Jacky made sure to get an “okay” from Joanne before driving into the familiar streets of Joyce’s house. He knew he had to take the chance of approaching Gino. He had promised Joanne to not lose his cool no matter what. He cannot guarantee the outcome—success or unsuccessful, but he had to try and sort out matters with Gino—even if just once.

As Jacky parked at the spot across the street from Gino’s place, he made sure no one was around, except for Gino, before getting out. Wouldn’t want that “skunk” to be around, he thought.

Gino came to the door when he rang the bell, so he didn’t have to explain his presence to Gino’s aunt and uncle, which was a relief. He didn’t want to waste any more time. At least he didn’t feel like socializing at that moment. He wanted to get to the point and get out.

“What do you want?” Gino asked in a hostile tone.

Jacky was prepared for such a response. He didn’t want to disarm the expression Gino was sending him either. He stared straight at Gino—unmoved. “I need to straighten out something with you.” Though that sounded as lame as ever, he didn’t want to phrase it too direct either—in case anyone else was within earshot.

Gino was still blocking the door—and observing Jacky. “What is there to talk about? Like saying stuffs like you’re sorry or I misunderstood? Isn’t it a bit too late now? What I needed to say, I already said it to Xiao Qiao. There’s no point for us to talk.”

Jacky gestured his hand casually. “It wouldn’t do you any harm this time.”

Gino finally moved away from the door and led Jacky into the house and down a hallway. Jacky realized that Gino was leading him to the backyard. Not really, more like a den to the side of the house. Was it a good idea? It didn’t matter. Any place would do. He was prepared.

“Go ahead,” Gino said when he shut the sliding door behind them.

“I heard from Qiao Qiao what happened,” Jacky began, knowing he should use Qiao Qiao’s full nickname and not say “Qiao” to cause any further confusion or possible misunderstanding. Like there wasn’t enough of that already.

Gino still had on his cold stare. “And? You’re going to tell me that’s not what happened, right? Or are you going to shield the truth from me by making up another story? Like you guys have been feeding me all of those fictions from the beginning.”

Jacky wrinkled his face but maintained his composure. “It depends on what you have heard from others. I want to understand how you came to the conclusion that you did. I don’t want a ‘he says, she says’ recount but from what you know.”

“Clara helped me uncover the truth from the start, but I didn’t believe her until she found evidence of your relationship with Xiao Qiao.”

“That we’re friends?”

“More than friends, secret lovers to be exact.”

“Produce the evidence then.”

“The letters you wrote to her, and she replied to you.”

Jacky wrinkled his face again. This time, it was out of confusion—and not hostility like before. “What letters? You mean Clara broke into our system at work and read our e-mails? Or our personal e-mail accounts?”

Gino’s irritation grew on his face. “Hand-written mails.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t write those to her. At least, not off work. We can talk about anything, why write letters?”

“You think I would believe you?”

“Then let me see the letters.”

“It doesn’t matter if I show you or not. You’ll deny it anyway.”

“We’re not getting anywhere with this. If you think it’s the truth, why don’t you show it to Qiao Qiao so she could go after me too? Scared it’s fake and that you’ve mistaken?” Jacky didn’t care for cautious words anymore. He was done giving Gino a chance.

“She’s too blinded. She believes any excuse you come up with.”

“Spoken like a true expert.” Yes, his sarcasm had risen also.

“If there isn’t anything else you want to say, then I have other things to do.”

“You know why she quit?”

“Because she’s getting married with you.”

“My co-workers were joking. We even told them to stop the nonsense rant. Or perhaps, you failed to hear that part.”

“Isn’t it too much of a coincidence that you both should quit at the same time?”

“Ever heard of good friends who advance and withdraw together?”

“Sounds more like lovers.”

Jacky could see Gino’s challenging look. “You’re treating this like some game that you need to win. Do you think I’m that big of a threat?”

“You’re just diverting the fault away from yourself and making me look bad on purpose.”

“There’s no one around but us at this point, do you think I would care for such a show? And if I want to put the blame on you, I could be saying that you and Clara are having something behind Xiao Qiao’s back. And that you two are trying to put the blame on her so you could be together…”

“Enough!” Gino pointed to the sliding door at that time. “Get out!”

“So you could point fingers at others, but I can’t accuse you?”

“This is my house.”

“Yes, it is. But does that mean you’re right?”

Gino pointed to the sliding door again. “Just get out.”

“She quit because of you.” He kept his voice leveled on purpose.

“Do you think I would believe you?”

“Believe it or not, but if you keep listening to Clara, you will regret it one day.”

“I will regret it more if I don’t leave here as soon as possible. If I stay here any longer, I might end up believing you guys again and get pulled into your manipulations again.”

“It’s funny that you’re letting Clara think for you nowadays.”

“Leave her out of it. She’s just concerned for me.”

“Then why can’t you think of me coming here today as being concerned for Xiao Qiao?”

“You’re concerned for her all right.” Yes, Gino had picked up sarcasm as well.

Jacky sighed out, looking around and about the view surrounding him for a few seconds before turning back to Gino. “I was a jerk at first and was acting strangely toward you because of Qiao Qiao too. So I would understand if you misunderstood me and Xiao Qiao. But don’t you think it’s unfair to end everything after so many months?”

“People break up all the time. it’s not the end of the world. And this time, it’s because I do not want to get hurt.”

“You’re being deceived, but not by us. You..”

Gino cut him off, his expression more intense than ever. “We’re going around in circles. And I already told you twice that I will not fall for your traps again. Now leave…”

Jacky knew there was no point talking to Gino. Clara had been prepared. If only he knew what traps those were. But what he did know was that he couldn’t go after Clara, or she would strike again. He wasn’t afraid of Clara going after him. He didn’t want her to target Joyce. He didn’t want Clara to hurt Joyce anymore than she already did. Jacky let out a sigh, at last, defeated. But he must say his last words. He cleared his throat once before speaking up again. “If you honestly believe what Clara’s feeding you, then it’s your choice. But do you honestly think that Xiao Qiao’s such a deceptive person? Or does everyone around her have so much time on their hands to weave such a story to lure you in? Who do you think we are? Why would we work so hard to get your trust? It’s because we care for Xiao Qiao. Would she go through so much to deceive you when she could just find other targets to make fun of? Why does she have to waste her time if what you’re saying is true?”

“You…”

Jacky didn’t let Gino kick him out. He reached for the door handle and exited the house without looking back. He had done his part and he knew it was a weak attempt. But at least, he had tried. He kept his cool—or most of it—like he promised Joanne. And that was all that mattered.

*****

One afternoon—like any afternoons before, Joyce could be spotted walking aimlessly around places of the past. And just like any afternoons before, the silence that lied ahead was even more torturing than any words being said—either out of comfort or confrontation. Yet that same lingering conflicted feeling continued to exist in the air. An autumn air that reeked of memories and ironies.

Joyce felt incredibly lost at that moment. What is this? Hollow? Loneliness? She couldn’t be sure. She walked absent-mindedly through the familiar streets of the past. Everything was still the same. The only difference was she was walking alone. Although Jacky and Joanne were still a distance behind her, she still felt this deep, unexplainable emptiness within her. What had happened to the cheerful, carefree Xiao Qiao? What happened to the optimistic Zhao Hong Qiao who wasn’t afraid of obstacles? What happened to the girl who welcomed challenges like a breath of fresh air?

Jacky and Joanne remained silent the whole time they were following Joyce. Their faces displayed the same worried expression. Was Xiao Qiao going to stay strong and be able to put this behind her? Jacky and Joanne turned to look at each other at the same time. Jacky slipped his right hand around her shoulder and gave it a reassuring squeeze. Joanne sent him a light smile, but the smile disappeared into a fatigued expression. Jacky’s hand returned to his side as they continued to follow a lost Xiao Qiao.

Joyce finally stopped at a bench in front of the park—the place where she and Gino had their first date. It was also the place where Gino broke up with her two weeks ago.

Jacky and Joanne stepped forward and sat down with Joyce.

Joyce turned to Jacky who was sitting next to her. “Will I ever be able to put all this behind me?”

Jacky’s heart went out to Joyce as he saw her pale, troubled face. What happened to the innocent Xiao Qiao? What happened to his best friend? Had the sorrow of lost love taken her away and only left the broken pieces for him to pick up?

“I don’t know,” Jacky replied in the utmost sincere tone he could muster. “I just know that I’ll be here every single day to fight along your side.”

Joyce’s eyes are filled with tears listening to Jacky’s words. Jacky grabbed hold of her shoulders and hugged her to him. He let her cry it all out. Aside from letting her cry away all the sorrows of the past days, he didn’t know what else to do to make her feel better.

Joanne held back her tears, knowing Jacky couldn’t handle another tearful girl. She swallowed down the lump forming in her throat. She wished a miracle would happen right at that moment to take all the hurtful feelings away from Joyce. She rarely believed in miracles. In fact, she stopped believing in any cosmic forces since her mother left. But she wished for a miracle to appear right then. What happened to their cheerful Xiao Qiao? She looked toward the horizon ahead. The sun was setting soon. This dreadful day was finally ending, but was it going to bring along with it Xiao Qiao’s hurt? Or would it just delay the pain until the upcoming day like many days before?

Joyce finally stopped crying after what seemed like an eternity. Jacky wiped her tears away with his hands. Joanne watched silently to see if there was any sign of the old Xiao Qiao coming back. A breeze brushed past them, causing some leaves from the ground to stir up. Joanne’s vision followed a brown leaf being carried farther into the park. Before the leaf could finish its journey through the park, it got held back by a pair of feet. As the leaf hit the ground, Joanne looked up to see who the pair of feet belonged to. Her expression changed from forlorn to surprise. Had some mystical force answered to her wish?

Joanne turned to Jacky. She tapped on his left shoulder lightly with her right hand. He turned to her to see her eyes staring toward another direction. He followed her vision line to see a guy standing a distance from them. Joyce noticed it as Jacky’s face changed from peaceful to sternness. She turned to look into Gino’s eyes.

As Gino came closer to them, the three got up. Gino stopped about a foot in front of them.

“I want to talk to Xiao Qiao for a bit,” Gino said.

“What is there to talk about really?” Jacky asked coolly, his expression mirroring his tone. “Aren’t you late for your plane already?”

“I’ll be okay,” Joyce spoke up, looking at Jacky.

Jacky could see that Joyce looked a little stronger than before, so he nodded.

“I won’t be long, so don’t worry,” Joyce reassured him.

“Qiao Qiao and I will wait for you at the store across the street,” Jacky said, giving her a light smile.

Joyce nodded.

Jacky turned to take Joanne’s hand as they were making their way back where they came from.

As they were walking, Joanne kept her head down, staring at the ground. Jacky looked over to her to see her gloomy expression.

Jacky tightened the grip of his left hand on her right hand. “Don’t look so morbid. Maybe things will change.”

Joanne finally brought her head up and turned to face him. “Young Master Chu, I’m not a 3-years-old kid. I know how serious things are.”

Jacky couldn’t help but smile despite the situation.

“What are you smiling at?” Joanne asked, puzzled.

“My Qiao Qiao has grown up.”

Joanne looked toward the street ahead.

“I’m serious.”

“If growing up means having to go through such heartbreaking events, I rather not,” Joanne said in a sad tone. “And it’s not even me. It’s…”

Jacky released his hand from Joanne’s. He grabbed hold of her shoulders and pulled her to him. He positioned her head gently onto his left shoulder. “It seems like you need a two-minute break too.”

Joanne could feel the heaviness in her head disappearing slowly as she let herself go. She was not crying, but she was just letting go of all the negative thoughts and letting them escape from her mind—temporarily. It felt so good to have her mind become blank with no focus or strings attached. She straightened up a minute later. Jacky released her also. Upon seeing her peaceful expression, Jacky smiled. He grabbed her hand again as they were crossing the street, heading to the store at the corner.

© Monday, May 5th, 2008

Posted: Friday, May 6th, 2011

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