Pillars of My Strength
“Hey, get your butt down here!” a voice shouted out from behind her.
“What? Why?” she whined, continuing to hang from the rim.
“You know if you fall, you’re short enough that you’ll likely break a leg and not play basketball for at least two months. Can you live that long without your favorite sport?” the voice asked in a wheedling tone.
“But it’s so nice up here,” she complained. “And I can see everything.”
“Me, too. I can even see up your shorts,” the voice called out from behind her.
“What the f—? Why didn’t you say something before?” she shouted out angrily.
“Uhh, because I was enjoying the view?”
“What, of my white, granny underpants?” she asked; snorting as she silently began to laugh.
There was a short pause.
“Well, aren’t you going to get down?” he asked impatiently.
“I can’t,” she said in a small voice.
“What did you say?” he asked from behind her.
“I can’t,” she repeated. “Can’t you catch me?”
“What, in my surprisingly strong arms?” he replied sarcastically. “I can barely lift a crate of fruit, how the hell am I going to catch your fat highness?”
“You know, if I was down there, you’d be getting a serious ass whooping,” she threatened darkly.
“Ah, but you aren’t, are you? You’re up there and refusing to come down for some reason.”
“Dude, if I could get down, I would. You think I enjoy being a flasher?”
“Well, then?” he asked.
“Look, I was dunking the ball. You know that’s a great feeling, right? And then when that ball swooshed through the net, that was an awesome feeling. And when I caught the rim in my hands, and swung around like a monkey, I felt like a professional B-ball player. But when it came time to let go, well, I realized that this basket was really, really high off the ground.”
“And . . .?” he asked with a sigh.
“Well, I just realized something for the first time in my life,” she answered sulkily.
And then she was silent.
“What?” he asked impatiently.
“I’m afraid of heights,” she whispered.
“What? I didn’t hear you,” he shouted out from behind her.
“I’m afraid of heights, ok?” she shouted at him.
There was another moment of silence.
And then laughter. Deep belly laughter. “I cannot believe this. The fearless one is afraid of letting go of one itty-bitty rim.”
“Shut the f— up,” she shouted out in frustration.
“Do you want me to call the fire department?” he asked softly.
“No, think of how embarrassing that’ll be. I’ll eventually have to let go anyway. So, just wait until my wrists can’t hold on anymore,” she finally said.
Five minutes quietly passed.
“You know, I have surprisingly strong wrists,” she mused aloud.
Another five minutes.
“Hey, if you die, can I get your wrist guards?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said breathlessly. “I have a drawer filled with them, you can have those.”
“I’m talking about the ones you’re always wearing,” he quickly interjected.
“You mean these?” she asked, nodding at the ones currently wrapped around her wrists.
“Why not?” he asked, whining.
“Because I plan on being buried with these when I die,” she said adamantly.
“What? That’s just … and anyways, you’ll be dead. You won’t know any different.”
“Hey, I stayed awake 36 hours to bid on these damn things on e-Bay. And these are one of a kind. Wrist guards signed by Michael Jordan. Why would I give them to a punk like you? They don’t leave my body. Not even when I die.”
Five more minutes.
“I’m getting hungry,” he complained.
“And you think I’m comfortable up here?” she grouched back, sweat pouring down her back. “All I have to do is let go, but my stupid wrists won’t cooperate.”
“We should have the lanky bean-pole here, maybe he could just grab you off the rim,” he mused out loud.
“Don’t talk about your brother that way,” she gritted out, as the sweat began to make her hands slippery.
“Step-brother,” he archly reminded her. “But it’s true, he’s always doing the knight in shining armor stuff. Not like me, with my useless body,” the voice said softly.
“You’re not useless,” she argued, turning to look at him. Her hands loosened at the sudden jerky movement, and she fell.
There was deep laughter behind her, as someone began to run away.
“Arron Yan! I’m going to get you!!” Ella Chen shouted, running after him.
A figure wandered into the room, and saw the two sitting on the couch, eating potato chips and watching the latest episode of Lost.
“Calvin, you’re home,” Ella said joyfully, jumping up to give him a hug. “How was your day?”
“Not bad,” he said softly, smiling at seeing his brother so happy. “What’s made both of you so happy?” he asked.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing,” Ella said quickly, shaking her head at Arron, as a mischievous light began to appear in his eyes.
“You’re right, nothing happened,” Arron said agreeably, looking at Ella and then nodding at the wrist guards.
She forcefully shook her head.
“Actually . . . something did happen,” Arron began again.
“No, no, nothing happened,” Ella said grabbing onto a wrist guard and frantically nodding her head at Arron. Arron smiled, and turned back to the TV.
Ella followed Calvin into the kitchen.
“I made you dinner,” Ella said, coming up behind him to massage his shoulders.
“Thanks,” he said quietly, flashing her a smile.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, feeling the tense muscles beneath her hands.
“Nothing, it’s just that. . .,” turning he looked at the open kitchen door.
Ella quickly went over and closed it.
“What’s wrong?” she repeated.
“Grace called,” Calvin said softly, not wanting Arron to overhear.
“What did the bitch want?” Ella said balefully.
“Don’t judge Ella,” Calvin reprimanded her. “She’s just human. And human beings make mistakes. You know that.”
“Well, her mistake hurt Arron. And it wasn’t a mistake. She decided to get drunk and high that night. She decided to drive with her 18-year-old son in the car with her. And she’s the reason Arron has a paralyzed arm and those scars on his face,” Ella argued back vehemently. “There have been so many . . . so many things that he’s had to give up because of that one ‘mistake’,” she spat out. “So, if I choose to call that woman a bitch, you won’t stop me.”
“I know you love him,” Calvin said, putting an arm around her to give her a quick squeeze. “You took care of him even before the accident, always feeding him when he came over. And when he came to stay with us after the accident, he was so withdrawn; he was having a hard time adjusting to life again. I can see the wonders you’ve worked with him in the year he’s been here. He takes comfort in you. And even though you’re only five years older, he sees you as the mother he never had.”
“He needs to be nurtured. He needs to be coddled. It seems that all he did was take care of Grace when he was with that demented woman. I don’t want him to be hurt again, Calvin,” she said vehemently, her lips tightening. “Now, what did she want from my Arron?”
“You’re like a Mama Bear protecting your little cub.”
“Well, what about you?” she asked. “I know that your dad wasn’t married to Grace for that long, but you still love Arron like a brother. And you took Arron in without a second thought when Grace went into rehab to get out of that jail sentence.”
“And hopefully, she’s better,” Calvin said. “And you know that Arron is my brother. And that’s how he thinks of me, even if he does insist on being called stepbrothers. You know he just wants to protect me, so that people won’t think that I have Grace’s and his father’s blood in me.”
“Does he really think that?” Ella asked in shock.
“From the beginning,” Calvin admitted. “I tried to talk to him about it once, but he wouldn’t listen. He just can’t stop himself from protecting people. His mom. My dad. Me. Even you.”
“Me?” Ella asked.
“You got a call from your mom two days ago,” Calvin confessed. “And Arron lied and said that you weren’t here. Like he’s done almost every time she calls you and he happens to pick up. He knows how depressed you get after the calls.”
“He’s only 20. He should be the one being protected,” Ella said sadly. “So, what do we do about Grace?”
“It’ll have to be Arron’s choice,” Calvin said implacably.
“But Calv—,” Ella began to whine.
“What’ll be my choice?” Arron asked, standing in the open doorway.
“Calvin, don’t,” Ella begged, looking at him beseechingly.
“Grace called,” Calvin said slowly, hoping that Ella would understand that Arron needed to make the decision. “She wants to see you.”
“You don’t have to see her if you don’t want to,” Ella quickly interjected. “I understand that it’s your decision. But don’t feel that you have to do this. Think about yourself for once.”
Arron looked at her blankly, the joy gone from his eyes.
“Arron, don’t feel that you have to do this,” Calvin said gently. “She’s better now. You don’t have to keep your eye on her every second of the day. She’s the mother in this relationship.”
“See that’s just it, isn’t it? She’s my mother,” Arron said quietly. “I can’t just abandon her. If she hadn’t gotten pregnant with me when she was 17, then her life would never have been ruined. Her parents wouldn’t have kicked her out. She wouldn’t have had to marry that no-good bastard that beat her up for the first ten years of my life. If I hadn’t been born, she wouldn’t have had to turn to drugs to forget the pain of those beatings. It’s all my fault, can’t you see that? I should never have been born.”
“Don’t do this to yourself, Arron,” Ella cried out, running over to grab him in a hug. “You were just an innocent child born into this world. You were with her every second of your life. When she was beaten up, you suffered right along with her. You never left her. Can’t you see that it might be time to let her grow up?” Ella said softly. “To go out on her own?”
“Why do you guys care so much?” Arron said, moving way. “You’re not even my real brother,” he said, pointing at Calvin. “And we’re not even related,” he said, looking at Ella.
“Can’t you see it’s not about the blood?” Ella said softly.
“It’s never been about the blood coursing through our veins,” Calvin reiterated. “The first time I met you, all I could think was . . . here’s the little brother I’ve been waiting for all this time. We’re 10 years apart in age, but I knew that we could be best friends like all brothers are supposed to be. I wanted to take care of you. And when I see my brother doing what he feels is right, I will respect his decision, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be there to support him.”
“And I care because you’re an angel,” Ella said softly. “You chased that mugger who grabbed my purse and ran. You called Calvin over, so that he could use his expertise to help me. Both of you insisted on helping me when you found out that I had come to America alone. You helped me when I could barely speak English. Arron, you were the one who sat at this table and taught me English four hours a day. And you took care of me when I was nothing to you. You let me take care of both of you, seeing that it was what I needed. So, how can you ask why I care so much? Who does what both of you did for a stranger?”
“I don’t want to see her,” he admitted. “BUT I have to see her,” Arron said softly. “Just to make sure she’s okay. After, that, I can step back for a while. She’s been through rehab, and I’ve realized that I can’t fight her demons for her. Not anymore. I don’t have the strength,” he whispered, looking down at his arm.
“Fine, but then you have to take care of me one more time,” Ella said brightly, distracting him from his thoughts. “Just until I get through this next phase in my life.”
Calvin and Arron both turned to look at her.
“Mom called yesterday,” she said, smiling teasingly at Arron. “She started lecturing me about how she can never get me on the phone.”
Arron blushed and quickly looked away.
“She said it’s been two years, and that I should have learned all I needed to learn about writing in this time.”
“Writing?” Arron asked.
“Yeah, they all think I’m here learning how to be a writer. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was going to put my psychology degree to use by becoming a teacher to troubled children. A shockingly mundane profession in my mother’s eyes; I mean who would want to teach someone else’s kids, right?”
“And?” Calvin asked.
“I think it’s time for me to go back to Taiwan.
And I can’t do it alone.”
When Chun found out what Hebe had done, he walked away.
But I guess that discovered affair affected all of us differently.
The night that Hebe . . . I went to sleep that night, never wanting to get up ever again.
I’d introduced Hebe to Chun. If Chun hadn’t known me, he would never have met with the biggest failure in his life. He would never have suffered the biggest heartbreak.
He would never have become the biggest jerk I came to know.
I really thought that I was supposed to die. After all, hadn’t it been all my fault?
But I guess God had other plans for me. I had to learn to forgive myself and to move on. Just like everyone else had started to do. You know it wasn’t easy. It never really is. But I’d begun to rebuild my life.
When I did wake up, they told me that Hebe was gone. It was as if she had never existed in our lives. No one said her name. They just completely erased her from their minds.
And me . . .
I ran away from everything I knew. I ran away from everyone I loved. But it took me thousands of miles to realize that you can never really run away from the one thing you so badly want to escape. And so, with the support of my friends, I began to make my way home.
I wanted to see my mom again. I wanted to see Cassandra.
I needed to see Chun.
Definitely NOT Cinderella. Definitely.
Such a small word, but when a choice is made, who knows the repercussions that choice will have further on down the line?
For every choice, there are two different paths.
One of them is always the harder one. But does it really lead to the bigger and better reward?
I wouldn’t know. Because more often than not, I’ve taken the easy path. Why make a choice that will only lead to failure?
I gave up my identity, because Hebe wanted to call me Ella.
I gave up Chun, because Hebe wanted him and he wanted her.
I gave up. Period.
But one thing I’ve learned in life …
When you take the easier path in life … you always end up with the biggest regrets.
Stepping onto the tarmac after two years, Ella knew that she was finally home. Staying in America, in a foreign land, hadn’t been too hard because it had allowed her to escape her memories for a little while. But it was only now that she was realizing how much she’d missed being home.
Her shoulders straightened and she took a deep breath.
“Ready to go?” Calvin asked softly, coming to stand beside her.
“Yeah, my mom should be here soon,” Ella said brightly, moving toward the luggage carousel. “Let’s get the luggage. She doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Where’s Arron?”
“He’s in the bathroom,” Calvin replied with a laugh. Arron had always had a small bladder. It always gave him trouble at the most inopportune times.
Ella began to chuckle as they picked up their numerous pieces of luggage from the carousel.
Keeping herself busy, she tried to still the trembling in her fingers. She was happy. She’d missed Taiwan more than she could imagine. She’d missed Selina. And her mom. And most of all, she’d missed Chun.
She wanted to see them.
But she was also afraid.
Would they be happy to see her?
Had they missed her?
Had they changed?
“Ella!!” a voice shrieked from behind her, the excitement evident in the tone. “You’re here! You’re back! I can’t believe it!”
A big grin broke out over Ella’s face. She quickly turned around.
Selina. Of course.
The two raced toward each other, their arms coming out to wrap around the other. “I can’t believe you’re back,” Selina shouted into her ear. “I’ve missed you so much.”
“But we’ve been e-mailing back and forth like crazy,” Ella protested laughingly. “And you came to see me twice a year in America.”
“You think four times was enough in two whole years. I missed my best friend!” Selina shouted in protest, pulling away finally. “Oh, Ella, you look great. All golden-brown from the sun, and your hair. I love the highlights.”
“Really?” Ella said, putting a hand up to her hair. “Arron insisted. He said I was beginning to look too much like a granny.”
“I totally agree with him,” Selina promptly said. “Where is that delightful boy?”
“Selina!” a voice called out eagerly from behind.
“Arron!” Selina shouted excitedly, “How have you been?” she asked, running over to give him a bear hug. She kept him in her arms an extra beat, and then pulled back to soundly kiss him on one cheek. Turning she gave Calvin a quick hug in greeting, as well, pulling back shyly.
Selina considered the two of them Ella’s guardian angels. Selina had been so worried when Ella decided to leave Taiwan after the incident. She’d been so busy handling her own grief over Jiro’s “betrayal”, that she hadn’t even realized Ella’s condition. When Selina offered to go with Ella, Ella had absolutely refused and Selina had had to accept it.
The thought of Ella alone, all the way in America, had scared Selina out of her mind. But when she’d gone to visit her two months later, her worries had been put to rest. Ella hadn’t been alone. She’d been with the two greatest guys in the world.
Calvin. Strong, gentle Calvin. He was older than them. He had a career. And he was so mature. He was the man that everyone could talk to, and Calvin always listened without judging. Selina remembered the night she’d gotten drunk when she’d read the news about Jiro and his wife; she still couldn’t say her name. Calvin had held her while she cried. He’d listened to her. And comforted her. She still blushed at how vulnerable she’d allowed herself to be in front of Calvin.
It was at that moment that Selina had let Jiro go, realizing that the bastard had never deserved her love. She could never understand why he hadn’t told her from the beginning that he didn’t love her. Why use her for so long? But she’d let that bitterness go, as well. And now, she was free. Free to love again. Free to be happy.
She just needed to find a man.
And Arron. Her heart still clenched when she remembered that second visit. When she’d met Arron the first time, he’d been a golden boy. He was so talented. So intelligent. So beautiful. And he was so happy. Despite his home life, he was happy with his lot and he loved his mother. He’d saved Ella. He’d brought her home with them. He’d comforted her. And created a bond that saved her.
But that second visit, he was broken. Not just in body, but in spirit. Even then, he’d called for his mother, so he could comfort her. Calvin had been there to care for him. And Ella was so protective of him.
Calvin and Arron had kept Ella tied to this earth, and Selina would always be grateful for that.
“Hey!” Ella said, smacking Selina on the forehead, “where’d you go off to?”
“Oh, nowhere,” Selina said, waking up from her musings to rub her forehead. “I’m just so happy that you’re back. And you brought Calvin and Arron for a visit, too,” she said enthusiastically.
“Not for a visit,” Ella quickly interjected.
“You’re going back?” Selina demanded, turning to look at Calvin questioningly. “You can’t just go back. You just got here!” she protested, pouting. “I had all these plans,” she said, stepping closer to the two males.
“Uh …,” Calvin began uncertainly.
“No, doofus, they’re staying here,” Ella interrupted, before Selina could really start a tirade. “Calvin got a great job offer, and Arron wants to start over,” she whispered the last. Selina nodded understandingly.
“So, have you gotten your teaching credentials?” Selina asked, turning to look at Ella enquiringly.
“Yep,” Ella said proudly. “And I thought that I should start finding work, but only after a little break. Not that I really need to work, right? Since Mr. Tien was nice enough to set up a huge trust fund for his stepdaughter. Now, where’s mom?”
“Um … Ella, she couldn’t come,” Selina finally said. “Auntie totally forgot a luncheon she had to go to today, and she couldn’t miss it because …,” her voice trailed off.
“Don’t worry about it,” Ella said with a weary shrug, “Mom is always like that. Now, did you do what I asked?”
“Yeah, I found the perfect place,” Selina quickly replied, grabbing Ella by the hand and leading her away. “It’s in my building and only a floor up. But I still don’t see why you need a place. You can stay with Auntie.”
Ella looked at her skeptically.
“Okay, maybe not. But you can definitely live with me, and we always said we’d be roommates,” Selina argued.
“The place is for Calvin and Arron. Of course, I’m staying with you,” Ella said, laughing as Selina began to jump up and down in celebration.
“How long is this going to take?” Arron whispered to Calvin.
“They haven’t seen each other in four months,” Calvin replied.
“So…a long time?” Arron asked.
“There’s a McDonald’s right there,” Calvin said, pointing.
“Let’s go,” Arron whispered back.
“Let’s go, guys,” Ella said, finally turning to the two.
“Guys? Where’d you wander off to?” Ella called out, whistling piercingly. “Selina’s coming back with the trolley now.”
Ella scratched her head, looking around.
“Did you lose them?”
“And this is the master bedroom,” Selina said opening the final door on her tour of the condo. “Sorry for the color scheme, but you can attribute it to Ella’s atrocious taste; I thought that she’d be living here,” Selina explained apologetically.
“So, do you like it?” Ella asked the two, wanting them to say yes. She needed them to be close to her for just a little while longer. And they’d become family. She didn’t want them to live too far away.
“Well, except for this bedroom,” Calvin began speculatively, “I can’t fault your taste, Selina,” he concluded, turning to smile at her.
Selina blushed and looked away, remembering that conversation they’d had. She just didn’t feel comfortable around Calvin.
“I like it,” Arron declared, walking into the room. “Ella’s taste matches mine,” he explained, turning to meet Selina’s wide-eyed gaze.
“Then you can have the room,” Calvin said with a shrug. “This room would give anyone normal headaches. And I’m normal, not like you two birdbrains,” he said, pointing to Ella and Arron.
The two attacked him in retaliation.
The doorbell rang behind them.
“Who could that be?” Ella asked in surprise.
“Well, it could be auntie,” Selina guessed. “I’ve pretty much advertised this as your apartment, and she probably couldn’t wait to see you after the luncheon.”
“I’ll go open the door,” Ella said smilingly, looking forward to seeing mom again.
The doorbell rang more insistently.
“I’m coming,” Ella shouted through the door, racing now.
She pulled open the door.
There was no one there.
“Down here,” a voice ordered.
Ella looked down to see the pouting face of a precocious five year old. Cute little chubby face. Hair up in two ponytails.
“Who?” Ella began uncertainly.
“You’re ugly,” the little girl said.
“Huh?” Ella asked in surprise.
“You’re supposed to be pretty,” the girl said, the pout growing to alarming proportions.
“Daddy and auntie Selina were talking about Cinderella moving into this apartment, and I read about Cinderella. She’s supposed to have pretty hair. It’s yellow, but you have boring brown hair. And blue eyes. And she’s supposed to be pretty. You’re not pretty. Are you sure you’re supposed to be here?” she asked suspiciously.
“I …,” Ella said, her brow wrinkling. What the hell was she supposed to say? Sure the kid was cute, but Ella was alternating between pinching those cheeks and doing something a bit more violent.
“Unless, is there a pretty woman in there?” the little girl asked eagerly, darting past a shocked Ella.
“Aww,” the little girl whined, “it’s only auntie Selina. Where are…who’s he?” she asked, pointing to Arron, awestruck.
“That’s my friend,” Ella explained, hurrying over to stand next to Arron. “Why?”
“He’s pretty. Maybe he’s Cinderella?” she asked hopefully, moving up to him and wrapping her arms around his leg and staring up at his face.
“He’s not blonde,” Ella protested. “He has boring brown hair like me.”
“So what?” the girl said rudely.
“He doesn’t have blue eyes,” Ella protested again.
“So?” came the uninterested reply.
“And he’s a GUY!” Ella argued.
“But he’s pretty,” the little girl argued back. “He’s pretty enough to be Cinderella.”
She raised her arms up to him.
“What does she want me to do?” Arron asked, backing away from her.
“She wants you to pick her up,” Calvin replied with a laugh.
There was a knock on the door.
“Pardon the intrusion,” an achingly familiar voice called out, “But have you seen a munchkin running around?”
“Daddy!” the munchkin shouted, racing to the door from which Chun was appearing.
She jumped up into his arms and hugged him.
“You came back! Granna is sleeping at home, so I thought that I’d come over and see if Cinderella was here. But the lady who answered the door wasn’t pretty and I thought you and auntie Selina were lying, but then I saw the pretty guy over there, and I thought that he might be Cinderella because he’s so pretty. But he won’t pick me up.”
“Cassie, slow down,” Chun said, giving her a quick a kiss.
“Chun,” Ella breathed his name, almost silently.
But he heard.
His gaze swung around to meet hers.
For a moment time stood still. The air in her lungs froze.
And then he smiled and she was free to breathe again.
I saw Chun that day. He had Cassandra in his arms, and he was smiling at her. Cassandra’s little arms were practically strangling him in her exuberance, but he didn’t mind.
It was as if after two years in the desert, I was finally drinking my first drop of water.
I didn’t know what to feel.
Should I have felt joy? Because I did.
Should I have felt embarrassed to face him because of our history? I did.
But I felt happy, too. So happy. And that was when I knew that my love for him hadn’t died. And it was also when I knew that it never would. If I didn’t want to die a virgin … if I didn’t want to live my life as a dried-up spinster, I needed to do something drastic.
I looked at everyone around me. Everyone had moved on. They’d grown up. I was the only one stuck in the past. And I was tired of it. Staying in the past, and clinging to such an unhappy one, was a very lonely place to be.
That was when I made the decision that changed my life. I made it unconsciously … I didn’t even realize that was the moment when I made it. At least, not for a while. But it was irrevocable.
I would no longer be Ella, the Quiet. I would no longer be “Cinderella”, as my less creative friend had called me. (Besides, the fact was that Hebe hadn’t really been an evil stepsister, she’d just been a bad wife. And my own mother had willingly favored my stepsister over me!)
I decided to be happy.
I decided to take what I wanted.
I decided to win Chun’s heart. (I need a paperbag.)
I knew that when I chose that path, I was choosing to walk the hard path.
I just had NO idea how hard it would actually be. If I knew then what I know now . . . oh, who am I kidding? … I’d have made the same decision.
The Dragon Enters Stage Left
Chubby, little legs pumped as the girl ran to catch up with the figure walking ahead. Well not really catch up, but to keep up. Her breath came in short bursts, as her lungs gasped for air. She’d never run this much in her life; nanny always carried her when she got too tired. The lady wasn’t stopping. Her little hands clenched, as she urged herself to keep going forward. She was tired. She wanted to stop but she couldn’t.
Cassie needed to talk to the figure walking ahead, oblivious to her tiny stalker. Somehow she needed to catch up now; otherwise she’d probably fall down from all the running. She began to pout, wishing that she hadn’t been so mean the first time they’d met. But she’d really been disappointed. She’d thought she’d be seeing a real Cinderella from America, and all she’d gotten was ugly Ella from Taiwan. Okay, she wasn’t really ugly, but she didn’t even look as pretty as the women daddy brought home late at night. They were all really pretty, like her mommy. He thought Cassie had already gone to sleep, but Cassie stayed up, hoping that this time daddy would bring home …
Her brow wrinkled and she squinted her eyes, trying to keep her eyes on the woman. Granna always told her to keep her glasses on, but when she did people called her bug-eyes. The last time, she’d beat up that beastly bully who’d called her names, but that had only been fun for a little while. Daddy had made her apologize, and what choice did she really have? Daddy would have taken away her TV and DVD player for a month if she didn’t, and then how could she watch her Disney movies and dream about princesses? Maybe that Ella lady hadn’t been so ugly … maybe it was because Cassie hadn’t been wearing any glasses that day. Maybe …
She couldn’t think anymore. The sun was too hot. She couldn’t even breathe anymore. And that Ella lady wasn’t stopping … that meanie. Maybe she needed to do something to catch her attention. But what? How would she get that woman’s attention? Her gasps were the only sound coming to her own ears. She ignored the burn, and continued to run … faster. She needed to talk to her. And then the world went black.
Ella sighed, and then stretched fully, trying to loosen her back muscles. They’d only been back a day, but she wanted to go out and explore. She hadn’t come back for two years, and she needed to see how much had changed. She’d snuck out today after seeing Selina off. Calvin and Arron were still in bed upstairs, getting over their jet lag. But for some reason, she just didn’t feel the need to sleep.
She thought back to seeing Cassandra at the bus stop in front of their building. She’d tried waving to the little girl, but the brat had just turned away. Ella could only shrug her shoulders and move on. Ella knew that she was going to be a teacher, but she couldn’t figure out how to talk to a brat who thought she was too ugly to acknowledge. But Ella didn’t let it bother her anymore. If people couldn’t see her beauty, then it was their loss.
She’d spent the past 30 minutes checking out the little market near their apartment building. The local delicacies brought back so many memories. Hanging out with the gang at numerous restaurants, out late, just eating and talking. Or stopping at a stall with Selina after school so they could pig out on spicy food before going home to bland, but healthy fare. She’d missed this. This little side trip even brought back happy memories of Hebe. The flavor of Taiwan. She couldn’t believe she’d lasted two years on bland American food and wannabe Taiwanese food.
Sighing in ecstasy, she settled back to enjoy her snack when she heard the furor behind her.
“Hey little girl! Wake up! Can you hear me?” a loud voice called out.
“What’s wrong with her?” a second male voice demanded.
“She’s fainted! Someone call 911,” a third voice ordered. “What did you do to her?”
“I did nothing,” the first male voice insisted. “I saw her running like crazy around the stalls, and though that she might’ve lost her mother. In fact, it was the third time I saw her, so I thought I’d ask her whether she was lost. But before I could stop her, she just collapsed. I don’t even know her,” the voice asserted querulously, allowing an aggrieved tone to creep in.
Ella turned to look back, and her eyes zoomed in on the pink pompoms in the ponytails pointed in her direction. Her eyes narrowed, remembering. Cassandra? Cassandra had been wearing pink pompoms when Ella had seen her half an hour ago at the bus stop. And she’d had on the same clothes this little girl was wearing.
‘What was Cassandra doing here?’ she wondered frantically, getting to her feet. Dropping some money for the food she was leaving half uneaten, Ella ran over to the crowd a few feet away. “Make way, make way,” she urged, pushing through the worried crowd. “I think I know this girl,” she claimed, leaning down over the still figure. Yep, it was Cassandra.
Now that that was confirmed, what the hell was she supposed to do?
She gently patted her cheeks. “Hey, Cassandra, wake up,” she urged, tapping away.
“Cassandra, are you okay?” she asked, shaking the little figure gently.
“Um, I don’t think this lady knows what she’s doing. Let’s call the ambulance,” the first voice urged.
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Ella argued, thinking back to Cassandra’s history. There’d been nothing said about any kind of condition that would account for this. Not even last night, when Ella had spent an hour interrogating Selina about everyone, including Cassandra.
“I just need to take her home,” she insisted. “Don’t worry, she’d my niece. We just live right there,” she said, pointing in the direction of their building. “Thank you for all your help!” she called back, hurrying across the street.
Selina wasn’t home, of course.
She’d heard Chun say he had an early meeting today.
Cassandra’s grandma? But would it be right to bring an unconscious child to said child’s granny and scare the daylights out of her? Probably not.
That left Arron and Calvin. And Calvin really was the best choice.
Using her key, she crept into the apartment and ran to Arron’s bedroom.
“Arron, wake up,” she said, frantically nudging the sleeping figure with her knee.
“What is it?” he grumbled, turning to look at her.
“It’s Cassandra, she’s fainted,” Ella imparted, holding out the girl in her arms.
“Then why are you waking me up?” he asked, reluctantly getting up.
“So you can wake up Calvin,” she explained in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Why are you waking me up to wake up Calvin?” he growled.
“Because Calvin wouldn’t wake up with that little sissy nudge that I just gave you,” Ella explained, positively jumping up and down with worry. “And my hands aren’t free.”
“You couldn’t put her down somewhere?” he asked, scratching his head as he tried to work out the convoluted workings of Ella’s mind.
“Didn’t really think of that,” Ella sheepishly admitted, looking down at her burden. “But now that you’re up …,” she suggested hopefully.
“Let’s go,” he said, leading the way into the other bedroom. “Calvin!” he shouted into his sleeping brother’s ear, giving him a forceful nudge.
“Calvin, there’s someone here who needs your help!” Arron shouted, rolling his brother over. “Ella picked her up on the street outside. She might be dead!”
Ella just rolled her eyes. Calvin had always been a heavy sleeper.
“Move back,” Arron ordered. Standing in the doorway, he ran to the bed and jumped onto it. His weight rocked the bed just enough to bounce Calvin out of the bed and onto the floor. He landed with a loud thump.
“Water?” Ella asked.
“I’m up,” Calvin’s sleepy voice interrupted, glaring balefully at his two torturers. “We went to sleep at 4 a.m. this morning, if you two haven’t forgotten. Normal people would still be sleeping at …,” he squinted at the clock, “9 a.m.”
The two stared down at him in silence.
“Well?” he asked impatiently, as the silence continued.
Ella quickly set Cassandra down in front of Calvin.
“She fainted at the market,” she explained. “I saw her at the bus stop, and then half an hour later I heard shouting behind me and when I looked she was passed out cold. I brought her up here.”
“Why not just call an ambulance?” Calvin asked, looking at Ella.
“Because you’re a … doctor?” Ella said sheepishly, scratching her head.
“Not that … forget it,” Calvin said with a sigh.
He stared at Cassandra’s little face. Tipping her face from side to side, he forced open one eyelid.
“Well? What’s wrong with her?” Ella asked impatiently. “Is it life-threatening? Should we call an ambulance?”
“Ella, calm down,” Arron said, rubbing her shoulder comfortingly. “Give Calvin time to figure out what’s wrong.”
“She’s faking it,” Calvin said, getting up from the floor. “She’s probably been awake this whole time. She’s definitely awake now.”
“What?! Are you sure?” Ella yelped in surprise, staring down at the fainted girl.
“Yeah, if you weren’t such a doofus, along with my brother, you’d have seen her flinch every time one of us spoke.”
“Are you sure?” Arron asked, staring down at the girl.
“Yeah. Don’t bother me now,” Calvin sleepily replied, turning to go back to bed. “Get out.”
“But she’s not waking up!” Ella shouted into Calvin’s ear a minute later.
“Throw some water on her!” came the muffled suggestion. “And make her drink some, too. She seemed a little dehydrated.”
Cassandra’s eyes flew open at those words, and she sat upright.
“You were supposed to kiss me, and I would’ve woken up like Sleeping Beauty,” she complained, glaring at Arron with a pout. “You’re not a prince. He wouldn’t need water,” she said with a sniff.
“So, Cassandra, can you tell me why you were in the market?” Ella asked gently.
The two were alone, sitting in Calvin’s and Arron’s living room. Both guys had gone back to sleep with orders to not disturb them until much, much later.
The little girl played with the glass in her lap.
“You’re only four years old,” Ella said with a sigh. “You shouldn’t be wandering like that alone. Especially not in a marketplace. There are a lot of bad people,” she warned gently.
“I’m five!” Cassandra protested.
Ella merely lifted a brow, pointing out silently that this wasn’t an acceptable answer.
“I … I wanted to talk to you,” Cassandra admitted to Ella. “That’s why I followed you. But you were walking around for so long and you wouldn’t stop,” she said with an exasperated sigh.
“To me? About what?” Ella asked, bemused. What would a four-year-old want to talk to her about? “I thought you said I was ugly?” Ella asked. “And you still want to talk to me?”
Ella sighed, and stared down at her watch.
“I’m afraid if you won’t say anything, then that’s it. I have to take you back to your Granna and let her know that you didn’t go to school, and left your bus monitor, and went into a public market unsupervised. You can’t ever do this again,” she admonished, getting up.
“You knew my mommy. You were sisters,” Cassandra blurted out.
“Well, not really sisters…,” Ella began, wondering what that had to do with anything.
“Everyone was saying how you were coming back, and even daddy smiled, even though you’re mommy’s sister,” Cassandra continued unhappily. “And they showed me a picture. And then I saw you were the same lady in the picture that I had of mommy,” she trailed off. “And I wanted to talk to you. I thought that you might be just like mommy in real life, but you weren’t,” she said with a pout. “That’s why I said you were ugly. And then your name is Ella, and that’s why everyone was calling you Cinderella, but I thought that it was because you were pweety like Cinderella. I didn’t mean to call you ugly. I really didn’t. It just didn’t come out right,” Cassandra said tearfully. “I’m sorry.”
“Hey, calm down,” Ella said softly, kneeling down beside the dejected figure. “I accept your apology and I’m sorry that I didn’t look like your mommy and that people fooled you by calling me Cinderella. But you see your mommy’s daddy married my mommy, so we’re not really sisters by blood. That’s why we don’t look alike. But … I am your mother’s sister,” she said quickly when she saw the frown that had begun to appear on Cassandra’s face.
“So, even though you’re not pretty like mommy, you are her sister?” Cassandra said, asking for confirmation.
“Did you need to ask me something?” Ella asked gently.
“When … when I ask daddy about mommy he tells me to go to my room,” Cassandra said softly, her eyes lowered. Her hands twisted and her shoulders were hunched over. It was as if she was afraid to meet Ella’s gaze. “Granna gets angry. And … auntie Selina starts crying. I’ve never asked her, but she saw mommy’s picture once and she ran from the room. Grandmother,” Cassandra quickly looked up and away, “never has time for me.”
Ella deduced that the munchkin was talking about Ella’s mother. She could imagine mom not having time for her own granddaughter. But she was also realizing where this conversation was going. No one talked about Hebe to Cassandra. And Cassandra had a need … a thirst to know about the mother who had left her at such a young age. She needed to know more than just what she looked like. Ella could understand. If she hadn’t had Chun and Selina to talk to about her own grandmother, she’d have become lost just like Cassandra. She was seeing the lost little girl beneath the bratty exterior, and it made her heart ache. Cassandra didn’t deserve the blame just because of her mother’s actions. No child deserved to be kept in the dark about a parent. You just had to be judicious about how much you would relate to such a young child.
Cassandra leaned forward eagerly, seeing no censor in Ella’s gaze.
“I have one picture of her,” Cassandra confided in a whisper.
“You do?” Ella asked gently.
“One time … one time daddy was drinking and then he got all dizzy and threw something against the wall. He said ‘why did you marry me and then leave?’ And then he left, too. And when I walked over I saw a picture of daddy and mommy and me and auntie Selina and some strange man and a strange lady. The strange lady was you,” Cassandra said. “I still don’t know who the strange man was. I cut myself on the glass,” she said, “but I’ve kept the picture. I just don’t touch it anymore.”
Ella stared at the Cassandra’s head. She had scrunched in on herself, and hadn’t looked up beyond that one searching glance. Ella didn’t fight the emotions welling up inside of her. Reaching out, she gathered the little girl into her arms, seating her on her lap and placed a big kiss on the top of her head. Cassandra resisted for a moment, and then completely relaxed, going boneless. Her hand hesitantly reached out and grabbed Ella’s hand.
“I wanted to ‘pologize for yesterday,” she whispered. “I was mean and I don’t want you to stay mad. So, when I saw you, I just ran after you without telling the bus monitor where I was going. I’m sorry. I just wanted to talk to you. I wanted to…,” her voice trailed off.
“You wanted to ask about your mother?” Ella prompted gently.
“Yes,” Cassandra whispered. “You’re not mad?” she asked, finally looking up, her eyes filled with hope. Ella saw the hope, but behind that, she saw the despair. It was as if Cassandra had been disappointed so many times that hope was very thin on the ground. She expected to be disappointed.
And Ella’s soul froze. That was the look she’d seen in her own eyes every morning for the past four years. How could she let that emotion remain in a five-year-old’s eyes? How could she let anyone, including herself, disappoint this child? She couldn’t.
“Your mother was a wonderful sister,” Ella began softly, smoothing Cassandra’s hair back. “She was beautiful, just like you, but beyond that she was beautiful on the inside. She smelled like jasmine, and loved the color pink. She loved animals and flowers and loved to read. And most of all, she loved to talk and to share. Your daddy fell in love with her the first time he saw her. She always took care of me like a big sister and when you were born, she was sooooo happy that she’d given birth to such an angel. She loved you. She said you never cried and were always the most perfect baby, and that you made her glad that she was mommy.”
“Then why did mommy go away? Can’t she come back?” Cassandra wailed, tears beginning to trickle down her chubby cheeks. “Mommy loved me and daddy. Then why did she leave?”
“Cassandra, your mommy left … for her own reasons. She was unhappy for a while. Not because of you, but she was unhappy. And she needed to go away, but she always loved you. Her last words were that everyone take care of her precious princess,” Ella confided, wiping the tears with her fingers. “She never wanted to see you hurt. She’ll always be in your heart. And who knows … someday…,” her voice trailed off, and she quickly shook her head of the dangerous thoughts creeping in. “You should talk to your daddy about this.”
Cassie vehemently shook her head. “Daddy gets angry and then he won’t talk to me for days,” she mumbled, looking away.
There was a brief knock on the door, and then someone barged in without waiting for an answer. Ella looked over her shoulder to see who the intruder was.
“I’m sorry to just come in like this,” Chun began in a distracted voice. “But Cassie disappeared this morning. I just got the call. Selina isn’t in, so I was wondering if you guys had—,” and his gaze landed on the figure in Ella’s arms.
“Chun,” Ella began, getting up and putting Cassandra down beside her. “Cassandra just wanted to talk to her favorite auntie, so I’m afraid that I—.”
“How many times have I told you not to wander off?!” Chun shouted, reaching out to grab Cassandra’s arm. “And now not only are you troubling me, your teachers, your granna, and bus monitor, but you have to come and trouble Ella, Arron and Calvin?” he shouted, roughly shaking her.
“Daddy, I—,” Cassandra began to explain, her voice shaking. “I j-just w-wanted to talk to auntie, I didn’t m-mean to t-trouble you.”
“Chun please, we were just talking about He—,” Ella began to protest, pushing him away. She felt a small hand slip into hers and frantically shake it. Looking down, she saw the distressed signals coming her way. Cassandra’s eyes pleaded with her to say nothing.
“I’m disappointed with you, Cassandra. The reasons don’t matter, Ella. Cassandra is turning out to be a complete disappointment as a daughter, and she knows it,” he continued coldly.
The tears began to trickle down Cassandra’s cheeks once more. Chun ignored her distress.
“You embarrass me continuously, and I’ve asked you to be more careful and to follow the rules, but you don’t. Even after you’ve promised me that you won’t do anything wrong, you think nothing of running away and not going to school,” he continued in a harsh tone. “Sometimes I can’t believe you’re my daughter.”
Cassie began to sob, her little heart broken. Her frail body was literally shaking with emotion. There was no other noise in the silent room except for the tiny gasping breaths.
“Ella, I’d like it if you didn’t interrupt when I’m talking to Cassandra,” he said in an almost human voice. Ella’s eyes widened in shock.
“Let’s go,” he ordered Cassandra and turned away. Without a word of comfort. Without a reassuring touch. Without a backward glance, he left. With one last despairing look at Ella, Cassandra scurried after him.
And Ella was left staring after them in shock.
When I saw the relationship between Cassandra and Chun I was horrified. What happened to the Chun I knew? He’d changed. He was so cold. So harsh. So unbending.
I’d never thought that the events of two years ago could have changed him so much. When Cassandra was born, he’d worshipped her from the top of her misshapen little head to her ten little toes. He’d promised her all of Taipei, and with his wealth, I would think he could afford a serious piece of it.
But none of that love … that worship was there now. All I saw was a brokenhearted little girl, and a man too afraid to love. I hadn’t seen any kind of contact between the two. And yet the day before Cassandra had jumped on him and hugged him with such joy. Why the change?
It was only later that I found out how desperately Cassandra loved her father, and he barely tolerated her existence. His behavior today was representative of how he was most of the time. Only sometimes did he forget the past and open himself to her love. And looking at Cassandra, I could see why he would find it hard to look at her and be reminded of his own past. Cassandra was the image of Hebe.
Seeing his behavior, I began to wonder about other things. As in, why were they in this building and living in a condominium when Chun owned a mansion nearby?
I began to wonder whether the Chun I knew had disappeared forever. When I’d first met him, he’d immediately seen how lost I was and had taken the time to comfort a complete stranger. But he couldn’t even see the pain in his own daughter’s eyes? Where was the justice in that? Didn’t she deserve his love and understanding? Why blame her for his misfortune?
He’d closed himself off from feeling anything. And my heart ached for the lost Cassandra. She’d not only lost a mother because of what happened, but she’d also lost the best part of her father. But she had enough vague memories to hold out hope that the dad she knew would return. I didn’t want the day to come where she would give up … grow a shell so that she could protect herself from his continued rejection. As of now, she welcomed him with open arms whenever he grew a conscience. But the day would come when she would grow wary … tired and she would reject the sporadic outbursts of love. And I was afraid that would end the possibility of any relationship between the two.
I didn’t want her to stay alone forever.
I didn’t want her to become like me.
Chun had changed. He refused to see what he was doing to his child. He refused to understand. He had willingly blinded himself to her needs because he wanted to selfishly protect himself.
I’d also been selfish, too. I’d left everything behind when I left Taiwan, including a young girl, who pretty much lost everything in one fell swoop.
And a feeling began to grow inside me. I wanted to protect Cassie with all my might. Everything inside of me was crying out to love her and cosset her and teach her to leave herself open to love. Because even if that brought pain sometimes, ultimately there would be joy.
But that wasn’t enough. Cassandra wasn’t the problem.
It was the man who had just walked out the door without a word of comfort to a child in pain.
He was the problem.
Before I could feel that my job was done, I had to teach him to live again. To love again. No matter what Cassandra did, ultimately, if Chun didn’t change, they would have no relationship.
This Chun definitely needed to go. Definitely.
What To Do?
Ella flew into the room, hesitated for a moment, and then settled next to Calvin on the bed. He grumbled as the bed was jostled by Ella’s movements, and then turned over and went back to sleep.
“Calvin?” Ella sing-songed into the vicinity of his ear, poking at a bare shoulder.
There was only silence.
“Wake up,” she ordered, poking him harder. “How much longer do you need to get over your jet lag?” she demanded, pushing harder. “It’s been four days, and all you do is sleep and eat what we force down your throat. We need you here.”
“I took a week off before I start work. That’s how much time I need. Stop bothering me,” he barked at her, his voice muffled by the pillow over his head. “And who said you needed three full meals a day to survive?”
She ignored his grumpy voice and pulled the pillow away. Walking over to a window, she pulled aside the curtains and let the sunlight in. He cursed as the rays hit him in the face like a sledgehammer, sending pain lancing through his head when they came into contact with his sun-deprived eyes.
“What is your problem?!” he shouted irritably, sitting up to search for his pillow.
“I said I need your help,” Ella said smilingly. “Stop being such a prima donna, it’s not like we went into outer space. You’re making me think that taking the long way home wasn’t really a good idea. Although, you really don’t need any excuse to sleep,” she mused, rubbing her chin. “You take the chance to nap regardless of when, where or why. So much stuff’s happened while you’ve been sleeping. And I desperately need some of your sage advice.”
“For who? You? Did you get into trouble again?” he asked, sitting up to prop himself up against a mound of pillows and patting the place next to him on the bed. He yawned, and tried to get his numbed brain into gear to deal with Ella’s problems.
She gladly jumped in beside him and smiled at him as she cuddled close. He affectionately put an arm around her shoulder, giving her a quick squeeze, all the while rubbing the sleep away with his other hand. This was her favorite time; a time when she got to talk to her second favorite person in the world.
“Cassandra,” she explained, looking at him entreatingly. She quickly explained what had happened between father and daughter and her resolve to fix their relationship. “I feel that I owe it to Cassie. I am her aunt and her mother was my sister.”
“Step-sister,” he corrected gently.
“Sister, nonetheless,” she retorted stubbornly. “She never treated me any differently. And she wouldn’t let others differentiate between her, the real Tien heiress, and me.”
“Are you sure this isn’t about Chun? Are you disappointed by how much he’s changed? Maybe you just want your Chun back?” Calvin asked after a delicate pause.
“No!” she insisted, glaring at him. “I saw how unhappy Cassandra is, and even if there’s this really complicated relationship between all of us, I can’t just forget she’s my niece and needs understanding and someone to stand guard over her and protect her interests. I owe it to her to be her guardian until the person who should be taking care of her takes over his proper role. I just need to find out the possible solutions to this problem,” she mused, chewing at her nail.
“Get rid of the problem,” he suggested logically.
“Cassandra’s problem is Chun … Get rid of Chun?” she puzzled out, scratching at her head in thought … “I can’t do that! He’s not that mean. Plus which, I do care about him.”
Calving bopped her on the head in response. “Get rid of Chun’s problem, whatever that may be. Make him happy, and he’ll make Cassandra happy. Eventually. You can’t expect him to make anyone else happy if he’s not happy himself … with himself.”
“Chun’s problem. Hmm.” She lay back on the bed, folding her arms behind her head.
He lay back down, pulling the blanket over his head. After a moment, unable to take any more of her sighs, his leg came out from under the blanket and kicked her out of his bed.
“Go think somewhere else,” he ordered, settling down to go back to sleep.
“What is Chun’s problem?” Ella wondered, sitting next to Selina that night. “You’ve been here with him the past two years. Why has he become so … so cold like this? He was so caring. So loving. Why did he become so bitter?”
Selina shrugged uncommunicatively, not wanting to discuss the painful subject.
“Selina,” Ella whined. “Help me out here. You know I’ve been out of the country, and I don’t know anything about what happened after I left. I need you to catch me up on everything. For example, why are they living here? And when did Chun change? And how long has Cassie been this unhappy?”
Selina looked at her. “Come on, his wife … remember that whole thing?” Selina made a face and looked away. “He hasn’t been back to their mansion since he found the two together. He went off to his villa right after, remember? And then after that when he came back he just moved over here with auntie and Cassie. The mansion’s still fully staffed and they use it for entertaining their social guests and business clients, but Chun won’t live there. He won’t sleep there. Not even one night. Not since He—that woman left.”
Ella leaned into hug her. “You still can’t say Hebe’s name?” Ella asked sympathetically. She smoothed a hand over Selina’s tousled hair as she pointed out the omission.
“Ella! Her name is like nails scratching over a chalkboard. Don’t say it. And I’m like this, think about how he feels. Not only was he married to her. But this all happened without any warning.”
“So, he’s still upset over He—her desertion,” Ella mused. “But come on, we all fail in love at one time or another. Why is he taking it to heart so much? I mean, you got over the pain. I lived with my pain and handled it. Why is he being such a …”
“Such a wuss?” Selina asked, looking at Ella teasingly.
“Selina, don’t call Chun a wuss. I’m sure that he …”
“Loved more than we loved? How can you differentiate, Ella? Yeah, we might not have had any expectations of permanence. You gave up when she came into our lives, and my loser broke up with me three years before this incident. So it’s not like I wasn’t aware of the possibility that he would be with someone else eventually. He needs to learn how to handle the bitterness over his betrayal, and move on like all of us have. Even you.”
Ella nodded in understanding. It had felt initially that she’d been the only one left living in the past when she’d first met Chun after two years, when all her emotions had come rushing back. But witnessing Chun’s behavior had made her realize that he was still living in the past, and she’d really moved on. It made her feel bad for him. But she couldn’t help but feel a little bit better for herself.
“It doesn’t help that Cass looks a lot like her mother. The poor girl can’t help it, but it won’t allow Chun to forget. But I honestly didn’t think their relationship was that bad.”
“Believe me, it is. I saw her heart break right in front of me. Only so many times you can allow that to happen without growing armor,” Ella said practically.
“Well, the solution’s easy,” Selina said, turning to look at Ella. “Make him forget He—Heb—Hebe,” she said, finally getting the name out.
“Selina,” Ella said in surprise.
“It’s time to get over this small hurdle, too,” Selina said simply.
“Cass says he brings home women who look like her at least once a week. You know what that means.”
“What?” Selina asked, leaning forward in curiosity.
“He can only be attracted to Hebe look-alikes. Have all his girlfriends looked like her?” Ella asked in curiosity.
“Girlfriends?” Selina thought about it. “I wasn’t aware he had any. I thought he’d been living like a monk for the past few years.”
“So, he only uses them to satisfy his needs,” Ella guessed, thinking about the absence of any such women in Chun’s daily life. “He kicks them out of his bed after a night or two. Do you think that by treating them this way … like objects … he’s trying to punish Hebe for how she hurt him … used him … left him?”
“Ella! I don’t want to think about Chun’s love life!” Selina screeched. “My only advice is to MAKE Chun forget about her. HE needs to see that not all women are like Hebe. He needs to know that he can be attracted to and love other women out there. He needs to know that the world didn’t end when Hebe left him or when his marriage ended,” Selina ground out. “Only then can he be happy. Otherwise, he’ll always remember the past, and he’ll remain bitter. And he’ll make Cass’s life hell, even if he doesn’t mean to.”
Ella sat back, her eyes gazing unseeing at the drama playing on the television.
“Make Chun forget about Hebe?”
“Now, stop talking,” Selina ordered, “This is my favorite part. You’re ruining it.”
“Arron,” Ella whined. “I need your help. I didn’t want to ask you, because you’re so freaking young,” she said with a pout, “but Selina and Calvin have near to no experience. And I’m sure that you’ve run into the problem I have. Especially with your pretty face.”
“What is it?” he asked, munching away at his Frosted Flakes, eyes trained on the television.
“How do I seduce a man?” she blurted out.
Arron snorted. And coughed, spraying milk everywhere. Ella quickly pulled her raincoat over her face. She’d come prepared.
“What?” he shouted, glaring at her, the cereal bowl lying in his lap. “I’ve never seduced a man!”
“Uh, that came out wrong.”
Ella quickly explained Cassie’s problem. And how the root of it was Chun.
And how that related to Chun’s problem.
And how the root of Chun’s problem was his ex-wife. And how Chun’s Ex was actually Ella’s sister, and Ella felt that she had to fix Chun’s problem to fix Cassie’s problem.
And how the only way they could fix Chun’s problem was by having him fall in love with another woman.
And how that new woman had to be Ella for a whole host of reasons.
And how, ultimately, she now needed to know how to seduce Chun.
“Okay, okay,” Arron interjected, “I get the twisted logic up to a point. But why does this new woman have to be you? Just get anyone who wouldn’t remind Chun of Hebe. Why do you have to sacrifice yourself?” he demanded protectively.
“Aww, that’s so sweet, Arron,” Ella said, giving him a quick hug. “I didn’t know you cared,” she teased.
“Well, of course I care,” he groused. “But don’t you think that if you continue on with this plan, you’re just setting yourself up for failure?” he said after a small pause. “Why not get a pretty chick? It’ll be much easier that way.”
“Arron Yan!” she shouted angrily, lunging at him when the insult hit home. “I can be pretty when I want to be,” she grunted, locking her arm around his neck and squeezing. “He’d be lucky to have me. He’s just a blind bat, so I need to open his eyes, and that’s where I need your help. Now, say you’re sorry.”
“Say it!” she ordered.
“Sorry,” he said with a gasp. “Sorry,” he repeated, pulling at her unnaturally strong arm.
She relaxed her arm, and then sat back with a humph. “Don’t insult me again,” she threatened, “or I’ll sit on you. ”
“That’s supposed to scare me?” he asked sarcastically. “Seriously, I don’t see why you have to risk your heart over him. It’s his problem that he can’t get over your sister. Why are you taking the responsibility?” he protested.
“We have a long history together, Arron,” Ella replied seriously. “I want to help him. If it were just his problem, I’d understand that he was an adult and he was making his own choices. But his choices are hurting Cassie, and she’s my niece. And I practically abandoned her … we’ve all ignored her because we associate her with Hebe and her actions. She doesn’t deserve that. And believe me, it wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice,” she confided to him. “After all, first love and all that crap,” she reminded him.
“I still don’t get it.”
“Look, Hebe was extremely feminine. She seemed fragile. Any guy that met her wanted to protect her from … the unknown. From life. And she was so beautiful. Not just aesthetically; it wasn’t just her features. She glowed with her innocence … her purity. She was a princess that all guys, and maybe even us girls, wanted to serve. She was always refined. The perfect daughter. The perfect heiress. The perfect sister. Girlfriend. Wife. Mother. She lived up to our expectations, and maybe in the entire maelstrom of expectations she forgot to fulfill her own needs. But that is how she was. And Chun doesn’t need anyone or anything that would remind of Hebe. He needs the opposite, and honestly, I’m as close to the other side as you can get without going male on the guy. And like I said, I’ve always loved him.”
“Don’t tell him that!” Arron shouted in a panic. “It’ll only freak him out.”
“You know I wouldn’t do that. I don’t think I’d have that kind of courage, but someday. Soon. Maybe,” Ella said cheekily.
“Well, what makes you think I can help?” Arron grouched.
“Come on,” Ella jeered at him. Arron wasn’t too experienced either. Because of his mother’s free lifestyle and the effect it had had on her, Arron had sworn never to treat himself so cheaply. Ella knew that. But he was also the guy that loved romantic movies. And he gobbled up romance novels like junk food. It was his deepest darkest secret. He was the closest thing their group had to an expert on love, as sad as that was to say.
“Fine,” Arron capitulated, “Just remember, I’m only doing this for you, not some little kid that calls me Cinderella. I want you to promise me one thing.”
“Be careful with your heart,” he requested.
“I finally think it’s the time to take some risks,” she replied in a whisper.
At the end of their hour-long discussion they had the perfect plan.
“You already have the highlights. You just needed it stylized.”
“You need a complete new wardrobe.”
“The wristguards need to go.”
Ella walked out.
She got to keep them.
“You need to make sure that he has no more dates.”
Ella was in enthusiastic agreement. “I’m back in his life now, he shouldn’t be cheating on me with other women.”
“It’s not cheating until you’re together and a commitment has been made,” came the withering reply.
“You need to stay around him. Stay in his thoughts.”
“That’s easy,” she replied confidently, “I can be memorable.”
“Without annoying him.”
“Talk about what interests him,” he ordered.
“All the time. Wouldn’t that get a bit boring?”
Ella sat in quiet contemplation, trying to figure out how she would execute every item on the list. Some of the stuff was easily doable. She could get Selina’s and Arron’s help, but what about the other stuff? She’d have to find the courage to risk making a fool of herself. But the rewards would be worth it, she reminded herself.
“You’re too quiet.”
“What about sex?” she blurted out.
“Let’s think about teaching you how to walk before you think about running,” Arron instructed her bluntly. “Start the courtship, and it’ll come naturally. And if not, I’ll lend you books,” he said, interpreting the next question in her eyes. “And there’s always …”
“You can always get him drunk. Hide his clothes. Get naked. And let nature take its course.”
“Arron Yan!” she shouted, jumping on him, her hands going around his throat.
“How long do you plan to sit on me?”
I had the perfect plan. The perfect way to get Chun’s bitterness to go away.
Okay, I’d asked about sex and all, but I wasn’t really going to go all the way with Chun. Definitely not. That would’ve been very manipulative of me. I just wanted to distract him, and see what happened.
But plans never really go the way you plan, right?
Who knew that when I started to help Cassie, that it would lead to the loss of my virginity?
And then that virgin’s blood would lead to a shotgun marriage?
And who knew that Chun would be the one holding the shotgun?
Chun loosened his tie before sitting down in his favorite chair with a brandy cradled in one hand. Sighing, he leaned his head back and closed his eyes. Thinking back over the past few days, he allowed a smile to play over his lips. He still didn’t know what was happening, but he’d decided to enjoy the show until he could.
He was sitting in his study after a long day at the office, and something about the room was soothing to the senses. He didn’t want to get up and go out to one of the bars he’d begun to frequent over the past few days after an encounter with Ella; it had begun to feel like he was cheating something … someone when he went to a bar to relax.
His eyes popped open when he heard a soft noise in the doorway. Soft brown eyes, covered by chunky glasses, peeked at him hopefully from the open door. When he didn’t react, a small hopeful smile appeared on a rosebud mouth, and the tiny figure of his daughter hesitantly advanced into the room.
His heart clenched.
When? When had he become such an ogre that his own daughter was afraid to approach him? But he knew that his behavior hadn’t been normal for years. Not since Hebe. He’d taken his unreasonable anger out on Cassandra whenever she chanced upon him in one of his moods. Opening his arms, he silently encouraged her to come in all the way. She eagerly ran over and sat in his lap, cuddling close. Her warmth immediately began to seep through his tired body, soothing him once more. It was moments like these, when he forced his bitterness over Hebe out of his mind that he could appreciate the miracle that was his daughter.
He loved her with all of his heart, but he couldn’t bear to face the memories her presence always brought back to his mind. Leaning down, he kissed the top of her head and hugged her close. Breathing in her scent, he cuddled her tiny, fragile body close. He wanted to offer comfort … he wanted to promise that he would try to change … but the words wouldn’t come. Sighing, he leaned back once more, and allowed his mind to relax. Even if he couldn’t promise any more, he hoped this moment would be enough for Cassandra.
In the silence of the room, listening to Cassandra’s even breathing and the crackle of the fire, he allowed himself to voice an admission he’d tried to avoid admitting. He was tired. Tired of holding on to the bitterness of the past, but he didn’t know how to let go.
How does a man forget his only failure?
He’d led a charmed life. While he had lost his father at a young age and couldn’t choose the career he wanted, he still had security. He had his mother. He had a company, which meant guaranteed employment. He had known what he would do from a very young age, so there was no uncertainty or doubt about his future. He’d had wonderful friends and a supportive staff. He’d never failed at anything. What more could he have asked for?
But when he’d found Hebe and Jiro in his bedroom … when he’d discovered that his wife had been betraying him with his best friend … and he’d seen the pity in Ella’s eyes, he’d been faced with the first failure in his life. He’d failed as a husband. As a father. He’d failed as a man. He’d run from that truth. At first when he’d gone to Italy, all he’d thought about was getting away. But that had only been the beginning and it seemed that he’d never stopped running.
Staring down at his daughter’s tousled hair, he sighed once more. She didn’t deserve this. He knew it rationally. She didn’t deserve his rages. She didn’t deserve to witness the countless women he’d brought home in his attempts to forget Hebe. She didn’t deserve to be deprived of a mother just because he couldn’t put the past behind him.
Knowing she didn’t deserve his treatment and actually doing something about it were two very different things. His head wanted to act. But a part of him still wanted to hold onto that past. But even his heart had begun to question his stubborn hold on a past that had done nothing but hurt him for two long years.
Wasn’t it time to let go? He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to grapple with that question.
Ella would say yes.
A smile burst out once more when he thought about Ella. It was as if she was here, chasing the clouds away as she’d been doing for the past two weeks. He couldn’t figure out what she was doing, but she’d brightened his days with her shenanigans, and he was enjoying her weird behavior, even if he couldn’t comprehend what she wanted from him.
She’d changed so much. She used to be such a little solemn creature, but now she was so full of life. A bit more ditzy. And she was always laughing. At herself. At him. At life. And she’d had him laughing along with her. And he hadn’t smiled in a long, long time.
Maybe that was the key to letting go of the past. To forget the bitterness, he should search for laughter in his life. Because … he sighed … because his daughter deserved better. He deserved better.
Small fingers traced the smile on his lips and he glanced down to meet Cassandra’s gaze. She smiled happily up at him and began to tell him about her day with Auntie Ella. Half an hour later, he gently lifted up a now sleeping Cassandra, and put her to bed. Leaning down, he softly kissed her forehead and wished with all his heart that he could change. He was tired of being bitter Wu Chun. He wanted the old him back. He wanted to be free to love his daughter without remembering what a failure he was.
And seeing Ella gave him hope.
He was glad that she was back.
Ella groaned into the cushion and then leaped up to glare at the three sitting around her.
“This is all your fault!” she glared at all three before burying her head back in the cushion with a groan. “Nothing’s going right. It’s taking too long.”
“Come on, Ella, calm down,” Selina entreated. “What happened?”
“It couldn’t have been all bad,” Calvin remarked. “Although you haven’t shared any of it, and all you’ve done is groan for the past half hour, but I’m sure it’s not as bad as you think.”
“Oh, it’s probably bad,” Arron said, poking Ella in the side with an inquisitive finger, “But if you don’t tell us, how can we help?”
“I’ve already had enough of your ‘help’,” came the sulky reply. The figure on the sofa scrunched into a ball, ignoring all of them.
“El-la!” Selina whined, “Tell us! Or I’m not staying here anymore. I had a meeting tonight that I missed for you. Maybe I can still catch them if I leave now.”
“Don’t you dare!” came the muffled reply.
“And I could’ve been at the drinks thing my colleagues were planning on having for me if you hadn’t called me in a panic,” Calvin reminded her. “I’d rather be drunk than sit here and watch you groan into a sofa cushion. This is not my idea of entertainment.”
“That’s because we haven’t gotten to the good part yet,” Arron cheekily threw in.
Ella quickly sat up and glared at the three sitting on the sofa.
“You said that I needed to get rid of Chun’s problems!” She pointed at Calvin. “You said that I needed to make Chun forget Hebe!” She pointed at Selina accusingly. “You said that I needed to seduce Chun!” She pointed at Arron with a shaking finger.
“Arron, you … how could you say that to Ella!” Selina growled, attacking Arron with a cushion.
“I never said that!” Arron argued, protecting himself, while Calvin quickly pulled Selina away from his hapless brother. “She came to me with that conclusion. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she was set on seducing Chun herself. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t sacrifice but more of a desire to fulfill her own fantasy.” He winked conspiratorially at both Selina and Calvin.
Both silently began to shake with laughter, as they began to comprehend the situation.
“What happened?” Calvin asked again, struggling to hold in his laughter.
“Well, as you can see, I got my hair done. And I got this new wardrobe, courtesy of Selina.” Ella tugged at the bottom of her too short dress self-consciously. While she was still getting used to wearing the dresses and skirts, as opposed to her jeans and shorts, she had to admit she liked the difference. She’d just discovered her sexy legs and she didn’t mind flaunting them for Chun.
“We noticed,” Arron replied. “Your underwear has been showing for the past half hour. You can’t sprawl like a man when you’re wearing a dress you know. The others were just too polite to say anything, and it’s not like Calvin and I see you as a woman.”
Ella leaned over and whacked him.
“You told me that I needed to get Chun’s attention by throwing something in his path. And I listened. So, I was waiting for him to leave for work but then I realized that I’d forgotten something to throw into his path and I ran inside to grab something.”
“I didn’t realize that I’d grabbed an umbrella,” she said in a tiny little voice.
“An umbrella?” Selina’s voice was hesitant as she repeated that information.
“Well, that was the only thing by the door!” Ella argued. “And then I threw it into his path, and he …”
“And he?” Arron asked.
“He tripped over it,” Calvin finished for her. “That was the day I drove him to the emergency room, right?”
Ella nodded shamefacedly. “Not only did Chun not notice me, he got hurt. And to add insult to injury, it brought Calvin and him close but did nothing for me and my mission.”
“And then what happened?” Selina prompted.
“Well, I thought I’d stop him from taking any more women home,” Ella admitted. “So, I’ve been hanging around the hallway around the time he would be coming home with his floozies.”
“The first night I succeeded,” she admitted. “I saw them come in, and I started talking to him. I forced him to come into our apartment. And I started asking him all these questions about his date. And when he had to admit that he knew NOTHING about the woman he was bringing to his HOME, I pretty much shamed him into sending her home.”
“I thought that I’d scared him straight, but he just comes home later now. And once or twice I’ve seen lipstick marks on his shirt collars and I think he just takes them to a hotel or something. He’s still cheating on me with the floozies!! And now I won’t even know when he does it unless he gets lipstick on himself.”
“Didn’t I tell you it’s not cheating unless you’re both in a relationship with each other?” Arron asked in a long-suffering tone.
“But we will be,” Ella argued. “And he should be getting the clue that I’m interested. Right?”
“No,” Selina muttered.
“No,” Calvin asserted.
“Not really.” Arron quickly replied. “What else?”
“I’ve been hanging out at his place. In the mornings and at night. Not just wandering around outside my place.” Ella leaned back. “That’s been pretty successful. I’m staying in his thoughts.”
“How often are you over there?” Selina asked delicately.
There was a short silence.
“That might be a bit much,” Calvin offered.
“Wait … what?” Ella’s voice revealed surprise. “I thought I actually succeeded at that part.”
“Nope. Remember how I said to stay in his thoughts without annoying him?” Arron reminded her. “You’ve already prevented him from bringing women home. Which I guess is good for the brat. But you’re also there whenever he comes home and you’ve injured him. He might be getting irritated.”
Ella’s shoulders slumped.
“Well, have you had a chance to talk?” Calvin asked, trying to cheer her up.
“Well, most of the time, all I can do is giggle when I’m around him,” she admitted guiltily. “But I’ve tried talking to him about himself. But all we do is end up talking about me because his stuff is so boring. And half the time when he’s talking I can’t really pay attention because I’m sitting in these sexy poses and my back starts to hurt so I start giving myself pep talks. So, I think he thinks that I’m a ditz who’s only interested in herself. But I’m trying. I’m sure I should get points for that. Right?”
“You’re probably confusing the guy,” Arron concluded. “You haven’t given him any real hint that you want to be with him. Till date, you injured him, interrupted a one-night stand, acted like a total ditz and talked only about yourself. No normal man could figure that out as you being interested in him.”
“Then what?! … Sex?” her voice revealed her trepidation but there was a hopeful gleam in her eyes.
“Not the time!”
“Invite him to dinner,” Selina replied. “We’ll order a great dinner. We don’t want to scare him with your horrible cooking skills.”
“Dress in your new clothes,” Calvin supplied. “And color coordinate your wristguards to match.”
“And stop acting like a ditz,” Arron suggested. “Just talk to him and listen. And don’t laugh.”
Ella smiled and began to take notes excitedly. “Dinner. Clothes. Ditz. What else?”
“Candles and flowers,” Selina said musingly, tapping a finger to her lips. “Calvin and Arron can clean the apartment while we go shopping. And then set the table while we dress you up.”
“Okay, dinner, clothes, no ditzy behavior. Candles. Flowers. Setting the table. Are we forgetting something?”
The other three shook their heads.
“Where have you been?” Ella’s voice growled, breaking the surprised silence that had fallen over the room. “You’re over two hours late!”
“Late?” Chun’s voice was hesitant as he attempted to assimilate what was going through Ella’s mind.
“Yeah, I told you that I wanted us to have dinner tonight. I even told Selina to get out and cooked everything and now it’s two hours later than when you were supposed to be here and everything is ruined.” Her voice was distinctly whiny.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Chun admitted. He looked around. His eyes saw the candles placed all around the room and the flower centerpieces placed on all the tables for the first time. The room was set for a romantic scene.
“I don’t understand what you’re doing Ella,” he repeated the sentiment. “Were you expecting someone else? Did I interrupt?”
“I invited you to dinner!” Ella shouted. “You’re the one who’s expected.”
“You never invited me to dinner,” Chun argued.
“But … wait … well, even if I forgot to tell you, I told your mom that I had plans for us! She was fine with you coming home a little late. I told Mrs. Wu that I wanted to play with her son tonight! Why didn’t she tell you?” Her voice was petulant as she began to move towards him. Her movements were decidedly unsteady. She hiccoughed softly as she glared at his blurry figure.
She shook her head, trying to clear it. Why was his voice coming from the left when she could see him right in front of her? When had he learned how to throw his voice?
“I haven’t seen my mother. I just came home, and came here because your door was open and it’s 11 p.m. You know that’s dangerous,” Chun said, watching her move unsteadily across the room. His eyes were riveted. The candlelight reflected off her skin … lots of bare skin. He stiffened, and swerved his eyes away.
Was he getting aroused by Ella? Ella? No. That couldn’t be. He tried to regain control of his body.
He heard a crash behind him.
Looking back, he saw that a centerpiece had fallen along with a few candles from the dining room table. Running over, he put the candles out before they did some serious damage and then quickly moved around the room to put out the rest of the candles.
“Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but I think it’s time for bed,” Chun said, picking up her slight body and moving towards the back of the apartment.
“We’re going to bed?” Ella asked hopefully.
“Well, one of us is,” Chun replied, trying to figure out which one was Ella’s room. Picking one, he moved into the room and laid her down on the bed. “Now, go to sleep and we’ll talk in the morning.”
“Why don’t you get it?” she groaned, pulling him down beside her.
He stiffened, as his aroused body came into contact with her delectable figure once more. He tried to hold her body still as she began to move seductively against him. He couldn’t understand the reaction. He’d only ever been attracted to woman that looked like Hebe, and now he couldn’t control his reactions to little Ella? Ella, the girl who’d cried in his arms the first time they’d met? It made him feel like a lecher.
“Ella, I think you’ve had a little too much to drink.”
“Well, what else could I do while I was waiting for you to show up?” Her voice was distinctly petulant. “Who told you to come two hours late?”
“No one told me to … forget it. What are you doing to me?” he murmured, as she began to nibble at a conveniently located ear.
“I’m trying to seduce you.”
His body stiffened even more with shock. He quickly pulled away.
“No! Don’t leave!” she pleaded and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck and put a leg over his lower body. Her body tightly wrapped itself around his. “I couldn’t bear it if you rejected me. Not again.”
He sighed. “Why me?”
“Because I love you. I’ve loved you for so long.”
The words just slipped out.
I’m not lying. I didn’t intend to guilt the poor guy into doing something he wasn’t ready to do.
Girl scout’s honor.