Chapter 6 – Switching Targets

Contrary to Ehlo’s premonition, Jacky and Sonia didn’t seem to interact anymore with the upcoming days. In fact, it was two weeks before they saw each other again. It was when they all gathered at the edge of town to send Matthew off. Even Uncle Ben and Aunt June came. It reminded them of that time they were there, except they were sending Sonia and James off. In fact, it was at the exact same spot. Yet this time it was much more hopeful and lighthearted. Because they all knew Matthew would eventually come by to visit them at another time in the future. Knowing that didn’t seem less ironic in some of their cases though. Because they realized that Sonia was also there. This time, Jacky wasn’t late. In fact, Jacky came with Sonia. It was like old times. Almost.

And Jacky was right that Producer Lin had sought her out after hearing about her decision about looking for a permanent house to settle in—once again—instead of renting like before, thinking it was a temporary situation that was to be resolved sooner or later. Sonia said she was going to think it over. That was actually a meeting that happened earlier in the day hence her and Jacky arriving together. Producer Lin had tried to use Jacky’s influence to lure Sonia back in. He had high hopes when they left, thinking that Sonia was just using that “thinking” talk to negotiate her contract. He had no idea Sonia was far from playing games. In fact, she was done with it, especially after so much happened with her personal life that had influenced her thought process.

As it were, they were barely done with bidding Matthew goodbye and watching his car disappeared around the bend, yet they learned of a new development. Apparently, Chris wasn’t done with his so-called visit yet. Yes, once again, he moved up the timeline and Margaret had also decided to stay as well. She was in no hurry, considering how she’d been staying at Janine’s place. With both of her old roommates—Novia and Sophia—gone, Janine had plenty of room to offer Margaret upon learning of Margaret’s living arrangements since she arrived. So, that indeed remained unchanged now that Chris had updated them of his new schedule.

Ehlo looked around upon hearing Chris’ declaration. “So, are you sure Bryant and Derek are okay with this? You’re living with them after all.”

“Of course, Bryant doesn’t mind,” Joanne spoke up then. “It’s not like either of them sticks around for too long.”

“Besides, we need a second opinion with both of our experiments,” Derek chimed in.

Bryant was actually the only one absent at the moment because of another schedule change. That was why Joanne had spoken on his behalf.

Ehlo shrugged then. “Fine then.”

“It’s not like they need your permission, Huang,” Wallace jabbed.

Ehlo gave Wallace an annoyed look then. “No one asked for your opinion, Huo.”

Chris and Margaret exchanged a look around then. They were getting quite used to Ehlo and Wallace’s banters, so they weren’t too worried every time the two started.

“Here we go again” Joanne muttered.

“Hey, how about we go see a movie?” Eddie suggested, scanning their group.

“There are so many of us, I doubt we could make it work,” Ehlo said, looking at the group also.

“It’s a nice day today, maybe we should all go to the beach or something,” Chris said.

“That’s a good idea, actually,” Sonia agreed. “I’ve been taking up painting lately. Maybe I could get some practice in.”

Chris had on his bright smile—as if he was comfortable because of painting being his territory. “Hey, if you don’t mind, we could work on some paintings together and exchange some tips.”

Sonia nodded. “I need to head back to my place and get my supplies though.”

“No need,” Chris said, gesturing toward his car. (Yes, he had rented a car to get around better, considering his extended stay.) “I got some in my trunk. We can share it for today. Then maybe next time we’ll set up our own workstation?”

Sonia nodded again, smiling. “All right.”

“I guess we’re going to the beach then,” Ehlo said, his eyes never leaving Chris and Sonia as they were planning the details out among themselves.

Most of them were already walking toward their cars when Chris mentioned the beach. Even Joanne, Eddie, and some others who had agreed on a movie together had postponed their plans and decided to meet the rest of the others at the beach.

Unfortunately—or possibly fortunately was more like it, Tony had to return to continue working his proposals for some side projects so he couldn’t make it. That meant Esther was going with Joanne, Andy, and Achel in Andy’s car like usual. Initially, Esther wanted to go with Tony and help him so he could finish his workload faster, but this was one of those times where the nature of the paperwork was considered confidential within their company, so he had to turn Esther down. That had happened before with their company’s projects, depending on the situation so they didn’t need to hold a major debate. Their communication skills had passed another level, so they didn’t need the whole reassure thing like some other couples out there. It had been years—and the second time around even, they knew.

Regarding what happened with Chris and Sonia’s debate, they ended up so absorbed in their discussion and heading to Chris’ car that they left without Margaret—who supposedly came with Chris earlier.

“Don’t worry,” Eddie reassured Margaret when he saw what happened and stopped at the sidewalk to comfort Margaret with a smile. “We got you covered. We’re all going to the same place anyway, right?”

Margaret wasn’t upset that Chris left without her. She was just surprised of the sudden change of events. When she heard Eddie’s offer, she turned to him. “Are you sure? I thought you and Qiao and the others were going to the movies.”

Margaret was walking ahead with Chris previously before Chris engaged in the art conversation with Sonia, so she wasn’t aware that they had changed their minds. Besides, they really didn’t say much. Because they were exchanging looks among themselves earlier. They’d known each other far too long to not know what those expressions meant.

Eddie shrugged. “We decided that the beach’s too nice to waste our time in some movie theater today.”

“Yeah,” Janine said, hooking a hand through Margaret’s. “Come on. He’s not going to offer twice.”

Eddie sent Janine a look then. “Oh, come on. You’re going to side with your new roommate against me?”

Janine gave Eddie a teasing look. “You know us. Women must stick together.”

Eddie wasn’t offended. He shook his head before unlocking the car so they could all get in.

*****

“What in the world happened?” Ehlo asked when he joined Jacky and the others at the edge of the beach.

They were actually stationed under some shaded area versus Chris and Sonia who were soaking in all the sun with their attention on the view ahead and their painting utensils in hand.

“What took you so long?” Jacky asked, turning to Ehlo and some of the others with a suspicion stare. “Don’t tell me you’re up to no good again.”

Ehlo wrinkled his face, offended. “What do you mean? I’m always up to no good. But seriously, traffic. What’s your excuse?”

“I’m just enjoying the view,” Jacky answered innocently. Too innocent.

Ehlo raised an eyebrow. “Which view?”

“Really, Huang?” Wallace asked, walking up to them then. “You could help us by actually, you know, helping. Instead of standing around gossiping.”

Ehlo scoffed. “Huh.”

Ehlo and Wallace actually stopped somewhere along the way to get some items for a picnic. That was why they were later than the rest of the group with arriving. Actually, Nic and Cynthia changed their minds about joining them, so they were also missing. Jun and Novia also went elsewhere as well. They seemed to have a date planned ahead of time already and didn’t want to cancel it. Considering how everyone was busy one way or another lately, the others didn’t mind. They never minded. It was life. It was only right that Jun and Novia spent more time together as of recent. Things around them kept changing. Stability was good.

“I think you should be worried,” Ehlo muttered Jacky’s way as he was helping Wallace spread out blankets for the picnic.

“What?” Jacky asked, looking at Ehlo like he was being dramatic again—which he was.

“He’s moving in on your girl now,” Ehlo said, pointing his thumb toward Chris and Sonia still painting away and tuning out the world.

“He’s just passionate about his work, okay?” Joanne jumped in then, appearing in front of them also. “Seriously? You were saying the other night how you were over it already and now you’re trying to pin some other crime on him?”

“Besides,” Jacky said, wrinkling his face. “Don’t say stuff like that about Sonia. She’s her own person.”

Ehlo wrinkled his face. “Seriously, you two ganging up on me?”

“Yu Rong,” Jacky gritted his teeth.

“Oh, come on, don’t ‘Yu Rong’ me.”

Jacky still had on his serious expression. “You never liked Sonia in the first place, you don’t have to pretend to even entertain the idea of us getting back together.”

Ehlo threw his hands up in the air then. “Oh, come on. I can’t change my mind?”

“Is this because Sophia is gone now?”

“No, of course not.”

“What made you change your mind then?” Wallace asked, also looking at Ehlo at this point.

Some of the others had already gone back to Ehlo and Wallace’s cars to unload the food so they weren’t around to hear this part hence them being able to speak freely.

Ehlo licked his lips once and checked on Chris and Sonia again before turning to Jacky, Joanne, and Wallace. “Two years ago.”

“What, not when,” Wallace reminded Ehlo.

Ehlo had on his annoyed expression. “I’m getting there, okay?”

Wallace had his hands up then. “All right then.”

Ehlo sighed out. “When we dropped Valerie off at the airport that one time and most of you weren’t there because you were still mad at her—although most of us weren’t that innocent either in the whole fiasco.”

“Do go on,” Wallace prompted. “Before all of us grow old.”

Ehlo wrinkled his face but managed to ignore Wallace this time. “We—Sonia and I—had a talk on the way back. I realized how unfair I was to her, and all the mean things I said about her over the years. Okay, beyond awful. She didn’t do anything wrong, I just held this unfair grudge against her—although I forgave the majority of the population with those silly games ages ago already. So, I think we made peace.”

Wallace raised an eyebrow. “You think?”

Ehlo reached out and shoved Wallace by the shoulder then. “Oh, for heaven’s sake. Some things do not need to be said, okay?”

Jacky had on his rare mischievous smile then. He glanced at Wallace briefly before turning to Ehlo again. “All right, I think he’s sincere enough. We should cut him some slacks. You know how hard it is for him to admit he’s wrong.”

Wallace smiled and uncrossed his hands at that time. He clapped Ehlo’s shoulder then. “Very mature, Huang. I’m proud of you.”

Ehlo indeed had on his proud smile then. In fact, it was edging toward the arrogant territory.

“But definitely lay off the swooping your claws in to protect Jacky and Sonia’s non-existence relationship at the moment, okay?”

Ehlo wrinkled his face again. “Seriously, Huo? What’s the point of praising me when you wanted to stomp on me again?”

“I’m serious, Huang.”

“He’s right, you know,” Jacky said, nodding his head. “We don’t want to make Sonia uncomfortable, considering what she’s going through right now.”

“Let nature runs its course, Huang,” Wallace chimed in again. “If they’re going to get back together, they will. We don’t need to push, they’re already getting along so well the other night.”

Jacky thought Wallace was backing him up but didn’t realize what was going on until Wallace’s comment. He turned to Wallace then. “You too?”

That was around the same time as Ehlo sending Wallace a high five to seal their pact.

“Oh, come on, man,” Ehlo said, speaking up on Wallace’s behalf then. “We saw it a mile ahead already. We’re so going to your wedding. Yours and Sonia’s, that is.”

“Who’s ready for food?” Angela shouted at that time.

That was also the other’s cue to end the conversation since Angela’s question was loud enough for Chris and Sonia to hear as well.

*****

In late June, Jacky was walking along the bridge that connected their side of town to Sophia’s old town. Unlike the past previous times he was there with the memories of the past haunting him, he had a smile on his face. He stopped at the middle of the bridge and leaned on the railing like many times before. It was a habit they’d all developed over the years because of Sophia. But this time, Jacky’s heart wasn’t heavy. He was no longer feeling guilty for what he had caused toward Sophia and himself. In fact, his expression was hopeful this time. The light breezes aided his mood with the midday sun shining down on him.

“I never said a proper goodbye,” He said, looking toward the traffic down below. “But now I know you’ve found your happiness. I should move on too.”

“Jacky ge!” Joanne’s voice reached his ears then.

He turned around to check, his smile still shining on his face. Unlike in the past, this time, Joanne wasn’t with Bryant. Well, she was usually with Bryant when associating with this bridge. This time, it was Angela, Ehlo, and Wallace. No Yvonne. She was probably out somewhere with Cynthia, Janine, Novia, discussing a new idea she came about a month or so ago.

“Hey, man, you’re not going to jump, are you?” Ehlo asked upon seeing Jacky leaning so close to the railing.

“Huang Yu Rong!” The others—minus Jacky—scolded.

Jacky had on a smile as Ehlo scratched his head, feeling the familiarity of the old days. Angela was still giving Ehlo her famous glare as Ehlo immediately apologized for his insensitivity.

“No, I’m not going to jump,” Jacky answered Ehlo’s question. “In fact…” He paused briefly to collect his thoughts before continuing. “I think I need to apologize to everyone.”

Joanne wrinkled her face. “For what?”

“For making you all worry again,” Jacky said. “I mean, I promised to not wallow in misery and be brave. But all I did was cause more stress for everyone when there are so many things going on already.”

“Are you going to get all soapy on us again?” Ehlo asked, wrinkling his face.

Wallace hit Ehlo’s shoulder this time.

Jacky shook his head. “No, I just want you all to know I’m all right now. I’m not going to hide anymore.”

“Good,” Ehlo said. “Because the first thing you’re going to do after getting out of your moping phase is buying us lunch.”

“Huang Yu Rong!” The others exclaimed once again.

Jacky held his hand up then to stop them from massacring Ehlo. “He’s right. I should take up this honor.”

Ehlo had on his victory smile. “Yes. I’m going to call up the rest of the gang for this celebration too.”

Jacky had on his panicked look. “I only said I’m treating you guys, not the whole town.”

Ehlo had on his indifference look at that time. “Too late. You’re not taking any of this back.”

Jacky knew Ehlo was trying to cheer him up, so he didn’t argue. In fact, they walked back toward their side of town after that—with Ehlo on the phone with half the town to spread word about the celebration that afternoon at East Shore Café.

*****

“Hurray for us having another gathering here,” Ehlo declared that night at Uncle Ben and Aunt June’s house.

Yes, somehow along the way, the gathering had blown into a new proportion. Although Ehlo didn’t actually broadcasted it as “Jacky’s self-pity party being over”, they silently knew or suspected it to be so hence showing up for support. Considering how Uncle Ben and Aunt June were so invested in Jacky’s well-being, they had volunteered their place for this particular gathering—once again.

“I’m beginning to feel special,” Uncle Ben said, rubbing his beard at that time.

“You’re always special to us, Uncle Ben,” Ehlo said.

“That charm of yours is not going to work on me, Ehlo. You can only grease that Old Zhe.”

Ehlo had on his helpless expression. “One can only do so much.”

“Your head is so big, Huang,” Wallace sabotaged. “You’re beyond help at this point.”

The rest of the night continued in that same playful spirit. This time, even the five who weren’t present the last time came. It was one of the rare weekends where they were all free and managed to make it work. Not to mention how they heard about Jacky’s recovery, so they had to come and show support—even if Ehlo didn’t threaten their well-beings or anything.

It wasn’t until almost midnight that they called it quits. It was going to be a long week ahead for some of them. So they bided farewells with Uncle Ben and Aunt June before heading out. Of course, like last time, they finished cleaning up before leaving.

“Hey,” Wallace called out as Jacky was leaving with Joanne—and not Sonia this time.

Jacky could see Wallace’s expression, so he turned to Joanne. “Could you give us a minute?”

Joanne nodded and left with Jacky’s keys. Wallace made sure there was no one around within earshot before turning to Jacky again. They were actually in front of the double doors and somewhat under a tree with somewhat of lights from the house giving them some sort of visibility.

“What’s going on?” Jacky asked.

“You sure about this?” Wallace asked.

Jacky wrinkled his face in confusion. “What?”

“That you’re actually all right. Don’t play us again, man. We’re not getting any younger.”

Jacky smiled then. “Now you sound like our drama king.”

Wallace still had on his serious expression. “Ehlo has his dramatic moments, but you know you have a record. I’m serious, man.”

Jacky sighed out and turned off his teasing smile then. “I’m sorry.”

Wallace sighed out as well. “I knew it.”

Jacky shook his head. “You misunderstood.”

Wallace was the one with the confused look now.

“I was apologizing for my behaviors this past years,” Jacky clarified. “Not this afternoon.”

“Why? I know you had it rough, but you were suffering so…”

Jacky shook his head again. “I realized something when Ehlo admitted of his unfair treatment toward Sonia.”

Wallace wrinkled his face. “What?”

“I was also unfair to Sonia, not protecting her enough, allowing Ehlo to continue on with his petty attacks.”

“You can’t hold yourself responsible for what Ehlo did.”

Jacky shook his head—as if that was his latest reaction and that he didn’t know of any other reaction. “I was playing the victim most of the time without even knowing it, making it like I couldn’t control what my friends do or think.”

“Which you don’t.”

“But the thing is,” Jacky continued on, ignoring Wallace’s point. “I knew I could have done more. I could have been firmer with Ehlo, not allowing him and the others to worship me like I could do no wrong.”

“Ehlo wasn’t all that bad,” Wallace said, feeling like he needed defend Ehlo. “You know he never did that around Sonia, except for what happened before you two got together. Okay, that time three years ago too. But we were all guilty. And we backed off already. It has been years now. You have to let it go. Sonia already has.”

Jacky nodded at last. “I know. That’s why I’m telling you now. Because I’m able to see all of these now. I need to move on and stop living in that victim mentality, especially how there are people suffering with real problems. And I used it to my own benefit.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself.”

Jacky went back to his “shake head” routine again. “No, on the contrary, I think I’m not being harsh enough on myself. You realized I robbed Sonia of her decision?”

Wallace had on his confused expression again.

“I wanted to protect myself from breaking down completely in front of her but ended up robbing her of a chance to really process what was going on. I didn’t even put up a fight, claiming some stupid high road. But it wasn’t my call. It was supposed to be her decision, not my one-sided show. And because of that, half the people who supported me hated her.”

It was Wallace’s turn to shake his head. “No, they definitely don’t hate her.”

“If they didn’t have anything against her because of what happened, would they have attacked her when she came back three years ago? The rip was already there. And it was my fault. They were her friends too, Wallace. Especially, Angela. I ruined their friendship.”

“You see them getting along fine now? It’s called disagreements. We all have those. No one is 100% on board with one another’s decision all the time, man. That’s unrealistic. Like I said, it’s been years now, let it go.”

“It’s almost eight years now,” Jacky said. “Eight years, that was how long it took for me to ruin two relationships that could have worked out. I also destroyed the reputation of two of the most important women in my life.”

Wallace was about to speak up again to dissuade Jacky of his paranoia, but they heard some sniffling sounds. It was then that Jacky and Wallace realized the others were standing by the door as well. It was because they were so into the conversation that they forgot to check. The person who was crying was Sonia. In fact, she stepped forward the minute they turned around to check.

“Sonia, I…” Jacky managed, not realizing his own tears were also falling. He didn’t realize he was holding back.

“It was never your fault,” Sonia said, reaching Jacky at long last.

It was only seconds, but it only seemed forever because time had stopped for them. The scene in front of them reminded some of them of that time Wallace convinced them all to step outside so he could have a talk with Jacky. The difference? They were all there this time and were quiet on their own, even Ehlo. He was seen comforting Angela as Angela was also crying at that point. Even Joanne had come back and was also crying at her corner nearby. Wallace had taken a few steps back to give both Jacky and Sonia some space. That also meant that Yvonne had taken a step forward toward Wallace and had laced her hand through his. They all continued to wait in almost silence for further development between Jacky and Sonia.

“It was never your fault,” Sonia repeated after some more sniffling. “You were trying to protect me.”

Jacky shook his head again, his eyes blurry at this point. He didn’t want to cry. He didn’t know why he was crying. He was supposed to be happy because he finally realized and understood his mistake. He could finally move on and become a better person. Yet seeing Sonia at that moment with tears in her eyes, he wasn’t able to control himself. And he did what he did that one time after Sonia overheard his conversation with Wallace years ago. He took her into his arms and comforted her. The others didn’t say anything. They just waited as the two hugged one another. By that time, even Janine was crying—and Eddie was comforting her.

“I’m so sorry,” Jacky finally managed after what seemed like forever—and he was able to take control of his emotions again.

Jacky and Sonia finally let go of one another at last and took a step back.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Sonia repeated of her words from earlier. “I had to go through what I did with James to get my own closure. You can’t carry the world on your shoulders like that.”

Jacky looked like he wanted to say more but it was Sonia’s turn to shake her head this time.

“Promise me you’ll forgive yourself.” Sonia used her own shirt sleeves to wipe away the remaining of her tears at that point. “I already have.” She had on a light smile then, yet it wasn’t of a teasing one nor an amused one either. “It’s really hard carrying around such burden. Don’t do that to yourself. Trust me, I know.”

As if finally processing Sonia’s words, Jacky nodded at last. He had also wiped away his tears. “I promise you.”

Sonia had on her relieved expression then. She extended her hand toward him—which he took without needing her to clarify. It was their pact. It was their closure. At long last. After eight years. Eight long years of resentment and confusion.

At that moment, the others who were also crying had stopped crying already. It was like they were prompted by Jacky and Sonia’s actions. They were indeed more hopeful of the future. There was no longer any more of skirting around the issues or getting along for one another’s sake. It was all out in the open now. And both parties were moving on. At long last. And it was also a closure for them all—whether those present at that point was present eight years ago or not. They needed that closure. After all that had happened.

“We’re so going to their wedding,” Ehlo whispered to Wallace as they finally dispersed after ten minutes more of talking between Jacky and Sonia—but on a much lighter note.

Wallace didn’t react this time. He exchanged a look with Yvonne before tugging her hand, indicating that they were leaving also. The others—who were near enough to overhear Ehlo—didn’t react either. They were still processing what just happened. Even if that was a much-needed conversation after so many years.

And Jacky and Sonia didn’t leave in the same car—unlike last time. They left in their separate cars. The others had made sure that they were well enough—emotionally—to drive. It was the least they could at that moment. And that was also why Ehlo dared to joke with Wallace, knowing that both of the parties mentioned weren’t around to overhear him.

© Wednesday, August 5th, 2020

Posted: Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

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