Chapter 5: Balance: ฿856
Kongpob doesn’t think he’s ever been at school this early, especially on a Monday. As Arthit had told him they would be, the gates are already open, but the entire campus is still with the grey morning, the only movement coming from a few dragonflies circling the garden pond.
It’s almost 7:00 as Kongpob enters the equally silent library. The librarian herself isn’t at her desk yet, and the only person guarding the place is a rather reluctantly breathing member of custodial staff.
Most of the library isn’t even lit, many rows of bookcases stand in the relative darkness, the only light coming from the windows.
One corner, however, towards the cluster of tables in the study area, is illuminated. Kongpob sees Arthit already there, although his head rests on his backpack on the table, and he’s asleep. He moves closer and looks at his friend, who looks oddly at peace, a contrast to his usual tense and slightly agitated demeanour.
Kongpob doesn’t know if it’s normal to feel this, but he finds himself staring at the boy and admiring his soft features – snowy white skin, a strong, pronounced nose, long lashes and small, pink lips hanging slightly open. He smiles to himself and tries to push down the foreign fluttering in his stomach as he sits adjacent to Arthit, wondering if he should wake him up or not.
His decision is made for him, though, when Arthit’s phone alarm goes off, buzzing on the table to jolt both Arthit awake and Kongpob out of his daze. Arthit rubs at his eyes and stretches like a cat, tilting his head side to side to work out the cricks in his neck, before noticing Kongpob, at which he startles a little.
“How long have you been there?” he says, his cheeks slightly flushed.
“Just a few minutes.”
“Should’ve woken me up…” he mutters, unzipping his backpack to take out his pencil case and maths textbook.
“You seemed tired. Not an early riser?”
Kongpob smiles, taking out his own things and placing them on the table. He also pulls out a linen bag and sets it on the table, taking out a large thermos.
“Mae made breakfast for us when I told her you were tutoring me.”
Arthit eyes the blue thermos for a moment before biting his lip and absentmindedly flipping through the pages of his book to find the right chapter.
“Uh…that’s okay. I already ate at home.”
“Come on, just have some. My mother makes really good congee,” Kongpob unscrews the lid, and Arthit can already smell the fragrant waft of soupy comfort food, which awakens his empty insides. It does look very appetising.
“It’s fine,” he says. “I’m still full. Maybe later.”
He clears his throat loudly over the sound of his growling stomach. Kongpob eyes him strangely, but nods and screws the lid back on.
“Yeah, I didn’t do so well on the last homework.”
Arthit nods and writes something on a blank page of his open notebook, then slides it over to Kongpob.
“Okay, have a look at this question.”
Kongpob nods, waiting for him to go on.
“So in order to find the answer, we need to multiply whatever is in the first set of brackets with whatever is in the second set of brackets. He takes a highlighter out of his pencil case and highlights 2x, 3, x, and -2 separately.
“But you don’t multiply within the same set of brackets. So we multiply the first number in the first set with the first number in the second set. What is 2x times x?”
Arthit taps the blank space below the question, gesturing for Kongpob to write his answer. Kongpob thinks for a second before he writes 2x².
“Right. Then you multiply 2x with -2, which is…?”
4x, Kongpob writes. Arthit draws an invisible circle with the back of his pencil around the minus sign in the question.
“When you multiply a positive number with a negative number, the answer becomes negative, so the answer wouldn’t be 4x, but…”
“-4x?” Kongpob raises an eyebrow.
As Arthit continues explaining the question, Kongpob just stares at the boy in front of him, watching as he speaks with ease about the question, explaining it step by step. It’s probably the most at ease that he’s ever seen Arthit be in his presence, and Kongpob is slightly in awe of the way his voice is quite animated, clarifying his points with his hands and circling different parts of the question as he speaks.
“Do…I have something on my face?”
Kongpob is jolted out of his thoughts, and realises he’s been staring at Arthit for the past minute or two. Suddenly, he feels slightly embarrassed and shakes his head rapidly.
“No,” he says. “I was just thinking.”
“Um…okay. So the final answer would be…?”
Kongpob ponders Arthit’s arrows and scribbles for a moment, before putting all the different parts of the equation together.
2x² – x – 6, he writes.
“Good,” he says, before flipping the textbook around and pointing to a set of exercises. “Now try these.”
Kongpob gets through about four questions before his attention is drawn back to Arthit, who’s just…watching him work. He suddenly feels slightly self-conscious and puts his pencil down, pondering his next words.
“Arthit,” he starts. “Do you want to have lunch together today?”
Arthit just looks at him, eyes narrowed.
“I mean like, not with just me. With M and Oak as well,” Kongpob feels the need to clarify.
“I told you, I’m busy during lunch.”
“Why do you want to know?
“I’m just asking. Who do you usually eat with, then?”
Arthit sighs through his nostrils, pressing his lips together into a tight line.
“That’s none of your concern.”
“What is this? Studying or interrogation?” Arthit snaps, and looks anywhere but at Kongpob. “Finish the set and I’ll have a look.”
Kongpob relents with a sigh and works through the remaining questions before sliding the notebook over to Arthit, who is noticeably stiffer than before. Arthit scans each of his answers with his pencil and nods, circling one or two parts.
“Two negative numbers multiplied make a positive number, so this should be a plus sign instead,” he points to one of Kongpob’s answers. “Otherwise, you seem to have the idea.”
“You explained it well,” Kongpob smiles softly, at which Arthit grimaces a little, closing the book.
“Anyway, we should get back to the classroom.” he says, hurriedly packing his things, as though he wants to get away as quickly as possible. Which makes no sense, of course, seeing as they’re in the same class and therefore heading to the same classroom.
Kongpob just nods, putting his own things away as Arthit practically bolts out of the library and past the sleeping custodian.
“And then she gave me detention again because she said the homework I turned in wasn’t ‘up to standard’! Are teachers allowed to punish us for being bad at English now?”
Oak is complaining yet again about his supposedly unfair treatment. Kongpob just shakes his head and tries to open his lunchbox, struggling a little with the lid as the suction on the air-tight container is particularly strong. Today’s lunch consists of flat rice noodles with a chicken gravy and gai lan.
“No, but you can be punished for only writing idk lol I don’t get the question when the topic is asking you to write 300 words about a childhood memory,” M rolls his eyes.
“Fine. Kong, you can help me with English homework, right? You got the top score in the grade last year, didn’t you?”
“Knowing you, by ‘help’ you mean ‘let you copy’. Therefore, no — ah, crabsticks!”
He finally gets the lid off of the box, and a splatter of the brown gravy sauce plops onto the front of his crisp white uniform. He tuts and puts down the box.
“I’m going to the bathroom,” he shakes his head, getting up from the table.
All the toilets in the main school building are closed off due to drainage issues on the first floor caused by a group of seniors who’d thought it would be funny to flush an entire roll of toilet paper that morning. As a result, Kongpob has to make his way to the side building, where students usually only go when the school holds community service activities and supplies for annual events are kept. There’s a small toilet with only two stalls and three urinals, and Kongpob can only recall ever having used it once before.
As suspected, the building is whisper quiet and probably the source of many ghost stories told throughout the year, but Kongpob isn’t fazed by such ridiculous tales. As he approaches the washroom, he hears shuffling inside, and the click of a stall door’s lock. Just as he’s about to push open the door, it swings open, and he comes face to face with none other than Arthit, who stumbles back in shock, dropping what looks like an empty food container and some eating utensils.
“Arthit, wha—” Kongpob says in surprise, trying to help pick up his things. Arthit shakes his head and holds a trembling hand out to stop him. His entire face goes pale, and his mouth is gaping open and closed like a stunned fish. His eyes dart around in panic for a moment, before he hurriedly wipes his mouth, grabbing the fallen items and hiding them in his arms before darting out before Kongpob can get another word in.
Kongpob blinks after him, trying to parse what had just happened, his breath caught in his throat. He considers going after Arthit, but the boy seems traumatised enough by Kongpob’s discovery that it probably wouldn’t be wise to bombard him with questions at this precise moment.
“Kids used to pick on him all the time…he almost switched schools…lost all the weight before our freshman year…now he just never talks to anyone…”
Suddenly, M’s comments from last week creep into his thoughts, and his throat clenches. He wouldn’t….would he?
Fearing the worst, Kongpob peers into the large bin next to the sink counter, praying not to find what he suspects, and breathes a sigh of muted relief when he sees only one scrunched up paper towel.
Turning around, he eyes the fallen spoon at the door of one of the stalls. He picks it up – it’s definitely been used, but his mind still reaches into the darkest possibilities. Biting his bottom lip, he slowly pushes open the stall door. Wincing a little, he lifts the lid off of the water closet and finds it still full, an indication that it hasn’t been flushed in a while.
He doesn’t know if he should be relieved or not. He recalls his mother doing all of these things almost eight years ago when his sister had gone through some difficult times with her relationship to food as a teenager.
So why was Arthit eating in the toilets, then? And in such an inconspicuous location, too.
His entire mind is plagued with questions as he works at removing the gravy stain from his shirt. When he returns to the courtyard, M and Oak have already finished eating, and are bickering over their DoTA stats. He rejoins them, quietly eating as they continue talking, but not really enjoying what is usually his favourite dish.
“Hey, M,” Kongpob says, after a while. “Can you tell Coach Pak I can’t make it to practice today?”
“I have to handle something at home after school.”
M eyes him suspiciously, but nods.
“Okay. Everything alright?”
“Yeah, just…I have to be there.” he forces a small smile.
Kongpob doesn’t rush after Arthit when his friend scurries from his seat and out the door as soon as their teacher dismisses them. He’d stolen a few glances at Arthit during their afternoon classes, only to see the guy with his head ducked down, refusing to look at anything other than whatever is on his desk. He can’t focus on anything during the lesson, and ends up being scolded by their teacher for spacing out when asked a question.
He sighs, looking over at the empty desk after the bell rings. Tilting his head, he can see that Arthit has left something behind. He goes over to the desk to see what it is, and pauses when he sees that it’s the same eraser he’d lent to Arthit a while back. It has the same tattered paper casing held in place only by a shabby piece of clear tape.
It looks like Arthit has used it religiously, the small pink piece of rubber half the size it was when he’d lent it to him. He almost decides to just keep it, when the casing slips off and Kongpob notices that the letters “Kongp” are scrawled on the side in blue ball pen, slightly smudged and faded.
That’s strange, he thinks. Why would he write half my name on my eraser? Did he run out of space?
Still, he pockets the eraser and heads straight for the front gate.
Despite his suspicions that Arthit would still be avoiding him, Kongpob sees his friend at the cart as usual, busying himself with grilling and stirring despite the small Monday crowd.
Neither of them say a word when Kongpob approaches the cart, Arthit only looking up briefly before turning his attention back to stirring the bucket of marinade.
Silence hangs between them, both daring the other to speak first. Arthit doesn’t ask what he wants to eat, and Kongpob doesn’t push with his usual playful comments.
Eventually, Kongpob picks up the pen and notepad from the side of the worktop and quickly writes something, filling almost the entire page of the small page. Arthit glances at what he’s doing from the corner of his eye, but says nothing. Kongpob tears the entire page out and carefully tears off the bottom strip, pushing over to Arthit.
2 moo-ping, it reads.
Wordlessly, Arthit takes two skewers off the grill and places them in a container before setting it down next to the notepad.
Kongpob picks up the skewers and leaves the remainder of the page he’d written on where the container was, folded up on the worktop. Then, he takes the eraser out of his pocket and places it on top of the paper. Arthit eyes it briefly, but says nothing.
Kongpob just gives him a small smile, before walking down the street towards the bus stop.
As soon as Kongpob is far away enough that Arthit can no longer see the outline of his fading back, Arthit grabs for the eraser and paper, heart beating out of his chest as he unfolds the note.
I just want you to know that you don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to, but I’m here if you do want to talk. I hope you’ll still tutor me and be my friend. By the way, I never gave you my contact information, so here’s my Line ID. Hope I’ll see you tomorrow.
Arthit reads the note over and over, biting his lip in a subtle smile before pocketing both the note and eraser. He pulls out his phone, punching in Kongpob’s Line ID and immediately finding his classmate’s profile picture. He stares at it, finger hovering over the ‘Add friend’ button, but pockets his phone again.
18/08/2014 – ฿10