Part 1: Chapter 6
Friday, June 5th, 2020
📍 Chumpon Archipelago, Koh Samui
Arthit can count on one hand the number of times he’s travelled by boat. Two of those occurrences had been taken up by the trip to and from somewhere to Phuket (he’d been too small to remember) for his grandfather’s burial in his hometown. He has barely any recollection of his time on the island, having spent most of it in the confines of a dusty bedroom in a distant relative’s home.
What he does remember, though, is Ah Ma clutching at his wriggly legs to hold him still as he bounced animatedly at the sight of the foamy white trail forming at the back of the boat, squealing in delight every time the boat would traverse over a particularly large wave.
His parents had also been there, decidedly less enthused, although whether or not it had been because of Ah Gong’s death, he doesn’t know.
Every so often, he dreams of them, of their faces. They change every time, a few variations sporting blinding white smiles with rosy lipstick and a five o’clock shadow, and on other occasions, terse frowns and stress-worn, acne-ridden skin, vexed sighs puffing out hazy smoke rings. Any of these variants could have been closest to their true form, but in none of his reveries does Arthit glimpse their faces in their entirety.
Ah Ma says it doesn’t matter, because clearly, he’d gotten his good looks and boyish charm from her and Ah Gong. Arthit always laughs and agrees, if only because he knows that it’s a sore subject for her, too.
You’re a good boy, Oon. You never disappoint me.
He doesn’t know if that’s true, but he certainly tries his damnedest to be the dignified son she’d always wanted. The smart one, the one who finished school, and respected his elders. After all, who else does he have to make himself worthy for? Who else would he have to make proud? Even now, staring out at white water sloshing among the blue-green expanse, he thinks of freckled skin across bony knuckles of a small hand, and dimples in soft, round cheeks.
He’d made a choice. The right one, he thinks.
Another of his experiences with boat rides had been in his freshman year, when the entire faculty had been bussed out to Hua Hin as part of the final step in the hazing process. There, they’d paddled out in dragon boats to the beat of Tutah’s drum until their triceps and hamstrings burned with fatigue under the scorching sun. Their boat had won, not least owing to many of the team’s paddlers being naturally athletic. That, and the other team’s boat had toppled sideways after paddling less than ten meters out from the shore.
Arthit can still feel the burning in his nose after Bright had unceremoniously tossed him into the water after the race in his pure excitement, not to mention getting a nasal passage full of salt water that he’d spent the next ten minutes trying aggressively to snuff out of his nostrils.
He also has a vivid recollection of eventually climbing out of the water to be met with deep brown eyes staring unabashedly from a distance at the way his wet shirt clung to pale, goose-bumped, skin, watching with profound captivation before tearing themselves away from the sight.
He daydreams about that stare between thoughts, teeth tugging at his bottom lip.
The most recent of Arthit’s encounters with boat rides had, of course, been the outbound trip to Koh Samui, the very path they’re currently tracing in the opposite direction. He’d sat with Bright and Tutah, shaking his head at their brainless banter, and playing with his maze after the sun had sunk below the horizon, leaving him with little to stare at. Aside from alternative views, that is.
Speaking of which, Kongpob had so easily charmed his way through buying them the right tickets, a skill that Arthit has yet to succeed in. He’d once gotten so nervous and stuttered his way so badly through the simple task of making an appointment at the dentist that he’d had Tutah pretend to be his parent and book the damned time slot on his behalf.
That’s one thing Kongpob had always had over him as a point of prowess — speaking; both conversationally and publicly. He always had just the right intonation, the perfectly crafted magnetism to his presentation, and a timbre so inviting that he could sell pet rocks to the masses if he so felt inclined.
Arthit, too, had once been enraptured by the same voice whispering sweet nothings and warm presses of skin into the shell of his ear.
In its absence, he’s able to regain his rationale.
It’s quiet now, save for the roaring wind against his ears.
Kongpob sits facing slightly away from him, eyes focused on the opening of his backpack, as he’d done since the ferry had departed from the pier.
He’s not sulking, Arthit doesn’t think, but there’s certainly an element of discomfort to his stature. Or perhaps it’s just seasickness.
In any case, Arthit considers himself to be at least partly at fault. How could he have forgotten something so crucial, carelessly tearing open old wounds that he’d thought had scarred over? Or perhaps he’d shoved the memory so far down that he’d almost depleted the image of leaving the boy with a thousand questions unanswered.
“Kong,” he finally says, after almost an hour of silence and several inches between them, save for where their knuckles brush together.
When Kongpob looks up, Arthit takes in his features. Brows creased in distress, eyes weary, complexion ghastly pale. Still, his expression glimmers with something unreadable.
“I, uh,” Arthit starts, then thinks better of it. Instead, he reaches into his backpack, pulling out a herbal inhalant and holds it out to Kongpob. “Here.”
He blinks at it a few times before taking the small bottle and unscrewing the cap to hold it to his nose, breathing deeply. The familiar scent seems to alleviate the nausea at least a little, earning Arthit a small but grateful smile.
“Um…I’ve also heard that keeping your eyes on the horizon helps. Something about your brain needing to associate the movement with seeing movement as well so that it doesn’t confuse it for your organs acting up…or something.”
Kongpob nods, then turns slightly in his direction to look out at the water, easy enough because they’re sitting in the very back row on the top deck. Arthit simply toys with the hem of his shirt.
“It’s a great view.”
“Mm,” he agrees, because what else is there to say?
Until he looks up, and Kongpob isn’t gazing at the horizon at all.
“Don’t,” he says feebly, shifting in his seat.
Arthit doesn’t respond, instead releasing the day’s chaos in his sigh.
“Really, though, it’s not every day we get to see the water like this.” Kongpob rests his elbow on the back of the seat and allows the persistent wind to slick his hair off his forehead. Indeed, there’s a bright, almost golden glimmer coating the water’s expanse like liquid diamonds, light bouncing off into a warm glow on their faces. “Don’t you want to take photos?”
“Of the water?”
He’d taken plenty of pictures back at the beach, enough to fill up half his camera roll with glowing sun-yolks and silly group shots of his friends covered in sand to varying degrees.
“And you,” Kongpob gently pries his phone from his hands, opening up the camera app.
“Hey! Give that back!” he reaches out with his free hand.
“Come on, just a few,” Kongpob laughs, leaning back slightly to pull the phone out of reach.
“Kongpob,” he says sternly, holding a hand up in front of the camera, only to have it held down by none other than the damned cuffs. He rolls his eyes, glaring at Kongpob through the lens as the latter snaps a few photos.
“You don’t even want a few nice pictures of yourself?”
“I don’t know. Social media? Your Facebook profile picture is still the same one for as long as I’ve known you. As adorable as it is, it’s rather misleading, given that you’re not twelve anymore, and you didn’t just win a national chess competition for your age class.”
“There’s nothing wrong with it,” he grumbles, somewhat protective of the grainy image Ah Ma had taken with his first camera phone.
“I’m just saying—”
“Are you two brothers?”
They’re suddenly interrupted by a small voice, to which they turn their attention amidst their bickering. A small child leans over the back of her seat, watching them curiously with wide eyes under straight-cut bangs. She can’t be more than five or six.
Arthit’s features soften into a smile upon her seemingly genuine question.
“No, we’re not brothers. See?” he points between them in amusement. “We don’t even look anything alike!”
“Oh. Okay,” she clambers to kneel on her seat so she’s at eye level with them now. “You have a leash, so I thought you were brothers.”
He exchanges a brief look with Kongpob, who raises an eyebrow, equally confused.
“Um…what do you mean?”
“My Phi puts me on a leash when we go to the supermarket. He says I’m a monkey on the loose. You have a leash, too.” She points at the fuzzy mechanism on their wrists. “Mine isn’t as pretty as yours, though.”
Kongpob lets out a chuckle despite himself, no less because the tips of Arthit’s ears have turned a bright shade of red at her remark about the very un-child-friendly contraption. Then, Arthit wonders which one of them is supposed to be the monkey in this scenario.
“So if you’re not brothers, then are you boyfriends?” she asks, not at all keeping her voice down, despite the boat being relatively packed. It’s a relief that nobody looks their way.
Still, Arthit contemplates throwing himself overboard. If he doesn’t drown, he can at least cool his burning face.
“N-no,” he stammers. Unfortunately. “We’re not.”
Kongpob grows quiet again, pulling his lips into a tight smile as she tugs gently at one of her pigtails.
“My Phi has a boyfriend,” she goes on, grabbing onto the back of the seat to rock herself back and forth, clearly heedless to the stiffness in Arthit’s response. “He’s very tall. He’s nineteen and a half. He has a huuuuuge mole on his arm. It looks like a chicken wing, but Phi says I can’t eat it.”
“Ha…” Arthit can’t help but chortle at these revelations he’s almost certain this little girl should not be sharing so openly, much less with two complete strangers. He eyes the guy next to her and concludes that this must be her chicken wing-boyfriended, leash-wielding, brother. At the moment, the boy, probably in his late teens, us otherwise preoccupied by the phone in his hands, tending to something of relative importance, he supposes.
“So if you’re not brothers, and you’re not boyfriends, then you must be friends.”
She comes this conclusion with far more conviction than either of them have of their own. Kongpob remains silent, eyeing Arthit sideways for confirmation. Arthit chews at his lip.
Are they friends? Whenever Arthit refers to their general circle of friends, sure, he supposes that includes Kongpob, but friends don’t rile each other up the way they do. Friends would not react so allergically to being handcuffed together. Friends certainly don’t…well.
If he’s being honest, it doesn’t really matter what he tells her; she’s a stranger after all, and a child at that. But she’s not the primary audience to his response, and so whatever he says next could dramatically change the course of their journey.
Fourteen hours. And then he could forget everything and start over. What harm could fourteen hours of friendship possibly do? And even so, at least it would all be over soon.
Right. It would all be over soon.
“Yes, he’s my friend,” he replies gently, to which she nods once, satisfied with the results of her investigation.
He can feel Kongpob’s eyes on the side of his head, stunned by the response and with his mouth falling open slightly, before curving up into a smile.
“Oh, yeesh, sorry about her,” the guy in front of them finally turns around, pulling the little girl down into her seat, then bows his head in apology.
“Aw, P’Rain, I was just talking to them!”
“Yes, I know. Less of that, please.”
“It’s fine,” Kongpob says. “She’s cute.”
“He said I’m cute!” she grins proudly.
“Yeah, I guess, when you’re not running off somewhere or spilling all my secrets!” he huffs, pushing his glasses up his nose. Then, he eyes the phone in Kongpob’s hand. “Do you want me to help you guys take a photo?”
“Oh. Uh, that’s o—”
“Yes, please,” Kongpob cuts Arthit off, handing the phone — his phone! — to the younger guy, who happily holds it up sideways to point it at them.
In any other circumstance, Arthit would snatch his phone back, but in the presence of polite company, a smile and a few pictures aren’t out of his realm of capability. At the end of the day, he tells himself, he could always just delete them if they turn out horrible.
And then Kongpob is shuffling closer, and Arthit’s entire right side is warm from the contact, and he can smell his skin, musky and familiar and perfect, the way he remembers. Arthit stills with sheer abandonment of all his other previously disgruntled senses for several seconds, before remembering where he is.
He does, but not before sneaking a quick glance at Kongpob, who’s looking right back at him, completely nonchalant.
The word leaves an arid taste in his mouth.
“The camera’s over there,” Kongpob says just loud enough for him to hear. Arthit sheepishly withdraws his gaze, pasting a tight-lipped smile on to mask his blush.
“Aaaand done.” Rain hands the phone back with a grin.
“Um. Thanks,” Arthit nods, hands still slightly numb.
“No problem. Sorry again about my sister.”
Kongpob leans closer yet, peering at the pictures. He’s taken about twenty-odd pictures in quick succession, including a few in which they’re still looking at each other. They’re good; there’s very little glare from the sun’s backlighting, and both their faces can be seen quite clearly. Arthit makes a mental note to transfer them to the hidden album later on.
“Send me those,” Kongpob says quietly, a mnemonic trace of intimacy sending goosebumps down Arthit’s neck…
Perhaps for just fourteen hours, he would allow himself to fall again.
After all, he has a lifetime ahead of him to heal.