. So most of the ones who were at the confrontation at East Shore Café were there. Angela had dropped Margaret off at Alyssa’s shortly after getting Ehlo’s call. Janine and Eddie had to work overtime, so Angela didn’t want to leave Margaret alone. Not after what happened. But she really wanted to be there for the story. Even though Ehlo didn’t really know what Jan meant when she convinced Jacky to stay, but he knew it was serious when Jan said it concerned him as well. So, that was how he passed the message to Angela. Yvonne was the other person who wasn’t there. She told Wallace she didn’t want to come. She went home and rest. He told her he would update her later. So that was that.

“You three better knock it off,” Uncle Ben—who was sitting next to Wallace and across from Jan—warned. “Adding up all your ages…”

“One hundred and eleventh,” Ehlo answered without flinching. “You can multiple the number by three, it’s much faster.”

“Why don’t you go back to elementary school, Huang?” Wallace shot back. “It’s 110. My birthday’s not until December.”

Andy wanted to laugh, but he saw how Uncle Ben looked, so he had to cover his face. Luckily for him, he was sitting at the end of the table and far away from Uncle Ben, so he didn’t get caught.

“You two…” Uncle Ben uttered.

“It’s a joke, Uncle Ben,” Ehlo said yet his expression was still grim.

Uncle Ben shook his head. He scanned the group real quick. “Since you’re all here, I’m going to tell this story only once, and you better listen without interrupting.”

Ehlo had his hand up.

“What?”

“No questions either?

“You can ask questions that are relevant to the story. But if you dare fight while I tell the story, I’ll stop.”

“Sounds fair.”

“It all started about thirty-years ago,” Uncle Ben began.

Ehlo had on his amused expression. “Yeah, it’s going to take all night.”

“Try all year,” Wallace followed.

“Yeah, Huo, no one cares if you have to sit here all year.”

Uncle Ben got up at that time.

Ehlo also got up, his hands raised. “I’m sorry! It won’t happen again.”

“Please, Uncle Ben,” Jan urged, her pitiful face on as she got up as well. “I really want to hear it.”

Uncle Ben shook his head and sat down again. “You’ll be the death of me, Xiao Li.”

“Xiao Li?” Ehlo asked, looking between the two of them. “Who?”

The others were staring between Uncle Ben and Jan as well, very much confused. And rightly so. Except for Jacky, that was. Possibly Mark was the other person who wasn’t surprised. Yet some didn’t take his expression into account since he had always had this attitude like he didn’t care about anything when he was with them, so they thought he was not interested one way or another.

“It’s Jan,” Jacky said before Uncle Ben could explain. “She’s using that name to gain sympathy from Uncle Ben.”

Jan turned to Jacky with her hostile look. “I’m not. Just because you don’t remember doesn’t mean it’s my fault.”

Their hostility toward one another didn’t go unnoticed by everyone else.

“It’s really her nickname,” Wallace said, feeling like he needed to contribute his side of the story. “Her name is Zhang Mei Li (張美麗). I looked her up, sort of.”

Jan sat back in her seat and sighed out, her banter with Jacky forgotten. “I hate that name. Don’t call me that.”

“High school must be fun?” Ehlo joked.

Jan hit Ehlo then, forgetting that Angela was right there. Then she realized it and withdrew her hand. “Sorry.”

“Are we ever going to get on with this story or what?” Mark asked. His impatience was apparent. He was sitting between Jan and Jacky at that point because he didn’t trust the others not to bully Jan—or so he had put it since he showed up.

They all turned to Uncle Ben again. Uncle Ben sighed out before beginning once again.

“About thirty years ago, Ricky’s wife passed away.”

Upon hearing that, Jan looked down at the table surface, not staring at Uncle Ben like before. Mark had placed a hand on her shoulder for support. The others were exchanging looks too, wondering if they should let Uncle Ben continue. Even Jacky was looking at Jan with much worry.

“Do we have to start there, Uncle Ben?” Mark asked, his voice begging. “I know that breaks your flow but…”

“It’s kind of relevant to the main story,” Uncle Ben said—although his expression had said he understood Mark’s request very well.

“It’s okay,” Jan said. “Go ahead, Uncle Ben.”

Uncle Ben nodded and continued.

“On the day of her funeral, another incident happened. His son got kidnapped.”

“I never knew Ricky Chang has a son,” Andy said.

“Had, actually,” Uncle Ben said, his voice still contained this hollow feeling. “Because they never found the kid. There was so much blood nearby the house where they believed the kid was kept at that the police ruled him dead.”

The others exchanged looks again, like they were feeling chills. Jan’s head was still down, intent on studying the table’s surface. Yet she didn’t speak up to stop Uncle Ben’s story flow.

“How come I never heard any of these stuffs before?” Ehlo asked. “I mean Ricky Chang is really famous, how could they not talk about it?”

“It happened a long time ago,” Uncle Ben said. “Before he became famous, so the case was only printed in those small papers or covered in the local news but was soon forgotten. Most kidnapping cases were like that. Not to mention how he wasn’t the only rich family around town. To say it in another way, people knew him or might be curious, it was because of his family, not him. After Ricky was famous though, he buried most of the stories already. Could you blame him? It was to protect his family.”

“The paparazzi would eat them alive if they caught wind of it.”

Uncle Ben nodded. “Shortly after the kidnapping incident, I met Xiao Li.”

“You mean you didn’t interact with Ricky Chang before?”

Uncle Ben smiled. “We were never really friends. I did send him some things after his wife passed away. I also sent my condolences after the kidnapping incident. But I didn’t actually see him.”

“If you met Jan before, how come I didn’t know?”

“You weren’t there during our first meeting.”

“I find it hard to believe.”

“You were overseas for seven years. You barely got back shortly after that first meeting I had with her. Then when I took you and Jacky out to the park, that was when you met her.”

“You know, Ehlo,” Andy interrupted. “This story you kept telling about how you grew up with Jacky’s starting to stretch really thin.”

Ehlo turned to give Andy an evil glare. “No one asked you, kid.”

“Ehlo,” Uncle Ben warned.

“You said I can’t fight with those two yoyos; you didn’t say anything about Chen Yi.”

Uncle Ben sighed out.

Aunt June reached over a hand to comfort her husband. “You know him longer than me, you can’t get mad at him over this, right?”

Uncle Ben shook his head and resumed his story again. “The day I met Xiao Li, she was running away from home.”

“We all know how this one ends,” Ehlo joked.

“At five?” Wallace jumped in.

Uncle Ben smiled and nodded. “She was a great storyteller. She told me all about a castle and there was an evil dragon. She didn’t want to live there anymore.”

“Two guesses who the evil dragon is,” Ehlo said, trying to control his laughter.

“I made her some noodles and told her some of my old stories,” Uncle Ben continued. “Soon, Gary came looking for her. That was when I knew she was Ricky’s daughter.”

“After that?”

“She kept sneaking out to see me. Later, whenever I took Jacky or Ehlo out to the park—or both, she would come to see us.”

“I don’t remember at all,” Ehlo said.

Uncle Ben smiled. “You made her a kite once.”

Ehlo wrinkled his face. “Really?”

Uncle Ben nodded. “You three played together until you two were nine and Xiao Li was seven. Then Xiao Li was sent away.”

“Why?”

“Ricky found out about it and told me not to meddle into their lives.”

Ehlo had on his disgusted look. “I knew I hated him the day I met him.”

“She came back later when she entered high school. She came to see me sometimes over the years. But, of course, you two had moved on already. So I didn’t want to tell you two about it.”

“Moving on is a code for chasing after girls,” Chris deciphered.

“Hey, you’re the one to talk,” Ehlo snapped.

Chris shrugged. “Am I wrong?”

“Whatever, man.”

“Now,” Uncle Ben said, trying to take control of the conversation again. “I don’t know why you three were at odds for, but Xiao Li is like a daughter to me, even if I can’t match up to her real father, so if you dare to bully her…”

“I wasn’t,” Ehlo argued, pointing to Wallace. “He was the one who did it. I wanted to help her. But Wallace just wanted to send her away like some pest.”

Uncle Ben turned to Wallace then, waiting for Wallace’s side of the story.

“I…” Wallace managed, because everyone was looking at him.

“Forget it,” Jan said, interrupting their staring. “It doesn’t matter anyway, right? I mean you guys have your life, I have mine. If we’re not meant to get along, we’re not. Why bother bring it up anymore?”

“I don’t know why you’re covering for him,” Ehlo said.

“I’m not,” Jan said, getting up from her seat at that time. “It’s just reality.”

Ehlo had a shocked look on his face. “You’re leaving? Just like that?”

Jan shrugged. “It’s late. We should all be leaving so Uncle Ben and Aunt June can rest. They did have a long day, right?”

“I’ll take you home,” Jacky said to Jan as everyone was getting up as well.

Jan shook her head. “No need.”

“It’s so far out in the country and…”

“I’ll give her a ride,” Sonia said, stepping over to their side.

Jan smiled at Sonia. “Thanks.”

So it seemed to be decided already. After Jan bid farewell to Uncle Ben and Aunt June, she and Mark followed Sonia to Sonia’s car as the others scattered as well.

“Tough luck, huh?” Ehlo said, clapping Jacky on the shoulder. “Serves you right, coward.”

After saying that, Ehlo left with Angela. Angela wanted to say a few words to comfort Jacky yet Ehlo had already grabbed her hand and hauled her along. Since the others were already gone, Chris ended up going with Wallace as Joanne, Bryant, and Achel went with Andy.

The day was finally coming to an end. And it seemed really anticlimactic as the others left one by one in silence.

*****

The upcoming days, things seemed to be going back to normal. Or it was like that on the surface. Yet the hostility some of them had toward one another was still apparent. It was more like Ehlo’s hostility toward the other two. Although, Jacky’s attitude in general didn’t help either. Actually, he wasn’t displaying any sort of attitude toward them. He just disappeared. Again. Just like that one time he did during their big misunderstanding of ten years ago.

What about Jan? She was seen at Uncle Ben and Aunt June’s noodles stall quite often. At least to regular customers. And she wasn’t a customer either. She became one of the helping hands for Uncle Ben and Aunt June. They were quite puzzled with her appearance one day yet didn’t complain either. Considering how Uncle Ben said he treated her like his daughter, he obviously didn’t mind having her around. Not to mention she was helping too. They didn’t really ask about what happened but just let her help and the three of them seemed to get along like family.

It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that Chris stopped by the place and ended up having a chat with Jan. Of course, the others heard about her activeness around the noodles stall, but they either didn’t get a chance to go check it out—or were still debating whether to approach her or not. They had heard that she’d moved out of the Chang mansion already. That made sense when she showed up and started to help at the noodles stall.

“So, it seems like you live here now,” Chris said, gesturing toward the general direction of the stall.

“What?” Jan asked, tossing her hair behind her shoulders. “You think the quality is going down? I only helped with the side tasks, not touching the soup pot.”

Chris seemed like he wasn’t buying her casual attitude. “What happened?”

Jan shrugged. “I needed a change of atmosphere. I mean, they don’t mind having me around.”

“For now.”

Jan looked down at the table.

“You’re a straightforward person.”

Jan looked up at him. “The last time someone told me that, I was told to stay away from their group.”

Chris smiled, a sad one. “No, I’m not going to do that. I just think that since you’re such a straightforward person, what are you afraid of? Why can’t you tell me what’s wrong? It’s not like I’m them. I’m Mark’s brother, remember?”

Jan smiled, sighing out. “I thought I was promoted because I was qualified for the position. It turned out that…it was because that person knew my father.” She paused and stared at the traffic ahead of them a little before continuing. “In the end, I told him, he could just prop up that girl in my department that was more qualified than me.”

“So, you quit your job because some office mean girl told you that you didn’t deserve the position?”

Jan shrugged. “She wasn’t wrong. Sure, I got the degree. But I wasn’t really cut out for the job.”

“So that’s why you’re hiding out here?”

Jan smiled, a light one. “It’s not bad, you know. I just helped them with whatever, then when we get back home, I would be too tired to think about anything else. It wouldn’t take more than five minutes for me to fall asleep. Not like how it was in the past.”

“So, how long are you planning to hide out here?”

Jan shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe until I figure out my next step. Right now, I just need a place to crash and some food. It’s not that complicated.”

“You haven’t been home since last week?”

Jan shook her head. “What’s the point? It’s not like anyone cares.”

“I’m sure someone does.”

Jan smiled, a sad one. “Trust me on this one, Chris. No one does.”

Chris shrugged. “If that’s what you want to believe.”

Jan wrinkled her face. “Did my dad get a hold of you or something?”

Chris shook his head. He even had an amused smile on his face. “Do you think he would even think of someone like me? He barely remembers Mark.”

Jan smiled. “That’s him all right.”

Chris gave Jan a cautious glance over. It was like he was trying to debate whether to say what he intended to say or not.

“What?” Jan asked, trying to tie her hair again. She was getting ready to head in. She was just on break.

Chris shook his head. “Nothing.”

Seeing that he wasn’t going to say anything else, Jan signaled toward the general direction and left. Chris watched her a little more before leaving as well. It was one of those rare times that he stopped by but didn’t order anything.

*****

Several days later, Wallace stopped by to see Jan.

“What is it this time?” Jan asked as she sat down. She was on break again. Or it was more like she took an early break.

“About what happened,” Wallace said, his voice unsure. “I…”

“Forget it, okay? It’s already done and over with.”

“I know you don’t like me much right now, but…”

“It’s not a matter of liking or not. At least you tell me upfront what you want, unlike other people.”

“Jan, I…”

Jan smiled, a sad one. “I’m actually really jealous.”

Wallace had a confused look on his face. “Jealous?”

“Because you have a close group of friends, who you aren’t afraid to offend the whole world to protect them.” She looked at the traffic a little while before turning to Wallace again. “Give Ehlo a little more time. He’ll probably come around.” She paused, letting out a nervous laugh. “Who am I to say something like that? Of course, you understand him more than I would.”

She got up at that time and returned to her tasks after that.

*****

Life moved on like usual after that day. Things seemed to go back to normal, like right before Jan entered their lives and turned it upside down again. However, Ehlo and Wallace were still stuck in a cold war. Ehlo didn’t like that Wallace had gone behind his back. He also was still upset with Jacky for his lack of actions after what happened. The hostility had become one of the reasons why they didn’t interact as actively anymore. But one thing could be sure, their productivity at work—or regarding their businesses—actually improved immensely. Possibly because they no longer interfered into one another’s lives for the time being. Before they knew it though, two weeks had passed and the silent had reached another level of intensity that some of them weren’t able to take it anymore. Yes, everything was going on quite well on the surface. But below that? It was a waiting game to see who would crack first.

*****

The Monday of mid-September brought forth a change within the industry that had many of their attention. And it was like many times before that when something happened, they would see a very anxious Joanne rushing into the shop and telling them there was some big news going on.

“You guys!” Joanne yelled out.

“What is it this time?” Ehlo asked, sitting down at the table and stirring his coffee.

Whatever happened between him and Wallace or if it was with Jacky, he didn’t let it affect his relationship with the others. So for the most part, they were still getting along and getting together whenever they could, just doing the usual stuff. The only thing they really did stop was checking in on Jan. That was what Chris and Mark had been doing.

“Wan Da secured the latest land redevelopment project,” Joanne said, waving the newspaper in her hands.

“And?” Ehlo asked, taking a sip out of his coffee cup.

“Tian Cheng got snubbed.”

“And?”

“Don’t you see?”

“What? It’s the same each time, if one company doesn’t win, they will get something else next time. Although Tian Cheng isn’t that big, they’ll survive. They have other projects.”

“No, didn’t you even read the newspapers lately? Tian Cheng brought in several side companies and bought a lot of materials for this project. Since they won’t get it, that means…”

“Haven’t you learned anything after all these years?” Ehlo asked, still moving in that calm and slow manner. “Those reports are exaggerating. There’s no way Tian Cheng is that stupid.”

“Hey, have you guys seen Jacky?” Andy asked, rushing in at that time.

Ehlo was still sitting at the table calmly, stirring his coffee again. “No, why?”

“His mom’s looking for him.”

Ehlo stopped stirring his coffee cup. “What?”

“It’s regarding the company.”

Before Ehlo could ask any more questions, his phone rang. He glimpsed the screen real quick and saw “Huo calling” on it. He was still unsure whether to pick it up or not.

“Pick it up,” Andy said. “He might know where Jacky is.”

Ehlo reached for his phone, but it had gone into voicemail. He redialed Wallace’s number, not caring about the voicemail. It would take too long.

“What do you want?” Ehlo asked.

“Have you seen Jacky?” Wallace asked, not caring that Ehlo was being hostile.

“Why is everyone looking for him?”

“Wan Da snubbed Tian Cheng.”

“I know that, Qiao just read the article and told me. What’s news? Typical business stuff. It’ll blow over soon.”

“It’s not going to blow over, Huang. Not this time.”

“What?”

“Victoria…”

“Oh, great. What the hell did that Wicked Witch from the West do now?”

“She went back on the agreement. She agreed to bring Tian Cheng and Winston & Co. in after the auction was over. Your dad was the smart one who didn’t fall for it. But Jacky’s dad, he thought since they know Ricky Chang, so he took her word for it. And now…”

“What?”

“They can let the workers go, but they need to pay them at least half. Not to mention all those materials and…”

“So, all those reports are true?”

“Yes, haven’t you been listening to what I’ve been saying for the last five minutes?”

“Yeah, of course. I just…”

“It’s not a big deal if it’s spread out with the payments, but now words got around, so everyone wants their money now and…”

“It’s not like Jacky has the money,” Ehlo said. “Why would you guys be looking for him at a time like this? I mean emotional support, yes. But it’s not like he’s going to have enough money to cover.”

“Victoria said she’s willing to talk to him and reconsider using Wan Da’s funds to bail Tian Cheng out.”

Ehlo got up from his seat at that moment, hitting the table with his hand. “What the hell?”

“Exactly, but there’s no time to talk. We have to find Jacky first.”

“What about my dad though? I mean he could help Tian Cheng out if…”

“You’re not going to believe how hard Jacky’s dad fell for this one and how far it’s going, Huang. Even Winston & Co’s emergency fund won’t help.”

“Where could he be?”

“I don’t know, but…I just thought of something.”

“What?”

“Get Jan. We might be able to get her to persuade her dad to…”

“Are you kidding me, Huo? Now you want to look for Jan? Because we need her?”

“Huang, this is not the time.”

“You know what? Don’t talk to me anymore.”

Ehlo hung up after that.

“I don’t think you were supposed to do that,” Andy said.

Ehlo ignored Andy’s criticism of him and headed toward the front of the shop.

“Where are you going, man?” Andy asked, following Ehlo.

“Where else?”

Joanne had been following the two as well, so she was now exchanging a look with Andy. Yet they didn’t linger long. They followed Ehlo to his car.

“I’m going to regret what I’m going to do in the next fifteen to twenty minutes,” Ehlo said as he started the car.

The other two exchanged looks again, but they stayed quiet for the rest of the way.

It turned out, Ehlo was heading to Uncle Ben and Aunt June’s noodles stall.

“You kids are early today,” Uncle Ben said, looking at them.

“Where’s Jan?” Ehlo asked, getting straight to the point.

“She left about fifteen minutes earlier.”

“Did Huo call her?”

Uncle Ben scanned their faces real quick. “No, why? She was reading the newspaper and then told us that she was leaving, that she’ll be back later.”

“Did she say where she was going?”

“Home.”

Ehlo didn’t say anything but just left. Joanne and Andy did a quick apology before following him as well. As soon as they were back in the car, Ehlo reached for his phone.

“Huo, you better get to that mansion fast if you want any answer.”

Wallace’s line was busy, so it was one of those rare times Ehlo was forced to leave a message. He also sent a text message to clarify which mansion since he didn’t bother saying it in the message itself.

When they got there, which was about half an hour later, they could see Wallace’s car parked to the side. It seemed like he already entered.

“Looking for someone,” Ehlo said at the door.

“I’m sorry, we can’t let anyone in right now,” The guard said. “Miss Victoria said…”

Ehlo had enough. “If you don’t let me in, I will burn this place down.”

“Ehlo!” Joanne and Andy yelled out at the same time.

Ehlo ignored the other two, his eyes still on the guard. “Tell Victoria to stop hiding in that rat hole of hers.”

“I suggest you leave before we take serious actions with your threats,” The guard said, looking at Ehlo.

At that time, the door to the mansion opened and they could Jacky and Wallace stepping out. Jan was also with them.

“Jacky ge!” Joanne called out.

“Miss, I’m warning you,” The guard said, his hostility apparent.

“Stop,” Jan said, coming up to them. “If you hurt anyone of them, I’ll have you fired before you could say another word.”

The guard had his head down and nodded.

“What in the world, man?” Ehlo asked as the other three stepped outside.

“It’s done,” Jan said before turning away.

“Hey!” Ehlo called out. “What do you mean it’s done?”

Jan stopped in her tracks but didn’t turn around to look back at them. “You don’t have to worry about Tian Cheng anymore. You also don’t have to worry me being around anymore. Maybe Uncle Ben and Aunt June could finally get some real rest, right?”

She resumed her footsteps again.

“What?” Ehlo asked, turning to Jacky and Wallace for an answer.

Jacky sighed out before walking to his car.

“What?” Ehlo repeated, looking at Wallace now.

“Jan agreed to transfer the remaining of her shares to Victoria, so Victoria agreed to compensate Tian Cheng for breaking the contract. It would help with the current situation for Tian Cheng.”

“And you all agreed to that?” Ehlo exclaimed. “What the hell?”

“Ehlo,” Wallace said, his voice patience. “I know it sucks, but from the start, it was their family conflict. And we just got pulled into it.”

“So, you think Jan deserved Victoria’s pettiness?”

“Ehlo,” Joanne said, feeling a lump forming in her throat.

“You all can walk home if you agree with him,” Ehlo said.

And he wasn’t kidding. He got in his car and left as well. However, he couldn’t be far from the truth since Wallace was the one who drove the other two back.

© Tuesday, November 10th, 2020

Posted: Sunday, January 31st, 2021

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