When Jacky and Mr. Tseng came back to the shop, it was getting dark. Joanne should close the shop already, but the lights were still on and the sign “Open” was still greeting them as Jacky opened the door for Mr. Tseng. Jacky flipped the sign to “Closed” as he closed the door and made sure it was locked.

“Qiao Qiao, where are you?” Mr. Tseng called out.

Joanne wasn’t behind the counter. Jacky circled around the other side to see if Joanne was tending to a last-minute customer. He met Mr. Tseng at the table in the middle of the store where they sat during the afternoon tea, but there was still no sign of Joanne. Both Mr. Tseng and Jacky looked beyond worried by then. Jacky tried to keep calm for Mr. Tseng’s sake. He approached the backroom. He heard voices coming from there. He stopped to listen carefully and realized that Joanne was talking to someone. Possibly shew as on the phone with someone and couldn’t stop to talk to them. Jacky turned back to Mr. Tseng to signal that he found Joanne. Mr. Tseng sighed out in relief and made his way around the store again to close up.

Jacky turned back to the backroom. He stepped into the room to see Joanne and a guy standing by the coffee maker in the corner, talking and laughing. Jacky had never seen Joanne this excited when she talked to someone before—except to him. Who was this guy? His back was turned to Jacky, but the guy did look familiar. However, Jacky couldn’t remember where he’d seen the guy. How come no one told him about this guy before? Was Joanne seeing someone else without his acknowledgment? Jacky decided not to be paranoid. He took in a deep breath before approaching the two.

Joanne smiled brightly upon seeing Jacky. Her eyes sparkled. Jacky felt a bit reassured since he was the only one receiving that response.

“We’ve almost called the cops because we couldn’t find you,” Jacky said in a half-teasing and half-serious tone. “Luckily, I looked in here first and signaled to Uncle.”

“Very funny, Young Master Chu,” Joanne returned, meeting him halfway.

Joanne took a hold of his left arm and hauled him back to the corner where the other guy was standing. The guy had turned to observe Jacky when Jacky spoke up, but Jacky was too busy studying Joanne’s expressions to notice. He finally turned to look at the guy as Joanne was about to introduce them. Jacky’s expression turned from curiosity to surprise as he recognized the guy.

“This is my boyfriend, Jacky,” Joanne said to the guy. “And Jacky…” She had to poke Jacky in the back to wake him up from his little dazed trance. “…this is one of my long-time friends from high school, Gino.”

Jacky extended his hand before he realized that this guy didn’t like handshakes. “Nice seeing you again.”

Gino shook Jacky’s hand this time. “Yeah. Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“You two know each other?” Joanne asked, looking from one guy to the other.

“Yeah,” Jacky answered, nodding. “We’ve met at the bank. Actually, he sort of saved my life.”

“Don’t put it like some action movie,” Gino said, letting out a nervous laugh. “I just happened to be there at the right time.”

Jacky and Gino took turns telling Joanne what happened earlier. When they were finished, Mr. Tseng stepped in.

“Ba!” Joanne exclaimed. “Guess what happened?”

Jacky then filled Mr. Tseng in that Gino was actually the guy who saved him earlier. After they were done with the whole catch-up stories, Mr. Tseng invited Gino back to the house for dinner.

“Great idea!” Joanne said excitedly. “We can catch up some more on what you’ve been up to.”

Joanne was so excited that she forgot she had grab hold of Gino’s arm in the process. Jacky and Mr. Tseng exchanged a look. Mr. Tseng cleared his throat twice before Joanne took the hint to let go. After that, they all helped Mr. Tseng clean up the backroom before heading to the Tseng resident for dinner.

*****

On the way back, Joanne was chatting away excitedly with Gino that suddenly Jacky and Mr. Tseng had plenty of time to do some bonding—unlike all those previous times that Mr. Tseng had to fight with Joanne to investigate further about Jacky. Of course, Jacky was driving with Mr. Tseng in the passenger seat while Joanne took the backseat with Gino.

When they were halfway from the Tseng resident, Jacky’s cell phone rang. He answered when the song got to its second verse.

“Hello? Yeah. We’re heading home now. No, Qiao Qiao’s house, not mine. My parents aren’t home until next week. Yeah, James’ around but he’s always out somewhere with…um…the fifty years old lady. What?! What am I supposed to call her? What? You mean Miss Zhao doesn’t have anyone to eat dinner with? Are you kidding me? What happened to your boyfriend? Okay, hold on.” Jacky turned to Mr. Tseng at that time. “Uncle, can I invite a guest to dinner?”

Mr. Tseng took a quick glance toward the backseat. Then he turned back to Jacky. “You mean your other girlfriend?!”

He had said that a tad too loud although Jacky was right next to him.

“Yes, sir,” Jacky answered, knowing Mr. Tseng’s intention.

Mr. Tseng rubbed his beard before answering. “Since my Qiao Qiao doesn’t seem to mind, I guess that’s fine with me too.”

“Thanks, Uncle,” Jacky said, smiling before addressing Joyce again. “Uncle said you can come.”

“I know. I heard him,” Joyce said.

“You’ll know why when you meet us at the house,” Jacky said, laughing.

“What’s with the mysterious behavior?”

“Nothing. You know the direction, right?”

“Yes. Of course. I’ve been there numerous times already, remember?”

“Just testing you. All right. Can’t talk anymore. I’m driving right now. Bye.” He hung up and tossed his phone in the compartment below the CD & radio slot.

Jacky continued to drive and talked with Mr. Tseng. Once in a while, he would glance in the rearview mirror and caught Joanne chatting happily with Gino.

*****

They arrived at the Tseng resident to find Joyce standing at the front door waiting for them. She chipped in to help them with dinner for the most part and talked away with Jacky for the majority of the time since Gino occupied most of Joanne’s time during the last few hours. It was around 8 P.M. that they were about to sit down at the dinner table to eat.

“Thank you so much for helping, Xiao Qiao,” Mr. Tseng said.

Joyce smiled. “No problem, Uncle. I’m glad to help. Besides, I don’t want to be here and just eat without helping.”

Mr. Tseng chuckled. “Our Qing Qing isn’t home right now, so it’s good that you came by, or the house would feel empty.”

Joyce was setting the table while the others were transferring the foods to the dinner table from the stove. Gino and Joanne were still talking but they were also helping. Jacky and Joyce had been working together as a team mostly because he seemed to be a “third-party” somehow along the way. Actually, since he came back to the flower shop with Mr. Tseng. Fortunately, Joanne had paused from her “conversation” long enough to introduce Gino and Joyce somewhere along the way.

“You okay?” Joyce asked as she was walking by him.

“Splendid,” Jacky replied half-heartedly.

“Don’t look so awful. Look on the bright side. At least, your girl is popular, right?”

“I’m not jealous.” His tone had indicated defensiveness.

“Did I say you were?”

Jacky gave her a look and changed the subject. “I think that’s all of it. Let’s get ready to eat.” He raised his voice a bit as he said the next words. “If Miss Tseng is okay with it.”

Joanne turned toward Jacky at that time. “What?”

“We’re done. Let’s eat,” Jacky said innocently, gesturing toward the dinner table.

Mr. Tseng sat down at the head of the table while Jacky sat to his right. Joanne ended up on Mr. Tseng’s other side with Gino next to her. Joyce sat next to Jacky after seeing Joanne taking the seat across the table from Jacky.

“Uncle, should we wait for Kenny and Charlene?” Jacky asked, turning to Mr. Tseng.

Mr. Tseng glanced at his watch. “They’re probably out somewhere again. Let’s eat first. We’ll just save some for them.”

Jacky nodded and dug in as Mr. Tseng did.

“Eat this,” Joanne said to Gino from across the table. “I made it.”

“We know, Miss Tseng,” Jacky mumbled from his side of the table. “We were all here when you made it like an hour ago.”

Joanne wrinkled her face. “What are you getting at?”

“I think your boyfriend wants you back,” Joyce teased, smiling.

Jacky kicked Joyce under the table while Joanne stared at the two. Gino looked puzzled but was starting to get it.

“Um…Jacky, right?” Gino asked casually.

“Last time I checked, yes…that’s my name,” Jacky shot back.

“Sorry. It’s just that we have a lot of stuffs to catch up on.”

“It’s all right. Don’t listen to Xiao Qiao. She’s just being sensitive.”

This time, it was Joyce’s turn to kick Jacky.

“Lucky you’re not wearing high heels today,” Jacky said, turning to look at Joyce.

“What?” Gino asked with a puzzled expression on his face.

“Nothing. Let’s eat.”

They ate in silence for ten minutes before they heard the door—the one in the kitchen—opening. Everyone turned to see who. A very wet Charlene stepped into the dining room seconds later.

Mr. Tseng stopped his chopsticks in midair upon seeing the sight. “What in the world happened to you?!”

“It didn’t rain, did it?” Jacky asked, looking outside through the kitchen window.

“You went to the water park?” Joyce guessed.

“You fell into a fountain?” Joanne joined in.

“Very funny,” Charlene snapped, wrinkling her face. “Are we playing the guessing game here? ‘Cause there isn’t any prize for the one who gets it right.”

“What happened?” Gino asked, sounding a little more concerned than the others.

“Finally someone who cares for my well-being,” Charlene blurted out before looking at Gino more closely. “Who the world are you?”

“Don’t you remember him?” Joanne asked her sister. “He used to come by all the time. He left for Hong Kong to further his studies there after high school.”

Charlene wrinkled her face, trying to remember. Then she exclaimed out, “Ooooo…I know! Your ex-boyfriend!”

Jacky’s chopsticks almost flew out of his hands, but he caught it again in time. Everyone’s attention turned to Joanne.

“What are you talking about?” Joanne asked, her turn to wrinkle her face. “You remembered wrong. He’s Gino, not Dino.”

“Oooo….oops,” Charlene said, slapping her left hand on her forehead. “How should I know?”

“That’s not the point,” Joanne said, attempting to divert attention away from herself. “Why are you so wet? What happened?”

“Uh…” Charlene hesitated.

“Did you do something wrong again?” Mr. Tseng asked casually.

Mr. Tseng’s unusually calm words weren’t surprising to everyone present since they know too well of Charlene’s abilities to encounter trouble all by herself without any help. Mr. Tseng even yawned sometimes when Charlene told her tales. The initial shock usually got Charlene started without having to ask for the details.

“Ba!” Charlene whined. “You make it sound like I’m always running around looking for trouble.”

The others went back to eat dinner as Charlene pouted. She finally gave up after a full minute and left.

“Where were we before?” Joanne asked, turning her attention to Gino again.

Gino swallowed before talking. “I was telling you about what happened during my 3rd year at the university.”

“Oh, right.”

“Here we go again,” Jacky mumbled under his breath.

“At least, they’re not ex-bf/gf like Charlene said, right?” Joyce reassured him, tilting her head toward him as she talked so the others couldn’t hear them.

Jacky turned to Joyce and gave her a murderous look.

Charlene came back ten minutes later—all changed and freshen up again. She was approaching Jacky’s side of the table and was about to sit down next to Joyce when the door opened again. This time, nothing “excited” like the previous incident happened.

“Hey, Kenny,” Jacky greeted him.

“Hey, everyone!” Kenny said cheerfully. “Guess what happened?”

“You won the lottery?” Joanne guessed.

“No, he probably found out some underground band’s hideout,” Jacky jumped in before Kenny could respond to his sister.

“How did you know?” Kenny asked excitedly.

“After about six times, it becomes quite predictable, you know,” Joyce commented.

“Xiao Qiao jie jie, could you stop bursting my bubbles?” Kenny asked, looking somewhat down—like he has been slapped in the face by an unknown force.

“Your point?” Jacky asked.

“Why are you two sitting next to each other?” Kenny asked, suddenly realizing the table setting.

“Your future bro-in-law just got demoted,” Joyce responded.

Jacky kicked Joyce again. This time, Joyce was prepared. Jacky ended up kicking the air and losing his footing. His foot ended up swinging a full-motion, kicking Gino before he regained himself. Gino looked at him. Jacky muttered a “Sorry” before turning back to give Joyce a murderous look again.

“Did I miss something?” Kenny asked, looking from one person to the next suspiciously.

“If you join us, I’ll fill you in,” Joyce offered.

“You got a deal, Xiao Qiao jie,” Kenny said mischievously. He pulled out the chair next to Joyce and settled down.

“Hey! That’s my spot,” Charlene protested, still standing nearby.

“I don’t see your name paste on it,” Kenny said, pretending to inspect the chair he was sitting in at the same time.

“Uh…ge! You’re so mean,” Charlene whined, turning to Mr. Tseng. “Ba!”

“Zhi Rong,” Mr. Tseng said, still in a calm tone but there was some firmness in it.

“Dad, I sat down first,” Kenny argued.

“She’s the youngest. You should know better.”

“If you can answer my trivial question, I’ll let you sit. Fair?” Kenny negotiated, turning to Charlene.

Charlene stomped her foot at that time. “Ge!”

“How old are we here? I think I should get you a baby strap and the high chair,” Kenny suggested, standing up. “I think Dad put it in the closet. Let me go check.”

Charlene used that opportunity to gain the seat instead while Kenny was walking toward the closet next to the kitchen sink. He smiled as Charlene took the seat, proud of herself. The others understood too well of his intention. Although he seemed cruel, bullying his little sister, he knew his limits. A little harmless teasing was all he cared for.

“Victory!” Charlene exclaimed proudly.

“Can we all eat peacefully now?” Mr. Tseng asked them all.

Charlene nodded happily as she picked up the rice bowl in front of her that Joyce had already scooped earlier when it was supposed to be Kenny’s seat. Kenny returned to the table and sat next to Gino. He set down a soda can that he had taken from the fridge.

“Soda, anyone?” Kenny offered, tapping on the can.

The others shook their heads since they were busy eating. Gino waved his hand politely while Joanne had no clue what Kenny just said. On the other hand, Charlene had reached over to Jacky and placed into his rice bowl some of the chicken pieces that she had picked up with her chopsticks.

“What for?” Jacky asked, surprised.

“I just know you love to eat this dish, that’s all,” Charlene replied, smiling sweetly at him.

Joyce edged back farther in her seat and leaned against the backrest while observing Jacky’s expression at the same time.

“Uh…you remember wrong. I don’t like chicken. That’s…uh…James. He was here for dinner the last time, remember?”

“Oh…sorry,” Charlene said, her face turning red from embarrassment.

“It’s all right. At least I’m not allergic.”

Charlene edged back to her side, giving Joyce back her personal space.

Joyce leaned sideways toward Jacky, whispering, “Since when did you hate chicken?”

“Since you had your hair done this afternoon,” Jacky whispered back.

Joyce straightened up in her seat, kicking Jacky under the table again.

After that, the table became quiet again. Another ten minutes passed by. Everyone at the table—excluding Kenny and Charlene, who arrived home late—got up and began to clear the table, only leaving the still half-full dishes for Kenny and Charlene.

While Jacky and Joyce were washing dishes and drying them, Gino and Joanne proceeded to the living room and continued their “conversation.”

Mr. Tseng excused himself but said that he would be back in a few.

As Jacky handed Joyce yet another dish, Joyce spoke up. “Looks like you’re going to be in ‘exile’ for a while.”

“When did that guy come back anyway?” Jacky asked.

Joyce shrugged. “How should I know? I came back today with you, remember?”

“I think he just came back today and looked Qiao Qiao jie jie up,” Kenny answered from the dinner table. “‘Cause he wasn’t here before. I mean he used to hang around here a lot. So if he came back earlier, he would have been around here already.”

“How could you be so sure?” Joyce asked, turning to Kenny.

“I’m just here for about ten minutes or so and I can tell. You guys should catch on already.”

Joyce realized what Kenny was hinting at. “That’s right. They’ve been going on for the last hour or so.”

“Six hours plus and counting,” Jacky corrected her.

“Thanks for the record, Young Master Chu,” Joyce said, turning back to Jacky.

Seeing Jacky’s annoyed expression, Joyce didn’t want to push it. They continued with the dishes until the sink was clear. Then they came back to the dining table to sit and chat with Kenny and Charlene. This time, Jacky and Joyce sat on Kenny’s side of the table. Jacky made sure not to sit directly across from Charlene.

*****

About fifteen minutes later, Mr. Tseng came back with a photo album in hand. He set it on a corner of the dining table and resumed his spot at the head of the table. Jacky moved over a seat to sit next to him. Charlene’s eyes sparkled as she saw a spot empty. Of course, she had finished eating about five minutes ago and was done clearing the table. Kenny had left ten minutes back, claiming he needed to make a call.

Jacky, seeing Charlene’s expression, turned to signal to Joyce before turning his attention back to Mr. Tseng. Before Joyce could make a move, Joanne zoomed in out of nowhere and sat next to Jacky. Her right hand slipped around his shoulder with a cheerful expression on her face. Jacky, alarmed—knowing it was not Joyce, turned to see who. Seeing it was Joanne, he smiled back at her, slipping his left hand around her waist.

“Guess what?!” Joanne asked them, still in her cheerful tone.

Although still looking at Jacky, her question was meant for everyone at the table.

“Don’t tell me we’re playing the guessing game again,” Joyce teased.

Joanne turned to Joyce with her hand still on Jacky’s shoulder. “Not exactly, but you can guess if you want to.”

“What is the prize then?” Jacky asked.

“Two free tickets to the amusement park near our house,” Joanne said, turning back to Jacky.

“Jie, that’s nothing,” Charlene said, wrinkling her face.

“Hey, I’m not some multi-millionaire who can offer you much more than that.”

“Why don’t you just tell us then?” Jacky interfered.

“All right,” Joanne said, quivering her lips a bit. “No fun, but better than being robbed of two tickets.” She smiled again before continuing. “Gino said that he’s going to hang around here for a while.”

Jacky, realizing that Gino had been standing behind him all this time, turned to face Gino. It seemed that everyone had turned to look at Gino also, not just Jacky. Gino grinned at them.

“Actually, I’m back for good this time,” Gino informed them. “I’m going to try and find a job around here also.”

“That’s great then,” Jacky mumbled half-heartedly.

“Just splendid,” Joyce chimed in.

“What’s so splendid here?” Kenny asked, walking into the room at that time. He looked from one to the other. “I missed something?”

“You’re always late,” Joyce pointed out.

“Does anyone want to take a look at some old pictures I just found in my room?” Mr. Tseng spoke up, trying to change the subject to lessen the subtle hostility all around.

Joanne turned her attention back to Mr. Tseng. “Ba, are those photos from our childhood?”

Mr. Tseng continued to flip through the album. “No. More like your high school years. Look for yourself.”

Mr. Tseng slid the album into the center for the group to see. Gino took the seat on Mr. Tseng’s right this time while Charlene sat next to Gino. Jacky, Joanne, Joyce, and Gino all ended up standing and hovering around the album while Charlene tried to get in a few words in between. Kenny was munching on some snacks he found from the fridge. They were chatting away as they browsed through the album. Joanne still had her hand around Jacky’s shoulder all the while, but Jacky had to remove his hand from Joanne’s waist so he can flip the pages of the album.

“You look like an assassin in this picture,” Jacky joked.

“You want me to carry out my plans on you?” Joanne warned him.

“At least, that means you’re paying attention to him,” Joyce pointed out.

Jacky couldn’t kick Joyce for that comment, but he gave her a dagger look instead.

“I think we have some of Shang Fu’s picture somewhere in there,” Mr. Tseng said.

“Really, Uncle?” Gino asked, surprised. “I can’t remember taking pictures here.”

Mr. Tseng scratched his mustache. “It must have been when Zhi Rong was into being a photographer, so he kept snapping away rolls and rolls of films.”

“I remember that time,” Gino said, chuckling. “It seems like so long ago.”

Jacky continued to flip through the album as Gino was talking to Mr. Tseng about the old days. Jacky stopped dead at a picture of Gino and Joanne. Gino had his left hand around Joanne’s shoulder while Joanne had her right hand around Gino’s waist. Jacky turned to Joanne.

“Senior year,” Joanne said, smiling still. “End of the year party. Gino used to look so gangster that no girl would dare to approach him, so I took the sacrifice to be his date. Don’t we look cool together?”

Jacky wrinkled his face and formed an expression that said, “And he doesn’t now?” to Joanne’s comment about Gino’s past look. Joanne slapped Jacky’s right shoulder, indicating that he was being mean. Only Joyce understood the exchange between the two. She smiled and gave Jacky a look that said: “Serves you right.” Suddenly the room became quiet or maybe Jacky didn’t notice before. He looked up at the others across the table in time to catch Gino staring at Joanne. He wrinkled his face and snapped his attention back on the album, edging purposely closer to Joanne by pretending to be flipping the album pages some more. They finished looking at the album ten minutes later and sat back down in their usual place again. Gino excused himself at that time since he had to wake up early the next day.

Joanne withdrew her hand from Jacky’s shoulder. “How will you get home? I mean you came with us earlier.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll just haul a Taxi or something,” Gino said, gesturing in the general direction.

“I’ll drive you home,” Joanne offered.

Jacky coughed. “What about me?

Joanne turned to him. “Go with Xiao Qiao.”

Jacky sat back in his chair, giving Joanne the look: “And let you two be alone?”

“You’re paranoid,” Joanne said, wrinkling her face.

“It’s fine. I’ll just go by Taxi,” Gino said, sensing the tension.

Joyce stopped Gino as he was heading for the door. “Wait. Where do you live?”

Gino told her.

“No way! I live near there,” Joyce said, surprised.

“Then…can I get a ride with you instead?” Gino asked, trying to edge out of the sticky situation Joanne placed him in a minute before.

“Sure,” Joyce said with a smile, nodding at the same time.

Joyce could see the satisfied smile on Jacky’s face mixed with gratitude when she turned to face him again. However, as if masking passivity, Jacky got up and pushed his chair in. Joanne and Joyce got up also, following Jacky to the front door. Mr. Tseng was the only one remaining at the table. Charlene looked after the group, pouting inside. Kenny had left a bit back since he lost interest in their “album viewing ceremony.”

*****

Jacky and Joanne arrived at Jacky’s house around 10:30 P.M. They could see that the majority of the house was dark, except for the tiny light rays coming from the kitchen window. Jacky got out of the car as Joanne parked in front of his house. He turned back as he was about to close the door. He was about to tell her something, but she beat him by speaking first.

“Were you jealous today?” She asked, looking at him intently.

“Whatever gave you the idea?” Jacky asked back, wrinkling his face.

Joanne laughed before answering. “I’m not blind you know. But I couldn’t help it. I haven’t seen Gino for so long that I just got carried away.”

“I’m fine with that,” Jacky said casually.

“Are you? Come on. Don’t lie.” She got out of the car at that time, shutting the door behind her. She circled around to the other side to where Jacky was standing. She slipped her arms around Jacky’s neck and leaned into his left shoulder. Automatically, Jacky’s hands slipped around her waist. “Better?”

“You’re always so full of tricks,” He said finally.

“I only treat him as a brother, okay? Dad also treats him that way, so don’t worry. I mean like his son, not son-in-law.”

“Does that mean I still have the son-in-law position?”

Joanne snapped her head up from Jacky’s shoulder and stared at him. “Young Master Chu, you’re quite a joker. Get in the house before the night dew gets to you.” She strode back to the other side and got into the car.

Jacky smiled to himself, knowing too well of her bizarre nature. He shut the car door on his side and stepped back a little so she could back out of the driveway. He looked after her until her car disappeared into the night before going into the house.

© Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

Posted: Thursday, April 21st, 2011

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