Two months later, Sophia’s book published hence she was busy with promotions. They divided the tasks among themselves once again to help ease Sophia’s load with visiting her grandpa like before. This time, even Qiao Qiao and Kris joined in. Actually, it was Sophia’s first promotional event ever. Though she had published books in the past and it had garnered the superfluous amount of feedback. Yet she hadn’t appeared in front of the public eye before. It was mostly because she wanted to continue her low-profile life. This time, she wanted to do it in order to conquer her fears of crowds. The others had been taking turns to suggest different techniques and try to help her get through it. In a way, she felt it was only right to not disappoint some of the faithful readers who had supported her throughout her career.
Their busy schedule picked up with Sophia’s promotional events and carried through several months later into both the new years. However, it wasn’t just about work-related commitments but also plans of gatherings for the holidays. Before they knew it, they were exchanging their winter clothes for some lighter ones. The weather was always so unpredictable with wind and rain but there were days when they were able to enjoy to its fullest extent with knowing that spring was finally back in its course. Though occupied with the incoming buzz of activities in the past four months, they had been enjoying themselves with the newly presented challenges. Yet, if only it was that simple because when mid-March rolled around, Tang Feng came to Jacky and the other guys’ place to deliver a piece of news. His grim expression was a hint for hostility but when Wallace opened the door, he had misinterpreted Tang Feng’s expression for fatigue. From where Tang Feng was standing, he was able to see that Wallace was dressed for jogging. He wasn’t surprised about that since Wallace had taken up more active exercise routines these past years after he had switched his work area to home-based for the most part. It was only right to implement some exercise routine to keep in shape.
“Hey, what’s up?” Wallace greeted Tang Feng with the usual casual tone. He glimpsed at his watch quickly. “If you’re looking for the others, they’re not home yet. But if you don’t mind waiting, I’ll be back in a bit. You know, from my usual route.”
Tang Feng had on his troubled expression but it was like Wallace hadn’t registered that into his mind. Not yet. Or had he been too comfortable with their drama-free record these past months that he couldn’t detect it?
“Actually, I was going to call you,” Tang Feng finally spoke up. “But I thought it would be better if I come here personally.”
“What’s going on?” Wallace asked, his face finally displaying traces of worry. It was hard not to when Tang Feng was easing into the situation so slowly. So unlike his usual witty self.
Tang Feng let out a heavy sigh and looked in the direction of the path leading out to the driveway before turning back to face Wallace. “Remember how you’ve been saying that you’re in the waiting mode?”
Wallace nodded, feeling uneasy about where this was going. Though Ehlo had been teasing him about it for months, in fact for the past two years, it felt different when Tang Feng said it in that morbid, lifeless mood of his.
Tang Feng let out another sigh, his confidence seemed like an illusion they had conjured up in the past to associate with his prankster persona. “You don’t have to wait anymore. Cyndi has a new boyfriend now.” He paused before adding, “I’m so sorry.”
And that was when Wallace dismissed the small voice in the back of his mind altogether. That small voice had been scolding him for jumping to conclusions, edging toward paranoia, and conjuring up all sorts of negativity for Tang Feng’s possible upcoming words. Yet he wasn’t paranoid this time, and that small voice scolding him was wrong. But Wallace kept his composure after the initial shock displaying on his face. He just nodded, like Tang Feng just informed him of the day’s weather change.
“All right then,” Wallace said, his voice leveled. “I’ll be heading for my run now.”
But he didn’t allow Tang Feng to get in any additional words. He just slammed the door and started running, allowing the landscapes to zoom by at a dizzying pace. That was also when Tang Feng realized the door wasn’t locked. He tried to call after Wallace but it was all in vain. Wallace had shut him out. Tang Feng had no choice but to enter the house and set up a search party. He didn’t want to leave the house unattended, especially when he had a feeling Wallace didn’t bring the key with him. And shutting himself out too wasn’t an option at this point. There were just too many other what-ifs.
Jacky was the one who found Wallace. Wallace was sitting on one of the benches at a deserted lake nearby. It was one of those really old small bodies of water several blocks around their area that hadn’t turned into some commercialized venue yet. The bench was just a regular wooden bench some of their neighbors had gotten together to carve and set up for whoever wanted to use it. Instead of calling the others back or calling out to Wallace in a relieved manner, Jacky just silently walked over to where Wallace was and sat down next to him. In a way, Jacky was the only one who could possibly understand what Wallace was going through. Though Cyndi had stressed that Wallace should move on and not wait for her, and everyone knew their relationship was already over, but it was Wallace’s own way of hoping, right? It was also the sole reason why he hadn’t even shown any signs of a breakdown like Jacky had more than two years ago.
“I seriously thought she was the one,” Wallace said after about ten minutes since Jacky settled down at the bench.
Jacky clapped Wallace’s shoulder then. “I know. It was the same for me. But…our instincts can be so misleading, right?”
And they were back in the silence as the sun made its way down, letting its last rays of lights disappearing completely and replacing itself with total darkness. It wasn’t like Jacky didn’t know what to say or how to say it to make Wallace feel better. But it was because he’d understood too well it wasn’t necessary to utter out those senseless words. They knew each other far too long to go forth with those completely useless protocols. It was only a matter of time before Wallace would eventually let go. And if Wallace wanted to talk about it, Jacky knew he and the others would be willing to listen at any time.
When they came home, Sophia was waiting for them at their doorsteps. Though she had the key, there wasn’t any car around so she knew they weren’t in.
“I can’t just barge in and invade your privacy like that, right?” Sophia said before Jacky could even ask her the reason for being outside alone in the dark like that.
It was then that Jacky exchanged a familiar look with Wallace. Wallace shrugged, not knowing what to say either. So Jacky’s only choice was to unlock the door and let both parties in. It was also around then that they heard sounds of other cars pulling in. Jacky had called the others back when he and Wallace left the lake to inform them that he’d found Wallace already, calling the search party off altogether.
As Ehlo and Angela entered the house, they didn’t say much either, understanding that they shouldn’t push for questions regarding Wallace’s situation. It wasn’t just because Tang Feng already explained it to them before their search, but it was about respecting Wallace and giving him the much-needed space at the moment. Ehlo only clapped Wallace’s shoulder briefly when he entered the kitchen and settled down next to Wallace. Angela, on the other hand, ended up helping Sophia cook up some soups for them all.
When Tang Feng, Qiao Qiao, Chen Yi, and Achel arrived, it was also just in time to eat. They, like the others, didn’t say anything at all. At least not in the areas of the situation. Though Tang Feng still had the guilty look in his eyes, he didn’t say anything else.
As for Wallace, he felt much better after downing some soup and letting his mind clear away for the time being. It was also then that he finally realized why Ehlo liked Sophia so much. It was because she was able to balance them all out with her mixture of liveliness and passivity. Her caring gestures were always done in silence. And it was like it was her duty to erase all their worries, not something she did and expected returns.
Dinner passed in a mixture of illusion and placidity for Wallace, but when it was time for the others’ departure, he made sure to get a word in with each and every one of them as they were piling out the door. Tang Feng was the last one to leave. He had signaled for Qiao Qiao to wait for him outside.
“I don’t know what else to say except…” Tang Feng began.
Wallace put a hand up to stop him, knowing Tang Feng was aiming for some apology again. “It was my decision to wait. I just had too much confidence.” He paused to let out a sheepish smile. “Stop apologizing already.”
Tang Feng looked like he wanted to say something else but Wallace stopped him by a shake of the head. Then Tang Feng understood Wallace wasn’t just all talks to reassure him. He nodded at last and left the place. As Wallace shut the door and headed for his room, he saw Jacky, Ehlo, and Nic still standing nearby.
“I’m good,” Wallace rattled out before heading to his room.
All three exchanged a look among themselves before Ehlo shrugged and they dispersed to return to their own rooms as well.
Several days later, Tang Feng was seen holding a bag and walking out of a shopping center. His car was in the shop so he was standing by the sidewalk to try and flag a Taxi. It was almost lunchtime, just half an hour more. He did not want to be late. Jacky and the others had asked if he’d wanted to catch rides with them while waiting for his car to be fixed, but he turned their offers down, knowing he would be fine on his own. It was just a week without a car. What could happen, right?
And he was too optimistic because another ten minutes passed and he was looking at his watch, pondering if he should call them. It was only right. He lowered the bag in his hand and retrieved his cell phone from his pants pocket. Fidgeting with it, he could hear some commotions coming straight at him. Not straight at him, but the noise level seemed to have picked up for some reason. He looked up to check. Not realizing that it was really coming straight at him.
“Hurry up,” Qiao Qiao rushed them, skipping ahead.
“Honestly, you’re acting like some high school girl on her first date ever,” Chen Yi teased.
“Let her be,” Jacky spoke up to defend Qiao Qiao, displaying his own smile. Possibly affected by Qiao Qiao’s good moods. “She’s just excited.”
“Hey, Sophia finally agreed to let us treat her somewhere expensive, so it’s like something major, okay?” Qiao Qiao defended herself and turned to face them.
Yes, after all those misunderstandings and other commotions delaying their progress, Qiao Qiao was able to persuade Sophia into letting them treat her somewhere nice. They had wanted to celebrate for the success of her novel’s sales as well. It so happened that they were going to meet up at the restaurant to celebrate. At least for lunch. And for those who could make it. Qiao Qiao was walking with Chen Yi and Jacky because their workplaces were in the same general area hence being able to meet up before heading to the restaurant together. Jacky had offered to head back and pick Sophia up for the get-together, but Sophia didn’t want him to go back with the little time he had for lunch. Angela had interfered and said that she would do that since she would be around Sophia’s side of town for some work-related commitment so she would pick Sophia up and meet with them at the restaurant. Tang Feng was the one preparing a surprise for Sophia and then joined them at the restaurant also. All was settled hence Qiao Qiao being all carefree and excited. She was entitled to since she hadn’t been excited for a while now. Even if they just learned of Wallace’s recent hopelessness but they knew he would get past all of it eventually.
“You should tone down on the skipping though,” Chen Yi spoke up again as they were at the end of the block already and he had stepped forward to press on the crosswalk light. “Feng ge might get scared off by your immaturity.”
“Are you kidding?” Jacky jumped in as Qiao Qiao made a face at Chen Yi. “He used to be a top-notch prankster, I don’t think he would be scared of anything anymore.”
Chen Yi had on his bright, intimidating smile. “The keywords are ‘used to’ here.”
“Whatever,” Qiao Qiao said before she reached for her cell phone–which was in her pocket. She had set it on vibrate and was finally able to feel it when she took Chen Yi’s advice with toning down the skipping. “Hello?”
Jacky and Chen Yi took the hint to stay quiet since they guessed it was Tang Feng. Probably he was passing along the words with having chosen a gift for Sophia already.
“What?” Qiao Qiao exclaimed seconds later, her face turning pale and her lips quivering. “You got to be kidding, right?”
Jacky and Chen Yi exchanged a look between the two of them, wondering what was up. Something at home? One of the servants called to tell her that her parents had arrived earlier from the trip and wanted to see her right away? Or something similar? Those thoughts stopped there and took seconds to conjure up. Because they saw Qiao Qiao crashed right there, her phone dropped from her hand. Both Jacky and Chen Yi rushed over to her at the same time–with Jacky catching her, preventing her from crashing completely onto the ground and Chen Yi doing the rescuing with her phone.
“Hello?” He said into the phone after realizing it wasn’t turned off yet.
“Qiao,” Jacky called out with much worried.
But it was like Qiao Qiao’s sudden crash was just a moment of weakness. She soon rose to her feet and pushed Jacky aside, turning toward the left and running down the sidewalk with her every might.
“Qiao!” Jacky called out with the same alarmed tone as previously, running after her.
Chen Yi had managed to run with them as he snapped the phone shut seconds later. “Qiao, stop!”
The chase didn’t take long. They managed to catch up to Qiao Qiao in no time. Jacky had stopped her from moving any further and grabbed her by the shoulders, trying to get her to face him.
“Tang Feng’s in the hospital!” Chen Yi blurted out, trying to catch his breath.
“What?” Jacky exclaimed, still holding onto Qiao Qiao.
“We have to get there right away. He’s in critical condition.”
Half an hour later, they were all present in front of the ER. Some of them were pacing and the others were sitting. But it did not mean the ones sitting were any less worried. Ehlo had called Jacky while they were in Chen Yi’s car on the way to the hospital–with Chen Yi driving, asking about their whereabouts since Ehlo wanted to inform them that he was on his way to the restaurant. However, he was told of the change of plans. It was also then that Chen Yi told Jacky the phone call earlier was from the hospital since Tang Feng had Qiao Qiao listed as his emergency contact. The EMS team must have found Tang Feng’s wallet and went from there. After learning of the hospital’s name from Chen Yi, Jacky told Ehlo before hanging up. He had to focus on calming Qiao Qiao down for the rest of the way to the hospital. Ehlo was the one who called Angela and the others. Of those who knew, only Tony was missing. They all had work commitments that they couldn’t get out of, especially Tony since he had an important meeting and couldn’t delay it. But he had promised to come as soon as he was relieved from the meeting. The others also promised to message him of further developments when they arrived. As for the rest who were able to make it, most had claimed family emergency so they could rush to the hospital and check on Tang Feng’s progress.
Another fifteen more minutes of waiting and the ones who had been pacing had stopped. Half because they were tired and the other half was Jacky told them not to make Qiao Qiao even more nervous. He had been sitting next to her during the wait–just like when they were still in the car during the ride to the hospital, trying to provide any source of comfort he could. Sophia was sitting on Qiao Qiao’s left, not saying anything but had patted her shoulder from time to time.
“Should we call Cyndi?” Chen Yi asked as Ehlo sat down at a chair next to Angela.
Yes, Ehlo was one of the parties pacing before.
“Let’s wait,” Wallace spoke up–though Chen Yi was looking at Ehlo hence the question was for Ehlo.
“Huo,” Ehlo said, thinking that Wallace was not prioritizing the situation.
Wallace shook his head. “What I mean is we don’t want to give her a scare until we know for sure. Let’s wait until he’s out of the critical condition. She can’t help anyway, no point in staying anxious like us now.”
Ehlo realized he had misunderstood Wallace. “Oh.”
Wallace nodded, knowing what Ehlo must have been thinking.
“Then…” Chen Yi managed, not knowing what else to say. It was like he needed to say something to distract himself from thinking the worst as well. He was able to see the possibility of reflecting on some of their faces.
Ehlo, contrary to his usual talkative self, opted for silent this time around. He was sitting across the way from Qiao Qiao and was able to see how devastated she looked. Though it seemed like she had cried her eyes out not long ago, she had been silent and calm since they sat down. Was she holding onto whatever of hope left she could conjure up inside?
“The light’s off,” Nic announced several minutes later. He had been leaning against one of the walls but was now stepping forward, waiting for the door to open.
The others had turned in that direction as well and all got up at the same time. This time, Jacky was the one having his hand around Qiao Qiao’s shoulder as the doctor stepped out.
“How is he, Doctor?” Angela asked for everyone, her voice sounding strangely calm. Or was she just really good at handling hectic situations?
The doctor shook his head. “We’re sorry. We’d done all we could.”
“No…” Qiao Qiao muttered, her knees giving way at that time.
Since Jacky had been holding onto her shoulders, he managed to steady her while the others fired away questions, wanting to know what really happened. All the commotions seemed too much. Seconds later, Qiao Qiao seemed to come out of her shaking trance and shoved past her group of friends. She grabbed hold of one of the doctors as the others tried to restrain her.
“How could you say that?” Qiao Qiao yelled out. “How can you call yourselves doctors but you can’t even save him?”
“Qiao, calm down,” Esther soothed, grabbing onto Qiao Qiao’s shoulders at that time.
Qiao Qiao pushed Esther out of the way at that time, attempting to get to the doctor again. “I don’t want to calm down!”
“Sorry, Doctor,” Angela apologized for them all. “My friend is…”
The doctor shook his head, his face displaying the same hopeless grief as most of them. “I should be apologizing for not being able to save your friend.”
After those few words, the doctor returned to the ER and gave further instructions to his team to take care of the remaining procedures. The others were still trying to control Qiao Qiao, getting her to calm down.
“Zeng Zhi Qiao!” Jacky finally yelled out, surprising everyone into silence, including Qiao Qiao.
Sophia was making her way through the crowd, trying to get in between Jacky and Qiao Qiao–who were facing each other at that point. However, Jacky held up his hand to stop Sophia from advancing further.
“He’s gone!” Jacky said. “Gone! Do you hear me? The person you should be blaming isn’t the doctor but the driver that hit him.”
Qiao Qiao didn’t react until almost a minute later. Instead of lashing out at the others around her, she ended up sobbing and crashed forward. Jacky caught and held her in his arms, patting her shoulder.
“Jacky ge,” Qiao Qiao called out between sobs. “I don’t…want him…to leave…us.”
“None of us want it to happen,” Jacky returned, his voice softer now. “But he’s gone. He’s gone.”
“I didn’t get…to see him…for the last time…”
Jacky stayed silent, still patting Qiao Qiao’s shoulder. Though that didn’t mean he was any less sad than her. His face was reflecting that strained expression and his eyes displayed the same sorrowfulness as the rest of them. In fact, all around them, most of them were crying. Ehlo was comforting Angela–who had finally gave in to her tears after hearing Qiao Qiao saying those words, and his eyes were already gleaming with traces of tears that were short of falling out. Chen Yi, on the other hand, didn’t care to keep whatever of his reputation intact because he was crying along with Achel while he was trying to comfort her. Sophia and Esther were now huddled together, trying to comfort one another–with Esther being the one crying harder of the two. Nic had settled down at a chair nearby that the others had long abandoned, but it wasn’t because he was heartless to only care about resting his legs. Instead, he was suffering from the shock and partial denial that it was really happening. Wallace was the only one not showing traces of tears. His face displayed a clear sign of rage and injustice as he clenched his fists inward, trying to control his temper.
“There’s so much we didn’t do,” Qiao Qiao continued a minute later. “He promised me…we would do…more traveling…in the future. I promise him…I would…”
Her next words became lost in another round of sobs.
“Why? Why…did he…leave so soon?”
Just when Wallace couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to storm out of there, they heard rapid footsteps coming toward them from the hallway. They all turned around at the same time to check on the sound, except for Qiao Qiao who was still sobbing into Jacky’s shoulder. The person standing in front of them was Tony. He looked like he had run all the way from the entrance to here–without caring about the hospital staff’s warning about disturbing the peace of the place. Tony was about to open his mouth and ask about the matter. Yet he stopped himself as his eyes scanned all the parties present. Upon seeing Tony, Esther pulled away from Sophia and rushed toward him, her tears still making its way down her face. Yet she didn’t have to say anything except shake her head to confirm his suspicion of what had happened. He took the initiative to pull her close and comforted her as he let reality sink in for him–just like the rest of them.
© Saturday, November 3rd, 2012 – Saturday, January 19th, 2013
Posted: Monday, January 21st, 2013