Chapter 21

The drive to the hospital is one long, silent trip. They end up taking the Zeng family van with Jacky driving. It’s an unsaid mutual agreement that they shall leave the atmosphere a peaceful one. Too peaceful. To the point of eeriness. Joanne’s the first one to get out of the van when they’re at the entrance. She leads Joyce and the others into the hospital while Jacky parks. Jacky spots them by the elevators when he arrives in the lobby. He answers some questions from a nurse before joining them. The ride up to Internal Care contains the same silence that existed during their trip to the hospital.
“I’m not going in,” Joyce announces when they’re walking down the hall to Gino’s room.
“What?” The others ask in surprised, turning around to look at Joyce, halting their footsteps altogether.
“I don’t want to go in,” Joyce repeats herself. “You guys can go.”
“Is it because of what happened?” Charlene asks naively.
The others – excluding Joyce – turn to give Charlene a look.
“What?” Charlene asks, challenging them.
“It’s not the time,” Kenny scolds his sister.
“It’s not that,” Joyce speaks 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 reminds her. “He’s not mad at you anymore. You wouldn’t be aggravating him.”
“I’m not ready,” Joyce says, her voice a whisper.
The others exchange a look among themselves. Joanne places a hand on Joyce’s shoulder at that time and nods.
“Wait for us out here, okay?” Jacky presses as he walks by her.
Joyce nods.
Joanne takes the lead as before and is the first one to step into Gino’s room. They could see him having bandages on his face and arms. However, it seems to be minor injuries.
“Hey, Gino,” Joanne begins.
Gino nods, his eyes darting elsewhere past Joanne.
They have a feeling he’s looking for Joyce.
“What happened, man?” Kenny asks, walking into the room – feeling the need he has 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 has no choice but to turn to Kenny. He shakes his head. “I was careless. It was just a minor accident.”
“Where are your aunt and uncle?” Kenny continues on with the questioning – as if to fill up time.
“Where’s Clara?” Charlene jumps in – mockery dripping from her voice.
“Tian Tian!” The others jump in – a tad too late.
“It’s okay,” Gino interferes.
The others turn their attention to Gino again.
“She returned to Hong Kong already.”
“Oh,” Charlene mumbles.
Joanne steps further into the room at that time, sitting at a chair next to Gino’s bed. Jacky stations himself behind her.
“What did the doctor say?” Joanne asks, finding her voice finally. “How long do you have to stay?”
“For a while,” Gino answers, attempting to gesture with his right hand.
“Don’t. Whatever you need, just tell us.”
Gino shakes 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 smiles. “I’m not so used to you being so serious and caring.”
“Unlike my immature self?”
Gino’s smile fades. “No. I didn’t mean that.” He sighs out, his eyes looking at some unknown object behind Joanne. “It’s just that…” He turns his attention to her again before continuing. “I guess I still have the image of us in high school and…” He attempts to gesture with his hand again. “I didn’t realize how all of us have changed. And how much you’ve changed.”
Jacky looks towards Kenny to see Kenny wearing the expression that says somewhere along the line of “Why does he sound like he’s going to die soon?” – to which Jacky gives him a sharp stare. Jacky turns to Joanne and Gino again. “If you two need to talk in private, we’ll leave.” Jacky gestures for Kenny and Charlene to step outside also.
“Don’t,” Gino speaks up, stopping Jacky.
Jacky turns around to face Gino again – with Kenny and Charlene stopping in their tracks also.
“Actually, I…” Gino licks 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 jumps in.
“Forget it,” Jacky continues. “Don’t beat yourself over what all of us can’t change.”
Kenny nods and pokes at Charlene before she joins in with them also.
“I have to say it,” Gino insists. “My head must be made of lead to not let you guys explain or believe in everyone. I thought…I actually…”
Joanne’s about to speak up to stop Gino but Gino raises his right hand up with whatever strength he has left to stop her from interfering. Jacky knows Gino’s determined to let it out so he places a hand on Joanne’s shoulder, signaling to let Gino finish.
“I thought those letters were from Xiao Qiao to him,” Gino continues. “I thought they were interacting behind our backs and…”
“What letters?” Joanne asks, turning to Jacky.
Jacky doesn’t answer Joanne but turns his attention to Gino, pieces of the puzzle finally clicking in for him. “You mean you and Clara found the letters I written to Qiao Qiao?”
Gino nods. “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’s playing a trick on me. But then things add up with you guys planning to quit and…” Gino gestures his hand again. “I didn’t realize that it’s from Qiao Qiao until I overheard your conversation earlier.”
“I told you someone would think ‘Jo’ is Joyce!” Kenny jumps in, turning his victory smile on – forgetting that he shouldn’t be challenging Jacky at that time. But he’s quick to realize his errors as soon as he says it. He turns off his smile and maintains his serious expression again. “Sorry, continue.”
Jacky grips the back of the chair Joanne’s 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 calls from a distant place.
“You okay?” Joanne asks from that same distant place also.
He forces himself to face the current situation since beating himself up wouldn’t help the situation an ounce. He clears his throat and returns Joanne’s concerned stare with a smile. He then turns to Gino. “So it is really my fault.”
Gino shakes his head. “No, it’s not. It’s my fault because I didn’t trust Xiao Qiao enough. You guys are right for scolding me all these times. I…”
“Don’t say it anymore, okay?” Joanne interferes. “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 acknowledge 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 stare at Joanne in awe, not believing she was capable of such words.
Jacky’s the first one to recover. “She said it all.”
Gino nods.
“You should rest,” Joanne says, gesturing towards Gino.
Gino nods 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 nods and gets up from her seat. The others utter out their words of goodbyes before following Joanne out to the hallway. When they are alone again, Jacky turns to Joanne.
“You were fast all right,” Jacky says, his tone full of admiration and not of mockery like past situations allow for it.
“I’m going to worship you now, sis,” Kenny jumps in.
“I don’t know,” Joanne speaks 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 asks, sighing out.
Joanne turns to Jacky, taking his hand into hers. “It’s not your fault, you know that, right?”
Jacky shakes 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 chimes in. “She’s an evil witch after all.”
“Where’s Xiao Qiao?” Joanne asks at that time when they reach the place where they left Joyce standing earlier.
Jacky and the others search around the area with their eyes. They continue out of the hospital while looking out for sights of Joyce. When they’re out near the parking lot, they could see Joyce pacing back and forth on the pavement. Jacky increases his pace towards her, sensing something was definitely going on.
“Why are you out here?” Jacky asks, getting right to the point.
“Nothing,” Joyce says upon seeing the group walking towards her. She resumes her calm composure and walks with them to the Zeng family van.
Jacky and Joanne exchange a look behind Joyce’s back but do not say anything.
They arrive back at the Zeng resident with each lost in his or her own thoughts. Joyce excuses herself immediately after they get out of the car. Jacky wants to follow her but she turns him down, claiming she wants to be alone for the time being. He has no choice but to let her have it her way. However, he takes it into his hands to follow her a distance, claiming that he has to go home as well.
After they both left, Joanne drags her feet inside the house, thinking to herself. She leaves Kenny and Charlene to the task of filling their father in with what had happened. She needs time alone to think things over. Although she has reassured Jacky that Gino and Joyce’s breakup is something that would come sooner or later, but she’s more troubled than ever about the turns of events. If only she’s more careful of letters and not signed it as ‘Jo’. Who knows it would cause so much trouble? People have such complicated minds and she has encouraged that behavior by presenting them with another opportunity.

*****

As agreed upon, the upcoming days, they come to the hospital to visit Gino and treat him like friends like before, not holding anything against him. With Jacky and Joanne, regret has a major play in their sincerity. Joyce, on the other hand, refuses to go near the hospital regardless of the others’ persuasion. Jacky has 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 begins in his serious tone.
“What are you talking about?” Joyce asks, looking over to him.
They’re actually at a bench outside of the hospital. The others are 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 continues. “But…I have to clarify something before I go crazy.” Having admitted that wasn’t easy for him. It is not about ego, but about putting the right words out there, wanting to mend his wrongdoings without trying too hard. Or directing it into the wrong direction on purpose. He licks 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 but it doesn’t give me the right to interfere with your life or cause any other inconvenient for you, especially grief.”
Joyce raises 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 lets out a nervous laugh – though he isn’t feeling so amused at that moment.
“It’s never your fault,” Joyce says in her serious tone. “Maybe all of this wasn’t meant to be.” She pauses and stares at some patients walking by and back into the hospital. Her eyes return to Jacky like before. “It really hurt in the beginning.” She nods, pointing to her heart for emphasis. “Trust me, it did. But then it made me realize something. Maybe it’s because I never taken a relationship seriously for what it is, that’s 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 knows his attempt of a joke had failed miserably. It sounded quite lame to the ears.
Joyce smiles, 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 shakes his head. “Guess not.”
“It’s not that I can’t take relationships seriously but I can’t find the right person yet.” She tosses 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 gestures 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 turns 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 smiles, 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 nods. “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 stands up at that time, breathing out in relief. “But I think I’m ready now since I could talk to you about it.”
Jacky follows her inside. “I guess you are.”
About half an hour later, Jacky and Joanne stands 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 asks, turning to Jacky.
“They’ll be fine,” Jacky answers, taking her hand into his. “Let’s go.”
Joanne looks back at the two sitting at the bench once more before following Jacky to the parking lot. They have to return to work.

*****

Several days later, everything seems to return to normal. Gino has been discharged and is still recovering at home. He says that he wants some time alone. The others agree because they have been informed of his conversation with Joyce. As for Joyce, she’s still somewhat affected by it but it is because she feels 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 gets his car back from James so he drives to the flower shop to meet the others on his own – instead of having to wait for Joanne or Joyce. He is greeted with a crowd in front of the shop. It doesn’t take him long to comprehend the situation. The fire-truck is an obvious sign.
“Sir, you can’t go in!” Someone yells at him, pulling him back from the entrance.
He turns 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. Zeng and Charlene standing by the corner of the street. They look worried but not hurt. He walks over to them, clearing the path once more.
“What’s going on?” Jacky asks, abandoning all courtesies.
“We just got a call that the shop’s burning down so we rushed back to see,” Mr. Zeng answers. “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 calls out as soon as she spots him.
“Is sis out yet?” Kenny blurts out, running out of breath from the run.
“What?!” Jacky exclaims, not believing the words he just heard.
“She let me borrow her car,” Kenny explains. “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 is already gone from their sight after hearing the confirmation with Joanne still stuck inside. He advances towards the entrance and attempts to break through. The crowd has already been control by the police arriving several minutes ago.
“Sir, you can’t go in!” A fireman yells at him. Possibly the same one from earlier.
Jacky tries again. “I have to. Someone’s still inside.”
“The blaze’s getting fierce.”
“I don’t care.” He knows he’s out of line but he honestly doesn’t care at that point.
“Sir, you’re making it difficult for us.”
He could see one of the police officers making his way towards him. He has to take the chance. He takes his jacket off and flings it quickly at one of the water hoses before diving towards the entrance.
“Qiao Qiao!” Jacky calls 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 makes 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 calls out again, choking on some smokes.
He’s finally at the break room. Knowing some flames might be leaping towards him, he takes the risk anyway. He kicks the door open in several attempts, gasping for air – or what is left of air – in this airtight atmosphere. His jacket’s returning to its normal state, getting drier and drier by the minute.
“Qiao Qiao!”
He couldn’t make out anymore shapes. The smokes are too high. He scrambles on the ground, attempting to manipulate his vision further. It doesn’t work. Not really. He resorts to using his ears instead, making his way cautiously around the room. Then he hears it. A light cough. A very soft sound but he could hear it. He makes his way towards the sound, not realizing how fast his heart has been beating. It wasn’t from fear. At least not from the fire.
“Qiao Qiao!” His voice has become somewhat shaky.
He soon finds her hidden behind the counter in tears. He spies a water bottle next to her. He takes the lid off, making sure it’s not some dangerous liquid before pouring it on his jacket and covering her with it.
“Let’s go,” He soothes. “You’re all right now.”
He has to lead her out carefully, doing all the pull. The front is not an option anymore. The damage has already been done. He locates the backdoor, making his way towards it. He steers Joanne towards the door. He has to call it on luck that they still have an escape route. He could always die with her but not without fighting.
“Come on,” He urges softly, grabbing onto her shoulders, pushing her out the door after unlocking it and yanking it with much force.
He has to make sure they are a safe distance from the back before stopping. He reaches over and tries to smooth out her hair, wiping the sweats from her face. Or were those tears?
“Qiao Qiao?” He calls out again. His voice is failing him. “Don’t scare me.”
She finally reacts, falling into his arms, sobbing away. He holds her in his arms, reassuring her as best as he could.
“I thought I was going to die in there,” She says after a few minutes more of sobbing.
“You’re okay now,” He says, still rocking back and forth, trying to soothe her.
He could feel her nodding into him.
“Let’s go out front, okay?” He suggests, knowing the others are waiting for them.
Joanne seems to regain herself. She pulls away from him and wipes away her tears. They make their way back front with him still guiding her and shielding her from the view – though the sidewalk only shows of the building with smokes. Their shop is not badly damaged from the outside but it is another story from the inside. They have just witnessed the whole thing and have survived.
“Sis!” Kenny calls out as soon as he spots them.
It seems like Mr. Zeng has been trying to get in too. The police as well as Kenny and Charlene have been attempting to restrain and reassure him. Now that he sees Joanne safe, he stops fighting and relaxes. Though his eyes are streaming with tears.
“Qiao Qiao,” Mr. Zeng calls out in an emotional tone.
“Ba,” Joanne calls out, hugging her father back.
“It’s good you’re all right…it’s so good…”
“Jacky ge,” Charlene calls out at that time. “You all right?”
Jacky nods.
“I didn’t realize the shop was…” Kenny begins, gesturing his hand towards the shop. “If I’d stay with sis…”
“It’s not your fault,” Jacky cuts him off. “You wouldn’t be able to predict it.”
“Young man, what you did was…” One officer says, pointing at Jacky.
“Like anyone’s going to enter that place and save sis,” Kenny jumps in, his voice on the edge.
“Zhi Rong!” Mr. Zeng scolds.
“Uncle,” Jacky interferes. “I’ll take care of this.” He turns to the officer. “Could you please step this way?”
The officer takes a look at the Zeng family once and then at Jacky. He seems to catch on, following Jacky towards the corner of the street.
“Sir, I know what I did was rash,” Jacky begins. “But I couldn’t just wait.”
“That’s still not a good excuse,” The officer says.
“She was trapped in a fire when she was younger,” Jacky continues on, knowing he has 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 takes another look towards where the Zeng family is hurdled 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 says – as if fearing the responsible is going to transfer to them.
“They didn’t know, sir,” Jacky explains. “Only Kenny knows she’s inside. They all thought she’s somewhere else. Possibly with me.”
The officer takes a step forward. “I better call in and request an emergency…”
“I’ll take her to the hospital and have her check out,” Jacky says, interrupting him on purpose.
The officer nods. “After the crew is done with putting out the flames, we’ll investigate further into this.”
Jacky nods.
“We already jot down all the information.”
Jacky takes out his card anyway – to cover all bases. Then he makes his way back to where the Zengs are standing.
© Sunday, June 13th, 2010
Posted: Monday, May 9th, 2011