Part 1: Chapter 3
Friday, June 5, 2020
📍 Homestay Bangkhran
The second thing that plagues much of Arthit’s well-being with anxiety is encountering a problem he can’t solve.
Apart from his tumultuous revulsion (read: obsession) with Kongpob’s oddly specific brand of mental torture, Arthit is of the belief that with enough sheer determination, he can find a solution to any problem, and if he can’t find a solution yet, it’s only a matter of time.
It’s why he’d always tied for the top academic ranking every year, been a three-time national chess champion for his age group, and would’ve been a top-notch swimmer had he been able to afford the fees required for training and competitions with the school team. It’s why when Ah Ma mentions to him in passing that the stove, or the fan, or the clunky old radio in the kitchen is malfunctioning, he’ll sit cross-legged on the hard, tiled floor with plyers, screws, resistor replacements and electrical tape strewn around him for hours until they’re all in working condition again.
Despite his determination, though, there are two major puzzles that Arthit still has yet to work out. One of them, as we’ve previously discussed, is Kongpob and his insatiable need to humiliate, annoy, and infest his every waking (and sometimes unconscious) thought. He realises he could probably just ask the asshole what his deal is, but firstly, it seems highly unlikely that Kongpob wouldn’t try to dodge the subject and impart further untoward disturbance to Arthit’s well-being, and…well, where’s the fun in puzzle-solving if you already have the answer key right at your fingertips?
The other, by relative contrast, comes in the form of an intricately designed rolling ball maze. As if Arthit doesn’t already stick out among his peers like a sore thumb for his other behavioural eccentricities, the maze serves as an peculiar source of entertainment for him next to his peers’ online phone games and endless scrolling through social media. But a problem is a problem, and Arthit will be darned if he can’t figure it out.
It’s a rectangular teak box about the size of a small novel, with a clear acrylic window over the top and a tiny figure of a sun seared into one of the side panels, which leads Arthit to believe that it’s probably custom-made.
The wooden toy had been a rather unusual birthday gift back when he was in Mathayom 5*, and not a single day had passed when he wouldn’t tilt the damn thing back, forth, left and right with near-mechanical precision until the ball would unfailingly drop into the hole at the end of the path and roll back to the start. Over time, the edges and corners of the frame have softened under the hours spent in the grip of warm hands, as he’s rarely without it.
It keeps his restless mind and his equally fidgety hands at peace, giving them something to do to distract from, well, everything else. Knot had once asked him why he’s always repeatedly playing with it at any spare moment, even among the chatter of the cafeteria.
“Have you still not figured out the solution?”
“I have. I figured it out within two days.”
“That…was over two years ago, Arthit. What’s the point now?”
“There’s always more than one path to the same destination, Knot.”
“Is there? I thought these things were designed to only have one solution.”
“It’s…never mind. I’m going to find a second path. There has to be another way.”
Truthfully, he doesn’t know if there really is a second path. He’d only come to this loosely precedented conclusion on the basis that the maze, though unwrapped, had come with an ambiguous note, or rather an embossed printing on an expensive-feeling card of Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.
Arthit doesn’t like Frost’s poetry at all—he thinks it’s far too simplistic and presents notions so cliché and obvious that they really don’t require anyone with a special flair for the written word to articulate.
But for that very reason, he thinks it’s safe to assume that the maze holds a simple message; that every journey, physical or otherwise, holds more than one plausible path you can take, all of which are equally valid. Unlike Frost’s forest metaphor, though, Arthit believes that even when a road has reached its end, there’s no guarantee that they are so vastly different until you’ve taken the other.
And so he will sooner develop permanent muscle strain in his forearms seeking the difference than give up finding a second solution. And after that, perhaps a third.
Nevertheless, while the maze brings him serenity among the three hundred-odd incessantly festering deliberations begging for attention, it simultaneously has him restlessly imagining lines and turns of a tiny iron ball as he lucidly dreams of potential resolves. As if he doesn’t already lose sleep over the gazillions of ways Kongpob seeks to cause him constant distress.
As it turns out, though, Kongpob is at least useful in some ways. Following an unnecessarily agitated bickering session over which route to take and a mutual simultaneous torment over waiting almost five minutes for one section of a webpage to load, Kongpob suggests that they’re better off asking the homestay owner about potential travel arrangements back to Bangkok that won’t tear a bitter hole in Arthit’s savings.
As much as it pains him, Arthit reluctantly agrees, seeing no better option, and Kongpob plugs his own phone in to charge, after their failed searches and several hours of use from the previous day had drained his battery down to its last 20%.
The host’s own home is just a little way’s down the beach from the room they’d stayed in, the standalone square, concrete block sitting under a large tree.
The owner, an older woman with salt and pepper hair slicked back in a low ponytail, is petting a possibly even older dog out on her front step when Kongpob and Arthit approach her. She’s sat in a red plastic picnic chair, a crinkled smile on her sun-freckled face as the elderly pup nuzzles its face into her lap. It’s a few quiet moments before she realises they’re standing in front of her, and she startles a little.
“Oh! I thought all of you had already checked out!”
They wai to her, and Arthit smiles awkwardly in acknowledgement that they had not, in fact, left the premises yet. He elbows Kongpob in the ribs, prompting him to explain their situation.
“Ow! Ah, hmm, yes, well…our…our friends left us here. By accident.”
The woman raises an eyebrow before looking between the two, her gaze eventually falling on their wrists. She bites back any sort of potential reaction, mashing her lips between her teeth, but Arthit can practically smell her sheer entertainment at the notion.
He can feel redness creeping up the back of his neck and into the tips of his ears, but tries to suppress his mortification, pulling his own wrist slightly behind his hip. There would be plenty of time to deal with that particular problem later.
“Anyway,” Kongpob pipes up, his own face slightly pink. “We were wondering if you might know how we can get back to Bangkok.”
“Well,” the woman pulls one leg up onto her chair and tucks her foot under her thigh. “How did your friends get back?”
“They…” Kongpob scratches behind his ear. “They hired a coach from the mainland to take all of us back directly. But, uh, we missed it. So now we have to go back on our own.”
“Wonder how that happened,” she snorts, trying and failing not to take another glance at the alarmingly pink wad of fluff between them. “Anyhow, can’t you boys look it up in those beeping light box phones you love to sink your faces into?”
“Our data service out here is a bit unstable,” Kongpob explains, then flashes a smile that Arthit knows well, and hates to the pit of his stomach. “Besides, it’s said that you can’t believe everything you read online. Better to ask someone trustworthy, who knows the area well and is wise—”
“Flattery won’t get you far with me, child,” she shakes her head, then hooks a leg over one of the chair arms, eyeing them up again.
Arthit pulls his free arm across his chest and holds his other elbow. Despite delighting in how Kongpob’s false charms are, for once, ineffective, he feels like a slab of meat hung up on a large iron hook at the market.
“But you boys are cute, so I’ll relent,” she says with a chuckle. “Your fastest option is a direct flight. It’s only about an hour’s journey, so you might even make it back before your friends.”
“And that would cost…?”
“About…฿6000 or so? But at this time of year, probably twice that. It’s summer, not to mention that you’re booking last minute.”
Kongpob cautiously looks over at Arthit, whose jaw has gone slack at the mere mention of the number.
“Uh…that’s…not really within our budget.”
“Then, I guess your only other option is pretty much the same route your friends took, but with an extra leg, and probably with a few stops along the way. Can’t get a long-distance bus ticket last minute, especially not in this season. You got a pen? Write this down.”
“I’ll note it down in my phone,” Arthit opens his notes app, nodding eagerly.
“First, you’re going to want to take a ferry back to the mainland from Nathon Pier. That’ll be around ฿400. From there, you have to take a bus to the Surat Thani terminal, where you can probably get a long-haul bus back to Bangkok,” she says, chopping at her palm at the mention of each destination. “The first bus is ฿250, and the second one is about ฿800, with a stopover meal included. Now, usually you would have to book a week in advance, but if you want, I can call some people I know to see if they can pull some strings and squeeze you in on the overnight bus. It’s a total of about sixteen hours if there isn’t any traffic, so you should be back by morning.”
Arthit looks up from speed-typing, all the while calculating the sum in his head. He pauses.
Somehow, in his reluctance to even come on this trip, he’d blanked out how long it had taken them to get here in the first place. Then again, he’d slept for most of the journey, waking only when Knot would physically peel his drooling face off of the window so they could board the next bus.
“Well, yes, unless you want to stay another night and set out early tomorrow,” she says teasingly, eyes flickering between them again. “I’m sure you could find a way to…pass the time.”
“No!” Arthit immediately says, a little too loudly, startling the dog, who lets out a high-pitched whine. “Sorry,” he mumbles to the golden retriever, who turns its face away. He begins to question whether seeking help from this woman had been to their benefit or not.
“Uh, well, we’d be really grateful if we could get the overnight bus, thank you,” Kongpob bows with a wai, which the woman brushes off with a laugh, mostly at Arthit’s embarrassment.
“Nong, do you have shoes?”
Kongpob looks down at his still shoeless feet.
“Um…no. I think my friend left them in our room.”
“Alright,” she stands up with a hefty slap to her thighs, standing no taller than their shoulders. “I’ll let you back in so you can go get them, and then send you boys off to the pier.”
Then, she’s strutting off towards the huts, muttering to herself with amused glee.
“Thank you!” Kongpob says quickly, thankful that he won’t have to make their way back barefoot. He nudges Arthit in the arm as they follow her.
“Oh, uh, yes. Thank you,” he manages, still eyeing the old dog, who looks at him disapprovingly. “We really…appreciate it.”
“Happy honeymoon!” the woman calls out loudly to them as the tuk tuk pulls away from the side of the road, waving jovially.
“We’re not—” Arthit begins to protest, but it’s no use. It doesn’t matter anyway, given that she can no longer hear them, and they’ll probably never see her again. But now, all the other passengers are staring at them with curiosity. He groans, shifting in his seat in disgruntlement. Kongpob, on the other hand, is absolutely tickled by the entire matter, and as the rickety vehicle makes its way down the road, the two fall into an odd silence.
Arthit scowls, pulling his backpack closer to his chest and turns his head to gaze out at the road. It’s fairly quiet, the sides scattered with holiday home-stays and small cafes and canteens. It had been a long weekend, but as they pass tree after bush after gate after hut, all fading into dots with a blur, he foresees an even longer sixteen hours ahead.
Shuffling in his seat and bringing his attention back to the open-air vehicle, he catches a sideways glance of Kongpob, who’s looking right at him with a faint smile. His expression is unreadable, and it unnerves Arthit to the core.
He raises an eyebrow, shooting the boy something like a glare before averting his eyes down at his lap, sensing sudden heat in the tips of his ears. There could be a million reasons why Kongpob had been watching him, but he doesn’t have the mental energy to consider any of them at the moment. Or he doesn’t want to, anyway.
Instead, he becomes hyper aware of the other passengers sitting across from them, whose gazes have fallen on the offending cuffs, which frankly, are beginning to make his wrist sore from the sheer amount of movement that causes the metal to dig into his skin.
One of the passengers is a small child, who stares directly at him with a blank expression, silent judgment even without potentially understanding the function of the handcuffs. Arthit shifts in his seat again. His free hand reaches for the usual strand of hair near his crown, and he begins twisting it into a spiralled knot, trying to avert his gaze from prying eyes.
And as if he can’t get any more uncomfortable, he suddenly feels a warm, bony hand take his own, fingers clasped around his palm. He looks down between them, and immediately pulls his hand away from Kongpob’s tanned one, as if having touched fire.
“What do you think you’re doing?!” he whispers between gritted teeth, heart pulsing a mile a minute, the ghost of the other boy’s warm touch still fresh on his pale skin. He allows it to linger for just a few seconds, then wipes the tickling sensation off on his shorts. Kongpob doesn’t look at him, merely smiling as he replies.
“They’re going to stare either way,” he says in a low but calm, almost sing-song voice. “We can be that couple who holds hands and has eccentric taste in matching bracelets, or we can be the couple who parades their bondage kink out in public. Which would you rather it be?”
“I’d rather not be a couple with you, period!” Arthit snaps, voice almost an octave higher than his usual register.
Kongpob’s laughter tinkles in his ears all the rest of the way.
Hi! Here’s Chapter 3. Weirdly enough, I think I work better when I actually have a plan of what I’m doing with a story, which is why it’s not taking me ridiculously long to write up this time around.
I hope you’re okay with this somewhat non-linear storytelling that shows flashes of the past before revisiting the present. As I mentioned before, this is not so much a slow burn in the sense that we’re waiting for them to get together, but rather to show glimpses of the past that have had a direct or indirect impact on the present and potentially the future.
Side note, if you’re not familiar with Frosts’ The Road Not Taken, this is the poem:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
I actually genuinely don’t like his poetry that much, not because there’s anything starkly wrong with it, but, as Arthit points out, the themes and ideas discussed aren’t particularly interesting (to me) or at least they don’t speak to me on a deeper level. However, it’s a very fitting poem for the purpose I’m trying to use it for, which we’ll figure out as the story develops.
Actually, after talking to some of you, I’ve come to realise that perhaps there are parts that aren’t so predictable or as obvious as I’d thought, but that’s okay. There’s fun in mystery! Anyway, thank you for reading. Please do leave me comments and tell me your thoughts/predictions 🙂