Chapter 7 – Cloud Lifting

While James and Sonia were having their meeting the next morning, Jacky and the others were at Jacky’s place. It was one of their major gatherings since whenever. It was indeed one of the rare times that they were all present, including Johnny and Bryant—who were swamped with their schedules since ages now.

“Finally, things are back to normal,” Ehlo said, sipping his juice. “I thought we had to fight a little longer.”

“Dramatic, much?” Johnny asked, looking at Ehlo.

Ehlo shrugged and flashed on his innocent smile. “Hey, man, you weren’t around. You didn’t know.”

“I know enough not to get involved,” Johnny returned, knowing too well how his buddy had a flare for theater arts.

Although they still had to search for Sophia, the majority of the intensity had lifted already so Ehlo felt like they could celebrate hence organizing this gathering in the first place. Jacky knew it was Ehlo’s way of apologizing, so he didn’t turn Ehlo down.

“But I want you all to promise me to never pull such crazy schemes in the future,” Jacky said when he settled down next to Ehlo at the sofa.

Ehlo turned to Jacky then, wrinkling his face for effect. “I can’t promise that.”

Jacky turned to Ehlo—knowing there was more than just that—and waited.

“If I don’t have my crazy schemes, what will I do during my free times?”

Jacky shook his head, knowing he can’t win. “You know what I mean.”

Ehlo shrugged then. “Fine. No more crazy schemes toward you.”

Jacky shook his head again, smiling at last, knowing that was the best he could get out of Ehlo.

“If you’re all done with your performance, I have an announcement to make,” Tony spoke up at that time. He actually grabbed a hold of Esther’s hand at that time, hauling her into the spotlight with him as well. “Actually, it’s an announcement from both of us.”

Ehlo’s cunning smile turned on then, eyeing their linked hands. “You’re getting married, right?”

Esther gave Ehlo a look but didn’t say anything.

“Not quite yet,” Tony responded, swinging their linked hands. “But close.”

“You’re winning in the suspense department,” Andy pointed out at that time. “So, you might want to hurry this one up a bit.”

Esther pointed her free hand toward Andy at that time. “You’ve been hanging around Ehlo too much. You’re acting just like him.”

“I haven’t been,” Andy returned. “We all know why.”

“Guys,” Johnny interfered then. “We’re taking the spotlight away from the main couple.”

Because it was Johnny so both Ehlo and Andy both quieted down. It wasn’t like Ehlo to be afraid of Johnny but his respect for Johnny had always been an unsaid thing, even if he did make his snipe remarks at times. Andy? He had always treated Johnny like their leader. In fact, it was an unsaid thing with most of them.

“We’re officially engaged,” Tony said, finally stopping his swinging motion so they could all see the ring on Esther’s hand.

Although it was expected from Ehlo’s spoiler comments, everyone went wild and cheered anyway. It was indeed something they needed after all those side, senseless dramas they had created these past few weeks.

“When did it happen?” Joanne asked after everyone had settled down again.

“Christmas,” Esther answered.

“So while all of us were suffering, you guys went out and celebrated?” Ehlo asked, his tone confrontational.

“Last time I checked, you all went and instilled said ‘misery’ upon yourselves,” Esther said, her tone reflected of rationality. “Henceforth, you could have enjoyed life like the rest of us if you weren’t so determined to go out of your way and sabotaged yourself.”

The others exchanged a look among themselves, like they were shocked. Only Tony had on a proud look. It was like saying, “That’s my fiancée.” But before anyone could say anything, Andy started clapping.

“Congrats, Yan,” Andy said. “You’ve finally turned into your other half.”

Ehlo glared at Andy then, his disapproval apparent. “Thanks, Backstabber.”

Andy shrugged. “Hey, you still have Huo.”

“Guys, we should be celebrating for Tony and Yan, not fight,” Jacky reminded them.

Ehlo shrugged. “Fine, then.”

Although Ehlo sounded hostile, but he joined in with the others for the rest of afternoon to plan some sort of celebration among their group.

*****

Two days later, some of them went to the airport to send Valerie off. She was going back to the States to bring in the new year instead of hanging around with them. Considering how things were going in the past few weeks, they didn’t blame her. Well, at least the ones who actually came to send her off. Because Jacky and Joanne were two of the parties not there. Despite saying that the past was the past, the others knew Jacky was still upset about Valerie’s uncalled attack on Sophia during one of the heated arguments. Joanne, being her stubborn self, also chose to sit out on the matter. That day being Monday made it easy for them to not show up. Even if it was Monday night and not during the day when they had to go to work. Valerie, not blind to the situation—completely, knew what was going on so she didn’t push it. In fact, she just focused on Sonia when they were standing in front of the gate.

“Whatever it is in the future, you know you can always give me a call and I’ll be there,” Valarie said, patting Sonia’s shoulder.

Sonia smiled, her appreciative one. “Thanks, Valerie.”

Valerie turned her disapproving expression toward Ehlo, who was standing a little distance from them. “Unlike some unreliable people.”

Ehlo wasn’t offended. In fact, he shrugged and stepped forward. “Oh, come on, girl. You can’t be serious? We made peace already, right? We even shook on it the other day after Sonia agreed to meet up with James.”

Valerie wasn’t backing down though. She still had on her stern expression. “You think I’m petty? Look who didn’t show up.”

“Valerie,” Sonia interfered. “It’s not Ehlo’s fault. It was mine. I let my problem with James blew up and affected everyone.” Sonia looked down, like she was ashamed of her actions these past few weeks. “I even hijacked Sophia’s grieving time for her grandpa.”

Valerie was still giving Ehlo the look. Yet Ehlo, unlike how he reacted these past few weeks, had turned his teasing expression to a serious one. “Hey, look.” He waited until Sonia turned to face him before speaking up again. “I know I wasn’t on my best behavior either but that wasn’t your fault. I know you were both going through rough patches at the same time, but you know me. We just learned how Grandpa Chou passed away and then you burst in, so…” He gestured his hand in a general motion. “You know, reaction.”

Sonia smiled then. It was like she recognized an old friend. Even if they’d never been really friends. They barely got along because of their mutual friends.

“All right then,” Valerie said, breaking the brief silence between Ehlo and Sonia. “I guess since you two seem to be getting along again, I should leave on this positive note.”

“Take care,” Sonia said.

After Valerie was gone, Andy and Achel left first. Then it was only Ehlo and Sonia. They walked back to the parking lot in silence at first. When Ehlo noticed Sonia looking at her watch, he gestured toward a general direction to his left.

“Want a ride?”

Sonia had on her surprised expression. “You sure?”

Ehlo nodded. “We’re heading toward the same direction anyway.”

Sonia could see the sincerity in his eyes, so she nodded.

 “Give Angela some time,” Ehlo said after he safely merged into traffic already. “You know her longer than me. She’ll come around.”

Sonia smiled, not used to Ehlo being the peacemaker. Yet she knew he was trying. “I know. I don’t blame her, because I was…”

“I meant what I said earlier.” He meant when they were still standing in front Valerie. “It wasn’t your fault. It was just poor timing and a lot of stubbornness mixed in—from all sides.”

Sonia smiled again and nodded. “A lot of stubbornness.”

Ehlo laughed, shaking his head. “What a way to bring in the New Year, huh?”

Sonia looked out at the night ahead of them. “Do you think we’ll find Sophia?”

Ehlo tapped on the steering wheel for a bit before answering. “I don’t know.”

And that was his honest answer. His expression told Sonia that. He wasn’t being snappy or sarcastic. He was unsure. Unsure of their future. Unsure of their circumstances. It was life.

*****

When Ehlo came home, he found Angela sleeping in their bed. She looked worn out and exhausted. Yet he was glad she looked peaceful at the moment. Everything was over and things were going back to its original course, he thought. He didn’t realize that Sophia had commented something similar before leaving. Was that what normality for them was? Not having Sophia in their lives? Just like how it was at the beginning? It was like she never showed up and ruptured their lives—if just briefly.

Interrupting Ehlo’s waves of reminiscence was Wallace’s text. Ehlo couldn’t help but laugh out loud upon reading it. It read: New project for you, Drama King. More worth it than your previous failed attempt. Happy New Year, Huang.

It wasn’t New Year yet. Wallace’s last comment was a hint to their next project. And this time, Ehlo didn’t want to contradict Wallace. He snapped his phone shut and got ready for bed as well.

*****

“Leave it up to you guys,” Eddie said, tapping on the railing as they were staring out at the clear water ahead. “Planning a New Years gathering right on New Years Eve.”

Ehlo wasn’t offended. He had on his proud smile. “I know, right? We’re geniuses like that.”

“You sure have a big ego all right,” Janine commented, her teasing smile on.

They were actually at East Shore Café. Unlike last time’s hectic exchanges, they were there for another round of celebration. It was an attempt to heal and make peace overall. Eddie finally came around again. He disappeared mostly because it was like with Esther and Janine, the workload had buried him for the most part. Also, it was because Eddie didn’t feel right to intrude into their sudden disagreements. The others understood and didn’t give him a hard time about it. It was indeed not a good situation to be in at that time. Now that it was over and they were in the moods of celebrating, it was only right that they mentioned it to Esther and Janine. Janine was the one who invited Eddie when they were at work earlier. It was a last-minute report that their monster boss wanted before the new year arrived.

Upon arrival, Eddie was very surprised that the majority of the group was there. Considering how hectic everything was weeks before, he was justified to think that they wouldn’t even want to see each other’s faces for the time being. Even if it was for the sake of bringing in the new year. Especially for bringing in the new year. Since over half of them were at one another’s throats because of what happened. In fact, Ehlo was seen at the same table as Sonia. That had got to top it for Eddie with all the bizarreness going on. It wasn’t until he settled in a little and Ehlo finally left Sonia’s table and came over to greet him as he was leaning against the railing for air that Eddie could speak up. Janine was also by his side. She actually arrived with him and had been making sure he was still able to operate without falling into the water anytime soon. Because she was standing to his right as Ehlo was standing to his left while Eddie tried to make conversation.

After Janine’s comment, Novia had also walked over to them.  She had stationed herself to Janine’s right and had sent Eddie a look of sympathy. “You stick around more, you’ll get used to them.”

Eddie did a quick scan at the scattered tables behind him before bringing his attention back on the immediate group talking to him. “Hard to imagine.”

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Andy said, walking over to them as well. “We had to get used to them too when we first met.”

“So used to them that you joined in with their craziness?” Janine asked, turning to Andy.

Andy had his hands raised. “Hey, I didn’t join in this time, remember? Xiao Yu and I were only there for the first meeting or so. In fact, you were more involved than me, hello.”

Eddie turned to Janine then, not able to help himself with a mischievous smile of his own. “He got you there.”

Janine reached her hand out to hit Eddie then. “Hey, I’m trying back you up here.”

Andy slapped Eddie a high five then, his smile proud. “Welcome to the group.”

That earned Eddie another slap on the shoulder and Ehlo joined in with the laughing episodes. Yet Janine wasn’t mad. Not really. At first, she was a little embarrassed, but afterward, she realized that Andy was right in a way. They were finally part of this weird group. So how could she make fun of them, right? It would mean making fun of herself too.

After that little random exchange among their little group, the awkwardness seemed to have vanished. They spent the rest of the night joking around and carrying side conversations with different parties. It wasn’t until the countdown that they gathered around in a large group to watch the fireworks from afar. Because this was a last-minute thing, they weren’t really prepared for anything except that they were all available. And that was probably more than enough.

“Let’s do something like this next year as well!” Joanne shouted when the last of the fireworks had disappeared in the atmosphere.

“You mean the infighting or the New Year gathering?” Andy jumped in.

Joanne gave Andy an evil eye and that was a sign. Andy knew better than to stick around because he had started running since he saw her expression.

“Chen Yi, you’re dead when I catch you!” Joanne declared as she chased him across the parking lot.

“Kids, right?” Ehlo remarked, shaking his head.

“Who made you the ‘Head of the Mature Declaration Council’, Huang?” Wallace goaded, his mischievous expression on.

“Shut up, Huo.”

“Happy New Year to you too, Huang.”

“You’re welcome, Huo.”

“And that’s our group,” Jacky summarized for the others, smiling, despite the emptiness within him at the moment. And it was indeed irony that Sonia was indeed by his side for one of their major celebrations within the group, yet he was missing someone else completely different. Life, right?

© Saturday, October 10th, 2015

Posted: Posted Sunday, September 20th, 2020

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