The middle of November brought forth a busy schedule for everyone. Luck struck Jacky around the same time since he managed to pinpoint a job that he found suitable for himself. Connections were the best and he wasn’t ashamed of it at all. He learned about the interview sessions through his friends, but the rest of the procedure was up to him. He needed to gain others’ trust before he could enter. It was not like someone just say one word and he was done. That was where he drew the line. He needed to meet the requirement, stepping up to the challenge.

As Jacky was on his way to tell the others of the news, he bumped into James at the flower shop. Unexpected, considering how James would have no reason in coming their way. Yes, James would visit them occasionally, but now? James seemed to be focusing madly on the business at the restaurant—though business was actually fine, to begin with. He needed a distraction and Jacky knew better than to interfere with James. But what kind of brother was he if he didn’t as much as tried to get James out of the kitchen—even if only for a few minutes? However, James kept turning him down when he tried to lure James out somewhere with the rest of the group. Jacky felt extremely helpless and somewhat on the end of hopelessness. Yet, standing in front of him today was a James talking energetically to Joanne’s father. It was like they were in on some secret he couldn’t and shouldn’t step in. It was like if he were to step in, the whole image would dissolve in front of his eyes. It was like it was an illusion he had been hoping for too long that he had somehow conjured up without knowing.

“Excuse me, sir, are you going in?” A voice asked behind him.

Jacky turned around to see a girl staring at him. He managed a nervous smile and stepped forward to open the door. He let the girl pass before entering himself.

“Well, look who is here,” Joyce teased him immediately—her smile bright on her face like she had been carrying after claiming that she had finally recovered.

Jacky let out a smile and turned to the counter. Mr. Tseng sent him a wave while James finally turned to him.

“Hey, Little Bro,” James called out, his smile still apparent.

“Hey,” Jacky returned, not knowing what to say—still.

“Mom and Dad are back,” James announced, his voice and expression still cheerful. “You know what that means.”

“Gathering tomorrow night?” Jacky guessed, gesturing his hand casually.

James nodded, confirming Jacky’s hypothesis—though it was a brainless one, routine even.

“So I guess this could be called our little reunion,” James continued. He turned his attention to Joyce at that time. “And a celebration for us single people gaining our freedom again.”

Yes, James knew about Joyce’s breakup with Gino already. Jacky could almost feel the irony of the situation since he had joked once about Joyce wanting to be his sister-in-law. And now that they were both single at the same time, he silently wondered if it was a sign. Not a sign of fate but a sign of mockery. Of something he desperately wanted to joke about but was suddenly lost for words at the moment. What should he say to ease the situation? Though James meant it as a joke and he was almost sure that Joyce was fine with it, he couldn’t help it. His mind was in no state to joke at that very moment.

“I guess I will have to put everything aside to greet Uncle and Auntie back, huh?” Joanne’s voice said behind him.

Jacky turned to see a smiling Joanne. He slipped a hand around her shoulders, still staying silent.

“How was the second meeting?” Joanne asked, her attention still on him.

“It went well,” Jacky uttered, finally finding his voice. “I got the job.”

“Something else to celebrate about then,” Joyce chimed in.

Jacky observed the scene in front of him in silence once again. He honestly wanted to ask about the situation, but he didn’t dare to. He didn’t want to break through the layers and layers of pretension everyone was putting up. He didn’t want to crush the efforts everyone was placing in to comfort others around them. Now that he was up front and center, he finally understood. Yet he can’t seem to bring out that cruel side of him to end this conversation. He wanted to drown into this deep pool of sorrow welling up inside everyone a little longer and appreciate them for who they really were. Lying doesn’t hurt other people, it hurts oneself the most. He finally understood that phrase. How much longer could they endure it? How much?

*****

“Hey, you,” Jacky greeted Joanne at the doorstep like many times before when she came over for their family gatherings, taking her hands into his.

“Tired?” Joanne asked, studying his face carefully—almost too careful.

Jacky turned back to the door and closed it behind him before dragging Joanne to a corner of the driveway.

“What’s going on here?” Joanne asked, her eyes as alert as ever.

“What happened yesterday before I came to your shop?” Jacky asked back.

Joanne swung their linked hand back and forth. “Nothing. James ge just came to visit and he told us about the gathering. Then you came.”

“He has been hiding in the kitchen for weeks now.”

“And?”

“How long are we going to let them play this game?”

“Them?”

“James and Xiao Qiao, who else?”

Joanne tugged a piece of loose hair strand behind her ears, looking down at the ground. Then she turned to him again. “When do you want to confront them?”

“Before I go crazy.”

“Tomorrow?”

“You’re fast.”

“I thought you want to be sane.”

“I knew I couldn’t trust you with getting the door,” James’ voice boomed over them.

They turned toward the door to see James walking their way.

“Don’t you guys spend enough time together recently?” James said, his teasing smile apparent. “Come on in. They’re waiting for you.”

“Wait,” Jacky said, stepping toward James to prevent him from entering the house.

James turned to Jacky with a look like Jacky was crazy. “What?”

“How long are you going to keep this up?”

“What?”

“Stop playing it like nothing happened. At least, not in front of Qiao and me.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You’ve been hiding in the kitchen for the past weeks after your breakup with Caitlin. Now you’re stepping out just like that? I think it’s better to see your morbid face than seeing your pretentious face.”

“Do you want our parents to worry? Let’s get in there already.”

Joanne tugged on Jacky’s arm at that time. Jacky turned to see her shaking her head. He saw the familiar expression she gave him many times before. He turned to the door to see James already in the house. He sighed out before stepping in also. Joanne followed him with an equally heavy heart.

*****

“Some changes are inevitable as we go through life,” Mr. Chu said casually as they all settled down at the dinner table.

Unlike many times before, they were not assigned seats. The world did not stop when James broke up with his past girlfriends. Why the change in the routine now?

“But what matters is the ones who stayed behind,” Mr. Chu continued.

Jacky exchanged a look with Joanne before surveying the table carefully. He silently wondered if his father was into philosophy now but didn’t dare to ask either. What was he afraid of? Disturbing the peace? When was he scared of that anyway? He was not a coward. Or was he scared of himself? He knew too well how capable he was of rattling out words before he could stop himself. He knew too well.

“Let’s eat,” Mrs. Chu interfered, knowing too well that her husband’s technique of reassurance wasn’t working.

Jacky nodded as the others blurted out words of agreement. He took a quick glance around the table again. He finally had his wish since James was actually sitting next to Kristy. James was actually across the table from him. James was also stuck between Joyce and Kristy. Calvin was sitting on Kristy’s other side. Was it him or had the table gotten shorter since the last time they met? He felt a tug to his left and turned to see Joanne’s concerned expression. He sent her a smile before placing into her bowl of rice a piece of her favorite dish.

Awkwardness continued for the rest of dinner. Jacky could see James attempting to pass food between him and Kristy at times. He could see Kristy’s nervousness each time. It was like she was afraid to bother James. There was also a lack of conversation between several parties around the table. James—though chatting on excitedly with their parents—was not in any better condition than the rest of them. James attempted to drag Jacky into the conversation several times—to which Joanne had to constantly tug him in order to catch his attention. He honestly wanted to help James play the part too, but he couldn’t. Their parents knew very well what was going on. What was the point of hiding? They made it through dinner and into the rest of the night somehow. But for how much longer?

*****

Jacky and Joanne walked outside to watch the stars like once upon a time after the guests were dismissed from their house. He stepped aside to make way for the others as he could see Calvin stepping outside also.

“Tough night, huh?” Calvin said, gesturing his hand nervously.

Jacky nodded. “We put you in a hard spot, huh?”

Calvin shook his head. “Maybe not.”

Jacky waited for Calvin to elaborate.

“Maybe because I’m treated as family so I should feel honored?”

“Only you could find a way to be so optimistic.”

As Jacky and Joanne walked with Calvin to Calvin’s car, James and Kristy stepped outside behind them. James stopped in front of the door and gestured casually.

“This is it, huh?” James said, still maintaining his friendly attitude.

Kristy nodded, glancing briefly around before turning back to face James. “I…”

“What’s going on? We weren’t good hosts tonight, right? Sorry about that.”

Kristy shook her head. “No.”

“Then…”

Kristy let out a sigh and turned to James again—a sense of courage presented itself on her face. “I want to tell you that if you ever think of reconciling with Caitlin or need me to go straighten things out with her, I’m there. I don’t want to be the reason for your breakup. I meant it was all a misunderstanding. Nothing happened and you guys just ended like that and…”

James had placed a hand up to stop her. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll never forgive myself for it.”

“It will happen sooner or later regardless of anyone’s interference. I’m fine now, can’t you see?”

“Even if I’m not someone as important, but I’ve known your family long enough. And you. Do you think you can fool us?”

“You know what?”

Kristy wrinkled her face into confusion upon seeing James’ sudden smile.

“I’m teaching someone a lesson.”

Kristy waited for him to continue, not wanting to interrupt—and because she wanted to observe him more carefully.

“Jacky.”

“Why?”

“Can’t you see him all devastated?”

Kristy nodded.

“He’s always running his mouth. If I let him see me in this state, he might knock off his rant in the future when I date again.”

Kristy still had on her wrinkled-up expression. Yes, the confused look.

James winked at her. “I’m fine. I’m serious.”

At that time, Joyce stepped out into the night and witnessed the two staring at each other.

“Working up your charm already, James ge?” Joyce teased him.

James turned around to see Joyce’s expression. The same expression he often saw on Jacky’s face when Jacky was about to strike. “You better not start.”

Joyce’s smile returned to its normal, harmless state. “You’re back.”

“Good night,” James uttered before turning back to his house.

“Good night,” Joyce repeated, turning her attention to Kristy.

Kristy smiled and followed Joyce down the path.

If only Jacky knew. James’ acting had surpassed another level.

*****

The last week of November came forth as the days continued to speed by. Jacky was still oblivious to James’ plan. However, he didn’t seem as anxious about the situation as before. His new job became his motivation while he let his parents do the consoling bit. Contrary to their preplanned departure after two weeks, their parents were staying with them for the rest of the year. It seemed like the Chu family was taking things more seriously this time around. Or perhaps it was because it was one of those rare times that Jacky was around at this time of the year. Jacky’s only concern—aside from his work—was Joyce. Yes, she had reassured them once too many times that she was all right. But somehow Jacky was not convinced. He continued to pull her into senseless activities after work. Dragging her along with them during gatherings at the Tseng resident or the Chu resident. Or just a normal hangout between the two of them—like how they did at times when they both were still single. Healing was a long process. Or that was what he liked to believe. He knew Joyce was not the type to sever all ties with a guy so fast. What if she said that she had given up on Gino? It seemed too soon. Even if she knew him for several months but it had allowed her to make the decision of ending her long-time occupation and striving for the future. It must be something. The more Jacky didn’t believe her when she told him she was over Gino. He didn’t want her to suffer alone. They were best friends. That was what best friends did for one another—they stuck around, not leave so much space until the point that they could no longer find each other or trust each other enough to share—even if it was the most random story.

One day during the second week of December, Jacky arrived at the flower shop to find Kenny alone in the break room. He had given the shop a quick scan before entering the break room since he didn’t want anyone luring around after business hours. He had made sure the door was locked also.

“What’s with the box?” Kenny asked as soon as he saw Jacky.

“Old mail,” Jacky replied, tapping on the box and setting it down at the table.

Kenny walked over to him at that time—with a cup of coffee in his hand. “Want some?”

Jacky shook his head. “I thought you have to work. What are you doing over here?”

“I switch shifts with one of my friends.”

“Oh.”

Kenny sat down across the table from Jacky, his hand reaching for the box. “What’s with all the letters? From work?”

“I just got it back from Xiao Qiao’s.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I can’t believe it was at her place.”

Kenny finally pulled out a stack of envelopes held together by some wool strings. “These?”

Jacky nodded.

Kenny began to undo the strings.

“You’re not reading that, are you?”

“Gotta see my brother-in-law’s masterpieces, right?”

“Those are Qiao’s.”

“The better, I could blackmail her with these.”

“She’ll kill you.”

“Sure she will.”

“Winter has arrived already…” Kenny paused and turned to Jacky. “Is it going to be on the same bland tone?”

“Watch your words.”

Kenny shrugged. “Defensive, aren’t we?” He returned his eyes to the letter in front of him. “Do you know what I saw yesterday? I attached a picture.” Kenny stopped and mumbled randomly, skimming around some more before getting to the end. “Jo?”

Jacky nodded, his expression still confident. “Sure, why not?”

“I would’ve expected something like ‘Your sweetheart, Qiao.’”

“It’s supposed to be inspirational and serious, not cute.”

Kenny folded the letter and put it back into the envelope again. “You guys are boring.”

“You wouldn’t know the half of it.”

Kenny had gotten out another letter—though he claimed boredom like several seconds ago. “This one sounds better.”

Jacky glanced at the purple paper. “Spring is leaving us soon. So when are you coming back? It seems forever. But it’s okay. At least, there are no delays in flights like in the winter.”

Kenny snapped his head up from the letter he was scanning with his eyes. “You memorized them?”

Jacky shrugged. “Sometimes I remember it from the paper color.”

Kenny folded the letter again—as if he was more interested in the process and not the details. “How often do you guys write anyway?”

“I usually write ’em while I’m still around. Depends on how long I’m gone. Enough for her to read a day or two each. She replies as she reads. When I’m back, I collect the replies from her and give her a new set of letters.”

“Honestly, there are things called e-mails.”

“It’s the thought that counts.”

Kenny tied the string to the bundle of letters again before returning it to the box. “Whatever. And don’t tell me the whole box is full of letters.”

“Not really.” Jacky took out a cup from somewhere. “This one, I got that one time for Qiao but didn’t give it to her.”

“Why not?”

“I thought of something else better.”

“Are you helping Xiao Qiao cleaning her house or something? And you dug up a bunch of stuffs that’s yours?”

Jacky shook his head. “No. I just took it out of storage and ended my account there.”

“Then the letters…?”

Jacky knew Kenny was probing but he had nothing to hide. “I got it from Xiao Qiao this morning since she was cleaning up her house last weekend and found them. I just tossed the stack in the box earlier when I got back to my car. I thought I bring it with me since James’ borrowing my car again.

“His is still in the shop?”

Jacky nodded.

“What are you guys talking about?” Joanne’s voice questioned them from somewhere.

Both guys looked up to see Joanne coming in from the back door.

“What took you so long, sis?” Kenny asked, observing his sister carefully.

“I was talking to someone after I tossed out the trash. Let’s go, you guys. Closing tasks are done.”

“Look what he brought!”

Joanne wrinkled her face, sensing her brother was up to something. She was too familiar with that expression he was wearing. “What are you guys up to now?”

“Love letters!”

Joanne turned to Jacky.

“It wasn’t my fault. He was reading it on his own.”

“And you didn’t stop him?”

Joanne was actually advancing on Jacky. Jacky reached his hand out to stop her.

“I managed to avoid the inevitable,” Jacky defended himself. “He only read like two.”

“Why are you showcasing them then?” Joanne reached for the stack of letters herself.

Jacky repeated his explanation to Kenny earlier for Joanne.

“Oh,” Joanne said, at last, calming down. “I can’t believe you still have them. But you’re so careless, what if someone reads it and thought it’s Xiao Qiao’s?”

“Who in the world would think Jo is Joyce?”

“I did,” Kenny jumped in.

“You know her handwriting,” Jacky said, turning to Kenny again.

Kenny smiled. “Lucky me. And of course, I was joking! I knew it was sis’s handwriting and her mushy style.”

Joanne reached forward to attack Kenny for his smart comment. Kenny dodged, running away from her. Joanne didn’t give up, chasing him around the room. Their voices and footsteps echoed around the room, disturbing the peace they had earlier. Jacky couldn’t help but laugh. Yes, childish but he suddenly appreciated the Tseng siblings so much. They were the reason why he always wanted to come to the shop. He had a brother and a wonderful family, yet it seemed so different, so formal. Although his father’s entertaining gist had never failed, there was something about the Tseng family that separated them from his own family. It was the sense of carefree. It was the natural force never disguising itself even if others were present. They did not care to maintain their reputation or face like his family. The fun of his family ended when it came in touch with other families whom they needed to socialize with.

Though it seemed like an eternity, the essence of Jacky’s feelings of witnessing the Tseng siblings’ playful scene only lasted a few seconds. Maybe it had stretched to a minute. Nothing more. But before they realized it, they could hear the front door swinging back and forth. Jacky snapped out of his trance and rushed outside. The Tseng siblings were right behind him since they heard it too.

“What’s going on?” Joanne asked as soon as she saw the door settling back into its place.

The chime was still jingling loudly above them. Jacky could see someone’s back rushing down the right street corner.

“Who is that?” Kenny asked, having spotted the person as well.

“I don’t know,” Jacky replied. “But it looks like Gino.”

“You think that was him?” Joanne asked, looking from one guy to the other.

Jacky turned back to the Tseng siblings. “I swear the door was locked when I came in.”

“Yeah, we locked them. And you have the key, of course.”

Jacky nodded, wrinkling his face, trying to think. “Or was he here before? I thought I checked when I came in, but I might have missed him since I didn’t check the back corner.”

“What’s he doing here then?” Kenny asked, looking outside again.

“Looking for Xiao Qiao?”

“They live in the same neighborhood.”

“Or he wants to try his luck here since coming to her house is suicidal?”

Jacky shrugged.

“Maybe he realized that Xiao Qiao’s not here and he didn’t want to see us, so he left.”

“Maybe.”

“Should we tell Xiao Qiao?” Joanne asked, looking from one guy to the next again.

“Let’s get out of here first,” Jacky said, making his way back to the break room.

*****

An hour later, they were all settled in the living room of the Tseng resident. Elizabeth was the only one not present this time—like many times before. She was on another inspirational trip to work on the sequel of her previous novel—something she claimed would not happen. That was life, always full of ironies.

“Here we are again, everyone,” Kenny rattled out dramatically.

“Quit being lame,” Joanne said, getting up from her seat.

“You gotta give me some credit, sis,” Kenny said, his voice on the edge of begging. He directed his attention toward Jacky at that time. “Hey, where’s the stack of letters? It would be plenty of entertainment for the night.”

Joanne turned around to give Kenny a dagger look.

“It’s in your car,” Jacky said quickly—as if afraid that Joanne would turn her dagger eyes on him.

“What letters?” Joyce asked curiously.

“The stack you gave me earlier,” Jacky clarified.

Joyce nodded. “Oh.”

“Did you read them?” Kenny asked, turning to Joyce. “It’s really something, huh?”

Joyce wrinkled her face at Kenny. “Of course not.”

“You missed out on the fun then.”

Before Joanne could deliver her words of attack at her brother, the house phone rang.

“I’ll get it,” Kenny exclaimed, jumping to his feet—as if looking for something to do. Or maybe to escape from his sister’s grasp.

They watched as Kenny made his way to the kitchen. His smile faded a few seconds later. The lines on his forehead increased as he continued to listen with the occasional “Okay” or “Yes” once in a while. The others exchanged looks among themselves while staying silent, waiting for Kenny to get off the phone.

“What happened?” Everyone asked at the same time, their expressions and voices mirrored one another.

“Gino’s in the hospital,” Kenny replied.

© Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

Posted: Sunday, May 8th, 2011

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