The upcoming week went by in a mixture of confusion and blur for them. For one, Sophia wasn’t around anymore. It wasn’t because she had taken offense in Qiao Qiao’s snappy attitudes at times. And it wasn’t because of Jacky’s doing either. It was merely because she had to finish one of her novels, and had called Jacky so he could pass the words around to them. Though knowing that didn’t really ease Jacky’s mind either. He was so used to having her around that the lack of her presence felt strange, out of place even. But he tried to distract himself with work. And the project Sophia assigned to him to complete while she was gone. It was something she said would help his recovery process.
As for the others, they moved on with their daily life affairs as well. They had always been living. Having Sophia around or not didn’t increase or decrease the impact of their lives. They were only glad Jacky had something to occupy his time. As for Qiao Qiao, she’d calmed down and seriously thought about focusing on her and Tang Feng more than trying to pick a fight with Sophia. She couldn’t anyway, but she tried not to care too much. She spent so much time with Tang Feng that she even accompanied him to the old shop when Tang Feng needed to meet up with Cynthia to sign a new lease that Friday afternoon. That was when they run into Chen Yi as well. Chen Yi was there to sign up for a new course. He’d been taking different courses at the new shop for a while now as a leisure activity. Sometimes Achel would take it with him–if time would allow. Though the shop was now called “Xin Ru’s Art Gallery” but Qiao Qiao wasn’t used to it yet. Each time she was there, she couldn’t help but think about the times they’d spent there when it was “Orchids Agency” and then later “Feng Ling”. It was there that she came to know Jacky and later Tang Feng, interestingly enough, the two most important men of her life–aside from her father.
“Hey!” Chen Yi yelled.
It was then that Qiao Qiao got pulled out of her reminiscence episodes. She wrinkled her face and turned to Chen Yi with a scowl on her face.
“It’s Kris!” Chen Yi continued to yell, not reading the annoyed expression on Qiao Qiao’s face. Or he had chosen to ignore it.
Qiao Qiao wrinkled her face even more, still somewhat annoyed–and confused. “Who?”
“Kris Shen, the guy who used to go to our high school, remember? And hung out with us a lot.”
Qiao Qiao looked in the direction Chen Yi was pointing, shielding her eyes from the afternoon’s sun. Yes, they were actually standing outside of the shop since the line was long. Qiao Qiao had chosen to wait for Tang Feng outside since she didn’t want to meddle into Tang Feng and Cynthia’s business–and because she wanted to talk to Chen Yi.
“I don’t see him,” Qiao Qiao said, her voice normal again, not annoyed like before. That also meant she finally remembered who Chen Yi was talking about.
“He looks different now,” Chen Yi said, his voice lowered on purpose.
Because the guy Chen Yi called out to had approached them. Chen Yi began talking non-stop, asking questions as Qiao Qiao gawked at the guy. Not really gawk, but she had to admit he looked different.
“What have you been doing, man?” Chen Yi continued with his questions. “You look like some megastar celeb.”
Kris smiled, shaking his head. It was like he understood Chen Yi’s exaggerated humor from their past school days too well. “I have to admit I did take up some modeling jobs from time to time.”
“That’s so cool. We know this one model too.”
Chen Yi nodded. “We have so much to catch up on. Like a lot. Give me your new number.”
At that moment, Qiao Qiao took out her own phone without needing to be told. The three of them exchanged numbers before continuing with their conversation. Qiao Qiao had stopped gawking and could finally interact normally with Kris again.
“Did you just sign up?” Chen Yi asked, his turn with the questions–since they had decided to take turns with the questioning session instead of letting Chen Yi have the advantage.
Kris did a quick glance of the shop before turning to both of them again. “Sign up for what? I was just inside getting some items.”
Chen Yi studied the said items as Kris waved the bag in his hand out. “You must be new to this place. This place doesn’t just sell art stuff, but they also offer courses like each season for those who are interested in learning some of the art techniques as well.”
Chen Yi nodded. “I’ve been taking some of the courses when I have time. It’s really cool since they’re not trying to commercialize everything, just good old art.”
Kris’ interest had cranked up several notches from his facial expression. “What’s the fee per course?”
Chen Yi shook his head. “No charge.”
“Hard to believe, but hey, it’s one of the reasons why there’s a long line. But the real reason is the lady boss said she wants to spread the spirit of art around, not just making money. Hey, she said she’s already making money from all the items from her shop.”
“She said that to the actual public?”
Chen Yi shook his head. “She told us in private.”
Kris stared at Chen Yi, trying to detect some traces of mischief. Then he turned to Qiao Qiao. As if remembering something, he had on his own cunning smile. “You two finally got together?”
Chen Yi started laughing as Qiao Qiao punched Kris on the shoulder without hesitation like before. It was like she knew that smile from the past–and was suddenly able to remember the days when the guys teamed up on her.
“He’s with Xiao Yu,” Qiao Qiao answered as Kris faked an injury and took a step back from them.
Kris returned his eyes to Chen Yi. “Like seriously?”
“You’ve been using those few words way too many times, you know.”
Kris shrugged. “Hey, you can’t blame me when it seemed like I’m gone from here for a while and it’s like so much stuffs changed around you guys. What else is new? If you’re not with him, then what’s going on with you?”
“She managed to score herself a rich dude,” Chen Yi joked.
Qiao Qiao punched him on the shoulder–and didn’t care if it hurt. She hoped it would.
Chen Yi turned to Qiao Qiao with an incredulous expression at that time. “What? Like I’m wrong.”
“You’ve been hanging around Ehlo too much.”
Chen Yi scoffed. “Like I have a choice. We’re from the same clan.”
“Now you lost me,” Kris interrupted their banter.
“New group of people we met up with,” Chen Yi filled in. “I’ll get to the details later when we finally get to meet up, okay?”
Kris nodded. “It’s a deal then.”
“Talking about that, how long are you staying? Or are you moving back for good?”
Kris scratched his head then. “I’m not sure. I followed my aunt and uncle back. I want to take a look at things first.”
Kris looked at his watch. “I better get going.”
“You got our numbers so…”
Kris nodded as Chen Yi signaled with his phone. He even turned and waved to Qiao Qiao before leaving.
“How about that, huh?” Qiao Qiao said, shaking her head.
“And you were saying how boring it has been in town lately, huh?” Chen Yi teased.
“Either boring or infuriating,” Qiao Qiao snapped, her bad moods taking over again.
Chen Yi understood too well what had been going on. It was just that he chose to ignore it since he didn’t feel like it was a big deal. “Oh come on, we all hate changes but it doesn’t mean we have to react so strongly, right? Besides, you don’t have to focus on it anymore. Kris’ back now. We could find many ways to occupy our time with him while he’s here for the visit. What do you say? Gather the old gang up and do something fun. Like the old days, no new people included.”
Qiao Qiao had to smile at that, remembering too well what type of person Kris was. And probably still is. In a way, Kris was like Tang Feng, a typical prankster. He had hung up his hat the year before they left town. But Kris and Chen Yi used to be a team versus her and Yan Yan. Then there was Achel but Achel was too passive at times that they didn’t want to bully her too much.
“Hey, you ready to go?” Tang Feng asked, appearing in front of them at that time.
Qiao Qiao looked around and found Cynthia back in front of the shop again, helping the employees with other tasks. She realized she was so occupied with Kris’ matter and past memories that she had forgotten to look out for them. She smiled when she saw Tang Feng studying her closely.
“Yeah, come on.”
“I’ll see you back at Jacky’s later,” Chen Yi rattled out, knowing too well the line wasn’t getting any shorter–even with Cynthia’s help. There were also the lines for customers so it wasn’t like the others weren’t making any effort.
The get together at Jacky and the other guys’ place wasn’t something planned. Not really. It was a habit that they often gather there around the weekend to talk random. Or plan some other activity for the future. It was a habit that they hadn’t broken free from since the day they met as a large group several years back.
“You guys won’t believe what happened today at the shop,” Chen Yi said as he settled down at the sofa. He just arrived about a few minutes back with Achel. She had met him at the shop after work.
“What happened?” Ehlo asked, looking over from the other corner of the sofa.
“One of our friends from high school came back into town. At least for a visit.”
“More like his partner in crime,” Qiao Qiao mumbled from the rocking chair.
“You didn’t say anything earlier,” Tang Feng noted, staring at her. He was sitting at a chair next over that he managed to pull up earlier.
Qiao Qiao shrugged. “You know how Chen Yi loves fairytales so I’m saving it for him.”
The others laughed as Chen Yi had on his annoyed expression.
Qiao Qiao didn’t back down just from that threatening glare. “Anyway, you can proceed, storyteller.”
Chen Yi still had on his annoyed expression but continued with his story as Achel patted his shoulder to calm him down. “Anyway, since Kris’ in town now, I’ll probably be planning some gathering with him so I might not come around anymore. We might need to borrow all your significant others so we could do our own gathering.”
“Like high school reunion?” Ehlo asked, faking interest.
Chen Yi shrugged. “Whatever works.”
“This Kris guy was from your high school?” Tang Feng asked–though Chen Yi had emphasized that point already.
“He was at the shop earlier, remember?”
“The one who was leaving as I stepped outside?”
Chen Yi nodded. “He used to like Yan.”
Upon hearing those words, half of the people in the room turned to look at Tony. Qiao Qiao was the one getting up from her place and punching Chen Yi on the shoulder.
“What?” Chen Yi exclaimed, obviously annoyed.
Qiao Qiao rolled her eyes. “Duh.”
Chen Yi still had on his clueless expression. “What?”
Qiao Qiao tilted her head toward Tony’s direction.
Chen Yi finally got it and rolled his eyes. “Oh come on, I said ‘used to’, didn’t say he’s still carrying a torch for her and is going to declare war against Tony. So Tony has nothing to worry about.”
“Like Tony needs to worry about anything,” Ehlo mumbled.
“They have history, you know,” Wallace jumped in. He was actually in his room typing up some paper and just stepped out to take a break.
Ehlo scoffed. “That says nothing, Huo. You and my girl have history too and look where it went.”
“Hey!” Angela blurted out, looking at Ehlo with a threatening glare.
“What I mean is it doesn’t matter who knows whom first, okay? It’s about having compatible personalities.”
“Good save, Huang,” Wallace mocked.
Ehlo saluted. “Thanks, Huo.”
Everyone didn’t need to look at his expression but was able to detect the sarcasm from his voice.
“When’s Jacky coming back?” Chen Yi asked suddenly.
Wallace shrugged. “He’s still on that treasure hunt.”
“Hey, you gotta admit it’s a good distraction for him,” Ehlo pointed out.
“Yeah, it’s making him so worn out he can’t focus on his work,” Qiao Qiao stabbed.
“Keep telling yourself that, kid.”
“She’s not here, why can’t I express my opinions?”
“Because it’s called talking behind someone’s back.”
Qiao Qiao scoffed. “Like anyone here is that innocent.”
“Whatever you want to say to cover up for yourself.”
“Knock it off already,” Angela interfered. “Let’s get dinner ready and I need to get home.”
Ehlo looked at his watch then. “So early?”
“I need to balance Uncle Zhe’s account for him again.”
Ehlo nodded. “Oh.” Then he remembered something. “You know what? We should go right now. I mean after I change. I need to stop by the nursing home to check on Grandpa Chou.”
Angela turned to look at him. “It’s your turn to visit him? And you delay it until now?”
Ehlo had on his charming smile. “Come on, it’s good to give him some surprise instead of just arriving at some routine hour.”
“You almost forgot and I just reminded you since I have to leave early, right?”
Ehlo shrugged. “Hey, come on, it’s only this one time.”
“You know we can’t afford to forget.”
Ehlo saluted. “Got it, Mrs. Huang.”
Angela gave him a look but he was still smiling, trying to drive away her fierce expression.
Qiao Qiao wrinkled her face. “Who’s Grandpa Chou?”
“Sophia’s grandfather,” Chen Yi answered. “We’ve been taking turns visiting him at the nursing home for Sophia. Where have you been, hello?”
Achel took it into her hand to tug on Chen Yi’s sleeve but he didn’t receive the message hence continuing with his rant. When he finally realized why they didn’t include Qiao Qiao, Qiao Qiao was already looking at them all bewildered. Yet she soon recovered, finally opening her mouth to voice her thoughts about the newly learned piece of information.
“Oh, nice to learn that the person you’ve been raving about would leave her grandpa in such a place.”
“What’s wrong with being in an old home?” Ehlo argued. “You know why she decided to let her grandpa stay there in the first place?”
Qiao Qiao was still standing her ground, her attitude cranked all the way up. “Can’t be too good.”
“She thought of that idea for a long time before even going through with it. She once shut herself in her room for five days writing her novel. Can you imagine what it’s like? That girl is one crazy author all right. So it’s lucky that she thought of putting her grandpa in the home or she would be starving him and herself for five days. Not to mention how the old man’s health is not what it used to be anymore. And could you imagine what the old man must have thought if he was there for that? He must be really worried and feel neglected at the same time.”
“That’s just an excuse so she could roam around and…”
“Like putting him in there doesn’t cost money.”
Qiao Qiao scoffed. “Money…that’s a good reason to support her actions?”
“Hey, you’ve gone past the line. Just because you and I have too much money to toss around and we don’t even have to work if we don’t want to do not mean everyone’s like that. And if it was someone else wanting to carry out their filial duties and making excuse like they will keep their grandpa by their side by saying that they will take good care of him, etc, are they doing it because they love him or just for show? Qiao, because she knows that she can’t take good care of him when he’s around while the home got all these healthcare and other necessities for him, that’s why she even made that decision. Sure, she doesn’t come to visit him every day because of work, but can you guarantee that you see your grandpa every single day and take care of him at every moment without feeling the stress of it all? Or could be the best grand-daughter on this planet, according to your definition?”
That got Qiao Qiao. She was no longer eager to disarm Ehlo’s many so-called excuses or his effort to defend Sophia. The other reason she was suddenly quiet was because she was sincerely thinking over what Ehlo had been saying–without the bias filter placed in.
As the room continued to stay silent, Ehlo got up from his place and left for his room. Angela had gotten up also but was standing by the front door to wait for Ehlo. Wallace had also returned to his room to finish his latest report. Though Tang Feng had on the expression like he wanted to say something but he let Qiao Qiao be, sorting things out on her own instead of trying to convince her more than that. Ehlo had already done that, no one else needed to step in anymore. At one time, Achel had turned to look at Esther to see if they needed to step in. After all, they were her so-called pals since high school. Yet Esther shook her head, indicating Qiao Qiao could handle this one on her own. When Achel returned her attention to Chen Yi, he just smiled and grabbed her hand. He urged her up and departed along with Tony and Esther. They weren’t leaving because of what had happened, but they already had plans ahead of time. Ehlo and Angela ended up walking with the other four outside. It was also then that they spotted Jacky and Sam talking out in the driveway about something. A new plan perhaps?
© Sunday, July 15th, 2012
Posted: Friday, November 2nd, 2012