Chapter 22

Several hours spent in the hospital, the doctor finally informs them that Joanne needs to stay overnight for further observation. Joyce has joined them in the waiting area while they waited earlier. When Joanne is being transferred to Inpatient, Gino also comes to see them. The others turn to Joyce unknowingly upon seeing his presence, not sure how to start. However, Gino continues into the room to ask about Joanne, indicating that he has no problem with being in the same place as Joyce – though they have broken up (officially and not just because of what Clara did).
They stay in Joanne’s room for another hour before receiving words from the police through Jacky’s cell phone. One of the officers comes into their room in another half an hour. He informs 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 continues.
“Two guesses it’s who,” Kenny mumbles at one corner of the room. He’s 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. Zeng chides, shaking his head – as to signal for Kenny to behave in front of the officer.
The officer doesn’t show traces of being offended. Instead, he turns towards Kenny. “You know who might be involved?”
“He’s just upset over what happened,” Mr. Zeng interjects before Kenny could shoot his mouth.
The officer scans the room once and then turns to Mr. Zeng 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 speaks up for the first time since the officer entered.
Everyone turns 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 jots that down and continues to ask them for more details. He leaves after fifteen more minutes since he has exhausted his questions for the time being and promises to get back to them.
“Everyone should go home and rest,” Joanne urges the others when the officer has left already. “It has been a long day.”
“I’ll stay here with you,” Jacky insists.
Joanne shakes her head. “I’ll be fine.” She turns to signal for Kenny and Charlene.
Kenny finally unfreezes from his place and gets up, having deciphered the signal his sister sent him. “Let’s go.”
“But…” Charlene protests – obviously not getting it.
“Dad,” Kenny says, urging Mr. Zeng to his feet. “We’ll come back tomorrow to visit. The doctors told us she’s fine.”
Charlene finally gets it and gets up to help her brother escort their father out also. Jacky turns to Joanne once again but she reassures him with a smile, indicating that he should go.
“I can stay behind,” Joyce volunteers. “I’ll keep you company until visiting hours are over.”
“Me too,” Gino says. “I’ll go get us some food first.”
“Sounds good then,” Joanne agrees, smiling. She knows Jacky wants to stay behind and witness a possible development so she turns to him again. “You can come back later if you want after dropping the others off.”
Jacky finally makes a move.
“Actually,” Gino says, 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 exchange a look but do not interrupt Gino.
“I was going to tell you that I’ll be going back to Hong Kong after the New Years.”
“Why?” Joanne asks, her eyes automatically looking towards Joyce. But she forces her attention back on Gino.
“It’s not what you think,” Gino explains. “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 smiles then. “I just thought I told you first since we’re buddies, right?”
After that, Gino leaves the room to go get them some food while the girls stare at his disappearing back.
“Well?” Joanne says after Gino’s out of earshot.
“What?” Joyce asks, like it has nothing to do with her.
“Final decision?”
Joyce smiles. “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 nods. “I’m just not so sure what everyone around me thinks anymore.”
Joyce reaches out a hand towards Joanne and places it on her shoulder. “You okay after what happened today though?”
Joanne nods again.
“What about…”
Joyce doesn’t dare to say ‘fire’ or ‘flame’ or any words that associates with the whole traumatizing experience that links to Joanne’s past.
Joanne shakes 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 sends Joanne an encouraging smile. “You have us.”
Joanne smiles also. “I know. And I’m just so lucky.”

*****

 Two days later, Joanne’s discharged from the hospital and returns home with everyone gathering around her. At least the ones who are able to make it. It is indeed in time for the holidays. Though they aren’t able to make it with Christmas, but they still have a little time to prepare for a New Year get together. This year, the occasion is celebrated at the Zeng resident. Even Mr. and Mrs. Chu come over to celebrate with them. In fact, it is a full house that night on New Years’ Eve. The Wangs are also there. While the elders are chatting among themselves in the living room, the others are gathered around the kitchen setting up and preparing the food.
“It seems a long time that we have such a gathering,” Joanne comments as she changes the tablecloth with Joyce.
“Maybe it’s because we’ve been through so much this year,” Joyce says.
“What will happen tomorrow?” Kenny asks, walking by at the time.
“Are you going to get into the philosophical mood now?” Joanne teases, her smile glowing along with the atmosphere of the night.
“He’s right though,” Gino chimes in, wanting to defend Kenny as part of the male population. “No one knows what will happen tomorrow. But…”
The others pause and wait for him to continue.
“I’m glad we’re gathering tonight,” Gino finishes.
The others smile and continue with their tasks again. They have already been informed of Gino’s departure in several days.
“Is this a Christmas plus New Year celebration then?” Calvin asks as he’s bringing the plates over to the table.
Joanne and Joyce have moved on to help carrying the other items to the tables as well after finishing with the tablecloth changing task.
“Call it whatever you want,” Kenny replies. “But if that haven’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 points out.
“Not everyone.”
“If you two philosophers would quit talking and do more,” Joanne jokes, walking over to them again with the latest items.
“Yes, ma’am!” Calvin and Kenny say in unison – with Kenny saluting.
“Very funny,” Joanne mumbles before leaving the scene again.
“Are they done yet?” Charlene asks, looking at her watch as she places the chopsticks down at the table.
“You don’t trust James ge’s culinary skills?” Joyce asks, her smile apparently teasing.
“No,” Charlene replies, a tad annoyed.
“I’m sure Jacky’s cooking isn’t terrible.”
Yes, the Chu brothers are cooking tonight.
“Time to eat,” Jacky announces as he enters 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 chides, appearing by his side and hitting him on the shoulder.
“No spousal abuse on New Years’ Eve.”
The others laugh as Joanne gives Jacky another sharp glare.

*****

After dinner, the elders are back into the living room to have some tea together and continue with their conversation while the others clean up. Though having done enough already with preparing the meal, Jacky volunteers to help Joanne wash dishes. It seems like they’re returning to the old times yet it is a much livelier atmosphere tonight.
“Hey,” Gino says upon seeing Joyce as he steps outside into the night garden.
They’ve finished with clearing the table already so they have scattered out in groups to talk among themselves. Joyce decides to get some fresh air while Gino is just walking around until he encounters Joyce.
“Hey,” Joyce returns, settling down at a cemented block to one side of the path.
Gino sits down at a similar cemented block but at the other side of the path. “What a night, huh?”
Joyce knows Gino’s trying to make conversation so she nods, 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 nods.
“What time are you leaving next week?” Joyce asks, 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 utters 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 lets out a sigh – as if having enough of the casual talk. He turns to stare at Joyce then. “We’ll always be friends, right?”
Joyce nods, smiling. She takes it to another step by reaching out a hand towards Gino. He takes it and they have a friendly shake – as if that is to seal their deal and also to signal another chapter of their life ending. Then they release each other’s hands and look up at the sky again, their conversation less strained and more natural.
Jacky and Joanne have stepped out around the time they hear Joyce asking Gino about the time of his departure. They decided to keep by the door so the two wouldn’t be interrupted. Therefore, have been witnessing the scene the whole while. After realizing Gino and Joyce have finally reached a peaceful agreement, they turn to each other and exchange a smile – as if saying a greeting for the new year. A good closure indeed.
After that, they return inside and wait by the TV with the others to see the ball drop. It is still several hours since they have decided on an early dinner. Yet something definitely seems to be lacking though most of their family and friends are there.
“How about you kids go out there and join the crowd?” Mr. Chu suggests upon seeing some of them yawning.
“It’s late,” Mrs. Chu interrupts her husband’s good deed.
“It’s a good idea though,” Kenny jumps in.
“Zhi Rong,” Mr. Zeng scolds his son, not wanting Kenny to cause any troubles for the two.
“We’ll be together so it’s all right,” James reassures the others, apparently taking his father’s side.
“It’s not like we’re a bunch of three years old, right?” Jacky adds, showing more support for their father.
“Enjoy yourselves then,” Mrs. Chu says at last.
Mr. Zeng and Mr. Wang nod to the others.
“All right, let’s get moving, everyone!” Kenny commands, getting up from his seat.
“Since when are we taking orders from you?” Joanne asks, tugging on Kenny’s ear.
“Now, kids,” Mr. Zeng interferes.
“Just kidding, Ba,” Joanne says, letting go of her brother’s ear.
After that, they pile out of the house one by one. Jacky steps out into the garden to inform Gino and Joyce of the change of events if they want to join in. The two of course wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity so they agree.
“This is more like it,” Kenny comments as they are downtown.
The others smile, knowing Kenny’s dramatic gist at times. The streets are quite crowded so they have decided to walk out here because there are still several hours more before the ball drops.
“Where do you guys want to go from here?” Calvin asks, turning to the others.
“How about that bridge over there?” Kenny suggests, pointing towards a set of staircases up ahead. “It’s a good view.”
They have no objections so they begin to ascend the steps in groups.
“No one’s afraid of heights, right?” Kenny’s voice rings into their ears once again when they are all lined up by the bridge.
“If you are, we’ll hold your hand,” Joanne teases.
“Thanks a lot, jie, you have so much confidence in me.”
The others laugh.
“I haven’t felt this good in awhile now,” James admits as he looks at the view below them, his hands on the banister.
“Maybe it’s because…” Jacky begins but stops himself in time.
“Whatever you say, Little Bro.” It’s like James has understood Jacky’s next words.
The Chu siblings are actually standing next to each other at the moment. So their exchange is like another familiar game seen in the past.
“Let’s not talk about those things tonight,” Joanne interferes. She’s standing next to Jacky like always. Joyce is to her right and then Gino.
“I still feel like something’s missing though,” Kenny mutters, scratching his head.
“What?” Calvin asks, turning to Kenny.
They’re standing next to each other with Calvin next to James.
“Let’s go,” Kenny urges, grabbing Calvin by the shoulder.
“Where are we going?” Calvin asks, though he’s following Kenny’s lead.
“Where are you guys going?” Kristy yells out, alarmed.
“You’ll know in a bit!” Kenny yells back, still urging Calvin on. “We still have an hour or so!”
“Don’t worry,” James reassures Kristy. “They’ll be back.”
They continue to watch the sea of people below and the city lights in the buildings surrounding them. It is until half an hour later that Calvin and Kenny return. They turn around when they hear Kenny’s outcry.
“He put me up to it,” Calvin explains himself upon seeing all eyes on them.
“You’re such a coward, man!” Kenny retorts. “Putting the blame on me.”
Then they hear popping sounds and lights dancing in front of them. Firecrackers. Those are sounds of firecrackers – and lights from firecrackers. The others, except for Charlene, turn to Joanne.
“I’m fine with firecrackers,” Joanne reassures them. “Kenny knows. He’s not inconsiderate.”
The others nod. Charlene even advances forward to take some of the unlighted firecrackers from her brother.
“They’re kids after all,” Joyce comments, smiling at their innocent activity.
“I was going to join in too,” Jacky jokes.
“You know you want to,” Joanne exposes him, grabbing onto his hand also. “Come on!”
And that is how it begins. They end up having a firecracker in their hands each. Who could resist, right?

*****

Then the day finally comes when Gino has to leave for Hong Kong. That day, because it is a weekday, only Jacky, Joanne, and Joyce are there to see Gino off. The others either have work or other commitments. After some initial good words being exchanged, Joanne leads Gino to one side to have a talk.
“What’s going on?” Gino asks, his face showing traces of concern.
“Um…” Joanne hesitates.
“What?”
Joanne lets 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 puts 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 shakes his head. “I shooed you guys away, didn’t I?”
“But…”
Gino shakes his head again. “It doesn’t matter anymore. And I’m fine. So let’s start over, okay?”
Joanne knows she shouldn’t continue or try too hard to make up for her past wrongs. She nods and they shake hands.
“Remember to tell me when the police are done with the investigation.”
“Definitely.”
After that, they join the other two again before sending Gino the last of the farewells.

*****

Time soon moves on at a rapid pace once again. The police still haven’t found any solid evidence to confront the rival shop or anyone for that matter. But they have tried to rattle the other shop several times. The Zeng clan is given the permission from the police to re-establish themselves again around January. They begin the cleanup and many other planning to get the shop going again. Kenny still works at the local music store but manages to come and help whenever he could between school and work. Because of the combined efforts from family and friends, they soon are able to clear the place out and get ready for the reconstruction process. It is around Lunar New Year that they are ready to open again. Yes, a fast job indeed but it is because they have known some local places and the others have chipped in to help also. The power of having neighbors is the best. Nothing matters when they have so much support around them.
One day before Lunar New Year, Joyce is at the counter tending to the last of the morning crowd while Joanne is in the back tending to the flowers like many times before. The only unusual thing is a guy they’ve never seen before steps in.
“Hi,” Joyce greets him as she’s done with the current customer. “Can I help you with anything?”
“I have to pick up an order for a friend,” The guy says, stepping towards the counter.
“Name?”
“I’m Derek, Derek Chen,” The guy answers.
“Your friend’s name.”
The guy lets out a nervous chuckle, scratching his head. “Sorry. Stephen Chou.”
Joyce lets it go without teasing the guy for being so out of it. She checks the notebook next to the cash register. They haven’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 machineries and watering system to keep the flowers fresh. Not to mention they only carry a small amount of inventory due to space limit at this point. Reconstruction is still carrying on at the back so everything’s kept at a minimal at this point.
“Qiao,” Joyce calls out from the counter.
Joanne stops in her tracks and steps towards the counter. “What’s up?”
“What did you do with SCTN’s order?”  Joyce asks, 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 turns to Derek. “Are you in a hurry?”
Derek looks at his watch and then stares at the cell phone in his hand.
“I’ll just call him up and explain,” Joanne says, trying to ease the situation. “You call Kenny and tell him to come back.”
Joyce nods.
“Sorry about this,” Joanne says, turning to Derek with a smile.
Derek nods, not knowing what to say.
“Hello,” Joanne says 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 turns 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 says.
Joyce is off the phone at that time. “Kenny says he’s stuck in traffic.”
Joanne turns to Derek again, smiling. “No choice.”
Derek scratches his head – as if thinking of something. Or is it because he doesn’t trust them? “Could I just take a look at the flowers around the shop then?”
Joanne smiles. “Sure. Call us if you need anything.”
Derek nods.
Joanne steps out of his way and approaches Joyce at the counter. “Cute or what?”
“What are you talking about?” Joyce asks, faking innocence.
“The better that he’s SCTN’s friend,” Joanne chirps, her smile cunning.
“Are you into the match-making business too?”
“You just admit interest,” Joanne declares victory and turns back to her task again, leaving Joyce at the counter staring after her.
© Friday, December 31st, 2010
Posted: Tuesday, May 10th, 2011