“She’s your girlfriend?” Joanne asked, her voice reeking of an interrogation. She had her sharp eyes on Jacky the whole while, still not acknowledging Lynn’s existence–aside from the fact that she heard Lynn disclosed of Lynn’s status as Jacky’s girlfriend just a minute ago.
“Qiao,” Jacky finally spoke up, walking over to them. “It’s not what you think.”
“Then what should I be thinking?”
“What’s going on?” Lynn asked, taking a step back and was hooking her hands through Jacky’s left hand.
Jacky undid her hands on his before turning to Joanne again.
“What should I be thinking?” Joanne repeated, her voice still stern and her expression still hostile.
Jacky wasn’t sure what to say either. He scanned the perimeter real quick and finally noticed Bryant–although Bryant had been standing there all that time.
“Who’s he?” Jacky asked, finally grasping at something at last.
“Don’t change the subject on me,” Joanne warned Jacky.
Although Bryant had stepped forward and was about to introduce himself.
“Is she your ex?” Lynn asked, grabbing onto Jacky’s hand again.
“No, she’s my sister,” Jacky answered, trying to shrug Lynn’s hands off again.
“Oh,” Lynn muttered, her smile making its appearance again. “Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Bryant,” Bryant said, at last, looking at Jacky in particular.
Joanne turned to Bryant then. “You don’t have to tell him anything.”
After saying that, Joanne grabbed onto Bryant’s free hand and steered him out of there.
“Qiao!” Jacky called after her and attempted to stop them from leaving by blocking Joanne’s path.
Joanne still didn’t let go of Bryant’s hand. Yet she had given Jacky a cold look. Colder than the previous glare. “I’ll ask you one last time, was she the reason you didn’t come that day?”
Then Jacky understood. His eyes widened and his face reflected of nervousness. Or was that guilt? “Qiao, I…”
“You forgot, right?”
“It’s not like that…”
“Even Tony came.”
Joanne didn’t need to say anything more. She pushed Jacky aside with one hand and the other tugging Bryant out of there.
Bryant didn’t say anything as they were walking along the way. He didn’t even speak up when they passed his house. At least it was in the neighborhood. It wasn’t like he was scared of her tantrums. But because he felt like he needed to look after her. For what, he didn’t know. After all, she wasn’t his responsibility. In fact, they just met recently. And it wasn’t like they were on good terms with one another either. Yet her fury had disturbed him greatly. He knew he couldn’t abandon her like that.
It was about an hour or something later that Joanne finally decided to haul a Taxi. Bryant was still following her. This time, she had a location in mind. At least he hoped that was a destination and not some random location for her to do more mindless walking. Not that he minded, but he was feeling quite restless with her quiet state.
“You don’t have to follow me,” Joanne said at long last while they were on their way.
“I wanted to,” Bryant reassured her.
Then something snapped inside Joanne. It was like her dark moods had passed. And now she had brightened up out of nowhere. It seemed like she had transformed into a different being. Bryant wasn’t sure if he had missed something between blinks that had caused this effect. Yet he soon got his answer.
“We can’t let him do this!” Joanne declared, her confidence returning, her voice reeking of a conspiracy.
“What?” Bryant asked, confused.
“We have to get to the bottom of this.”
Bryant wasn’t sure what Joanne meant but she soon told the Taxi driver to change the location of their destination. It seemed like she wasn’t going home anymore–or so Bryant thought. But he didn’t object either. He was silently feeling relieved that she wasn’t so silent and so heartbroken anymore. Or so it seemed. He was also curious as to her upcoming plan.
“Guys, we got a crisis!” Joanne exclaimed when she and Bryant were finally at the location.
“What?” Ehlo asked as he walked into the living room, eyeing Joanne suspiciously.
Yes, it was the guys’ place. If only they knew what she was up to. It seemed like Jacky wasn’t back yet.
“What’s going on?” Wallace asked from the kitchen.
Yvonne and Angela were also in the kitchen. Angela was leaning over the counter waiting for Yvonne to hand her a bowl of soup. Yet when she heard Ehlo and Joanne conversing, she walked out to join them in the living room.
“You don’t look good at all,” Angela commented. “What’s going on this time?”
“Don’t tell me you upset her again,” Ehlo joked, finally noticing Bryant with Joanne.
“Uh…” Bryant managed, not knowing how to answer.
It was also then that Angela gave Ehlo’s shoulder a light hit, and chided him. “Stop.”
“Hey, just because he has the same surname as you doesn’t mean I have to be nice,” Ehlo reasoned.
Angela sent Ehlo a look that told him to behave as she turned to Bryant with an apologetic smile. “Don’t mind him.”
“Yeah, don’t mind me,” Ehlo echoed Angela’s words. “I’m just her fiancé.”
“You guys, stop joking around,” Joanne jumped in at that time, her face even more wrinkled than before. It could be seen that she was quite anxious by now.
“What?” Ehlo asked, turning to Joanne once again.
“We have a situation to handle here,” Joanne continued, pacing as she recounted of the incident she encountered earlier by the bridge to all the parties present.
“So does that mean he’s not waiting for Sophia anymore?” Nic asked after Joanne was done.
Yes, Nic and Cynthia had just stepped in in the middle of Joanne’s recounts. By the time Joanne was done, Angela had settled down at the sofa with Ehlo sitting next to her but on the armrest. Yvonne had also made her way to the living room in the middle of the story–probably around the same time Nic and Cynthia entered the house.
“He never said he was waiting for her,” Wallace clarified, walking into the living room at that time to join them.
“It’s an unsaid thing!” Joanne blurted out, her voice reeking of injustice.
“Qiao,” Ehlo said calmly–too calm for Ehlo. “You didn’t like Sophia in the first place. It wasn’t until we convinced you to give Sophia a chance that you ended up liking her. It helped because of the link she had with Tang Feng.”
Joanne scanned their faces one by one as Angela reached out to grab Ehlo’s hand to stop him from continuing. Though the others didn’t say anything but their faces reflected Ehlo’s words. Only Yvonne and Cynthia remained neutral since they weren’t that active in the group’s lives yet. Then there was also Bryant–who was still standing awkwardly at one side of the room, still unsure whether he should have left the moment he realized Joanne was already at a safe place with her friends caring for her.
“But…” Joanne started to say, her voice not so confident anymore.
“Besides,” Ehlo continued, still holding hands with Angela. “Don’t you think it’s best to decide for ourselves when we finally meet her?”
Wallace nodded, agreeing with Ehlo. “Huang’s right. We can’t act until we actually meet her.”
“Hold on,” Yvonne said all of a sudden, standing in the center of the room at that time. It seemed like she wanted everyone’s attention on her. “I agree with Qiao. I think we ought to check this out.”
“What?” Ehlo asked, his voice full of surprise and his face all wrinkled up. “You gotta be kidding me, right? Jacky finally moved on and you want to put him back in the dumps?”
“Checking it out doesn’t mean we’re going to sabotage them,” Yvonne clarified. “And isn’t it too suspicious that he didn’t tell us about this girl?”
“Maybe he’s not ready to tell us,” Wallace reasoned. Though he was talking to Yvonne, he was looking at Joanne. “And weren’t you and Tang Feng keeping it under wrap from us until we found out during the mid-autumn festival?”
“That’s different,” Joanne argued, her tone echoed obvious defensiveness.
“Give it up already, girl,” Ehlo jumped in again. “We still have stuff to do.”
“Yeah, like round 2 of moving,” Nic said.
It was also then that Joanne realized some of the items lying around at a corner of the living room.
“Nic’s moving out,” Ehlo provided the answer when he saw Joanne’s puzzled look.
“Yeah,” Nic confirmed. “I’m moving in with Cynthia.”
That was also when Joanne turned to see Cynthia blushing a bit. Though they were all mature adults, Cynthia still felt a bit embarrassed with several pairs of eyes staring at her. Or more like Bryant had directed his eyes in her direction as well. Luckily for Cynthia, after that brief staring from Joanne and Bryant, Ehlo and Wallace had moved into their vision lines and were hauling stuff out of the house again. It seemed like Nic and Cynthia had come back for another load previously when Joanne and Bryant came. That also meant Ehlo and Wallace were taking their breaks earlier to wait for the other two’s return. But their little drama didn’t stop there, because as Ehlo and Wallace were carrying some items out of the house, Jacky made his way in.
“What are you guys doing?” Jacky asked, looking at the items in Ehlo and Wallace’s hands.
“I told you last week,” Ehlo said, wrinkling his face–whether out of disapproval or confusion–it was debatable. “Don’t you remember?”
Jacky’s expression was obvious that he had forgotten. Or hadn’t paid attention at the time when Ehlo had told him of the details.
“Nic’s moving out,” Wallace continued where Ehlo left off. “We’re helping today. You were supposed to be here too. You said yes to helping, remember?”
“But it’s okay,” Ehlo said, his sarcasm attached. “Because dating’s always more important than helping your friends.”
That was also when Jacky turned to Joanne. “You told them?”
Joanne turned away from Jacky and crossed her arms in front of her. She was apparently still upset and was still ignoring him.
“Where have you been?” Yvonne stepped forward and had taken a quick glimpse outside.
“Um…” Jacky attempted, realizing the others were staring at him also.
“It’s okay, man,” Ehlo said, his voice less intense than before. “I’m kidding. Yeah, Qiao told us about your new girlfriend. Welcome back to the Couple’s Club.”
“Couple’s Club?” Angela asked, one eyebrow raised. “How lame is that?”
“Thanks, hon,” Ehlo retorted, but he wasn’t mad.
“Come on, man,” Wallace urged. “This stuff is heavy.”
“I’ll unlock the car,” Nic volunteered, moving past Jacky to the door.
“That would help,” Ehlo snapped, though he was still smiling.
Cynthia took that time to exit the house and followed the other three guys as well. Now standing in the living to face Jacky were the female population–and Bryant.
“Who are you?” Jacky asked–like how he had when he first saw Bryant with Joanne by the bridge.
Joanne took that time to shield herself in front of Bryant. “None of your business.”
“Qiao,” Jacky coaxed, his eyes pleading.
Joanne turned to Bryant then, taking one of the bags still in his hands and used her free hand to grab his now free hand, steering him into the kitchen. “Come on, Bryant.”
Bryant was still uncomfortable about being stuck between their conflicts. However, he was glad to be away from the limelight. Once in the kitchen, he seemed to regain his confidence again. He smiled and told Joanne that he would make a special dish for them–that he had just conjured up recently. Joanne, unlike her past hostile attitude toward Bryant, returned his smile and settled down in front of the counter to watch him work.
“What’s going on here?” Jacky asked, staring from Angela to Yvonne.
“You tell us,” Yvonne returned, her attitude hostile.
“What did she tell you guys?”
“She only told us that you have a new girlfriend,” Angela answered, her tone passive, not showing traces of taking any sides like Yvonne.
Jacky took another glance into the kitchen. “Who is he?”
“Bryant Chang,” Yvonne replied, her tone still hostile. In fact, she had crossed her arms the way Joanne did earlier, except she was staring at him with sharper eyes than before, not ignoring Jacky like Joanne had. “You were there when we talked about him during the Lunar New Year get together.”
It was then that things clicked in for Jacky. He thought the other guy looked familiar, but he wasn’t able to put the pieces together until now. “Oh.”
Yvonne was about to strike again yet fortunately for Jacky, Ehlo and Wallace came back for another trip of hauling stuff outside.
“Come on, you two, stop the gawking,” Ehlo said upon seeing Angela and Yvonne still interrogating Jacky. “A little help here.”
Yvonne took a quick glance into the kitchen before moving toward the door. “Fine.” Yet she turned to Jacky again. “But don’t you dare attack him.”
Yvonne had meant Bryant.
“It’s the first time she smiled since she stepped into this house today,” Angela clarified as she left with Yvonne.
Ehlo stepped over to where Jacky was and clapped him on the shoulder. “You know Qiao, give her a little time.”
Jacky nodded, but he was still unease. Then he suddenly felt a sense of guilt creeping up from within. It was like he had become a coward all over again, but this time Ehlo had let him off, even supporting him.
“Come on, Huang,” Wallace called from the front door.
Then Ehlo removed his presence from the living room as well to help Wallace carry another load of stuff out. Jacky was finally left alone. Yet he didn’t feel so good about that. He stared at Joanne talking to Bryant in the kitchen, wondering what was really going on. And the scene by the bridge came back to him. So different from the last time when he found her and walked back with her, unlike how she had left with Bryant this time. Why had things developed to this point?
Not lingering any longer, Jacky turned toward the hallway and disappeared into his room instead of helping the others move.
An hour later, they were all done with moving Nic’s belongings. Or it was more like because they didn’t want to drag it out anymore so Ehlo and Wallace had also used their cars to transport the remaining items to cut back on time. That also meant Angela and Yvonne went with them to help unload. Joanne was still with Bryant in the kitchen. She ended up helping him with mini tasks.
When the others returned, some of them crashed in the living room while Angela went to get water for them.
“Hey, smells good,” Angela commented as she glimpsed over Bryant’s shoulder.
Bryant had on his shy smile. “It’s a new experiment.”
“That means we’re your lab rats?” Ehlo asked from the living room.
Angela gave Ehlo another look for him to behave as she handed him a water bottle. She had placed the other bottles down on the table.
“Like I’m wrong,” Ehlo mumbled and took a sip of water. “And it’s a miracle.”
“What?” Yvonne asked, looking over at Ehlo.
Ehlo pointed his water bottle toward Joanne instead of answering.
“Since you joined the group, I had always rooted for you and you ended up siding with my girl more than me. And now you’re protecting Qiao? Seriously? Where do I stand?”
“You’re not standing right now,” Wallace pointed out.
Ehlo gave Wallace a dirty look. “Thanks, Huo.”
Wallace had on his smart-aleck smile, not caring if he had hit a nerve. “You’re welcome, Huang.”
As if to dissolve the hostile atmosphere, Bryant announced that food was ready if anyone wanted any. Though mumbling about ‘lab rat’ earlier, Ehlo was the first one to get up and head toward the kitchen. Bryant, like a good chef that he was, served each and every one of them before settling down to eat. He and Joanne ended up behind the counter while the others gathered around in front of the counter. It was also then that Wallace smiled, remembering how it was back in the old days when Bianca and Matthew had sat there many times before. And now? It was the most ironic scene seeing Joanne and Bryant behind the counter. Okay, Bryant was a chef after all so they were in for a treat. But Joanne? The girl whom they made fun of plenty of times in the past because of her lack of skills? As Wallace was occupied with those thoughts, Ehlo spoke up to rupture the atmosphere again.
“Man, whatever it is you’re doing, I’m addicted,” Ehlo complimented.
Bryant smiled. “I guess my experiment’s successful then.”
Ehlo nodded. Then his scheming smile turned on. “You don’t happen to be looking for a new habitat, do you?”
Wallace had on his amused smile then. “Huang, you seriously never fail to amaze.”
Ehlo had on his proud look then. “Of course.” He turned to Bryant again after sending Wallace an annoyed look. “So, what do you say? Want to be our new roommate?”
Bryant looked back and forth between all pairs of staring eyes then. Yes, though the others gave Ehlo a look like he was trying to find a way to take advantage of others, they were also curious about Bryant’s response as well.
“Actually…” Bryant said, scratching his neck a bit, feeling the pressure of the others’ glares. “I’m kind of feeling out of place at home with my sis and Novia.”
“You’re outnumbered by the female population, right?” Ehlo teased.
Bryant let out a nervous laugh then. “You could say that.”
“The more you should be moving in with us.”
“No buts, man. Unless you’re too cool for us.”
Joanne reached out to hit Ehlo then. “Stop bullying him.”
Ehlo wasn’t threatened. He turned his amused smile back on. “Coming from you?”
They all knew what Ehlo meant, especially what happened between them during that first encounter. Yet Joanne didn’t care. She scowled back at him.
“Don’t let Ehlo’s fierceness stop you,” Yvonne jumped in then, seeing how Bryant was trying to find the right words to turn Ehlo’s offer down. “He’s harmless. You can just say no.”
Bryant shook his head then. “It’s not that I don’t want to. But one of Janine’s co-workers had also offered to let me stay with him.”
“He’s not cool like us, right?” Ehlo coaxed, his cunning smile back on.
“Huang, not working,” Wallace sabotaged again.
Ehlo’s annoyed expression turned back on then. He directed his intense glare toward Wallace. “I’m trying to convince a pro chef to stay with us and instead of helping, you just want to expose me?”
Wallace wasn’t the least bit threatened. After all these years, he was so used to Ehlo’s dramatic nature. “You’re welcome, Huang.”
“That wasn’t a compliment.”
“Would you two knock it off already?” Angela interfered. “We’re eating.”
Ehlo saluted then. “Yes, ma’am.”
As the atmosphere returned to its quiet state and the others were concentrating on tasting Bryant’s delicacy, Joanne took a glimpse toward the living room.
“He’s in his room,” Yvonne said, noticing Joanne’s stare.
“Leave him alone,” Ehlo said, his voice serious and contained a sense of warning, unlike his joking nature previously.
“Hmp.” Joanne uttered, her expression grim again.
“You seriously need to let it go that things will never turn out like you want it to be.”
“Didn’t we agree on investigating this matter?” Yvonne reminded them.
“We didn’t agree on anything,” Ehlo returned, not fearing Yvonne’s wrath. “You decided on your own.”
Yvonne turned to look at Wallace then.
Wallace shrugged. “I could help since I’m free right now. But we can’t just go up to her and attack her, deal?”
Yvonne shrugged as well. “Am I that barbaric?”
“Don’t answer that, Huo,” Ehlo jumped in. Although his words were helpful, the mischievous spark in his eyes said otherwise.
It was Wallace’s turn to give Ehlo the evil glare. Then he turned to Yvonne with his charming smile again. “You know how you could get carried away at times.”
Yvonne wasn’t won over by the charming smile. She ignored him and turned to Joanne. “So, how do you want to do this?”
“If you want to carry out your plan, at least find another location to discuss,” Ehlo jumped in. “He’s right there, you know.”
Ehlo had pointed his right thumb backward, which was toward Jacky’s room. It was also then that he took out his cell phone, typed in a message, and waved it in front of the girls. The message said: Tomorrow, 5:30, East Shore Café. That was when they all–including Bryant–turned to look at him. As if Ehlo knew they thought he was putting them on, he typed into his phone and waved it in front of their vision lines again. This time, it read: I’m not suicidal like some people to be discussing it right here. Before anyone of them could react though, some kind of ringtone came on. It was Bryant’s cell phone. He picked it up and answered it while the others were holding a minimal conversation.
“Well?” Ehlo asked when Bryant was done.
“It seems like someone else wanted the room so I told him he could go ahead and rent it out to that person,” Bryant informed them.
Ehlo’s face displayed traces of hopefulness around then. “So that means you’ll move in here with us?”
Bryant scanned the room once before looking at Ehlo again. “If you guys don’t mind.”
“I’m fine,” Wallace answered at that time.
“I was the one who suggested it, remember?”
“I guess we’re going to be roommates then,” Bryant said.
“Wait for the weekend. We still need to clean up before you could move in.”
Bryant nodded. “I’m fine whenever.”
It was also then that Ehlo turned to Wallace. “I guess luck’s really on my side. I think I should go buy a lottery ticket or something.”
Wallace still had on his amused expression. “Sure, Huang.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to back out now?” Joanne asked, looking at Bryant. “This is what you’ll have to deal with for the upcoming days.”
Bryant smiled, feeling like he could get used to it.
© Saturday, May 31st, 2014
Posted: July 8th, 2014