Chapter 13 – Discovery

It took us about two weeks before we earned enough – actually more than enough – to be on our journey again. During those times, Xiao Bai told us of a shorter route back since that was how he’d been back much faster than we were. So this should cut our trip in half.
The morning that we departed, Xiao Bai walked with us to the end of town.
“Send my regards to Granny Yang and Ah Xiang,” Xiao Bai said, knowing that we were going back to visit them.
“We will,” Ting Wei reassured him.
After that, we were off.
It was an understatement to say that Roger was the most relief among us when we departed from that place. It meant we were actually moving – moving toward our goal.
In the following days, we become like a group actually traveling together and toward a goal. This time around, I was more than glad to cooperate with them since there were no conflicts between us anymore. The fact that CJ and I had gotten along better made things easier on our journey back. There were fewer arguments, except the constant whining from Roger, but somehow we overridden him with our votes.
Within a week, we were halfway there unlike the first time around. Like other times, we checked in at an inn to resurrect our energy again to continue another day. Like other times also, I withdrew myself away from the group and wandered around, exploring the town. I never got a chance to take a look at the scenery when we were in such a hurry to find the medallion. But now that we’d accomplished our goal, I could relax and enjoy the scenes again.
I stopped at a little bridge in the center of town and admired the scene at that place. The scenery here reminded me of Hangzhou for odd reasons. But the most ironic thing was even such breath-taking scenery such as Hangzhou couldn’t bring me any comfort or peace. Here I was, staring at the crowded street in front of me, feeling at ease and happy even. As I was about to turn around to head back before it got dark, I spotted CJ walking toward me – like many times before.
“Done with your adventure?” He teased, flashing out his usual mischievous smile.
“Not quite,” I said, trying to contradict him just for old time’s sake.
“Oh?” He shot back, pretending to be puzzled.
I couldn’t help but smiled at his expression.
“You’ve learn to take it easy?” CJ asked in a semi-serious tone.
I nodded.
“Hopefully it’s for the better,” He said, a smile beginning to form on his face again.
“You want it to be for the worst?” I joked.
“You never know,” He said, shrugging his shoulders. “This could be the calmness before a storm.”
Leave it up to CJ to come up with the corniest line.
“Maybe,” I played along.
“I hope not,” He said in a serious voice, too serious for the CJ we all knew.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, turning my smile off.
“Nothing,” He said.
He turned around and began to walk away from me. I followed him, pondering what the problem was. We stayed silent the rest of the way back to the inn. In fact, the following days, whenever we stopped to rest, he would avoid me at all cost. Not necessarily like that, but he didn’t talk directly to me unless he had to. It was like the old rivalry between us was threatening to push forward again.
“What’s wrong with you, man?” Roger asked CJ one day when we were stopping for a rest at a riverbank.
“What do you mean?” CJ asked, giving Roger the look like Roger just came from a distance planet that wasn’t even discovered by the most brilliant scientists of our time yet.
“You’ve been quiet,” Roger said. “Too quiet.”
“Not everyone’s such a blabber mouth like you,” CJ snapped.
Apparently CJ and Roger had switched back to their original personalities from before the trip.
“Stop being mean,” Jing Jing interfered. “We’re almost home now. Let’s make the best of the rest of the time, okay?”
“That means we have to restrain from arguing until we arrive home?” CJ asked, giving her a disbelief look.
“Can you not attack every single thing I said?” Jing Jing asked, somewhat irritated by now.
“That’s life,” CJ said.
“You’re always mean to me and Angela in the past that I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” Jing Jing remarked. “I thought we suddenly got along since you and Angela seem to get along fine lately and you’re not attacking me either. But what’s with this change of attitude now that we’re almost home again? Trying to sharpen your claws so you can get back into your old routine when we’re back to our own time?”
“More like his teeth,” I mumbled under my breath.
I could see CJ smiling at my comment although I swore no one could have heard it. Then I realized that Jing Jing was right. It was always like that in the past. Something else I failed to pay attention. CJ never got along with Jing Jing or me. He would find every chance to attack us. Maybe I remembered it was only me because Jing Jing was really everyone’s favorite – but not CJ’s. We used to think he was anti-girls and maybe he was still now but was learning to interact with us better. And maybe because we were going home soon so he needed to polish his skills again to live up to his reputation with the rest of the population? I could not be sure of his actions. Trying to figure CJ out was like trying to predict the weather. No wait, it was easier to predict the weather. Maybe it should be “the lottery.”
“Angela!” I heard everyone calling my name.
“What?!” I asked, turning to them.
“You’re lost in thoughts again, huh?” CJ teased.
I sneered at him.
“Shao Han,” Ting Wei warned me.
“What?!” I asked, turning to Ting Wei – about to start a fight between us as well. “He started it.”
“You should know better than argue with me, jie,” CJ mocked again.
I had it. Without warning, I got up quickly and grabbed CJ by the shoulder, dragging him away from the rest of the group.
“Shao Han!” Ting Wei yelled after us.
“I have a score to settle with him!” I shouted back. “We’ll be back!”
“What are you doing?” CJ asked, alarmed.
“We’re going to talk,” I said subtly.
“Weren’t we talking the whole time though?” He asked innocently.
“You were picking a fight with the rest of us, not talking,” I clarified.
“So?” He challenged. “What’s wrong with that? It’s fun.”
“Fun my eyes,” I snapped. “Zhao Jia Le!”
I finally stopped – both to catch my breath and because I think we’d gone far enough from the others to not be eavesdropped on.
“What?” He asked, putting on that same teasing smile.
“What are you trying to pull? Why the sudden acts again?” I asked, gesturing in the general direction.
“What acts?” He still dared to put on that innocent look.
“I know something’s bothering you, so can you stop pretending like you’re so cool acting like a mean fool?” I managed to get out in one breath.
“Wow, you rhymed,” CJ complimented casually.
“Shut up!” I shouted. “I don’t know what you’re pulling, but are you being a bit too…”
“It’s like you’re withdrawing from us again because we’re going home soon. Don’t you want to be friends with us at all? Stop pretending to be the person you’re not. You’re not mean. Do you hear me, Zhao Jia Le?”
His cool smile finally turned off. I probably hit a nerve or two. But I knew it was a gamble I had to take. I knew that he was comfortable these past days being the considerate friend rather than the pretentious face he often put on when he was around us. Why must he be like that? I could understand that Roger needed to pretend he was a good person in front of others again without a mean bone in his body, but why must CJ try to be the opposite? Was there some sort of unknown compromise between those two to switch personalities when the other party wanted to?
“Shao Han,” He said, surprising me since he only called me by my Chinese name in front of non-modern world individuals. “I’m sorry.”
I could see the sincere look in his eyes.
“…for confusing you like that,” He finished. “But I am who I am. People don’t change, they just learn to hide their truth feelings better through time and experience.”
“Can you not hide from us though?” I asked, my voice a bit softer than before. “We’re your friends, aren’t we?”
He didn’t say anything.
“Aren’t we?” I repeated, sounding a bit stern than before because my anger and frustration were taking over again.
“Maybe,” He said, sighing out. “Maybe I’m wrong after all.”
For some odd reason, I understood what he meant, so I nodded. We walked back to the others again.
After that incident, CJ dropped it with playing cool since he didn’t want to upset me or the others anymore. But he couldn’t stop making random mockery at some of us – specifically at Roger and Jing Jing. But we couldn’t expect him to turn a new leaf so readily. At least he was not snapping at everyone. It was just a bunch of harmless jokes. Or was it?
We finally arrived at the river where we crossed at the beginning after another week. We were getting closer and closer by the minute. I could tell that the others were getting quite excited, especially Jing Jing. She stressed very strongly throughout the trip that she would go shopping after we got back.
We had to wait for several days until the boats operate regularly again since we were told a storm was going to hit soon. We didn’t mind really. What was a couple more days since we’d been here months already? To think of it, we’d been here almost a year. I wonder what it was like back home. Did they miss us to the point of hysterical?
Anyway, we went back into town to stay at an inn and waited for the storm to pass. Hopefully, it was not too bad.
After two days, Roger couldn’t stand it anymore since there didn’t seem to be any sign of a storm. He didn’t want to waste anymore time, so he went with Ting Wei back to the port to check again. They came back with the same news that the boats weren’t operating yet.
“Great,” Roger mumbled, sitting down at a chair next to Jing Jing.
“It’s not like we’re never going back,” CJ said. “It’s just a couple more days. We still have more than enough money.”
“Easy for you to say,” Roger said.
“CJ’s right,” Ting Wei said. “We should be patient.”
Roger stood up and left again, claiming he needed to go take a walk. And I thought he had more than enough already since he just came back. But whatever made him happy – or not.
“I’m going to get some laundry done,” I said, standing up and leaving also.
“You ran out of clothes?” CJ asked, wrinkling his eyebrows.
“It’s something to do,” I said, sighing out.
“Don’t tell me you caught onto Roger’s pessimist bug again,” CJ joked.
“Whatever,” I said, walking toward the back of the inn.
He was still tagging me for some reason. What happened to Ting Wei? I swore he was right behind us. I turned around to see only CJ was following me. I looked back at the corner table and found him in deep conversation with Jing Jing. They looked quite happy together. Stop it, I scolded myself. I needed to stop my paranoid nature. I turned around and marched toward the back to our rooms again. I took out all the dirty outfits I’d separated and placed it into a wooden bucket. CJ still followed me outside as I went to the back area where the well was. CJ helped me get water from it and poured it into the bucket.
“How come you’re not asking about Ting Wei and Jing Jing’s strange behaviors?” CJ asked, sitting down next to me as I began my task.
“Perhaps I shouldn’t be so paranoid,” I said. “After all, they’re friends. We all are, right? So talking to Jing Jing is normal.”
“Don’t you think he looks a tad too happy?” CJ jabbed again.
“Perhaps you’re thinking too much,” I said. “Are you itching with your reporter’s radar again? I thought you write sci-fis, not gossips.”
“I can improvise,” CJ joked, shrugging his shoulders.
I gave him a look before turning back to my task again.
CJ finally left after awhile since I stopped talking to him. It was not that I was trying to be mean or I was mad at him, but I was just so immersed in this task for some reason. I was that way sometimes. If I focused on something so much, I forget the people around me. CJ would understand. He always did – or at least he found out these past months we’d been together.
I finally finished my task around noon and hung the clothes next to my room for it to dry, hoping no one would take it. But for some reason, it was somewhat given around here or an unwritten rule that if it was not yours, you wouldn’t take it. One of the things I liked about the citizens around here.
I decided to go take a walk since it was just barely turning noon and the sun was shining nicely. As I walked out front, I saw Roger coming back. I managed to greet him with a smile which he returned by waving his hand and walking into the inn again. I shrugged and turned toward the street again. I wandered endlessly around the neighborhood, seeing that everyone was still running their businesses without worries. I wondered what kind of storm the sailors were talking about. Or maybe it was like they’d been through this kind of stuffs many times before, so worrying or not wouldn’t help? After all, we’d gone through natural disasters before and we still lived our lives the same way once it was over so it should be the same with them. I got so lost at different stalls and its many attractions that I had no clue I’d been gone half of the day. It was until the stall owners were packing up that I finally knew that I should head home since it was going to get dark soon.
I walked briskly back to the inn, knowing the others were probably worry about my whereabouts right now. I breezed through the door so fast I almost bumped into the waiter as he was tending to a customer near the door.
“Sorry!” I yelled out anxiously.
“It’s all right, Miss,” He said back. “Please be careful in the future.”
I nodded and smiled at him before heading back to our rooms. I couldn’t find the others around near our rooms at all, so I thought they might be in the guys’ room, talking away so I knocked on the door several times. Hearing no response, I decided to collect my clothes and fold it before searching for them again.
It took about half an hour for me to finish folding the clothes and try to put it neatly back into my pack since I wanted to organize it so that it wouldn’t look lumpy like several times before when I was careless. Carrying it would be easier this way too. Covering a yawn, I wondered if the others were back yet, so I headed next door to do some knocking again. Still no answer. I took the hint to go look for them. I went back out front to see the same waiter that I almost knocked over earlier standing by the counter. I scanned the area briefly to see no one around, so I made my way to him.
“Have you seen my friends?” I asked politely.
“Last I saw of them was about an hour ago. I think some of them went to the back to chat. They’re not in their rooms?”
I shook my head.
“I’m not sure either, Miss,” He said, scratching his head. “I’m sorry.”
“No problem,” I said. “I’ll go back there and look for them again. I might have missed a turn or two when I was back there.”
“Talking about that, Miss,” He continued. “There’s a room behind the well. People like to go in there to talk for some odd reason.” He smiled smugly.
“Thanks,” I said, smiling also.
I turned around and made my way back. I suddenly wondered why they needed to go there when what we usually talked about could be discuss in our rooms. Like we were a bunch of loud mouths who didn’t know how to whisper, especially in the things we’d been doing for almost a year now. I checked our rooms once more before heading toward the room behind the well. Before I could open the door, I heard some really loud sounds coming from there. I stopped myself from opening the door for some unknown reason. Actually, it was more like I recognized CJ’s voice. Why was he shouting? Was he crazy? I thought we had a promise that he wouldn’t go overboard with aggravating us. We were almost home. What was the deal here? I decided to confront him so I reached my hand up to push the door open again. However, I stopped myself when I realized Roger and Jing Jing weren’t the ones being attacked – like usual, but Ting Wei. I cranked my ears to listen again. Ting Wei usually had a leash on CJ and Roger about arguments. Why did he sound so timid now? I stopped my thoughts altogether and tried to focus on the heated argument coming from inside.
“Well?!” CJ demanded from inside, his voice getting a bit louder than before.
“I…” Ting Wei stuttered.
“Stop harassing him already!” Roger bellowed at CJ.
“So you want to vouch for him?” CJ asked.
“You and I know the whole thing in the first place, why pretend to act all virtuous now?” Roger asked, his voice full of mockery. “Don’t tell me you feel sorry for Angela.”
“Maybe I’m stupid enough to believe that you would choose soon in the first place. But what now? She just went out for a walk and you two are eating your hearts out at her expense again?”
“I…” Ting Wei stuttered again from his side of the room.
What in the world were they talking about? If they were arguing over food, then…
“You’ve been hiding it from her all these years already,” Roger said, cutting Ting Wei off. “In fact, we all were. Are you trying to score points with her now? Huh? Do you think she’s your sister for real? We’re your best buddies since we were in our cribs.”
“It doesn’t mean I would be blind of such actions,” CJ said, his voice a lot more calm than before.
How did a battle about food turned into talking about me? What was going on here? I stopped my thoughts again to listen in.
“What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her,” Roger said. “You’ve agreed with that all these years, why don’t you just suck it up and shut up too?”
“I had enough of your nonsense!” CJ suddenly shouted again. “That’s what you all got me into believing. But you just like to play Angela because she’s naïve and thinks that she’s the happiest girl in this world to have such a forgiving boyfriend and an understanding best friend.”
“You’re the one that needs to calm down,” Roger jumped in.
“I’m talking to him here,” CJ jeered. “And not you.”
“What difference does it make?” Roger asked.
I was getting quite impatient because of how they kept going around in circles. I was about to reach for the door again when CJ spoke up again.
“I mean it this time,” CJ said from inside. “I’m not going to be part of it anymore. You all should be ashamed of yourselves for doing such despicable…”
“Stop acting virtuous then!” Jing Jing’s voice shouted from inside.
I never guessed that Jing Jing was with them since she hadn’t spoke up once – although it made sense now because I couldn’t find her like the others on my searching rampage before.
“I should be telling you to stop your despicable doings,” CJ delivered back in a calm voice – too calm for CJ, considering the situation. “I don’t want to lie to Angela anymore. I will let you off this once and pretend I didn’t see you two trying to get back together behind Angela’s back, but next time…”
I tuned out every single other words CJ said or might have said in trying to finish his last words to them. So…they were…NO… I might have heard wrong. I shook my head and tried to focus in on their conversation again.
“CJ…” Ting Wei managed to speak up again. “Maybe you think what I’m doing is wrong, but…”
“Two-timing was never right in the first place!” CJ exclaimed, cutting Ting Wei off.
“If you say it a bit louder, she might hear it too,” Roger snapped sarcastically.
“She’s still on her walk,” Ting Wei said. “She probably won’t be back until another half an hour. It’s not getting dark anytime soon.”
What did they mean it was not dark yet? Then things began to dawn on me. They thought I was not around, but in case I returned before they were finished, they decided to come here and talk. Then I realized one more thing – Ting Wei just confirmed it himself that he was two-timing us – whoever the other person was. It must be Jing Jing. No, I couldn’t be paranoid. But who else?
Before I knew it, the door opened without warning. CJ stormed out, but stopped dead at the door when he saw me.
“Angela…” He uttered.
I unfroze my eyes for a bit to scan the room inside, seeing Ting Wei was pulling away from Jing Jing – his hands had been wrapped around her shoulders a second ago. Roger was standing at the opposite wall from them. I turned back to CJ.
“Angela,” He said again. “We…I…we were just…you didn’t hear anything, right?”
“Idiot! It’s all your fault,” Roger yelled from inside.
I could see Ting Wei making his way toward CJ and me. I turned my eyes back on CJ. He was looking at me straight in the eyes, but still he couldn’t speak up. He knew too well I’d heard it.
“You all know?” I finally blurted out.
“Angela,” CJ said softly, trying to grab my hands.
“You’re all liars!” I yelled out before disappearing from their sights.
I didn’t know what was going through my mind or if I was actually thinking of it at all. Or had it registered in my brain. Or maybe all my thoughts were jumbled together at that time so I no longer could distinguish whether the voices calling me were all in my head as I replayed all the scenes that could possibly be a clue of them all sharing a secret or of them calling out for me at the present time. I continued to run out of the inn, passing the front area and the counter. I could hear one of them or all stopping to apologize to someone – possibly the waiter I almost ran over earlier or it could be someone completely different. I no longer cared. I had to get away from them. All of the liars who I thought were my friends. To think that they’d let me believed I was the stubborn, unreasonable one all these times since the past month we’d been together after that near-death incident. I ran until I reached the port and suddenly realized my strength. When I finally stopped at the edge of the port, I noticed that it was actually raining by then. Or was it raining the whole time since I’d ran out of there? I no longer knew. But somehow the rain water made me feel better. I didn’t know how I could feel so at peace in such a confusing time and in such turmoil, especially when it was so dark out at the moment. Then I could hear someone calling my name nonstop. I vaguely remembered no one was running behind me after they’d apologized to the waiter. Or at least that was what I thought when I was running. I was no longer clear-headed so I wouldn’t know. Who could it be though? Who…
I froze in that moment when I could see CJ’s face as he approached me. I didn’t know whether to be happy or sad. I half expected or might have known deep down that it would be CJ. I should be happy that I was right, but I was not because that meant Lu Ting Wei was such a coward after all.
“Angela,” CJ said in his calm voice. “Don’t do anything rash.”
“Like jump?” I asked sarcastically. I was so close to the edge that I could pull it off if I wanted to.
“Why?” I cut him off.
“I asked you why!”
“Shao Han,” He tried again.
“Don’t call me that!”
“I didn’t want to lie to you when I found out. But I…”
I swore he looked like he wanted to cry right there and then. Why was he crying when I was supposed to be the one crying? Then I realized I was actually crying. It was just that I was so drenched with rain that I didn’t realize it before.
“What?” I asked, my voice a bit softer.
“He’s my friend since…” He gestured in the general direction.
“So you rather sacrifice someone for your friend like that? He’s cheating!”
“I didn’t want to hurt you either,” He said. “I don’t know what would happen if you found out and Ting Wei said he’s just torn between you two. He said he would make the decision soon. One year turned into two years. Two years turned into three. And it was getting harder to muster up the courage to tell you, especially when we were rivals. You would never believe me. I know it’s not a good excuse. In fact, excuses are not good to begin with, but…”
“You should have told me!” I screamed out with frustration. “Zhao Jia Le, you’re an idiot!”
“I know I am, I…”
His face looked so pitiful at that point that I couldn’t help but stopped my next words. Then I realized he was right. If he had told me in the past, I would have brushed it off as a joke or think he was nuts. It was not like we got along. I never really acknowledged we were friends at all these past years because of his non-stop attacks. But I’d never thought he would hide it because of me. But then again, the guys were good buddies. Was he putting up a show for me when I was most vulnerable and couldn’t really tell the difference at a time like this? But wasn’t he defending me before when they were arguing? He couldn’t be lying, could he?
“Angela,” CJ called out to me, bringing me back to the current situation.
“I don’t know whether to trust you or not,” I said finally.
“It doesn’t matter if you trust me or not,” CJ said in a sincere tone. “What matters is that you won’t do anything rash tonight.”
“You just don’t want to be responsible,” I mocked.
“Angela, please,” CJ begged. “Even if you’re mad at us, don’t hurt yourself.”
I kneeled down on the ground at that time, not knowing what to do or how to react. I felt so tired, so confused. Then I felt CJ bending down next to me also. He took me into his arms and tried to sooth me, but I brushed his hands off when I realized what he was doing. He fell backwards. I jumped up and tried to run out of there – back into town again.
“Angela!” He yelled out.
He caught up to me a minute later and blocked my path.
“What do you want?!” I shouted. “I can’t trust you or anyone right now! Can’t I be alone?!”
“It’s raining,” He said, stating the obvious.
“So you’ll get sick.”
“Like you care.”
“If I don’t care, would I drench myself in this madness?”
“Anyone can put up this front.”
“I thought you said you know I’m not like that and that you can detect when I’m pretending or when I’m not.”
I stopped and turned to look at him. “I can no longer distinguish between what’s fake or real when you can hide something like that from me and I never would have found out if I hadn’t got back early.”
“If you want to get your frustration out before you would listen to any of our words, then go ahead…hit me.”
“You think that would earn you some bonus points?”
“It helps.”
“How can you be so calm when I’m so mad?!”
“Because you’re Zhang Shao Han and I’m Zhao Jia Le.”
Then I remembered back to that one time when I asked him during our last year of high school. I wanted to get along with him when he kept trying to destroy every bridge of goodwill I built for us – mostly because of Ting Wei. I asked him why he had to pick on me so much, like I’d offended him in any way. He had said, “Because you’re Zhang Shao Han and I’m Zhao Jia Le.” Yes, because Zhang Shao Han and Zhao Jia Le would always be at odds, one striking, the other counter-striking – exchanging roles back and forth, one happy while the other irritated.
“Angela,” He called me again.
It was probably because of my long pause.
“Because we are who we are,” I said, rephrasing what he said.
“Yes,” He said, smiling.
“Why didn’t you tell me at all? You think I’m an idiot?” I started to beat on his shoulders.
Of course I was the idiot, I thought. And CJ knew that too, but he was just letting me get my frustration out.
“Angela, calm down,” He said, contradicting on his words a minute or so ago. “I’m going to die of abuse before I even catch pneumonia.”
I continued to hit him – changing targets, and he tried to catch my hands, which he succeeded after a few more times.
“You’re lying still,” I said. “You said I could hit you.”
“Your hands will hurt,” He said.
“Idiot,” I said.
For some odd reasons, beating him up did help. It was probably because I was so worn out also.
“Are we good now?” He asked.
“No,” I said. “Never.”
“How can we be good when we have to deal with them for the next few days too?” I finally cried out loud.
“Come on,” He said, half not believing I would suddenly break down out of nowhere and half amused.
He grabbed hold of my shoulders right then and pulled me to him. He patted my back as I cried some more, feeling like a kid being reassured – but I was no longer mad at him. There was something that you just understand without saying. If he had stayed serious any longer, I would have never believed him. But because he was Zhao Jia Le and I was Zhang Shao Han, he could never act serious in front of me – or anyone for too long.
“I think you should hurry with your crying session though,” CJ said suddenly, still patting my back. “’Cause the storm’s getting bigger, literally that is.”
I hit him on the back for saying that. How inconsiderate can he be?
© Friday, September 12th, 2008
Posted: Saturday, March 13th, 2010