Chapter 10 – Welcome Back

That Friday afternoon, they had a rare meeting among their group. It was a large gathering too, not the small one of recent. Of course, there were several missing members, but that inevitable. It was at East Shore Café—and not at Tony’s.

“I think your place is jinxed,” Ehlo said as soon as Tony showed up with Esther.

“Thanks?” Tony returned as he sat down.

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

“You have a record,” Ehlo said, having seen Esther’s disapproval of his comment. “Each time we’re there, either we’re being spied on or we start some kind of drama.”

“The last one you guys cooked up and didn’t bother telling me ahead of time,” Esther chided, her expression apparently hostile. “You had me worried for nothing.”

“We needed your genuine reaction, Mrs. Sun.”

“Hmp.”

“We did apologize that day, you know.”

“Doesn’t sound like you’re apologetic about it.”

Ehlo shrugged and smiled, knowing he had to take it from her. Especially when she was absolutely right about the details.

“If you’re unhappy about our place, you could have gone to Johnny and Bianca’s,” Esther said, scanning the perimeter. “We’re too exposed here. What if you get caught again? Are you going to blame us somehow for drawing attention?”

“They’re not here,” Ehlo responded.

“Of course, they’re not here. I can see that.”

Ehlo shook his head, knowing Esther had misunderstood him. “No, I meant they’re not in town.”

Esther had on her puzzled look then. “What?”

“They went on a family vacation with Suzie already.”

“Since when?”

“Last night?”

“Are you telling me or asking me?”

“Telling?”

Tony took that time to rescue Ehlo from his wife’s grasp. Although Ehlo didn’t look like he needed it. Considering how he was still able to smile.

“You know him,” Tony said, coaxing Esther to sit down at a spot next to him.

Ehlo also took that time to go back to his seat, which was at the same table as Wallace as usual. They had left some empty seats between them for their wives.

“What’s the big deal today?” Andy asked as soon as he showed up. “We’re planning for Jacky’s birthday already?”

“No, of course not,” Ehlo answered for everyone present. “Can’t we have a gathering to celebrate the fact that we survived the past year’s craziness?”

Andy shrugged, his eyes scanning the general area. He saw Achel waving to him, possibly trying to rescue him from Ehlo’s wrath, so he pretended to be distracted and headed toward that direction.

“Wise choice, kid,” Ehlo muttered as he sat down in his seat again.

“Why are you hostile toward him, Huang?” Wallace asked. “I thought you said we’re gathered here to celebrate.”

“You know he always finds an opportunity to troll me, Huo,” Ehlo returned.

“Sounds like your paranoia is getting worse,” Yvonne said as she arrived at that moment and heard his comment. She turned to Angela—who she had arrived with her. “Have you gone to the doctor lately with him? Might want to up his meds.”

“Hey!” Ehlo called out, feeling betrayed as everyone else who had heard the comment laughed.

“Welcome back to our glorious group, Huang,” Wallace jabbed after he stopped laughing and pulled out a chair for Yvonne.

“I’ll have you know; my paranoia is what saves us half of the time,” Ehlo defended himself after Angela had settled down at a chair between Ehlo and Yvonne.

“And the other half often causing the dramas,” Chris muttered at a nearby table. He was sitting with Derek and Eddie at the moment and felt the need to point that little detail out.

“No one asked for your opinion, Pretty Boy,” Ehlo said with much hostility and turned to glare at Chris.

The majority who had arrived had on a smile and had turned to their tables to see the next development of the show.

“What a way to start our reunion,” Jacky joked as he walked up to them at that time.

“It’s not like I wanted to argue,” Ehlo said, once again feeling the need to defend himself. “They’re targeting me on purpose.”

“Are you sure it’s not your paranoia working overtime again?”

The others laughed. Jacky wasn’t there when Yvonne questioned Ehlo’s paranoia, so he was a tad surprised that the others had laughed on cue. Ehlo’s annoyance was apparent at this point.

“Whatever, Backstabber,” Ehlo said and sat down again.

Jacky shrugged and found an empty table somewhat away from Ehlo—just to be safe. It wasn’t like he was afraid of Ehlo. But he didn’t feel like starting anything at the moment.

After that little incident, most of them were quiet and played on their phones or had gone inside to order while they waited for the rest of the group to show up. It took another fifteen minutes for the ones who wanted to show up to actually show up. Ambrose had sent Tony a text at the last minute that he and Penny had to go meet up with their parents, so they had to cancel.

“All right, everyone,” Ehlo finally said when everyone was present and had settled down—for the most part. “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

“Twenty-five text messages would have that effect,” Chris mumbled.

“Again, no one asked you, Pretty Boy,” Ehlo said, turning to Chris with a sharp look.

“Moving along,” Wallace said, gesturing with one hand while the other used to bring his coffee up to take a sip.

“Anyway,” Ehlo said, turning back to face the group in general again. “Before I was rudely interrupted, I was going to announce some changes within the group, mostly good news.”

“Who made you our leader?” Andy jumped in at that time.

Ehlo turned to glare at Andy at that time. “Cork it, kid.”

Andy shrugged. “I guess we can’t have opinions around here then.”

“The faster he talks, the faster we get to eat,” Wallace said.

Ehlo turned to Wallace then, eyeing the food in front of Wallace. “What’s stopping you from eating right now, Huo?”

“You know stopping and having to do damage control while you talk and then resuming again is bad for the digestion process, Huang.”

The others laughed again.

“Whatever, man.” Ehlo turned back to the group again. “Anyway, as I was saying.”

Wallace held up his hand behind Ehlo’s back as Chris was about to speak up again. He shook his head. Chris understood that sharp look too well, so he decided to quit—for now.

“First off, we finally got our freedom back,” Ehlo continued. “That’s worth celebrating, right?”

“The trial’s still not over though,” Andy said. “It didn’t even start yet.”

“It’s just a matter of time, but no more threats.”

Andy shrugged and stayed quiet again.

Ehlo saw no other objections, so he spoke up again. “Secondly, welcome Bryant back to our group. And also, congrats on his reconciliation with Qiao.”

Chris was the first one who clapped, which got Derek and Eddie to join as well. The others exchanged looks among themselves before joining in. Indeed, it was worth a celebration.

“Thanks, everyone,” Bryant said, getting up at that time. He felt like he owed it to them to say more than two words. “I’m sorry for my behavior for this past year, causing more misunderstandings because of me. I hope that I could somehow make it up to you in the future, even if I can’t heal all of the rifts.”

“Just don’t hide stuff from us anymore,” Ehlo said, his voice half teasing. “Especially never ever try to rip off a TV drama plot again. You know how sensitive Chris is with his soaps.”

“Hey!” Chris cried out from the other table.

The others laughed again, except for Bryant.

“You think you can make fun of me and get away with it, huh?” Ehlo asked, turning to Chris with his cunning smile again. “Dream on, Pretty Boy.”

Joanne had taken that little distraction to tug at Bryant’s hand, gesturing for him to sit down again.

“Moving on,” Wallace prompted as he took another sip of his coffee cup.

Ehlo turned to Wallace again. “What are you, Huo, the timekeeper?”

That got another laugh from the crowd.

“You’re good,” Eddie commented. “You should start your own comedy show.”

“Some of us have to get home later, Huang,” Wallace said, jumping in on purpose, so Ehlo didn’t get a chance to retaliate. “Like today, soon.”

Ehlo shrugged again and addressed the group once more. “Another welcome back here.” He paused again and gestured toward Sonia’s table. “Welcome back to CW! He survived our troll fest and decided to stick around after all. No hard feelings, right?”

“Coming from you?” Chris asked, not letting that one go.

CW had actually gotten up when some people cheered and nodded. But he wasn’t able to speak because Chris had jumped right in to jab at Ehlo.

“Better than you, you’re stealing his limelight,” Ehlo snapped. Then he turned back to CW with a bright smile on his face. “Go ahead, sorry.”

CW shook his head, knowing Ehlo too well—or possibly more than before. “Thank you, everyone. I know I upset everyone during our last meeting. It’s not something that I can change nor take back. But I’m willing to learn from this and hope that everyone could give me this second chance.”

“As long as Sonia’s happy,” Angela said, knowing she had to speak up.

“We’re not back together,” Sonia clarified. “We just talked about being friends again.”

The others exchanged looks as CW nodded to confirm Sonia’s words.

“Regardless, we all have family baggage, right?” Ehlo said, feeling the need to rescue CW from the others’ grasp—for once. “Can’t blame him for everything.”

The others nodded, acknowledging that fact. After another sunshine smile from CW, he sat down again.

“So, here’s a drama free season to wrap up the year,” Ehlo said, holding up his drink. It was some fruit shake. He didn’t want to drink coffee after work, unlike Wallace who was currently living on the edge.

“Famous last words, Huang,” Wallace said—although he was also holding up his coffee cup to honor Ehlo’s words.

“I’ll drink to that,” Jacky chimed in, turning to Janine and Novia with his raised glass.

Janine and Novia had arrived after Sonia and CW, so they were sitting at Jacky’s table.

“I guess we’re done,” Ehlo said after they took a sip from their beverages.

“I have an announcement to make,” Chris said, standing up then.

“No one cares, Pretty Boy,” Ehlo snapped, still hostile from earlier.

Chris ignored Ehlo and addressed everyone else instead. “I’m going to leave in the next several days.”

“Good,” Ehlo muttered.

Angela gave Ehlo a shove at that time.

“My brother just graduated recently, and I promised him to come home and celebrate with him and the rest of the family,” Chris continued, as if he didn’t hear Ehlo’s words at all. “So, I guess this is the last gathering with everyone.”

The others took turns wishing him well and to send words to his brother, except for Ehlo.

“It’s not like he’s not coming back, hello,” Ehlo defended himself several minutes later when everyone was all settled down and had resumed eating like how they intended in the first place.

“Actually, I have to go too,” Jacky said later when he came by Ehlo and Wallace’s table. “I mean right now for me.”

“What’s your hurry, man?” Ehlo asked, turning to Jacky with a surprised expression on his face.

“Work assignment,” Jacky said. “It was really last-minute stuff. I have to go back and pack tonight.”

“All right, good luck, man.”

Jacky nodded. “Thanks.”

After Jacky left, the others continued with their side conversations. Eddie had left his table with the other two to join Janine and Novia at theirs. Bryant had also taken that time to go talk to Derek and Chris. Angela had gotten up from her seat and went to talk to Sonia and CW as well. It felt like things were indeed back to normal.

“Imagine if all our parents know we’re gathered here right now,” Ehlo said about fifteen minutes later. “You know, with how half our families were in the headlines since the last year or so, right?”

“Huang, what’s your point?” Wallace asked, turning to him.

“What if we somehow caused another gossip cycle with this meeting?”

“Huang Yu Rong!” Everyone—except for Sonia and CW—yelled out at the same time.

“I know, I know,” Ehlo returned, not feeling threatened at all. He was still smiling. “I’m ruining the mood, right?”

“You got it, Huang,” Wallace finally agreed.

It was indeed like the old times. Almost. Although their group felt somewhat incomplete without their extended members elsewhere, but it was as far as normality could go at the moment. It was them. It was another day. And they intended to enjoy every moment of it.  

© Friday, November 6th, 2020

Posted: Saturday, January 23rd, 2021

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