Chapter 19: Balance: ฿423
When Arthit finds him, Kongpob is laying on his side, trying desperately to prop himself up on his elbow, but struggling.
“Kongpob!” Arthit practically sprints the rest of the way down the quiet dead end that is the street leading up to the entrance of their school. “What happened? Are you okay?” He kneels down next to him, trying to assess the situation.
“I’m fine, I just need to-”
He winces a little as he tries yet again to push himself up, and his elbow collapses on the pavement. Upon further inspection, Arthit finds that his left ankle has a slightly bloody scrape across the bone of the ankle, although it doesn’t look bad enough to be anything beyond a minor surface injury. The entire area around the joint, though, looks swollen.
“Okay, okay. Stop. I’m going to try and help you up so you can at least sit,” he says as calmly as possible, although his breathing comes in shallow, laboured exhales through his nose. Kongpob bites his lip and nods, trying to mask his obvious physical pain, but wet streaks down his face indicate that the impact had stung quite badly. “Try not to use your left arm or leg if you can help it.”
Arthit scans Kongpob’s overall position again, trying to decide where to even begin to help him up without causing further pain. Eventually, he decides it’s best to approach from his non-injured side. He gulps nervously before wrapping one arm around the front of Kongpob’s rib cage to hold on to his side, and tucking the other under his right arm to hook around the crook of his shoulder. Slowly, so he doesn’t cause any sudden movement that might further hurt him, he pulls him up into a sitting position.
“Thanks,” Kongpob chokes out, once the pressure is taken off his hip and left arm. With his own right arm and leg, as well with Arthit’s assistance, he shuffles closer to the school driveway so he’s sitting away from the drain.
“I would’ve called an ambulance, but you said not to. Mae’s just closing up, so she’ll be here in a taxi any moment now.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to disturb your Mae as well.”
“I already said that it’s fine.”
It was not, in fact, fine, but he doesn’t mean having to step away from work on one of the busiest nights of the week. As soon as he’d heard Kongpob’s request to take him to the hospital, he’d gone through about a dozen emotions, ranging from fear, to panic, to curiosity, to plain worry.
“What? What happened? Should I call an ambulance?!”
“No! Don’t call an ambulance. It’s not that bad,” he’d grimaced into the phone. “It’s just my leg. Or, well, my ankle. I’m not sure.”
“I….okay. I’ll be there as soon as I can. Don’t go anywhere!”
“Kind of hard to do that.”
“I can’t believe you still have the fucking nerve to joke around right now!”
“Sorry, just…thanks, P’Arthit.”
He’d made quick work of putting out the coals on the grill, and had given the ten or so of the remaining skewers to a pleasantly surprised group of young adults at a fold-out table in the open seating area. Filling his mother and Prae in, he’d then all but torn off down the street towards the school.
“What happened, exactly?” Arthit heaves a sigh, his brow knitted as he pulls a bottle of water, a pack of pocket tissues, and some hand sanitiser out of the packet from his backpack, the only thing he’d managed to grab on the way. After disinfecting his own hands, he unscrews the bottle cap. “This might sting. I thought you were helping your Coach?” he turns the flashlight on his phone on, then hands it to Kongpob, who holds it above their heads.
“I was…ahhh! Ow!” Kongpob winces sharply as Arthit gently pours cool water over and around the wound on his ankle, until he’s satisfied that there isn’t any obvious remaining debris. The latter mumbles a quick apology. “He drove off shortly before I fell.”
“How’d you even fall?” Arthit keeps his gaze focused on gently patting the wound’s surrounding area dry with a clean tissue as carefully as possible. “Here, let’s see your elbow.”
“I guess you were right. I was really tired, it’s kind of dark, and I barely even noticed the open drain.”
Arthit doesn’t even need to look to know exactly what Kongpob is talking about. He shakes his head in annoyance. Parents, teachers and students alike had been filing complaints to the district office about the uncovered gap in the line of flood drains across the entire entrance in front of the school, expressing safety concerns. The cement drain cover had mysteriously gone missing several years ago, and yet it still hadn’t been replaced. Kongpob wouldn’t be the first to have had such an accident.
“They really need to get that damn thing replaced. Just because we’re not on a main road…” he mutters to himself as Kongpob draws in a sharp breath in response to the water being cautiously run over the scrape on his elbow. “Sorry, I know it stings.”
“Why do you have all this stuff in your backpack anyway?”
“I cook for a living, Kongpob. I do get the odd minor cut or burn,” he shrugs.
Kongpob watches Arthit now, his brow furrowed in concentration while he continues to tend to his elbow. He knows that the circumstances call for its necessity, but he can’t help but warm at the thought of Arthit willingly touching him, handling his arm with such agile care.
“Thank you,” he says quietly.
Arthit just nods once in response, his gaze shifting to the side as he takes his phone back and replaces everything back into his bag.
“Why didn’t you call an ambulance or your parents?”
Kongpob grimaces slightly in pain as Arthit lifts his left leg to rest on top of his backpack. The pain remains, but the reduced pressure on his heel helps dull it a bit.
“I…I kind of had a disagreement with Mae,” he sighs. “And I didn’t want to cause a fuss, but if I called an ambulance, they’d call her immediately.”
“A disagreement so bad that you aren’t calling her in an emergency? Kong, she’s going to worry when she finds out.”
“I know, but…I’m kind of mad at her, okay? I just don’t want to deal with her at the moment.”
Arthit sits across from him now, tongue poking out to wet his bottom lip.
“Is that why you didn’t sleep?”
He takes Kongpob’s drawn out silence as confirmation.
“I…never mind,” the injured boy trails off. As much as he wants to talk to Arthit about it, M had been right. It’s not his business to pry any further than he already has.
Arthit is about to say something else, but they feel the increasing glow of a green and yellow taxi’s headlights tunneling down the narrow street leading up to their school.
“Come on,” he pushes himself up into a crouching position, and with some prudence, slips one arm under Kongpob’s legs and the other under his shoulder blades.
“What are you doing?” Kongpob tenses up, suddenly feeling flustered at the contact and swallowing a little at the feeling of warm arms, and Arthit’s face so close to his, and he can’t think.
“Helping you into the cab?”
“I-it’s okay. I can just…hobble.”
“You’re using me as a crutch either way,” Arthit exhales in exasperation. “Just let me carry you. It’ll be quicker.”
Relenting, Kongpob allows Arthit to grab a firm hold under his knees again, and holds on to the back of his shoulders for support. The boy grunts a little, trying to find his balance, but slowly and surely, he manages to lift him off the ground.
He doesn’t think he’s been carried like this since he was a child and his father still had time for him. It’s oddly comforting now, despite the persisting pain in his ankle. Arthit himself feels his cheeks warm, sensing Kongpob’s eyes on his face, but he forces himself to keep his gaze straight ahead, carefully placing Kong into the backseat of the taxi as his mother holds the door open. After she’s grabbed their things they’d left at the entrance, she slips into the passenger seat, eyeing Kongpob pointedly in the side view mirror.
“You’re a good kid and you know I like you, but I’m going to need to call your mother, got it?” she holds her hand out expectantly.
Kongpob heaves a sigh, but knows he can’t argue with a mother’s logic, especially one who’s helping him get medical attention. He fishes his phone out of his pocket, placing it gingerly into her open palm before giving her a subtle wai in the mirror.
Arthit looks over at him with an apologetic smile that’s met with one of understanding.
The waiting area in A&E, from which Kongpob has been whisked away in a wheelchair and down a corridor towards and behind a curtain, has the air conditioning on full blast, and Arthit shivers in his seat next to his mother.
“He’ll be fine,” she says gently, pulling an arm around him and pulling his head into her shoulder.
“I know, it’s just freezing in here.”
“Probably to keep the dead bodies fresh.”
“Mae!” he glares at her, pulling his head away.
“Okay, fine, my baby’s not in the mood for a little dark humour, then,” she chuckles, before pulling him close again, tousling his hair, a little too long now. “You know, you were born at this hospital.”
“Yeah, you’ve told me before. You said the nurse attending to you was hot,” he chortles a little.
“Oh, he was,” she nods in agreement. “Your father thought only women could be nurses, and he wouldn’t let me out of his sight the entire time I was in labour. He even insisted on coming with me into the delivery room, even though he’d always been squeamish about blood and other bodily fluids…”
Arthit merely huffs in acknowledgement at the mention of his late father. So he’d been like this from day one. The days following the man’s cardiac arrest, Arthit had swerved between relief and guilt, partially blaming himself, his incident at school being the reason the man had been so worked up in the first place, but simultaneously at ease upon entering into a quiet apartment, free of screaming matches and forcefully stuffing his face until he wanted to vomit. Real men should eat like one, his father had often said.
“…by the time you popped out of me, I think he was probably more exhausted than I was. He had to be wheeled away because he’d passed out! Oh, and then the silly man didn’t want to let me name you, either. You know what he was going to call you? Kukrit. I said to him, You look at this beautiful child and tell me you think the name Kukrit suits him? Anyway, I got my way in the—”
“Why were you with him, Mae?” he blurts out, before realising what he’s said. He cautiously pulls out of her embrace to look at her. She’s neither offended, nor surprised, but…pensive.
“I was young and stupid, Oon,” she smiles at him sadly. “I was lonely and he was charming back then. He wanted to open a restaurant. My parents liked the idea of me marrying a businessman, so I said yes to him,” she says wistfully, smiling at the memory. “I’m sorry for the way he treated us, but…he did love you. It’s just that sometimes people say and do things they don’t mean when they’re depressed. They’ll do anything just to feel something, you know? And at the end of the day, he brought me the greatest gift I could ever have asked for.” She runs a thumb over Arthit’s cheek before patting it lightly.
Maybe someday he would come to understand. For now, they share a solemn silence as he tucks his legs under the seat, sliding his hands under his thighs to warm them.
Another ten or so minutes pass before he spots a familiar figure stumble in from the front entrance, immediately hurrying over to the nurse’s station and getting increasingly impatient when she can’t get the answers she wants. Arthit and his mother stand up and go over to her.
They exchange wais, and Kongpob’s mother smiles gratefully at them, although her eyes are still watery from what had probably been panicked crying, and she’s trembling a little.
“Oh, thank you so much for bringing my son here! Have they seen him yet? Is he okay?”
“He’s fine, Khun. When we found him at the school, he was completely stable. Probably just a sprain or a minor fracture.” Arthit’s mother smiles reassuringly. “Come sit down first. They said they were going to take him to get x-rays first.”
The woman, still slightly shaken, nods and follows them to where they’d previously been sitting.
“How about I get us something hot to drink, yes? It’s quite chilly in here.”
“Mae—” Arthit says, realising that this would leave him alone with none other than Kongpob’s mother.
“I’ll be right back. Oon,” she raises an eyebrow at him, a silent order for him to maintain his composure. He shrinks back into his seat in retreat, his previous protest dying on his lips.
And then it’s just him, and the waiting room, and the woman sniffling next to him.
He stares at the floor, eyes wide for a moment, before finally deciding that he can’t just sit in silence the entire time. Instead, he takes out his packet of tissues, pulling one out and tentatively holding it out to her. When she sees it in her peripheral vision, she turns to look at him and smiles, a little embarrassed, but takes the tissue, dabbing at her eyes.
“I’m sorry. Look at me, crying like this in front of Kongpob’s friend.” She sucks in a deep breath, trying to clear her nasal passage.
“Um…that’s alright. I’m…glad I could help?” he finds himself forming a somewhat coherent sentence.
“Your name is Arthit, isn’t it?” she shifts slightly in her seat to face him.
“I…yes, my name is Arthit,” he says slowly. There’d be no point lying to her at this point, not when she’d already spoken to his mother.
“Thank you, Arthit,” she takes his hand, her own one shivering. He’s a little surprised by the action, but says nothing, simply looking back up at her with wide eyes. “I know my son is incredibly stubborn. He’s a little upset with me at the moment, but I’m glad he had someone to call.”
She’s sniffling again, trying to hold back tears, but is miserably failing. Arthit glances around for a moment, as if seeking help from someone, anyone. He doesn’t know what to do about women crying. He’d only ever witnessed his own mother crying, and that was quite different. This was sort of a stranger, if he could call her that.
After nobody comes to his aid, he finally settles on delicately placing his other hand on top of hers in an attempt to comfort her. It seems to do the trick a little, and he nods a little, as though to pat himself on the back.
“Um…it’s not a problem. We’re friends, and such, so…” he trails off lamely.
“Yes,” she regains her composure a little, wiping under her eyes before they crinkle from her smile. “He does talk about you a lot.”
Well, that’s the first he’s hearing of it. But he supposes he must have mentioned his name at least a few times because of their tutoring arrangement. After all, she’s the one funding it.
“You know why he’s upset with me?”
“Uh…no. He didn’t really say.”
“Of course he didn’t,” she rolls her eyes a little, a soft laugh escaping her. “He’s a little hard-headed like that.”
He smiles a little, exhaling through his nose in amused agreement.
“He’s…upset with me because of you.”
“Wh-what? Me?” he stutters, pulling his hand away to scratch at the back of his neck. What could he possibly be upset about him for? And with his mother of all people? “Um, is this about the tutoring? I told him he doesn’t have to pay me more, but—”
“No, no, nothing like that.” She pats his hand reassuringly, then pauses for a moment. “He’s upset about my decision back then to move you to the other class.”
And now he’s rendered completely speechless. She knew. His stomach drops, and he looks everywhere but at her, blinking rapidly as he tries to steady his breathing.
“I know, I’m sorry to bring this up. It must have been difficult for you. But he’s misunderstood so badly, and he won’t listen to me.”
“Misunderstood?” What could Kongpob have misunderstood about him being moved?
“Yes,” she shakes her head with a gentle sigh. “It’s always cart before horse with him, but I know you know he means well. I was hoping you could help me talk to him about it.”
“About…what, exactly?” he’s confused now, stunned that he’s still maintaining this conversation at all.
“About…” she squints at him, puzzled. “Oh no, don’t tell me…I thought you knew as well.”
He must have a giant question mark scrawled on his face, because she drops her face in her hands, some sort of giant realisation overcoming her. Then, she sits up again, heaving a sigh.
“I think you already know this part,” she starts. “I was the head of the PTA back then.”
He nods slowly.
“After M—you know M, right?” he nods. “After he reported it to the principal’s office, the matter was brought to our attention. The entire board consisted of about twelve other parents. Some of those parents….were the parents of the boys who bullied you.”
Now, this is news to him. He’d known that the PTA had been involved, and it was ultimately their decision to have him moved, but…really?
“There was absolute chaos in that meeting,” she continues. “M’s mother and I wanted those boys suspended at the very least, but because their parents were on the board as well, they fought adamantly against it. It was selfish of them, yes, but ultimately, a vote was held, and the two of us were outnumbered. As much as I hated it, a lot of politics happens at these sorts of things, and schools don’t want to tick off the people who hold the most power and money. So I did the last thing I could think of to help you.”
“To…move me away from the bullies.”
As it dawns on him, an almost ethereal wave washes over his back, like the weight of the past three years, everything leading up to this point, from Kongpob’s inexplicable nonchalance at the time, to M’s curious glances, to shutting himself away in a toilet cubicle because he thought nobody, not even the adults, had cared. All of it, just…draining from him.
“I’m sorry nobody told you. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more to help you. I thought I was doing the right thing. I—”
“Thank you,” he barely realises it, but he’d been crying, although he’s smiling now, too. “For sticking up for me. It…makes a lot of sense where Kongpob gets it from.”
“Oh, Arthit. You must have thought I was trying to keep him from you.” She squeezes his hand again. “That’s not the case at all. When I realised that he’d befriended you after all this time, I was glad, not just about the tutoring. I rarely get to see him just…let loose.”
Arthit wipes at his cheeks with the back of his hand, nodding. He’s still a little dazed by this entire exchange, but it’s somewhat refreshing, getting to hear about the things that Kongpob never shares with him, always trying to be the brave one between the two of them.
“Your mother will probably agree with this, but all us fussy mothers want is for our kids to be happy. And if that means that he doesn’t want to study engineering, then so be it. I know he feels like his father and I put so much pressure on him, but…I just want him to always have the option in case other things don’t work out.”
Indeed, Kongpob had mentioned once that he needed the grades to study engineering, but Arthit had no idea that it wasn’t even his dream.
“He likes you, you know,” she nudges him a little. At this, he flushes a deep red, all the way to his ears, glad that it’s partially masked by the fact that he’d just been crying a little. “I can tell, even if he doesn’t say so. Always comes home smelling like barbecue. You must be special to him.”
“Uh…it-it’s not like that,” he stammers out, letting out an embarrassed laugh. “We’re just—”
“All I mean is, I would really like it if you could talk to him,” she chuckles a little at his suddenly shy expression. “He listens to you, clearly. I never really know what he’s thinking for sure.”
Neither do I.
“Alright, alright, I won’t pry. It’s none of my business what’s going on with you two. But just so you know, I would be more than happy about—”
“Mae!” he looks up, grateful to see his own mother arrive at just the right time, holding a small tray with three hot drinks.
“Had a good chat, then?” she eyes them both, an amused grin painted on her face, especially at her own son’s rather pink face. She holds a piping hot paper cup of milky tea out to Kongpob’s mother, before they hear an announcement over the PA system.
Family of Khun Kongpob Sutthiluck, please come to the nurse’s station.
It’s a quiet ten minutes or so that Kongpob’s mother disappears behind the curtain, and Arthit wonders if they’d just sat the entire time in awkward silence.
But when a nurse draws the curtain back, she’s petting her son’s hair fondly, her other hand firmly grasping his. Kongpob is smiling. Softly, but a few words had visibly alleviated whatever tension they’d previously had.
As he and his mother approach the bed, Arthit eyes the cast around his ankle, thick plaster wrapped halfway up his calf and covered with a waxy royal blue.
“Pretty neat, huh?” Kongpob taps the hardened cast.
“Sure,” he says, sitting in the chair beside him as the two mothers leave them to talk, going off back towards the waiting room into a conversation of their own. “Sorry you won’t be able to play in your finals game.”
“Yeah,” Kongpob sighs with a sad smile. “I texted Coach while they were moulding the cast. He feels guilty for leaving me like that, but honestly, it could have happened to anyone.”
“So who’s going to play in your place?”
“Probably Lek. He’s usually on reserve, anyway.”
“We should still go, though. If you’re not too tired, that is. I…we could watch it together.”
Arthit feels his mouth dry. Perhaps now that Kongpob’s mother had practically given them her blessing, he could stop holding back so much. At least test the waters. He gulps and wets his bottom lip, smiling ever so slightly.
“Like a date?” he finds himself saying, with just a hint of a tease.
Kongpob seems to freeze, eyes scanning his for a moment as though struggling to compute his words, before he laughs.
“Sure, I’ll be your stand-in for Prae.”
Arthit is slightly confused by his statement, but decides not to question it.
“Uh…ha…yeah. She can’t come…” he trails off. Then, he unzips his backpack, looking for something, until he pulls out a familiar-looking white plastic bag. “I…it’s already cold now, but I thought you might still want your order. I’d already made it anyway.”
He hands it to Kongpob, who accepts it happily, peering into the bag before furrowing his brows.
“P’, there’s more in here than I ordered. There’s at least…two, three, four more pork skewers,” he says, counting each one with a poke of his nose. “And one chicken.”
“They were on the grill already before I left. Didn’t want them to go to waste.”
“Well, let me pay for them.”
“No, it’s fine. Like I said, they were already there before I left anyway.”
“P’Arthit, it’s the least I can do,” Kongpob pouts a little. “I made you leave work to bring my crippled butt here and now it’s almost midnight.”
Arthit sighs noisily, shaking his head.
“I can never win against you, can I?” he rolls his eyes, pulling his phone out to make a note.
12/09/2014 – ฿26
“There, happy?” He rolls his eyes when Kongpob grins in satisfaction.
“I am happy.” His smile is softer now. “Not about my ankle, or the money. Just…thanks for being here.”
“Yeah, sure,” Arthit mumbles, zipping his backpack back up. “Any time.”
“Can I…uh…” Kongpob chews his lip briefly. “Can I hug you? Or is that weird?”
Arthit internally balks at the request, but allows himself exactly two seconds to be surprised before he hesitantly sits on the edge of the bed to face Kongpob.
“Uh, sure,” his gaze meet’s Kongpob’s, feeling incredibly….seen.
And then they’re both leaning into each other, Kongpob resting his head on Arthit’s shoulder as he wraps his arms around his waist as best he can from his seated posture on the bed. He brings his hands up to rest on Arthit’s shoulder blades, and it’s a blessing that Kongpob can’t see his face right now, because it’s most definitely comparable to a beetroot. He tries to relax, but when he realises that Kong can probably feel his heart pulsing through his chest, he pulls away suddenly—not harshly, but just enough to cleanly break the contact.
Nope, abort, abort! Too much water testing! Abort mission! ABORT!
“You, uh, you heading home now?” he gets up, turning away before Kongpob can properly see his reddening ears. He pretends to be busy fishing around his pockets for his phone, when he knows full well he’d put it in his backpack.
“Yeah, Shin should be arriving soon. I’ll have him drop you and your mae off, too.”
“No, that’s fine,” he says quickly. He’s not sure he’s quite recovered just yet. “Mae said she already called a taxi. In fact, it’s probably already here. We’re not that far, and it’s not on your way, anyhow.”
“Yeah, uh, I’ll…see you tomorrow,” Arthit continues his ramble, still not meeting his gaze. “You know, at the game. Unless you want to meet up before then, or—”
“We can just meet at school,” Kongpob’s eyes glint with equal amusement and curiosity now.
“So…yeah, get well soon. Um…bye.”
And then Arthit is dashing towards his mother, pulling at her arm insistently. They exchange wais with Kongpob’s mother again, before they’re bolting towards the taxi stand outside the emergency room, and Arthit finally feels like he can breathe again.