Several hours spent in the hospital, the doctor finally informed them that Joanne needed to stay overnight for further observation. Joyce had joined them in the waiting area while they waited earlier. When Joanne was being transferred to Inpatient, Gino also came to see them. The others turned to Joyce unknowingly upon seeing his presence, not sure how to start. However, Gino continued into the room to ask about Joanne, indicating that he had no problem with being in the same place as Joyce—though they had broken up (officially and not just because of what Clara did).

They stayed in Joanne’s room for another hour before receiving words from the police through Jacky’s cell phone. One of the officers came into their room in another half an hour. He informed them about having the fire under control already, of course.

“We found signs of sabotage at the scene and will launch an investigation,” The officer continued.

“Two guesses it’s who,” Kenny mumbled at one corner of the room. He was sitting at a chair by a window with his hands crossed and his face showing signs of hostility—for very obvious reasons. “What an early Christmas gift all right.”

“Zhi Rong,” Mr. Tseng chided, shaking his head—as to signal for Kenny to behave in front of the officer.

The officer didn’t show traces of being offended. Instead, he turned toward Kenny. “You know who might be involved?”

“He’s just upset over what happened,” Mr. Tseng interjected before Kenny could shoot his mouth.

The officer scanned the room once and then turned to Mr. Tseng again. “We will need all leads to investigate into this matter. So it would be good to have every detail covered.”

“It’s nothing that extreme really,” Joanne spoke up for the first time since the officer entered.

Everyone turned to her then.

“We have been competing with the new shop down the street for several months now, but it’s just trying to stay in business, not something personal.”

The officer jotted that down and continued to ask them for more details. He left after fifteen more minutes since he had exhausted his questions for the time being and promised to get back to them.

“Everyone should go home and rest,” Joanne urged the others when the officer had left already. “It has been a long day.”

“I’ll stay here with you,” Jacky insisted.

Joanne shook her head. “I’ll be fine.” She turned to signal for Kenny and Charlene.

Kenny finally unfroze from his place and got up, having deciphered the signal his sister sent him. “Let’s go.”

“But…” Charlene protested—obviously not getting it.

“Dad,” Kenny said, urging Mr. Tseng to his feet. “We’ll come back tomorrow to visit. The doctors told us she’s fine.”

Charlene finally got it and helped her brother escort their father out also. Jacky turned to Joanne once again, but she reassured him with a smile, indicating that he should go.

“I can stay behind,” Joyce volunteered. “I’ll keep you company until visiting hours are over.”

“Me too,” Gino said. “I’ll go get us some food first.”

“Sounds good then,” Joanne agreed, smiling. She knew Jacky wanted to stay behind and witness a possible development, so she turned to him again. “You can come back later if you want after dropping the others off.”

Jacky finally made a move.

“Actually,” Gino said, sitting down at a chair next to Joanne’s bed. “I was coming to visit you later if this didn’t occur.”

Joanne and Joyce exchanged a look but did not interrupt Gino.

“I was going to tell you that I’ll be going back to Hong Kong after the New Year.”

“Why?” Joanne asked, her eyes automatically looking toward Joyce. But she forced her attention back on Gino.

“It’s not what you think,” Gino explained. “It’s just that I think I’ve lived there for too long so I’m more used to the life over there versus here. I thought I could return here and experience some of the things in the past. But it’s not what it used to be anymore. Not just because of the scenery either but the feeling is not the same.” He smiled then. “I just thought I told you first since we’re buddies, right?”

After that, Gino left the room to go get them some food while the girls stared at his disappearing back.

“Well?” Joanne said after Gino was out of earshot.

“What?” Joyce asked, like it had nothing to do with her.

“Final decision?”

Joyce smiled. “If you think it’s one of our games to test each other’s feelings then it’s not. We already straightened things out, remember?”

Joanne nodded. “I’m just not so sure what everyone around me thinks anymore.”

Joyce reached out a hand toward Joanne and placed it on her shoulder. “You okay after what happened today though?”

Joanne nodded again.

“What about…”

Joyce didn’t dare to say “fire” or “flame” or any words associated with the whole traumatizing experience that linked to Joanne’s past.

Joanne shook her head. “I don’t know. But it would take a lot for me to get over it. Maybe I could conquer it one day.”

Joyce sent Joanne an encouraging smile. “You have us.”

Joanne smiled also. “I know. And I’m just so lucky.”

*****

Two days later, Joanne was discharged from the hospital and returned home with everyone gathering around her. At least, the ones who were able to make it. It was indeed in time for the holidays. Though they weren’t able to make it with Christmas, they still had a little time to prepare for a New Year get-together. This year, the occasion was celebrated at the Tseng resident. Even Mr. and Mrs. Chu came over to celebrate with them. In fact, it was a full house that night on New Years’ Eve. The Wangs were also there. While the elders were chatting among themselves in the living room, the others were gathered around the kitchen setting up and preparing the food.

“It seems a long time since we have such a gathering,” Joanne commented as she changed the tablecloth with Joyce.

“Maybe it’s because we’ve been through so much this year,” Joyce said.

“What will happen tomorrow?” Kenny asked, walking by at the time.

“Are you going to get into the philosophical mood now?” Joanne teased, her smile glowing along with the atmosphere of the night.

“He’s right though,” Gino chimed in, wanting to defend Kenny as part of the male population. “No one knows what will happen tomorrow. But…”

The others paused and waited for him to continue.

“I’m glad we’re gathering tonight,” Gino finished.

The others smiled and continued with their tasks again. They had already been informed of Gino’s departure in several days.

“Is this a Christmas plus New Year celebration then?” Calvin asked as he was bringing the plates over to the table.

Joanne and Joyce had moved on to help with carrying the other items to the tables as well after finishing with the tablecloth changing task.

“Call it whatever you want,” Kenny replied. “But if that hasn’t happened, we wouldn’t know so many are worried for us.”

They had all agreed not to mention about the fire that night, so Kenny had to get a bit crafty with his words.

“People naturally cling together in times of crisis though,” Calvin pointed out.

“Not everyone.”

“If you two philosophers would quit talking and do more,” Joanne joked, walking over to them again with the latest items.

“Yes, ma’am!” Calvin and Kenny said in unison—with Kenny saluting.

“Very funny,” Joanne mumbled before leaving the scene again.

“Are they done yet?” Charlene asked, looking at her watch as she placed the chopsticks down at the table.

“You don’t trust James ge’s culinary skills?” Joyce asked, her smile apparently teasing.

“No,” Charlene replied, a tad annoyed.

“I’m sure Jacky’s cooking isn’t terrible.”

Yes, the Chu brothers were cooking tonight.

“Time to eat,” Jacky announced as he entered the dining room. Then he could see everyone staring at him. “What? You guys aren’t ready to be lab rats?”

“Quit it already,” Joanne chided, appearing by his side and hitting him on the shoulder.

“No spousal abuse on New Years’ Eve.”

The others laughed as Joanne gave Jacky another sharp glare.


After dinner, the elders were back into the living room to have some tea together and continue with their conversation while the others cleaned up. Though having done enough already with preparing the meal, Jacky volunteered to help Joanne wash dishes. It seemed like they were returning to the old times, yet it was a much livelier atmosphere tonight.

“Hey,” Gino said upon seeing Joyce as he stepped outside into the night garden.

They’d finished with clearing the table already, so they had scattered out in groups to talk among themselves. Joyce decided to get some fresh air while Gino was just walking around until he encountered Joyce.

“Hey,” Joyce returned, settling down at a cemented block to one side of the path.

Gino sat down at a similar cemented block but at the other side of the path. “What a night, huh?”

Joyce knew Gino was trying to make conversation, so she nodded, agreeing. “I must admit that we haven’t been like this for a while. I could remember last year we were scattered out doing our own thing.”

Gino nodded.

“What time are you leaving next week?” Joyce asked, finally getting into the main topic. “We could come to the airport and see you off.”

“Around noon.”

“Are you going to set up a fitness center when you’re back there?”

Gino uttered a chuckle. “Not sure. There are a lot of those places over there.”

“They have quite a few where we live too but you managed to stay in business.”

“It’s a different world over there.”

“Well, whatever you decide, hope it would be successful.”

“Thanks.” Gino let out a sigh—as if having enough of the casual talk. He turned to stare at Joyce then. “We’ll always be friends, right?”

Joyce nodded, smiling. She took it to another step by reaching out a hand toward Gino. He took it and they had a friendly shake—as if that was to seal their deal and also to signal another chapter of their life ending. Then they released each other’s hands and looked up at the sky again, their conversation less strained and more natural.

Jacky and Joanne had stepped out around the time they heard Joyce asking Gino about the time of his departure. They decided to keep by the door so the two wouldn’t be interrupted. Therefore, had been witnessing the scene the whole while. After realizing Gino and Joyce had finally reached a peaceful agreement, they turned to each other and exchanged a smile—as if saying a greeting for the new year. A good closure indeed.

After that, they went back inside and waited by the TV with the others to see the ball drop. It was still several hours since they had decided on an early dinner. Yet something definitely seemed to be lacking though most of their family and friends were there.

“How about you kids go out there and join the crowd?” Mr. Chu suggested upon seeing some of them yawning.

“It’s late,” Mrs. Chu interrupted her husband’s good deed.

“It’s a good idea though,” Kenny jumped in.

“Zhi Rong,” Mr. Tseng scolded his son, not wanting Kenny to cause any trouble for the two.

“We’ll be together so it’s all right,” James reassured the others, apparently taking his father’s side.

“It’s not like we’re a bunch of three years old, right?” Jacky added, showing more support for their father.

“Enjoy yourselves then,” Mrs. Chu said at last.

Mr. Tseng and Mr. Wang nodded to the others.

“All right, let’s get moving, everyone!” Kenny commanded, getting up from his seat.

“Since when are we taking orders from you?” Joanne asked, tugging on Kenny’s ear.

“Now, kids,” Mr. Tseng interfered.

“Just kidding, Ba,” Joanne said, letting go of her brother’s ear.

After that, they piled out of the house one by one. Jacky stepped out into the garden to inform Gino and Joyce of the change of events if they wanted to join in. The two, of course, wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity so they agreed.

“This is more like it,” Kenny commented as they were downtown.

The others smiled, knowing Kenny’s dramatic gist at times. The streets were quite crowded, so they had decided to walk out here because there were still several hours more before the ball dropped.

“Where do you guys want to go from here?” Calvin asked, turning to the others.

“How about that bridge over there?” Kenny suggested, pointing toward a set of staircases up ahead. “It’s a good view.”

There were no objections, so they began to ascend the steps in groups.

“No one’s afraid of heights, right?” Kenny’s voice rang into their ears once again when they were all lined up by the bridge.

“If you are, we’ll hold your hand,” Joanne teased.

“Thanks a lot, jie, you have so much confidence in me.”

The others laughed.

“I haven’t felt this good in a while now,” James admitted as he looked at the view below them, his hands on the banister.

“Maybe it’s because…” Jacky began but stopped himself in time.

“Whatever you say, Little Bro.” It was like James had understood Jacky’s next words.

The Chu siblings were actually standing next to each other at the moment. So their exchange was like another familiar game seen in the past.

“Let’s not talk about those things tonight,” Joanne interfered. She was standing next to Jacky like always. Joyce was to her right and then Gino.

“I still feel like something’s missing though,” Kenny muttered, scratching his head.

“What?” Calvin asked, turning to Kenny.

They were standing next to each other with Calvin next to James.

“Let’s go,” Kenny urged, grabbing Calvin by the shoulder.

“Where are we going?” Calvin asked, though he was following Kenny’s lead.

“Where are you guys going?” Kristy yelled out, alarmed.

“You’ll know in a bit!” Kenny yelled back, still urging Calvin on. “We still have an hour or so!”

“Don’t worry,” James reassured Kristy. “They’ll be back.”

They continued to watch the sea of people below and the city lights in the buildings surrounding them. It wasn’t until half an hour later that Calvin and Kenny returned. They turned around when they heard Kenny’s outcry.

“He put me up to it,” Calvin explained himself upon seeing all eyes on them.

“You’re such a coward, man!” Kenny retorted. “Putting the blame on me.”

Then they heard popping sounds and lights dancing in front of them. Firecrackers. Those were sounds of firecrackers—and lights from firecrackers. The others, except for Charlene, turned to Joanne.

“I’m fine with firecrackers,” Joanne reassured them. “Kenny knows. He’s not inconsiderate.”

The others nodded. Charlene even advanced forward to take some of the unlighted firecrackers from her brother.

“They’re kids after all,” Joyce commented, smiling at their innocent activity.

“I was going to join in too,” Jacky joked.

“You know you want to,” Joanne exposed him, grabbing onto his hand also. “Come on!”

And that was how it began. They ended up having a firecracker in their hands each. Who could resist, right?

*****

Then the day finally came when Gino had to leave for Hong Kong. That day, because it was a weekday, only Jacky, Joanne, and Joyce were there to see Gino off. The others either had work or other commitments. After some initial good words being exchanged, Joanne led Gino to one side to have a talk.

“What’s going on?” Gino asked, his face showing traces of concern.

“Um…” Joanne hesitated.

“What?”

Joanne let out a sigh before speaking up again. “I know I apologized in front of everyone that day at the hospital.” She meant the day Gino was hospitalized and not her. “But I still want to say it to you again and apologize for myself only, not on everyone’s behalf.”

Gino put a hand up to stop her. “It’s over already, right? It was never your fault. I took a step forward and asked Xiao Qiao out. You wouldn’t know it and you didn’t do anything to sabotage us. I don’t think that I could blame Clara either—regardless of how childish her actions were. It was because of my inability to trust Xiao Qiao at that time that caused things to turn out for the worst.”

“But I always claimed that we’ve been friends forever and just turned my back on you like that when you needed me the most.”

Gino shook his head. “I shooed you guys away, didn’t I?”

“But…”

Gino shook his head again. “It doesn’t matter anymore. And I’m fine. So let’s start over, okay?”

Joanne knew she shouldn’t continue or try too hard to make up for her past wrongs. She nodded and they shook hands.

“Remember to tell me when the police are done with the investigation.”

“Definitely.”

After that, they joined the other two again before sending Gino the last of the farewells.

*****

Time soon moved on at a rapid pace once again. The police still hadn’t found any solid evidence to confront the rival shop or anyone for that matter. But they tried to rattle the other shop several times. The Tseng clan was given permission from the police to re-establish themselves again around January. They began the cleanup and many other planning to get the shop going again. Kenny still worked at the local music store but managed to come and help whenever he could between school and work. Because of the combined efforts from family and friends, they soon were able to clear the place out and get ready for the reconstruction process. It was around Lunar New Year that they were ready to open again. Yes, a fast job indeed but it was because they knew some local places and the others chipped in to help also. The power of having neighbors was the best. Nothing mattered when they had so much support around them.

One day before Lunar New Year, Joyce was at the counter tending to the last of the morning crowd while Joanne was in the back tending to the flowers like many times before. The only unusual thing was a guy they’d never seen before stepped in.

“Hi,” Joyce greeted him as she was done with the current customer. “Can I help you with anything?”

“I have to pick up an order for a friend,” The guy said, stepping toward the counter.

“Name?”

“I’m Derek, Derek Chen,” The guy answered.

“Your friend’s name.”

The guy let out a nervous chuckle, scratching his head. “Sorry. Stephen Chou.”

Joyce let it go without teasing the guy for being so out of it. She checked the notebook next to the cash register. They hadn’t installed any source of hi-tech system back for tracking their inventory or customer orders yet. They could only afford to install all the machinery and watering system to keep the flowers fresh. Not to mention they only carry a small amount of inventory due to space limitations. Reconstruction was still carrying on at the back, so everything was kept at a minimum for the time being.

“Qiao,” Joyce called out from the counter.

Joanne stopped in her tracks and stepped toward the counter. “What’s up?”

“What did you do with SCTN’s order?” Joyce asked, looking up from the notebook.

“Oh. He said he’s not in a hurry, so I told Kenny to pick up some more items.”

Joyce turned to Derek. “Are you in a hurry?”

Derek looked at his watch and then stared at the cell phone in his hand.

“I’ll just call him up and explain,” Joanne said, trying to ease the situation. “You call Kenny and tell him to come back.”

Joyce nodded.

“Sorry about this,” Joanne said, turning to Derek with a smile.

Derek nodded, not knowing what to say.

“Hello,” Joanne said into her cell phone. “Steve? Where in the world are you? Why did you send a messenger to pick up your flower basket? I thought you said you’re not in a hurry.” Then a pause. “Yeah, you have feet, stop making others your slaves.” Another pause. “All right. Bye.” She turned to Derek then. “SCTN says that he won’t hold you responsible so don’t worry. He’s going to drop by later after work to get it.”

“I don’t mind waiting,” Derek said.

Joyce got off the phone at that time. “Kenny says he’s stuck in traffic.”

Joanne turned to Derek again, smiling. “No choice.”

Derek scratched his head—as if thinking of something. Or was it because he didn’t trust them? “Could I just take a look at the flowers around the shop then?”

Joanne smiled. “Sure. Call us if you need anything.”

Derek nodded.

Joanne stepped out of his way and approached Joyce at the counter. “Cute or what?”

“What are you talking about?” Joyce asked, faking innocence.

“The better that he’s SCTN’s friend,” Joanne chirped, her smile cunning.

“Are you into the matchmaking business too?”

“You just admit interest,” Joanne declared victory and turned back to her task again, leaving Joyce at the counter staring after her.

© Friday, December 31st, 2010

Posted: Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

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