Kongpob finds himself in an unusual predicament one afternoon when he seeks comfort at his favourite place on campus.
On days following heavy storms, a cool breeze sifts through the area, the humid weight of dark grey clouds having dissipated from the skies.
On days like these, Kongpob likes to spend time alone under his favourite spot on the university lawn. Actually, to call it a lawn would be a bit of stretch, seeing as it’s really more of a 200 meter-squared spread of dried-up grass that is rarely maintained, leaving sporadically exposed patches of dirt and the occasional mud hole.
But it’s not the grass to which Kongpob feels attached. In the far corner, behind the faculty building, there’s a giant monkey-pod tree, a marvellous creature in its own right, like a mushroom overgrown a by a thousand times. From afar, with its branches spidering almost endlessly outwards into densely packed leaves, it looks sort of like nature’s brain emerging out of the ground.
It’s special to Kongpob, not just because he’d discovered it on a particularly difficult day in his freshman year, but also because it’s the perfect cool shade from the blazing heat without the dryness of air-conditioning, and has a sturdy trunk right in the centre that supports his back in the most optimal way.
Today, after a particularly long lecture on game theory, he seeks comfort under nature’s giant umbrella, allowing his things to fall beside him as he leans back and stretches his legs out. He thinks there’s nothing that could ever interrupt his blissful moment alone, away from freeloading classmates and the droning sound of his professor’s voice.
That is, until he hears a cough.
Or at least, he thinks it’s a cough.
But that can’t be, because there’s nobody seated around any other side of the trunk, nor can he see anyone else within a twenty-metre radius.
I’m probably just tired and hearing things.
He resumes his position, leaning his head back against the smooth central stem of the tree, closing his eyes and taking deep, calming breaths.
Until he hears it again.
He stands up this time, properly walking a full circle around the base of the tree, trying to source out the origin of the sound. Suddenly, he hears a brief rustling of the leaves above him, and only when he looks up, does he startle in surprise.
An actual, living, breathing person, just…sitting in the tree, on a high branch at least three or four metres off the ground. He’s wearing a crimson red workshop jacket, the colour of the university’s engineering faculty, a black t-shirt, jeans, and…one shoe?
“Hi,” he calls out finally, overcoming the initial shock, now simply bewildered at the fact that there is a person! In the tree! His tree!
The guy doesn’t look down at him. Instead, his eyes remain trained straight ahead, and occasionally above him.
“H-hi,” he responds, his fingers gripping tightly onto the branch. He’s nestled at the nook of the branch, right where it meets the main trunk.
“Um…sorry, I don’t mean to bother you,” Kongpob scratches the back of his neck. “But…w-why are you in the tree?”
There’s a slight irritation to his voice. He doesn’t like the idea of sharing his beloved tree with anyone, especially note in such a way where someone feels entitled to just climb its branches like monkey bars. Kongpob doesn’t get a response at first, the engineering student seemingly refusing to look down at him.
“I…my shoe,” he finally says after a moment, pointing vaguely upwards at a branch a little further away from him. “It got stuck up there.”
Kongpob squints at where the guy is pointing, and sure enough, a greyish-blue sneaker with white laces and a thick, flat rubber sole is sitting on one of the larger branches, about a metre’s grasp away.
He glances back at the guy now. He’s still shaking a little, holding onto the branch he’s sitting on, legs curled under and around the branch like any slight movement would cause him to fall to his death.
“Are you stuck?”
The guy simply nods a little, biting his lip as he gulps slightly.
“I…don’t know how to get down,” he says, voice cracking a little. “I didn’t think it was this far up.”
The poor guy is afraid of heights, Kongpob realises. Suddenly, the previous indignation he’d held about the intruder dissipates into sympathy, and he looks down at his own feet for a moment, then visually scans the length of the tree trunk, trying to map out how the tree-sitter had managed to get up so high in the first place.
And then he’s placed one foot in a ridge between two of the main, thicker branches that stem from near the bottom, and pulled himself upwards until he can reach even further.
“Wh-what are you doing?” Kongpob hears the guy’s shaky voice.
“Getting your shoe.”
“Wait, don’t-” he starts in protest, but Kongpob is already clambering his way towards the isolated target.
The process reminds him of the times he’s been indoor rock climbing, except maybe a little easier, as there are sturdier surfaces for him to place his footing, and deeper crevices for his fingers to curl around. He easily climbs and leaps his way up to where the lone sneaker is, carefully grabbing it off the branch, and holding it out, waving it at the other boy in triumph.
“Got it!” he grins, clearly proud of himself.
He looks over at the guy now, who’s sort of smiling, but it’s more a grimace as he nods slowly. He’s kind of cute, Kongpob notices, taking in his large, slightly nervous doe eyes and the sharp slope of his nose that meets a pair of shapely, rosy lips.
“You shouldn’t have come up here,” the guys says quietly, eyes closing in a sigh.
“Why? I got your shoe,” Kongpob clings on to a smaller branch hanging above him, standing on one of the sturdier branches a little less than adjacent to the one the other guy is sitting on.
“Yes, thanks…but, um,” he gestures vaguely downwards without looking. “How are we going to get down now?”
“What do you mean? We’ll just climb back down.”
Kongpob chuckles in amusement before allowing his gaze to fall below him, and only then does he suck in a short gasp.
Like before, he mentally maps out how he’d managed to get up so high off the ground, except this time, he’s struggling to find an appropriate route downwards. While he’d had no trouble leaping and bounding upwards, jumping up and grabbing whichever low-reaching branch he could hold on to, the realisation now dawns on him that jumping down onto the narrow widths of said branches was a whole different story.
There’s no way he can get down without breaking at least one limb. Suddenly, the ground looks much further away than it initially had.
Kongpob exhales deeply and slowly lowers himself into a crouch, pawing cautiously at a branch in front of him to do so, before seating himself onto the fork in the almost completely vertical length of wood, not unlike the one his companion is currently situated on.
He allows the shoe to fall below him, just to see how long it takes to reach the grass below, and only confirms his dread when it lands after two seconds, bouncing several times across the soil before rolling away, stopping several meters from the base of the trunk.
“Do you…have your phone?” Kongpob rubs a finger across his chin, slightly embarrassed.
“It’s out of battery. You?”
“In my bag,” he sheepishly points down at his belongings, now seemingly far tinier than they had been before.
Kongpob looks over at the guy now, who’s still trying to calm himself with deep, steady breaths, and willing himself not to look down.
“Hey, what’s your name?”
The boy returns his gaze momentarily, surprised by the question.
“Arthit,” he replies after a dazed few seconds.
“Ah, looks like I couldn’t escape the sun after all,” the corner of Kongpob’s mouth turns upwards, faintly teasing. “I’m Kongpob, from the faculty of economics.”
Arthit presses his lips into a thin smile, blushing slightly at the comment.
“Engineering,” he pulls slightly at his jacket to emphasise the embroidered gear on the right chest pocket. SSU ’57, Kongpob can just about make out the small print. So he’s a senior.
“How did your shoe end up in a tree anyway?”
It seems the most obvious question to ask, and one with the least obvious answer. Arthit snorts, shaking his head in mild annoyance.
“One of my friends…he thought he saw a fruit up here and wanted to knock it down.”
“Fruit?” Kongpob quirks an eyebrow. “If there were seedpods, they’d be all over the tree and the ground.”
“Yes, well, my friend isn’t all that bright…. ironically,” Arthit seems slightly more relaxed now. “His name is Bright,” he clarifies, noting Kongpob’s slightly confused expression at his previous remark.
“Why didn’t he use his own shoe?”
“He said mine had a heavier sole and therefore would have a greater impact. That, and he didn’t want to ruin his Air Jordans.”
Kongpob grins in amusement at this, glad to see Arthit slightly more relaxed now.
There could be worse ways to spend his afternoon than sitting in a tree with a cute guy, Kongpob can admit. He chuckles to himself, a familiar childish rhyme popping into his mind.
“What?” Arthit eyes him curiously.
“Nothing, it’s just…this whole situation is kind of ridiculous,” he breaks into a wide smile. “I meant to spend my afternoon just reading and instead, we’re both stuck in a giant tree, you’re only wearing one shoe, and honestly, I’m not even mad.”
“You’re not? Because the minute we get down from here, I’m carrying out a murder plot,” Arthit snickers, shaking his head. “It could be worse, I guess. You could’ve just left me here to fend for myself.”
“I would do no such thing,” Kongpob reassures him.
He gazes out beyond the leaves, at tiny figures passing by along paths in the distance. For a moment, he considers just screaming at the top of his lungs for help, but admittedly, he’s not exactly in a rush to leave his current position, practical predicament aside.
“I’ve always liked the view from this tree,” Arthit leans against the trunk now, his legs dangling on either side of the branch he’s sat on. “But honestly, this is a whole new perspective.”
Kongpob turns to Arthit, who’s staring in the same direction that his own line of vision had just been, a small smirk on his face.
“Yeah, I like the view up here,” he agrees quietly and with a soft smile, and Arthit briefly shifts his gaze towards him.
It takes a few moments for Arthit to fully register the double meaning of his words, and when he does, his cheeks flush slightly, and he bites back a smile of his own. He turns his face away but pales again when he realises he’s looking down still, sucking in another sharp breath.
“So you’re here often, too?”
“Yeah, although I’m usually here in the mornings between classes to nap.”
“No wonder,” Kongpob carefully shifts himself so he’s seated more firmly on the branch. “I’m usually here in the afternoons after longer lectures.”
“Wait, are you the one who carved Kong into the side of the tree?” Arthit suddenly recalls a vague image of the name he’d noticed one day a few months ago.
“Yeah,” Kongpob laughs. “I guess I’m a little possessive that way. I don’t like being sharing this space. Unless the company’s good, of course,” he adds pointedly.
“And here I thought this tree was mine,” Arthit says jovially. “I’ll make a note to carve my own name.”
“I suppose we can have shared custody,” Kongpob quips, earning another shy silence.
They remain like this for another hour or so, continuing their coy banter as the sky begins to haze over with the fall of dusk. As the sun goes down, so gradually does Arthit’s previous anxiety over their predicament.
Soon, though, they hear the shuffling of footsteps and glimpse the rays of a flashlight briefly glowing beneath their dangling feet, shining onto Kongpob’s abandoned belongings at the base of the tree.
The stream of light then moves upwards, and the confused, furrowed brows of a campus security guard stare back at them.
“You boys okay?” the man calls out, flashing his torch between each of their faces, causing both of them to squint.
“We’re stuck!” Arthit calls down, relieved that someone had finally found them.
“Okay,” the guard clicks his flashlight off. “I’ll be right back with a ladder. Hang tight,” he says, making his way back out of the shade. “Kids these days…”
The climb down still has Arthit’s knees shaking, but it’s far less terrifying than having to risk navigating the uneven network of sloped branches of the monkey-pod. As soon as he joins Kongpob back on the ground, he crouches for a moment, patting the ground below him in relief.
Then, he stands back, dusting the back of his jeans off and thanking the rather miffed security guard, who just shakes his head and manoeuvres the collapsible ladder back under his arm.
Kongpob begins to gather up his things and pulls his phone out of his bag. He has a good thirty unread notifications, but he ignores them, pulling up the dial pad instead.
“Arthit,” he bites his lip nervously. “You don’t have to, but…uh…” he trails off, but meekly holds his phone out to him. “You know, just in case you want some company the next time you’re here.”
Arthit stares at the glowing screen for a moment, glad that the overall dimming glow of sunset makes it difficult for Kongpob to see his flustered face. He hesitates just a moment longer before taking the device and pressing in his number with a reserved smile and then hands the phone back.
Kongpob looks down at the digits, a shy smile forming on his lips as he saves the contact.
A few weeks later, they’re leaning against the trunk of the tree, Kongpob with his book and Arthit snoozing with his head tilted back. Sure that Arthit is at least mostly asleep, Kongpob pulls a small Swiss Army knife out of his backpack, pushing himself up to stand and move to where he’d etched his name into the bark months before.
He adds under his own name.