The drive to the hospital was one long, silent trip. They ended up taking the Tseng family van with Jacky driving. It was an unsaid mutual agreement that they shall leave the atmosphere a peaceful one. Too peaceful. To the point of eeriness. Joanne was the first one to get out of the van when they were at the entrance. She led Joyce and the others into the hospital while Jacky parked. Jacky spotted them by the elevators when he arrived in the lobby. He answered some questions from a nurse before joining them. The ride up to Internal Care contained the same silence that existed during their trip to the hospital.

“I’m not going in,” Joyce announced when they were walking down the hall to Gino’s room.

“What?” The others asked in surprise, turning around to look at Joyce, halting their footsteps altogether.

“I don’t want to go in,” Joyce repeated herself. “You guys can go.”

“Is it because of what happened?” Charlene asked naively.

The others—excluding Joyce—turned to give Charlene a look.

“What?” Charlene asked, challenging them.

“It’s not the time,” Kenny scolded his sister.

“It’s not that,” Joyce spoke up again. “I just don’t want to aggravate him, considering the state he’s in right now.”

“But he has been trying to get back with you,” Kenny reminded her. “He’s not mad at you anymore. You wouldn’t be aggravating him.”

“I’m not ready,” Joyce said, her voice a whisper.

The others exchanged a look among themselves. Joanne placed a hand on Joyce’s shoulder at that time and nodded.

“Wait for us out here, okay?” Jacky pressed as he walked by her.

Joyce nodded.

Joanne took the lead as before and was the first one to step into Gino’s room. They could see him having bandages on his face and arms. However, it seemed to be minor injuries.

“Hey, Gino,” Joanne began.

Gino nodded, his eyes darting elsewhere past Joanne.

They had a feeling he was looking for Joyce.

“What happened, man?” Kenny asked, walking into the room—feeling the need he had to take the lead from the others. “You scared us half to death!”

Seeing no signs of Joyce and not knowing how to ask, Gino had no choice but to turn to Kenny. He shook his head. “I was careless. It was just a minor accident.”

“Where are your aunt and uncle?” Kenny continued on with the questioning—as if to fill up time.

“Where’s Clara?” Charlene jumped in—mockery dripping from her voice.

“Tian Tian!” The others jumped in—a tad too late.

“It’s okay,” Gino interfered.

The others turned their attention to Gino again.

“She returned to Hong Kong already.”

“Oh,” Charlene mumbled.

Joanne stepped further into the room at that time, sitting on a chair next to Gino’s bed. Jacky stationed himself behind her.

“What did the doctor say?” Joanne asked, finding her voice finally. “How long do you have to stay?”

“For a while,” Gino answered, attempting to gesture with his right hand.

“Don’t. Whatever you need, just tell us.”

Gino shook his head. “It’s not that bad. It’s just the wrapping that looks scary.”

“Still wouldn’t want to take any chances.”

Gino suddenly smiled. “I’m not so used to you being so serious and caring.”

“Unlike my immature self?”

Gino’s smile faded. “No. I didn’t mean that.” He sighed out, his eyes looking at some unknown object behind Joanne. “It’s just that…” He turned his attention to her again before continuing. “I guess I still have the image of us in high school and…” He attempted to gesture with his hand again. “I didn’t realize how all of us have changed. And how much you’ve changed.”

Jacky looked toward Kenny to see Kenny wearing the expression that said somewhere along the line of “Why does he sound like he’s going to die soon?”—to which Jacky gave him a sharp stare. Jacky turned to Joanne and Gino again. “If you two need to talk in private, we’ll leave.”

Jacky gestured for Kenny and Charlene to step outside also.

“Don’t,” Gino spoke up, stopping Jacky.

Jacky turned around to face Gino again—with Kenny and Charlene stopping in their tracks also.

“Actually, I…” Gino licked his lips once. “I just don’t know how to say this. You guys do not know how sorry I am. I am such a fool.”

“You should rest and not think about anything for now,” Joanne jumped in.

“Forget it,” Jacky continued. “Don’t beat yourself over what all of us can’t change.”

Kenny nodded and poked at Charlene before she joined in with them also.

“I have to say it,” Gino insisted. “My head must be made of lead to not let you guys explain or believe in everyone. I thought…I actually…”

Joanne was about to speak up to stop Gino but Gino raised his right hand up with whatever strength he had left to stop her from interfering. Jacky knew Gino was determined to let it out so he placed a hand on Joanne’s shoulder, signaling to let Gino finish.

“I thought those letters were from Xiao Qiao to him,” Gino continued. “I thought they were interacting behind our backs and…”

“What letters?” Joanne asked, turning to Jacky.

Jacky didn’t answer Joanne but turned his attention to Gino, pieces of the puzzle finally clicking in for him. “You mean you and Clara found the letters I wrote to Qiao Qiao?”

Gino nodded. “Clara was over there at times and found the letters one day. She gave some of them to me. I didn’t believe her at first, thinking she was playing a trick on me. But then things added up with you guys planning to quit and…” Gino gestured his hand again. “I didn’t realize that it was from Qiao Qiao until I overheard your conversation earlier.”

“I told you someone would think ‘Jo’ is Joyce!” Kenny jumped in, turning his victory smile on—forgetting that he shouldn’t be challenging Jacky at that time. But he was quick to realize his errors as soon as he said it. He turned off his smile and maintained his serious expression again. “Sorry, continue.”

Jacky gripped the back of the chair Joanne was sitting on tightly, beating himself up furiously inside. Why in the world did he leave stuffs around everywhere? He just signed his name up for the “biggest idiot” in the world. So it was his fault after all.

“Jacky ge,” Charlene called from a distant place.

“You okay?” Joanne asked from that same distant place also.

Jacky forced himself to face the current situation since beating himself up wouldn’t help the situation an ounce. He cleared his throat and returned Joanne’s concerned stare with a smile. He then turned to Gino. “So it is really my fault.”

Gino shook his head. “No, it wasn’t. It was my fault because I didn’t trust Xiao Qiao enough. You guys were right for scolding me all these times. I…”

“Don’t say it anymore, okay?” Joanne interfered. “We weren’t that better either. My dad was right, saying that all of us were blinded by our own beliefs, wanting to be the one who was right. Yet we never acknowledged each other’s friendship. The facts are facts. But we didn’t give each other opportunities to explain either. We can’t just push the blame to one side or the other.”

The others all stared at Joanne in awe, not believing she was capable of such words.

Jacky was the first one to recover. “She said it all.”

Gino nodded.

“You should rest,” Joanne said, gesturing toward Gino.

Gino nodded again.

“Call us if you need anything.”

“Thanks for coming. My aunt and uncle should be back soon so they could help me with whatever.”

Joanne nodded and got up from her seat. The others uttered out their words of goodbyes before following Joanne out to the hallway. When they were alone again, Jacky turned to Joanne.

“You were fast all right,” Jacky said, his tone full of admiration and not of mockery like past situations allowed for it.

“I’m going to worship you now, sis,” Kenny jumped in.

“I don’t know,” Joanne spoke up again. “Seeing him like that, I just feel that it’s wrong to fight any longer.”

“How are we going to put his life back together now?” Jacky asked, sighing out.

Joanne turned to Jacky, taking his hand into hers. “It’s not your fault, you know that, right?”

Jacky shook his head. “It was my careless doing. If those letters weren’t laying around, then…”

“Clara would’ve found other ways to mess with them. It doesn’t matter what.”

“I second that,” Kenny chimed in. “She’s an evil witch after all.”

“Where’s Xiao Qiao?” Joanne asked at that time when they reached the place where they left Joyce standing earlier.

Jacky and the others searched around the area with their eyes. They continued out of the hospital while looking out for signs of Joyce. When they were near the parking lot, they could see Joyce pacing back and forth on the pavement. Jacky increased his pace toward her, sensing something was definitely going on.

“Why are you out here?” Jacky asked, getting right to the point.

“Nothing,” Joyce said upon seeing the group walking toward her. She resumed her calm composure and walked with them to the Tseng family van.

Jacky and Joanne exchanged a look behind Joyce’s back but did not say anything.

They arrived back at the Tseng resident with each lost in his or her own thoughts. Joyce excused herself immediately after they got out of the van. Jacky wanted to follow her, but she turned him down, claiming she wanted to be alone for the time being. He had no choice but to let her have it her way. However, he took it into his hands to follow her a distance, claiming that he had to go home as well.

After they both left, Joanne dragged her feet inside the house, thinking to herself. She left Kenny and Charlene to the task of filling their father in with what had happened. She needed time alone to think things over. Although she had reassured Jacky that Gino and Joyce’s breakup was something that would come sooner or later, she was more troubled than ever about the turn of events. If only she was more careful of letters and not signed it as ‘Jo’. Who knew it would cause so much trouble? People had such complicated minds, and she had encouraged that behavior by presenting them with another opportunity.

*****

As agreed upon, in the upcoming days, they came to the hospital to visit Gino and treated him like friends like before, not holding anything against him. With Jacky and Joanne, regret had a major play in their sincerity. Joyce, on the other hand, refused to go near the hospital regardless of the others’ persuasion. Jacky had to take it into his hands one day to pull her aside and have a talk with just the two of them.

“I think it’s about time we have this talk,” Jacky began in his serious tone.

“What are you talking about?” Joyce asked, looking over to him.

They were actually at a bench outside of the hospital. The others were upstairs, visiting Gino.

“I know I should respect you as a friend and give you all the space and time you need to think things over,” Jacky continued. “But…I have to clarify something before I go crazy.” Having admitted that wasn’t easy for him. It was not about ego, but about putting the right words out there, wanting to mend his wrongdoings without trying too hard. Or directing it in the wrong direction on purpose. He licked his lips once before continuing. “I know it’s partly my fault that you and Gino had that misunderstanding. Though I never regret a day knowing Zhao Hong Qiao, it doesn’t give me the right to interfere with your life or cause any other inconvenience for you, especially grief.”

Joyce raised a hand up to stop him, a smile lighting on her face. “It seems like you’ve written a speech ahead of time and rehearsed it well.”

Jacky let out a nervous laugh—though he wasn’t feeling so amused at that moment.

“It was never your fault,” Joyce said in her serious tone. “Maybe all of this wasn’t meant to be.” She paused and stared at some patients walking by and back into the hospital. Her eyes returned to Jacky like before. “It really hurt in the beginning.” She nodded, pointing to her heart for emphasis. “Trust me, it did. But then it made me realize something. Maybe it was because I’d never taken a relationship seriously for what it was, that was why it never hurt that badly before. To think I tried to change myself for someone is already scary. But to quit my job? I thought I was so sure in doing that and taking the next step, trying to prove a point. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t recognize myself anymore.”

“You’re making yourself sound like some monster now.” He knew his attempt of a joke had failed miserably. It sounded quite lame to the ears.

Joyce smiled, appreciating his effort anyway—regardless of how lame it was to him. “I’m serious here. Have you seen me with anyone for the longest time?”

Jacky shook his head. “Guess not.”

“It’s not that I can’t take relationships seriously, but I can’t find the right person yet.” She tossed her hair behind her shoulder real quick. “All that traveling was also the reason. When I met Gino, I thought he was nice and interesting in a sense. But that did not mean he was the one. I realized that I was so scared of hurting him because he was such a nice guy. It became too much like I was trying to persuade myself. I wanted to break it off several times but I told myself to stop it with the unsettling feelings and accept a nice guy like him…” She gestured her hand. “And you get it. Trying too hard is just trying after all. So I don’t think it was your fault at all. If it was anyone’s to blame, it was me for ignoring the signs, acting rash, convincing myself too much that…” She turned to him with a look full of remorse. “Are you mad at me for causing you to lose your job?”

“We’re friends. If I blame it on you, then I don’t deserve the title. I agreed on my own, didn’t I? In fact, I made the decision myself already. For my own reasons, not just because you mentioned it.”

Joyce smiled, letting out a sigh. “I guess to sum this whole thing up about Gino and me is we didn’t pass the test.”

“Are you trying to convince yourself now?” Jacky’s turn to gesture his hand. “Or are you trying to convince me?”

“Are you basing it on the fact that I didn’t want to see him these past few days?”

Jacky nodded. “Partly.”

“I just can’t come up with a reasonable explanation for him yet. And because I’m still feeling guilty for causing so much grief so…I took the easy way out. By hiding.” She got up at that time, breathing out in relief. “But I think I’m ready now since I could talk to you about it.”

Jacky followed her inside. “I guess you are.”

About half an hour later, Jacky and Joanne stood along a path, looking at Joyce and Gino sitting on the same bench that she was with Jacky earlier. The other visitors had gone home so Joyce took up the opportunity to take the walk with Gino and have the talk.

“How do you think it would come out?” Joanne asked, turning to Jacky.

“They’ll be fine,” Jacky answered, taking her hand into his. “Let’s go.”

Joanne looked back at the two sitting at the bench once more before following Jacky to the parking lot. They had to return to work.

*****

Several days later, everything seemed to return to normal. Gino had been discharged and was still recovering at home. He said that he wanted some time alone. The others agreed because they had been informed of his conversation with Joyce. As for Joyce, she was still somewhat affected by it but it was because she felt guilty for causing Gino’s suffering for so long. Other than that, things could be called normal as they can be around them.

One day after work, Jacky finally got his car back from James so he drove to the flower shop to meet the others on his own—instead of having to wait for Joanne or Joyce. He was greeted by a crowd in front of the shop. It didn’t take him long to comprehend the situation. The fire truck was an obvious sign.

“Sir, you can’t go in!” Someone yelled at him, pulling him back from the entrance.

He turned around to face the fireman. “Is anyone still inside?”

“Not that we know of. Sir, please stand aside so we could do our job.”

Jacky could see Mr. Tseng and Charlene standing by the corner of the street. They look worried but not hurt. He walked over to them, clearing the path once more.

“What’s going on?” Jacky asked, abandoning all courtesies.

“We just got a call that the shop’s burning down so we rushed back to see,” Mr. Tseng answered. “I was told by the firemen to stand aside so I’m just waiting for them.”

“Who was closing earlier?”

“Zhi Rong. He left already. I went around back to check and none of our cars are around. I tried calling him and got his message. I left a message already, telling him to meet us back here.”

Just then, Jacky could see Kenny pulling up. He could also see Kenny having to double back and park a distance down the street.

“Ge!” Charlene called out as soon as she spotted him.

“Is sis out yet?” Kenny blurted out, running out of breath from the run.

“What?!” Jacky exclaimed, not believing the words he just heard.

“She let me borrow her car,” Kenny explained. “She said that she’s going to do the calculations now, so Dad doesn’t have to do it during the weekend. I told her I’ll be back later, so I took her car.”

Jacky was already gone from their sight after hearing the confirmation with Joanne still stuck inside. He advanced toward the entrance and attempted to break through. The crowd had already been controlled by the police arriving several minutes ago.

“Sir, you can’t go in!” A fireman yelled at him. Possibly the same one from earlier.

Jacky tried again. “I have to. Someone’s still inside.”

“The blaze’s getting fierce.”

“I don’t care.” He knew he was out of line, but he honestly didn’t care at that point.

“Sir, you’re making it difficult for us.”

He could see one of the police officers making his way toward him. He had to take the chance. He took his jacket off and flung it quickly at one of the water hoses before diving toward the entrance.

“Qiao Qiao!” Jacky called out, his voice desperate.

He could only hear some of the firemen at the door yelling at him. If they didn’t have to keep to their duties of controlling the flames, they would’ve gone after him. With the wet jacket still dangling over his head as protection, he made his way across the shop, trying to make out various shapes—or what was left of the shapes—and finding his way.

“Qiao Qiao!” He called out again, choking on some smokes.

He was finally at the break room. Knowing some flames might be leaping toward him, he took the risk anyway. He kicked the door open in several attempts, gasping for air—or what was left of air—in this airtight atmosphere. His jacket was returning to its normal state, getting drier and drier by the minute.

“Qiao Qiao!”

He couldn’t make out any more shapes. The smokes were too high. He scrambled on the ground, attempting to manipulate his vision further. It didn’t work. Not really. He resorted to using his ears instead, making his way cautiously around the room. Then he heard it. A light cough. A very soft sound but he could hear it. He made his way toward the sound, not realizing how fast his heart had been beating. It wasn’t from fear. At least, not from the fire.

“Qiao Qiao!” His voice had become somewhat shaky.

He soon found her hidden behind the counter in tears. He spied a water bottle next to her. He took the lid off, making sure it was not some dangerous liquid before pouring it on his jacket and covering her with it.

“Let’s go,” He soothed. “You’re all right now.”

He had to lead her out carefully, doing all the pull. The front was not an option anymore. The damage had already been done. He located the backdoor, making his way toward it. He steered Joanne toward the door. He had to call it on luck that they still had an escape route. He could always die with her but not without fighting.

“Come on,” He urged softly, grabbing onto her shoulders, pushing her out the door after unlocking it and yanking it with much force.

He had to make sure they were a safe distance from the back before stopping. He reached over and tried to smooth out her hair, wiping the sweats from her face. Or were those tears?

“Qiao Qiao?” He called out again. His voice was failing him. “Don’t scare me.”

She finally reacted, falling into his arms, sobbing away. He held her in his arms, reassuring her as best as he could.

“I thought I was going to die in there,” She said after a few minutes more of sobbing.

“You’re okay now,” He said, still rocking back and forth, trying to soothe her.

He could feel her nodding into him.

“Let’s go out front, okay?” He suggested, knowing the others were waiting for them.

Joanne seemed to regain herself. She pulled away from him and wiped away her tears. They made their way back front with him still guiding her and shielding her from the view—though the sidewalk only showed the building with smokes. Their shop was not badly damaged from the outside, but it was another story from the inside. They just witnessed the whole thing and survived.

“Sis!” Kenny called out as soon as he spotted them.

It seemed like Mr. Tseng had been trying to get in too. The police as well as Kenny and Charlene had been attempting to restrain and reassure him. Now that he saw Joanne safe, he stopped fighting and relaxed. Though his eyes were streaming with tears.

“Qiao Qiao,” Mr. Tseng called out in an emotional tone.

“Ba,” Joanne called out, hugging her father back.

“It’s good you’re all right…it’s so good…”

“Jacky ge,” Charlene called out at that time. “You all right?”

Jacky nodded.

“I didn’t realize the shop was…” Kenny began, gesturing his hand toward the shop. “If I’d stay with sis…”

“It’s not your fault,” Jacky cut him off. “You wouldn’t be able to predict it.”

“Young man, what you did was…” One officer said, pointing at Jacky.

“Like anyone’s going to enter that place and save sis,” Kenny jumped in, his voice on the edge.

“Zhi Rong!” Mr. Tseng scolded.

“Uncle,” Jacky interfered. “I’ll take care of this.” He turned to the officer. “Could you please step this way?”

The officer took a look at the Tseng family once and then at Jacky. He seemed to catch on, following Jacky toward the corner of the street.

“Sir, I know what I did was rash,” Jacky began. “But I couldn’t just wait.”

“That’s still not a good excuse,” The officer said.

“She was trapped in a fire when she was younger,” Jacky continued on, knowing he had to get it out. “I couldn’t let history repeat itself for her. Anyone would know how to get out since the door’s not that far from where I found her. But it’s her past experience that has caused her to be scared of seeing fire. Or more like those orange flames.” Jacky took another look toward where the Tseng family was huddled together. “I didn’t have time to explain earlier. I know I have to go inside.”

“But her father and sister didn’t inform us that she was inside,” The officer said—as if fearing the responsibility was going to transfer to them.

“They didn’t know, sir,” Jacky explained. “Only Kenny knows she’s inside. They all thought she’s somewhere else. Possibly with me.”

The officer took a step forward. “I better call in and request an emergency…”

“I’ll take her to the hospital and have her check out,” Jacky said, interrupting him on purpose.

The officer nodded. “After the crew is done with putting out the flames, we’ll investigate further into this.”

Jacky nodded.

“We already jot down all the information.”

Jacky took out his card anyway—to cover all bases. Then he made his way back to where the Tsengs were standing.

© Sunday, June 13th, 2010

Posted: Monday, May 9th, 2011

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