There’s a unique feeling of catharsis that is reserved for the specific moment that you enter into a space that you once frequented each day, but after some time, has become foreign to the senses.
Anson can only compare it to the feeling he’d gotten from running into his favourite primary school teacher on the way to work one day. They’d both stood planted at a distance, in awe of how the years had matured and aged them to the emergence of a strong jaw and silvering hair. And yet, she’d recognised him in an instant, as though he were still only as tall as her waist, wearing the same carefully ironed grey shorts pulled up high on his waist and the plastic but practical Baby G watch hanging too loosely on his tiny wrist.
But unlike the warm, familiar smile his teacher had greeted him with, Edan’s stately shell of a home is still with a cold beyond the weather’s control. The man’s shoes—the same pair of faded sneakers he’d worn every day since the day they’d met—have been kicked to one side in the hallway, and what looks like the trails of a flu-ridden child scatter the living room sofa and coffee table with crumpled tissues and the baby-blue fleece blanket they would drape over their legs on nights in. The room is dimly lit by the television that still displays the spell-binding DVD logo bouncing ceaselessly from one edge of the screen to another; pink, yellow, blue, orange, white.
Only the kitchen appears completely untouched.
It remains so unmoved, in fact, that Anson can glimpse the coffee mug he’d used the morning they’d left together for work, still unwashed in its corner by the sink. His lip is almost chewed raw as he walks past, shivering at the sight of the two tall fridges filled with…well, come to think of it, he’d only ever found drinks and vegetables in there.
And the name tags.
How strange it would be if, in one’s lifetime, they penned in their will for their remains to be put in the hands—or stomach—of a cannibal. Anson himself had always imagined that when the time came, he would give himself over to scientific research; to the nurturing of future doctors’ minds. Not, certainly, to become the key ingredients to someone’s sinister smorgasbord.
You are the sweetest man I know, he hears his own naïve words echo from months before. Just how many of Edan’s supposed charms and wits had he so sorely misinterpreted? But, he supposes, he wouldn’t have stepped foot back within these walls if he didn’t still believe in his own claim.
He’d expected to hold more trepidation upon entering the bedroom, or at least to be holding his breath with caution. After all, with the knowledge that he has now, one would shudder to imagine the possibilities of what an anthropophagite being might do in the face of hunger. And yet, Anson had conjured up no wild, savage visions of his boyfriend whipping out an axe or ripping out chunks of his flesh with his bare teeth. Not only does the entire matter seem far too cinematic to be within the realm of reality, but more importantly, Anson has trouble associating Edan with any form of violence, especially when the man cowers behind a cushion even at scenes that are coloured a cooler hue or where the music thrums a touch too suspenseful.
Sure enough, as he stands in the open doorway of the bedroom, he feels only pity. The bedside lamp remains lit on his side of the bed, as though he’d merely gone to the bathroom in the wee hours of the night, yet to return. His faded black jeans are still draped over the back of the chair by the dressing table.
I’ll do a load this evening. Do you have any other darks to wash?
He’d not, of course, done any laundry. But what strikes his attention more than this particular fact, is that when he finally brings himself to look back at the bed, is that his pillow is gone from its usual spot. Instead, it’s tightly clutched within the grasp of longing arms.
Anson sucks in a breath.
The man looks near skeletal, the bones of his elbows and wrists practically jutting out of his paler skin. Once a shining knight in the eyes of all who looked upon him, the admirable doctor lies weak, curled up in a fetal position and tangled into a pile of blankets that bury his frail body under their weight. No, Anson thinks as a sharp pang emerges in his chest. This is not at all a man who could ever deliberately hurt anyone.
He shucks off his white coat, laying it carefully beside him as he slowly sinks his weight into the side of the mattress. There’s something child-like in Edan’s expression, his brows creased with tension and his breaths short with disquiet, as though dreaming vividly of a wild chase. Above his nose forms a line that Anson is tempted to gently smooth out with his thumb.
He doesn’t get the chance, though, as Edan shifts in his sleep with a quiet groan, slowly rolling over onto back and bumping gently against Anson’s hip. The soft collision startles him, though, and with a sharp inhale, his eyes, puffy and swollen, blink rapidly as he takes in his surroundings.
It takes a few moments, but when he finally realises that he’s not, in fact, hallucinating Anson’s presence, Edan sits up quickly, then scrambles to pull the covers up to his chin. If possible, he appears even smaller, eyes wide and trembling slightly in the dim glow of the bedside lamp. He averts Anson’s gaze, as though afraid that he might crumble into mush under it in the agonisingly long seconds that pass between them.
It’s Anson who finally breaks the silence, chewing at his own lip with apprehension.
There must be a joke in there somewhere.
A doctor and a cannibal walk into a bar. They fall in love and one day the bartender says—
No, that’s not it.
For a man who usually always knows the right things to say or the best joke to melt away the atmospheric tension, Edan now struggles to form any unique, coherent words that could possibly begin to convey his mind’s unrest.
“How…how are you?”
Anson says after another stretched-out silence, fingers toying with the quilt beneath him as though with a mind of their own. Indeed, he’d made the bold decision to even enter the house upon Denis’s persuasion, and yet now that he’s here, he has no agenda to serve as his lifebuoy.
“I… I’m fine.”
“You haven’t been at work all week,” Anson says, more as a matter of fact than as a counterpoint to Edan’s superficial claim. “Um…J-Jer said he misses you.”
He can feel the man’s gaze on him now, searching, searching. Then, he nods.
“And…I miss you, too.”
For the first time in almost ten days, they look at each other. Properly, because there is undoubtedly far more to Anson’s uncharacteristic confession than simply the words themselves. But the moment washes over when Anson’s own vision blurs with tears welling up in his eyes, one of them spilling hotly down his cheek. As though by reflex, a cold hand reaches up to wipe it away, and Anson shrinks away slightly in surprise at the sudden touch.
“Sorry,” Edan mumbles as he pulls his hand back. He gulps, then tucks his bony arm back under the blanket like a snake recoiling into its charmer’s basket. “I… didn’t know how to face you. Or even explain. After…what happened, I mean.”
Right. Most people ultimately discover somewhere along the line that their partner has a secret Keung To shrine in their closet with a statue moulded of candy wrappers, or god forbid, that they pour the milk before the cereal. And Anson, as luck would have it… he’s not certain he would get the same sort of sympathetic reaction from Joyce upon sharing his boyfriend’s particular quirk.
“I…well, Denis kind of gave me the gist of it.”
“Are you…you must think I’m completely barbaric.”
Edan meekly pulls the covers back up to his shoulders, lowering his head, but still watching for every minuscule change in Anson’s expression. A confirmation, an elaboration, an explanation…? Yet, he simply shakes his head.
“No,” Anson finally says after a pause. “But there’s a lot I don’t understand, you know? It’s not exactly something I ever imagined in my entire life that I would encounter. I at least know how to feel if you’re like, cheating, or ignoring me, or whatever. This is… I’m still…even now, I don’t even know if being here is a good idea.”
“I didn’t want to scare you. But I…I can’t control it. I’ve tried, but—”
“Is that why you’ve been starving yourself?”
Edan tenses under the blanket, suddenly hyperaware of his gaunt frame, now worryingly like the stark images of malnourished patients that one could find among the pages of his med school textbooks. The last time he’d grown this thin was at twelve years old, deliberately eating around the slivers of meat in his lunch box and dumping them in the bathroom trash can until his mother had cried at his bedside, begging him to make peace with his fate.
He can’t bear it, having the first person he’s loved in so many years see him in this state. But he doesn’t get much chance to hide, as Anson tugs the covers away from his body. Edan suddenly feels naked, and certainly not in the way he wants to be when it comes to being in Anson’s presence.
It’s about all that Anson manages to sputter out before any remaining words he might have had are muffled by a deep sniffle and a choked sob.
“No, no! Don’t cry, I’m fine—”
Edan’s concerned hand is promptly pushed away, and one muted, mostly painless smack after the other lands on his thigh in quick succession, which has him blinking rapidly and dodging the half-hearted attacks with confusion and alarm.
“You!” Smack. “Look like!” Smack. “A broomstick!” Smack. “You call this fine?! You’re not eating!”
Anson concludes his frankly adorable exertion of discontent with another few loud, exasperated sobs as if relieving himself of an emotional fever he’d been fostering for some time and filling his lungs with much-needed air.
“I’m sorry,” Edan says slowly, hesitantly. He can only watch, for what good would it do for him to try and offer comfort when he’s the very source of agony in the first place? “I’m so sorry,” he says again, because there’s nothing else that makes sense. Feeling helpless, he shifts forward in his seat, reaching to his right for a tissue before slowly, carefully wiping Anson’s wet cheeks, then holds the crumpled paper under his nose for him to blow into.
“Thanks,” Anson mumbles, gradually regaining his composure and steady breathing. He sniffs as Edan discards of the used tissue, his own nose red with both his crying and with mild embarrassment. He’d never broken down this way in front of anyone other than his own mother.
Edan sighs, then rubs his own eyes of any built-up crust from tears that had never quite made it out of the corners of his eyes, simply welling and idling as some sort of cruel mockery of his loneliness with which he’d had no one to share.
“You…you must have a lot of questions.”
“I don’t know what to believe from you anymore.”
“Yeah, of course. I wouldn’t expect you to trust me anymore, either.”
Even so, he holds a bony hand out, a pleading invitation to listen, at least for the last time. Anson stares at it for several long moments. He’d come all this way, and surely, after all this time, there must still be something left to love of the man he’d looked upon with rose-tinted glasses, now barren and stripped to the bone.
Gingerly, he places his own comparatively warm hand in Edan’s. There it is, the mnemonic trace of fluttering in his stomach akin to once more holding his childhood pillow.
“You have no reason to trust me, I know,” Edan says gently, tangling their fingers together like they’d done hundreds of times. “But if you’ll let me, I’d like to tell you everything. And if you still can’t stomach the thought, then…then you can report me. I won’t resist. What do you say?”
Frankly, the thought of reporting him had never even crossed Anson’s disturbed mind, despite the obviously illegal nature of Edan’s actions. Could there possibly be any justification for them? Could he still bring himself put aside all sensibilities to love a…cannibal?
His answer almost escapes the tip of his tongue when their watery exchange of glances is abruptly disturbed by the sudden ringing of the doorbell.
Twice in succession, followed by a brief pause before the third.
Denis balks at the sight of his malnourished friend when the door pulls all the way open.
Edan gives a short laugh and steps to one side to let the tall, gangly man in. Despite their long history, he’d admittedly not met with Denis in some months, his macabre need for the man’s unique connections diminishing with his restricted dietary consumption.
“When was the last time you ate?” Denis looks him up and down, then nods to Anson, who waves briefly from the living room. He leans forward a little, then sniffs. “Or showered?”
“I, uh…what can I do for you, man?” Edan calls out, voice still hoarse from sleep, as Denis pokes his head into the fridge, helping himself to a can of something fizzy, as well as picking out an onion from the back of the crisper and tossing it in his hand several times.
“Just wanted to check in on you,” he emerges from behind the fridge door, pushing it shut with his foot. “But you weren’t answering the door or your phone, so I figured your boyfriend had keys on him. Y’all good now?”
He slurps loudly from his can as he glances back and forth between Anson, whose nose is still pink from crying, and Edan, who tucks his hands under an old sweatshirt he’d thrown on top of his T-shirt, though he’s still in his grey sleep shorts, his thin legs forming goosebumps with the gust of cold that had washed in the front door. When neither of them responds, Denis sucks at his teeth and nods.
“How about you kids go talk it out, and I’ll make us lunch?” he vaguely nods towards the living room, then raises an eyebrow at Edan. “The usual?”
He doesn’t respond right away, instead glancing over to Anson as if to seek consent to the tune of Please, sir, may I have some more? only to be met with a questioning expression.
“Well…you should eat, right?” Anson says after a moment, smiling weakly. “You need to.”
Edan had long surpassed the point of being just hungry, his insides queasy and weak enough that he mostly feels both delirious and on the verge of unconsciousness in equal parts. He’d been rationing his consumption into smaller and smaller portions, eating only just enough to sustain his life by a thread and with little regard for his vitality. It had drawn in a number of curious stares from his co-workers, asking if he would consider undergoing a series of tests, if only to rule out any major, possibly terminal illnesses. One would think that as a doctor, his dietary health would be high among his priorities, even if a regular sleep cycle were beyond his control. Still, Edan had long known that his affliction was not a physical one, but rather one in which his mind and heart were at war.
Not waiting for further affirmation, Denis makes his familiar way around the kitchen, pulling out various pots and pans off their hooks and a number of aromatic vegetables from the fridge. Then, twirling a key ring with a single key around his finger, he whistles his way to the garage, returning with a freezer bag of—
Anson looks away sharply, suddenly making the palpable connection with the eerie set of garage freezers by which he’d been intrigued enough in the early days to ask about.
They’re picky eaters and would stock up on the stuff they actually ate because it wasn’t really easy to find.
Indeed, he supposes, it would not be terribly easy to find this particular ingredient in most supermarkets.
“Aren’t you going to sit?”
Edan’s voice trails closer now, and it takes Anson a moment to snap out of his daze, nodding quickly as he perches himself carefully on the sofa, as though it were the first time in a stranger’s home. In an attempt to ease his restless state, he busies his mind with scanning his eyes over the coffee table…then squints.
13 Beloved, his personal Blu-Ray copy that he’d brought over some weeks ago in an attempt to get his squeamish boyfriend to watch one of his favourite horror films with him. Naturally, the fretful mess of a man had outright refused, claiming that Thai horror films were infamously among the most terrifying of the entire genre. It would seem darkly comical now, that Anson, who loves watching some bloody gore, would have any repulsion towards an actual man-eating…man…in the flesh. Then again, he’d always revelled in the fact that such occurrences were purely fictional, and he would never have to encounter those gruesome and terrifying events outside of a screen.
Until he had, of course.
“You watched this?”
He picks up the plastic DVD case, flipping it over to read the description and credits as though he’d not seen the film at least once every year since he’d first stumbled upon it; as though he might discover something new about what he thought he’d known like the back of his hand.
“I did…kind of.” Edan scratches his ear, leaning over the gap between the sofa and the coffee table to grab the remote controller, putting an end to the colourful, never-ending screensaver. “I got about half an hour in, and then got too scared…so I just read the entire synopsis online. I even found a research paper on it by some film student in Australia.”
This gets him a short chuckle from Anson, who finally seems to relax into the sofa just a little, pulling his socked feet up onto the seat.
“What…did you think of it?”
Edan hums in contemplation, then pulls the fleece blanket tighter around his freezing legs.
“I think…it really highlighted the fact that…people do stupid, crazy, shit not because they’re bad or greedy. But sometimes, when life deals you a set of cards that you can’t do anything to change, taking shortcuts or cheating your way out of that state seems like your only hope. That’s not true, of course, because all it ends up in is hurting others…like I’ve hurt you.”
Perhaps Anson had mostly been anticipating some variation of I’m never watching another horror film ever again that he’d heard dozens of times before. Then again, the last week and a half had shown him that expectations are, by nature, designed to be missed. He returns Edan’s sincere gaze with a watery stare, unsure of how to respond.
“My offer still stands,” Edan continues, wringing the soft material of the blanket in his bony hands in anticipation. Several moments pass before Anson sighs noisily and places the DVD case back on the coffee table.
“Okay,” he says, nodding mostly to himself. “I’m ready.”
I was eleven years old when I first found out what my parents had been feeding me. They were young and career-driven and hadn’t the foggiest clue about childcare beyond the medical stuff. I was kind of an accident that they’d decided to run with. Growing up, they never let me share my lunch with anyone, claiming that it was extremely unhygienic and that I should be grateful for the food that I was given.
They never let me into the kitchen unless they were there with me, and they bred it into me that I was a very smart boy, and so I would one day become a doctor, just like them. I was put into all sorts of after-school academic classes and was so busy learning things beyond my age group that I knew more numbers of pi than the names of people at school. They would warn me to be cautious of making friends with anyone, because you never know who might try to harm you. I kept my head down and maintained the shallowest of acquaintances with my peers, always nodding politely and engaging in conversation without ever sharing anything about myself. I never questioned any of my parents’ quips because the way they explained everything to me made complete sense to me as a child.
It didn’t occur to me just how lonely I was until in Primary 5. This girl in my class expressed an unusual interest in me, mostly because she’d somehow caught wind of how my parents were somewhat well-off and wanted to know if I would bring an extravagant gift to her birthday party. I knew of this because she wasn’t particularly quiet about her gossiping habits, and so I could hear her high-pitched cackle in the corridor outside the boys’ bathroom, where she eventually cornered me with her equally obnoxious friends. She offered me a piece of her snack, which I politely refused, and in turn, she asked to have some of mine. Again, I declined, citing that it wouldn’t be hygienic because…well, that’s what my parents had taught me.
“Why, did you not wash your hands just now?”
I don’t think she really intended to ridicule me, but that was what came out of her mouth, and that’s what her friends latched onto as part of some sick joke about me being a dirty kid that they would then continue all throughout the rest of our primary school days. Nobody wanted to sit with or talk to me after that. Except for Denis.
Everyone knew him as the weird tall kid, and I was his dirty puppy that trailed in his path for protection. He has the most absurd ways of going about things, and I sometimes wonder how he didn’t get into trouble more with our teachers back then. Anyway, we were in Form 1 and I was enrolled in just as many after-school activities as I had been before. Denis and I were on the way to the bus stop after basketball when I got a call from the tutorial centre I was headed to, saying that the teacher had taken sick leave and that class would be rescheduled for another day.
To me, it sounded like Christmas. It was rare for me to have any time to do anything fun, so even a few hours of nothing felt like it held endless possibilities. I immediately asked Denis if he wanted to come over and hang out, something that we’d never really done before. Any time he’d come over before was to study for tests and to do homework together.
It was weird, arriving home before the sun had gone down. I had assumed that my parents were working that afternoon, and that my sister was at my grandmother’s. But when I came home, I saw the garage door open, and our car parked inside it. The door of the trunk was lifted, and so were the freezer doors. Curiosity got the best of me, I guess.
When Denis and I looked into the open freezer, we saw…a hand. Like, just an entire human hand that had been cut off from the wrist down and stuffed into a freezer bag and the blood frozen into grains. Sorry, I don’t mean to gross you out—
It’s…we’re A&E doctors. I’ve heard and seen worse.
But I mean, as a kid, it wasn’t something I’d anticipated for. Just…a bunch of body parts lying jumbled together in a box, like in a mannequin warehouse or the remains of an angry child’s Barbie dolls. I didn’t know how to react. We kind of just stood there staring into the freezer until Mum came back through the garage door, saying, “Maybe we should make filet mignon? I feel like the lower back portions never freeze as well as the—”
She panicked. They must have thought that I wouldn’t be home for another few hours. I may have been just a kid, but I did manage to make the connection between everything, and when I did, I ran. I didn’t scream or say anything. I simply ran and ran and ran all the way down multiple streets with no real destination, until I was so tired that my legs just gave out beneath me. I’d ended up outside the mall near my grandmother’s place, where I just sat on the pavement and cried.
And then someone sat next to me, and I realised that Denis had run after me. He didn’t say anything or try much to comfort me. He just sat there with me until I was done crying and patted me on the back when I eventually threw up into a trash can. For me, it was enough. We sat there until it began to grow dark, and I went to go and pick up my sister. She slept in my arms the entire way, and I said nothing to my parents when I got home. I just carried her up to our room and hoped that she never had to find out what I had.
From that day on, I became hyper-aware of everything that I was given to eat. I would eat only the rice and vegetables in my lunchbox, and threw whatever meat there was away. I couldn’t bear the thought that I was eating another human being, nor the possibility that my parents might be murderers. For once, I was glad to be so busy that I was rarely home, because a part of me didn’t want to know. And Denis never said anything to anyone, either.
I wasn’t a chubby kid by any means, but after about a month or two, my parents had begun to notice that I had lost an extortionate amount of weight, and not simply because of puberty stretching me out with height. My class teacher called them because he was concerned about my depleting energy levels and mentioned that my basketball coach could see that I was getting worryingly thin. They realised then that I hadn’t been eating what I needed.
I locked my bedroom door that night, listening to my mother weeping and begging for me to eat before I withered away into nothing. It was past three in the morning when I finally opened the door to find her collapsed against the wall in the corridor outside my room. She just looked so…tired. For so long, she’d dreaded the day that I would inevitably find out this horrible secret, and I don’t think she was prepared for it to be an accident. When I shook her awake, she cried and held me until she’d run out of tears.
That night, my parents sat me down in the living room, right where you are now. They told me everything, or as much as an eleven-year-old could grasp anyhow. The long and short of it is that I come from a long line of people who have a genetic condition whereby they are unable to produce a certain protein, and so we need it from external sources through dietary consumption. In other words, drinking other people’s blood or eating their flesh. I have to eat at least one small portion every day, otherwise, my body can’t absorb calories from anything else.
As for where they were getting the bodies…from my grandparents’ generation onwards, they’d begun to reject the notion of digging up graves, like our ancestors had done for hundreds of years. Necro-cannibals, they’re called. They only eat those who are already dead. It’s why my parents became doctors, so they could…claim the unclaimed.
It took me some time, but I came to realise that none of us ever asked to be afflicted with this condition. All they wanted was to survive.
There were times when I wondered if I should’ve just let myself die off so as to cease the genetic chain of guilt that would inevitably plague any future generations. Not that anyone was begging to date, let alone make babies with, the kid who supposedly doesn’t wash his hands after using the bathroom.
No, it’s fine. Really. And I guess, fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it—I discovered that I’m not particularly interested in the baby-bearing sex. But that didn’t mean that I didn’t still have this whole other problem to worry about…the reason my parents were so against me dating or socialising too closely in general.
That wasn’t something I particularly worried about until I entered university. It was a fresh start, in some ways. Denis and I both miraculously made it into medical school. I don’t think he actually wanted a career in medicine, but he once told me that he doesn’t care what he does so long as he’s needed. And with his family already working as undertakers, he has connections with one of the local crematoriums. That’s usually what happens with the unclaimed after they’ve undergone all the inspection and paperwork.
So…someone else knows, too?
Just one, kind of. I don’t know his real name. Denis just calls him Fatboy. Whenever an unclaimed gets sent to him, he handles the, uh…disassembly of the various parts. Like a butcher, if you will. And then he sends them to me in air-tight freezer bags with labels disguised as cuts of beef on their way to a delicatessen.
Wait, I thought that they usually cremate the body as a whole rather than chop them into parts? Or at least that’s what I see in films—correct me if I’m wrong—when they push the entire body into the cremator? Or is it more space-efficient to cut the body up? Like, you can watch the the flesh burn first and then the bone kind of becomes ashy and—sorry…go on.
You seem…weirdly excited.
No, I’m just curious. What they show in films isn’t always accurate, I guess. Anyhow…continue.
Um…yeah. So that’s how I’ve been acquiring my…supply. It’s not easy, and sometimes it doesn’t work because ultimately, it’s…well, illegal. It means that I have to ration out what I have very slowly. I only eat one small portion a day unless I’m particularly tired.
Anyway…where was I going with this?
Denis and I got a fresh start in university. I even had a boyfriend for a month or so, but it was difficult trying to hide it from my parents, and he eventually got fed up with me, saying he didn’t want to date someone who wasn’t ready to come out to their family. That’s what I’d told him was the issue anyway.
It scared me for a long time, and I would become apprehensive of approaching anyone romantically, because I knew it would only end up in heartbreak or chaos, not just for me, but for my family as well. Then, after I graduated, my parents retired, and it was just my sister and me. They moved to Stockholm after reading several studies on how it would soon grow to be a city with one of the highest percentages of childless adults. Several years later, my sister got an offer at a university in London, where my aunt and her family live.
And then it was just me. I felt like I was in primary school again, left to my own devices and feeling out of place…but for the first time, I realised that without my parents around, I had the opportunity to reinvent myself in the ways I could control. I watched movies and listened to music, and on my days off, I would lay around at home doing absolutely nothing. It was great, but a part of me still hoped for something more.
Then I met you.
I’ve had many crushes in the past that I let slip by, but you…I was willing to risk everything just for a chance. And I’m sorry that I’ve dragged you into this mess, and you have every right to find me disgusting or barbarian, but I promise you that I tried to keep you out of it. I hate so much that I’m like this, you know? I thought I could try giving it all up once again, and try and find other ways to work around the problem, if it meant that I could keep you around.
“Well, you’re an idiot!” Denis emerges from the kitchen with a steaming bowl of what appears to be congee. “Food’s ready,” he says, placing the bowl carefully on the dining table then taking a seat at one of the chairs. “Extra ginger, as always.”
“Thanks, man,” Edan turns one corner of his mouth up slightly. “Really appreciate you doing this.”
“Fuck, don’t get all sappy on me now,” Denis mutters, pulling out his phone and scrolling mindlessly.
His throat parched now from talking, Edan coughs dryly into his sleeve, hanging on his arm like laundry on a wire. At some point, Anson had shifted closer to him, their knees and legs pressed up against each other so that Edan can feel the warmth against his skin through the blanket.
“So…yeah,” he finally manages, cold sweat forming on his palms both from relief and with hesitancy over what he knew would inevitably come next. “If you want to report me now, I understand. I’m fully prepared to face that, and I won’t judge you for it.”
Anson sighs deeply, sitting up straight as he wipes away any remaining wetness in his eyes. In his mind’s eye, he had made his decision long ago, even before entering the house, even if he hadn’t been aware of it. I must be insane, he thinks. But at least I have you to go round the bend with.
“I’m not going to report you, and I’m not going to tell anyone, either.”
There’s a flicker in Edan’s gaze as his mouth falls open slightly, processing his words for a few moments before he finds a moment of supposed clarity and nods.
“Thank you,” he whispers, a sincere smile reaching his tired eyes. “That’s really all I can ask from you.”
“Don’t you want to know why?”
He merely blinks in response, his smile fading into a faltering grimace. Pity? Self-protection? Several potential justifications spring to mind, none of them particularly comforting. Then, before he’s realised, there are warm, soft hands on his face, Anson’s thumb rubbing gently at his cheek.
“I love you,” he says, just loud enough so that the two of them can hear. “That’s what I meant to tell you before…well, you know. I once thought you were too good to be true, you know? I began to doubt because I figured there had to be something wrong that would send me packing, and yet… I’m here. It feels like everything I know about the world has changed because of you, and I’m sure there’s plenty that I’ve still yet to learn, but one thing I know for certain is that you would never willingly hurt anyone. Especially not me.”
For what feels like the thousandth time that week, Edan cries. This time, though, his tears spill hot and easy onto the blanket, blurring his vision and leaving droplets where his lashes brush against his glasses. He cries for a young Edan, a lost child who had lived in fear under the unremarkable care of equally lost parents, running from his own happiness and stumbling along an increasingly narrow path he’d paved for himself…to finally arrive home. Home, where Anson is, not the skeleton of a mansion that he’d penned as his address for almost thirty years.
Their noses bump together clumsily, reaching for…
The two startle from their mutual enchantment, ears reddening and clearing their throats from the interruption. Denis scowls as he looks up from his phone, then, realising what he’d done, bows slightly in apology.
A special chapter that peers into the early days before Kongpob met Arthit.
December 12th, 2011
Arthit has a favourite cubicle in the third floor bathroom.
Granted, every cubicle in that particular bathroom is an apt choice, but in his opinion, the one at the far end with the frosted window is the best, being slightly roomier and with ample lighting to read his newest Snoopy comic. Not exactly a bench at the park, but still a far cry from the hazardous school cafeteria nonetheless.
According to some silly myth that had been borne of theories following the release of some popular wizard movie Arthit had never seen, school bathrooms are prime real estate for crying ghosts.
It’s funny, because the only one who regularly occupies the stale, cold space at the end of the corridor is none other than Arthit himself, and he’s certainly alive and breathing.
It’s also not funny at all, because as far as his classmates are concerned, he may as well not be.
He’d taken to bringing his packed lunch in here each day ever since one of the ninth graders had unceremoniously flipped his lunch tray with a loud smack and a delighted cackle, decorating the front of Arthit’s shirt with watery brown stains.
Look, Porky shat himself!
In front of his sceptical mother and to the apathetic teacher on duty, he’d claimed it was a mere accident, that he’d been walking from the lunch line to his table and tripped on his shoelace. She’d pursed her lips in suspicion when he’d asked to pack his lunch instead, but reluctantly agreed on the basis that it was more cost efficient for them.
When Prae had wrangled the truth out of him, however, he’d insisted he was fine, begging her to not to tell Por, lest he cause a scene at the school, or worse, take it out on Mae again. The last thing he needs is to draw any more attention to himself, as if the tightness of his shorts around his thighs and the hole in the toe of his shoe isn’t enough to set off a wave of snickers across his entire class.
Well, except for him.
The boy stumbles into Arthit’s peripheral attention one day when a spontaneous racket rumbles from outside the frosted window of his lunchtime dwelling. While it’s not at all out of the ordinary for him to hear the odd peal of laughter or smack of a ball against the backboard of a hoop, the desolate bathroom overlooks only the school pond, hardly a spot for anyone to loiter unless they have a particular affinity with turtles and lily pads.
“W-what are you doing?”
“A little bird tells me that you’ve done some…growing over the school break.”
It’s a sinister, unchaste voice Arthit knows and fears well, the same one that mocks his mere existence as soon as he enters the school grounds, and peering over the ledge of the windowsill, the sight of the burly ninth-grader confirms his suspicions.
The tyrannical, skin-headed bully is surrounded by a posse of decidedly smaller boys, a vicious hyena leading its pathetic pack. They crowd around the pond — or rather, a girl who Arthit recognises to be from his own class. Fang (he thinks her name is) has her arms clutched around the front of her shirt, gripping her shoulders and arching further and further back in a fearful tremble as the domineering cluster of boys surround her, cornering her until she’s just a sudden yelp away from falling into the mossy water.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Excuse m—”
“What are you so shy for? You were so eager to show your friends earlier,” one of them sneers at the trembling girl. “Surely, you don’t mind showing us, too.”
Arthit gulps hard, not wanting to assume, but dreading their intentions. From his own run-ins with liquids and white shirts, he can’t foresee poor Fang being backed towards the tiny pond turning out any way other than — well, Arthit would rather not think about what that would mean for his classmate.
“I-I don’t—please, I need to go now,” Fang’s meek reply has Arthit’s own heart thudding in his ears from the sheer stress of witnessing the scene.
He momentarily contemplates fetching one of the teachers, but if his own fruitless attempts at seeking assistance from the school had been any indication, little is likely to come of it.
If I could find a way to distract them, then she could get away.
The pond is about a twenty-foot drop from the window, and Fang’s foot had been treading the pebbled edge, threatening at any moment to slip from beneath her.
Arthit backs away from the window, clambering down as quietly as possible from the toilet lid. Being in a toilet, there’s not a whole lot at his disposal for him to conveniently plonk down into the water. A roll of toilet paper? A bar of soap?
No, it would be a blatant giveaway as to where the disruption had come from, not to mention that he doesn’t want to accidentally kill the turtles in the unfortunate case that they swallow either of those things.
It’s a scramble of a scavenge as his eyes rummage the entirety of his immediate surroundings in pursuit of anything he can sacrifice, before they land on his lunch box, perched open on top of the water closet.
He grimaces. If his father were here, he’d get an earful about how wasteful it is to play with food. But there isn’t much other choice. Carefully, he plucks a warm piece of look chin moo out the container between two chubby fingers, and to nobody but himself, Arthit decides that the circumstances justify themselves enough to be exempt from horseplay.
The narrow gap of the open window that he’d been peering through is just wide enough for him to stick his fingers out. And then he waits, for the perfect moment.
“No! Please, just leave me alone!”
Fang is in tears now, and Arthit can make out her desperate whimper for help just loud enough that he almost lets go of the meatball right then and there.
“Oh, I’ll let you go, as soon as you show us what you’re hiding,” Tum edges nearer, pulling at Fang’s wrists to remove them from her chest as she struggles in his grasp. “I’ll show you mine if you show me—”
The spherical pork lands in the water with a quiet splash. So quiet, in fact, that the boys below don’t even notice that it’s happened. The interruption to Tum’s taunting instead comes from one of his minions, who taps him on the shoulder with panicked urgency.
“What’s going on here?”
Arthit, who’d ducked down as soon as he’d dropped the meatball, as though bracing for an explosion, clamours back to the windowsill at the sound of the familiar voice.
Fang immediately slips away in the other boys’ distraction, scrambling behind this other boy for protection. The boy — Kongpob — furrows his brow at the gaggle of gobsmacked boys, who, if previously contemptuous in their stance, are now tucking their proverbial tails between their legs.
“Fang, Kru Pat is looking for you,” he turns calmly to the girl, who is all but grateful to slip away.
“Yes, I’ll get going!”
And then she’s scurrying back towards the main courtyard, her short bob flapping with necessity from the sheer speed at which she’s moving.
“Everything okay here?”
Arthit knows where he’s heard that voice before. From his seat in the corner of the school auditorium, every third Monday, the soothing timbre of Kongpob’s voice lulls him into a soothed slumber, no less because English is not exactly Arthit’s forte.
Kongpob, Arthit decides, sounds cosmically more captivating when speaking Thai. He’d never seen anyone carry themselves with such quiet command, especially in the face of the likes of Tum and his pack of violently insecure bootlickers, and especially for an eight-grader.
The boy even has politely drawn features and broad shoulders to match his impressive demeanour, and Kongpob now pulls a tight smile.
“In that case, there’s no reason to be hanging around the girls’ bathroom then, is there?”
There passes a few seconds during which a flurry of exchanged glances wash over Tum and his squires, and then, without a word, they dodge past Kongpob, leaving with a hurriedness to match a house gecko across the ceiling.
And then there remains only Kongpob, who watches the boys leaving for a few moments before surveying the area one last time, and, when Arthit least expects it, looking straight up at the window.
He gasps, then scrambles back to the floor again, the tiles on the wall cool against the prickling moisture down his neck and back. His heart hasn’t raced this much since he was small enough to fit under the dining chair as a hiding spot, and the nervous sweat accumulating in his pits only exacerbates the rush.
Ten achingly long seconds, until he can no longer hear the echoes of his own hyperventilating in the empty bathroom.
When he finally dares peer his large, wary eyes back over the tiled windowsill, the coast is clear leaving only the inhabitants of the pond to feast on the only evidence of his presence. Kongpob has left.
And so, too, has Arthit’s breath been taken.
“You don’t understand, Prae, he was like a superhero!”
Prae snorts, tucking her pencil behind her ear, huffing as she loosens the bow around her collar. “How are any of the boys in at your school superheroes? I thought they were all horrible to you.”
“They are, but Kongpob is just…he’s different.”
Arthit bites into a stick of moo ping, eagerly recounting that day’s events to his best and only friend as they lay out their homework on the wooden dining table. He starts with Maths, working through the problems with swift ease as he rambles about his particularly eventful day to his best and only friend.
“And he’s in your class?”
“I’ve never heard you mention him before.”
“There are like, fifty other kids in my class. I don’t mention them. What’s your point?”
Prae watches the boy chew on his afternoon snack, his plump, rosy cheeks holding the food inside them for longer than seems absolutely necessary. True enough, he’s never brought up any of his schoolmates, other than the ones who give him a hard time, but Arthit isn’t the type to speak excitedly of anyone, either. She frowns at him in thought, observing his atypical chirpiness.
“Nothing, I guess,” she shrugs after a while. “Just be careful.”
“He was so cool,” Arthit continues, brushing off her warning. “He was all like, There’s no reason to be hanging around the girls’ bathroom then, is there?” He exaggerates a hair flip, tilting his chin up in mock confidence to mimic Kongpob’s supposed machismo. Prae chuckles, entertained by the theatrical imitation. “And then Tum and those other boys just scuttled away like cockroaches! I would never want to be on Kongpob’s bad side.”
“Have you ever even spoken to him?”
Arthit scratches the side of his face, pausing in the middle of a problem, suddenly stuck.
And truthfully, he doesn’t know if he ever wants to. You should never meet your heroes, Por always tells him. What if, in the moment’s bravery, Arthit decides to actually talk to Kongpob, and it turns out that he is, in fact, just like all the others? What if he’d merely witnessed a single act of kindness?
“It’s better that way anyhow,” he tells Prae. “He would never notice me in a million years.”
But even superheroes need guardians, Arthit decides, and if he can’t fight alongside him, then he’ll happily cheer form him on the sidelines.
Of course, Arthit very soon comes to learn that his newfound hero is somewhat the object of affection in the eyes of a signifiant portion of the student body.
As with many other things, he seems to always be the last one to be in the loop on all things that his peers have been buzzing about for some weeks, or even months. Sometimes, it’s a video game for a console that Arthit doesn’t own, or a TV series that can only be streamed illegally on some website that 100Mbps just can’t handle (and in any case, he doesn’t have time to watch).
Other times, it’s gossip about their teachers, like how their art teacher had divorced her husband and started a relationship with their maths teacher, only to abruptly leave the school two months before the summer break. Or when one of the seventh graders had dared open their homeroom teacher’s desk drawer in search of a pack of chalk, only to find dozens of pair of white plimsoll shoes (all worn and of different sizes) stuffed to the brim.
The former, he’d overhead by mere chance when he’d been in the toilet of the boys’ changing room, where he’d planned to stay throughout the entire P.E. Lesson. The latter had been announced in assembly, their principal warning students of the consequences of such pranks (although nobody owned up to it, only stirring up further curiosity).
But when it comes to his classmates, Arthit admits that he mostly returns their lack of heed towards him, content to fade into the background. Despite his conspicuously round frame, he manages to remain relatively unspectacular, escaping comments about himself as he waits to be the last to leave the classroom at lunch, and rushes to be the first to return.
He knows they still talk. But that doesn’t mean he has to subject himself to hearing of it.
Nevertheless, his newfound favourite pastime has brought him to the conclusion that he isn’t the sole constituent of Kongpob’s support network.
From the other side of the classroom, Arthit watches as he chats calmly with another boy in their class, another person that whose name he doesn’t particularly recall, if only for the fact that he’s never stuck his fist or insult in Arthit’s face before.
Arthit only has one real friend, but as far as he can tell, Kongpob is far more relaxed around this boy than most others, otherwise pasting on bewilderment when someone (usually a girl) stops by his desk, interjecting themselves into the conversation to ask him something or to hand him a well-meaning gift.
Most times, it’s sleek, brand-name stationery, all of which Kongpob accepts with a polite smile and a bow of his head. Other times, his desk is piled with barbecue-flavoured corn puffs from the convenience store down the road (Arthit knows exactly which one; it’s the only one along Yaowarat Road that sells the specific flavour). The word that it was Kongpob’s favourite had somehow gotten around when he was seen nicking a few kernels from a classmate’s portion during recess one day. Kongpob doesn’t eat any of the gifted snacks, though, Arthit observes, instead pushing them over to his friend when he thinks nobody is looking anymore.
Arthit frowns as he turns away, staring out of the window again. He has nothing to offer the boy, what with how he doesn’t receive any allowance, and he’s afraid to ask, lest he see the anguished crease between his mother’s brows again.
Besides, what would even be the point? What would someone like Kongpob ever want anything to do with the likes of him? Forget being friends, Arthit doesn’t think that the boy would even be able to recognise him outside of the school grounds.
Nobody does. After all, he’s just the ghost in the third floor bathroom.
Kongpob is rich, Arthit learns several weeks later. Or, well, his family is wealthy.
For once, he pays full attention at the monthly assembly, nodding in agreement with Kongpob’s scripted speech, which he delivers with sheer sincerity and gusto that Arthit believes and concurs with every word, even if he only understands a handful of them.
If only he could possess such an air of confidence and poise.
Of course, though, one quick glance down at his waistline and a gravy stain from months ago that hasn’t quite faded suggests to Arthit that, as his classmates frequently remind him, he isn’t built for that sort of presentation. Despite having skipped lunch, accidentally on purpose leaving his lunch in the fridge before leaving for school, he’s still full from yesterday’s street binge.
Por had been in a mood again, and drawn the eyes of the entire student body as he’d boomed out My son! at the front gates as he’d been leaving school. Today, we feast like kings! Arthit had groaned, but forced a tight smile as his father pushed him along by the shoulder blades, practically skimming bowls of soup out of stirring pots and snatching skewered meats off of grills as they zoomed past the regular stalls.
As far as parents go, Arthit hates to admit that he feels a little safer around his mother, although he’d witnessed her fair share of wrath when Por had left a scatter of Chang bottles under the bed. He doesn’t talk about their fights even to Prae, although he’s certain that she can hear (and feel) every word from across the hallway. In fact, it’s almost inevitable that the entire building can hear his father’s thunderous voice, even when he’s not shouting.
Arthit isn’t embarrassed, no. More like apologetic.
Kongpob’s mother, on the other hand, is far from anything that anyone would have to apologise for. It’s clear from whom the boy inherits his grace. Arthit watches with wonder as the pretty, blue-blazered woman is introduced onto the stage as the chairperson of the PTA.
Khun Malee Sutthiluckwill now present the awards to the students with the highest-earning stalls from our Spring Fair.
Large, embroidered ribbons alternating in navy and amber to match the school’s colours passed over with a gentle handshake and a warm smile for the student photographer, the next image to surely make the latest feature on the homepage of the school website. Her kind eyes crinkle at the edges the way Kongpob’s do, each with their own matching dimple at the point of their chin.
Only those with money and power become board members, Arthit knows. Por had told him such plenty of times whenever he would come home with the latest edition of the school newsletter, tutting something rich, bored housewives and property hoarders.
“Kongpob is different,” he blurts in spontaneous defense what he’d told Prae to his own mother when she recounts stories of PTA members at other school using their positions to their children’s advantage. She pauses, putting down the skewer in her hand.
Arthit’s ears tinge red at the shells, and he looks away and straight down at his homework, the tip of the pencil snapping in surprise. He’d never intended for her to find out about his newfound admiration. What if Por found out?
“Um…just someone at school.”
“Oh? Did you make a friend?”
He shakes his head.
“He doesn’t know me,” he says, twisting the pencil into his Snoopy sharpener, determined to drill a hole through the back of the dog’s head. “But he’s nice.”
“You haven’t talked to him?”
“No. He’s very popular.”
His mother smiles gently, wiping her hands and placing one on top of his to put an end to his aggressive skull puncturing.
“Do you want to be this boy’s friend?”
Arthit fidgets with the eraser on the end of his pencil, turning it over to draw a small circle of pink dust on the page and pondering the possibilities. How nice it would be, to laugh with him at recess, to share a bag of corn puffs in the courtyard, to learn about his secrets and tell some of his own. How nice it would be to be a loyal confidante to the respectable SuperKong, to be the hero’s trusty sidekick, to never have another hot lunch tray flipped down the front of his shirt again.
How nice it would be, if he turned out to be right.
He nods in response to his mother’s question.
“Then you should let him know.”
Contrary to his mother and Prae’s advice, Arthit makes no move to progress the state of his hypothetical, purely one-sided friendship. He’s pretty sure that Kongpob doesn’t even know of his existence within the class, let alone his name. And if he did, it would more than likely be some vulgar iteration of Porky, or the fat kid with the fat dad.
Make no mistake; he mentally rehearses hypothetical dialogue between the two of them every spare moment he gets, almost so he can hear Kongpob’s voice and see his friendly face standing before him in his own room. Kongpob is the imaginary friend he never made up in his early childhood, and the closest thing he has to social acceptance at school.
And yet the mere sight of the person he bases his illusions on fastens the chain on any pseudo-confidence he exhibits when whispering his secrets to his bedroom wall and reading his comics aloud in hushed tones to the jacket draped on the back of his chair.
Because there’s security in isolation and imagination, isn’t there?
When one has nobody to celebrate with, holidays pass with an uneventful blur, and Arthit finds himself scraping red-stained rice paper off the door that blesses the home with peaceful entrance and harmonious exits a few weeks after the Lunar New Year celebrations have desaturated Yaowarat Road of the sweeping washes of red lanterns and golden dragon costumes.
He’d peeked into the little crimson envelope that Mae had given him the morning of the first day, then hurriedly stuffed it into the shoebox at the back of his wardrobe. There’s nothing he’s really saving the money for, but…just in case. In case things happen, or he has something he needs to buy.
But the folded banknote is forgotten as quickly as it’s hidden, only to resurface in Arthit’s consciousness when he looks up from his desk one morning to find a small crowd clustered around a desk near the middle of the classroom — namely, Kongpob’s desk.
It piques his curiosity, but any attempt to peer at what’s happening would just draw unwanted attention to himself, and so he waits for the group to disperse, watching out the row of windows in the corridor for their teacher. When the astute woman does eventually arrive, dozens of pairs of shoes shuffle with urgency back to their respective desks, some darting apologetically out of the classroom to return to their own.
Good morning, Kru Paga.
Pretty paper, boxes of expensive, assorted candy, and chocolate roses form a small hill on top of Kongpob’s desk, and a few scatter the tabletops of some others in the class. It resembles what Arthit imagines to be Cupid’s crimson-and-fuscia upchuck, and certainly brings an uncomfortable grimace to Kongpob’s face. He flashes Kru Paga a wry smile before opening his briefcase to quietly tractor the gifts into its open mouth.
Arthit suppresses a grin when one of the foil-wrapped chocolates clatters to the ground, leaving Kongpob with an slightly embarrassed grin that reaches his eyes as he crouches to pick it up.
As expected, Kongpob eats none of the treats, choosing a quiet corner of the playground to sit with his best friend, who scarfs down sweet after sweet, laughing about something Arthit can’t hear clearly from the third floor corridor.
And after lunch, as Arthit has just settled back into his seat, being the first to return, he hears their voices wafting from outside the window.
“Any plans for next week?”
“Probably the same as every year. Dinner with my grandparents, P’Gift will come over for cake, and then I will go to bed just like any other day. You’re welcome to come over the day after, though. Mae will definitely cook enough to feed an orchestra, so—”
Kongpob’s gentle laughter strikes up a warmth in Arthit’s chest, and he wishes he were the one making him smile. How nice it must be, he thinks, to have birthday rituals.
Birthdays had always been much of quiet observation for him, too, the only gifts he receives being another Peanuts edition from Prae’s parents. Por had fired up the home grill on year and made an extortionate assortment of honeyed meats and spiced seafood, which had then made a daily appearance in both his and Prae’s lunchboxes over the course of the following week or so. Never again, though. The man had never been much for words, emitting a simple You’ve grown, son with a single nod, before proceeding to fill his mouth with rice so he doesn’t have to elaborate.
Of the rituals he does partake in, though, he only looks forward to one.
Not that anyone at school knows, but his own birthday precedes Kongpob’s by a mere four days. He likes the thought, wondering what it would be like to hear Kongpob call him P’Arthit. It’s silly, given that it’s barely even a week apart, and so he dismisses the brief musing.
At home, as the clock strikes midnight, there’s a quiet knock on his bedroom door, followed by a familiar shuffle of his mother’s slippers and a slow dip in the side of his mattress.
“Hi, Mae.” He shifts himself to sit up and then makes space for her to sit beside him. She cosies up against his pillow and brings his head to rest on her shoulder, playing with his hair.
“How are you?” she says, because it doesn’t get asked often enough.
I’m fine. He’s about to give his default response, but in a moment’s impulse, stops himself. Instead, he looks up, meeting his mother’s curious gaze.
They could talk, couldn’t they? She’s the wisest person he knows, even if he doesn’t like worrying her with his troubles.
“Hmm? What is it?”
“I’ve been…thinking about something,” he starts, taking his time to consider his succeeding words. His gaze dances about the room, looking something to adhere to until it’s enticed by the warm glow of the street light just outside his window. “About how…some people have, like…a spotlight.”
“Like, they’re the centre of attention. Everyone likes them and, I don’t know, throws flowers at their feet or something.”
“I see…” she raises an eyebrow, intrigued. “What about them?”
Arthit rubs his nose in thought.
“Most of us don’t have spotlights. We’re just…in the audience.”
“I suppose so, yes,” she says after a moment. There’s more to her son’s spontaneous analogy, though, she thinks.
“So…like…do you think those people notice things…outside of that spotlight? I don’t…I don’t know if they would just see their audience as…like, a dark blur. Sorry, I know I’m not making much sense.”
“No, no,” she smiles. “Like everyone is part of the same mass. And you want to be noticed?”
Yes. Wait, no. Maybe? Arthit debates his answer, pulling his sleep shirt a little lower over his belly.
“Not…not really. No. I just—I have things that I want them to know. Even if it’s not from me.”
“All nice things, I hope.”
He nods fervently. “Of course.”
“Then,” his mother takes his round face into her hands. “You just have to trust that they can feel it. Because you know what shines brighter than a spotlight, Oon?”
Arthit blushes, pulling his face away and rolling his eyes at the cliché, but nods.
“Spotlights always find a new person to shine on, and the curtain falls on even the most dazzling of stars. But the sun…the sun shines on everyone, every day,” she ruffles his hair. “It shines especially hard on Yaowarat Road, around three in the afternoon, to be precise.”
He lets out a chuckle at her attempt at a joke, and cosies back into the round of her shoulder.
“I’m ready now, Mae.”
“Yeah? Alright then,” she sniffs the top of his head briefly. “I can’t believe you still want to hear this story after so many years. But I hope I have many more years to wish you goodnight on your birthday.”
“I’d like that, Mae.”
She smiles as he shimmies back down under the covers, then takes a deep breath, reciting a tale she’s told thirteen times since she’d brought her tiny bundle of sunlight home in her arms.
“Well, it all started fourteen years ago. Actually, it was potentially one of the worst times to have a child, your grandmother would tell you if she were still here. The Thai baht was at an all-time low, people were losing their jobs left and right, and the entire population was struggling under the collapsing economy. Business was slowing down by almost a half, and your Lung Dear lost his job after the elevated road project was scrapped the previous year. He lived with your father and I until he moved abroad when you were four.”
“I remember that.”
“You were still so young back then. Anyway, he told me we were absolutely mad for trying to have a child in such trying times. And he was right, but I was already nine weeks pregnant when the crisis hit. We made do with savings for months, but by December, we were almost rattling the remains of the piggy bank. You weren’t a very active baby in my tummy, but I talked to you every day. One day, your father came home and he was so tired, Oon. He’d picked up part-time work at the Lotus in Seacon Square. I won’t ever let our son go hungry, he promised me. He was so excited to be a father, you know?”
Her voice is tinged with nostalgia as she pulls the quilt up to his shoulders with fondness.
“I went to the temple that day. I prayed. Not for money. Not for a miracle. I prayed that we would overcome whatever obstacles stood in our way, and that you would always have someone to love you. But then, just as I’d finished my prayer…my water broke. I was taken to the hospital, where a very sexy nurse—”
“Mae…” Arthit whines softly, trailing off with drowsiness.
“What? He was! Anyway, he took very good care of me and made sure I was comfortable the entire time. Your father, on the other hand, was in such a panic when he arrived, that the doctors suggested he wait outside the delivery room lest he fainted. He still did, of course. And seven hours later, life gave me my miracle.”
She finishes with a light scratch to the crown of her son’s hair, gazing towards the orange glow in the window.
“Any wishes for your fourteenth birthday?”
But as she looks back at her now-fourteen year-old son, he’s already fast asleep, each breath deep and heavy with peace. His mother sighs, the corners of her mouth upturned as she brushes his too-long hair out of his eyes.
“Good night, my warmest sun.”
When Prae walks into the Rojnapat apartment with her briefcase full of that day’s homework tucked under her arm, Arthit is frowning at his open notebook, not having written a single thing.
“You can pout all you want but the homework won’t complete itself,” she remarks, sliding into the chair adjacent to him.
“I know,” he grumbles, picking up his pencil and tapping the page with the eraser. “I just can’t focus.”
His neighbour looks at him sideways, then tilts her head.
“Did something happen at school?”
“No,” he replies sullenly. “Never mind, let’s just do homework.”
“Okay,” she says simply, arranging her various notebooks on the table, careful not to mix them up with Arthit’s near-identical ones. “Anything new with SuperKong today?”
“Not really,” although he brightens at the mention of Kongpob, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by his friend. He doodles a small stick figure at the corner of the page, pencilling in a cape that he’s become accustomed to drawing in his spare time. “It’s his birthday tomorrow, though.”
“Oh,” Prae pauses, about to write the date on a fresh page. “Are you going to get him anything?”
“I don’t have anything to give him. It’s mostly girls who give him stuff, anyway.”
Arthit twitches his nose, now adorning the cape with a large K.
“So? Boys can give each other presents. It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
“Por says that only girls give each other gifts as friends. If they give a boy a gift, it means they want to marry them…or date them, or something.”
“I give you gifts ever year. I don’t want to marry you, Arthit,” she says plainly, copying out the word refuse over and over down the page in loopy handwriting.
Arthit lets out a snort, deeply amused.
“I don’t want to marry you, either.”
She knows this already, of course, but Arthit still thinks it necessary to say aloud, as if to affirm that Por’s incessant teasing about Prae becoming his future wife is just that — a joke. He returns to his sketch, adding in few fluffy clouds and several rays of a sun peeking from behind them.
“I…think I want to marry a girl one day,” she cuts through the quiet with just a whisper. The look she sends him when she lifts her head from her notebook is one that Arthit is unfamiliar with, but he, of all people, knows fear when he sees it. It hasn’t occurred to him before, given that they hadn’t really talked about crushes up to this point in time. Then again, as Prae so often put it, people at school suck. He holds her watery stare for a few more moments, then slowly nods with a small smile of reassurance.
“Okay. I guess I should tell Mae to make Por stop joking about us, then.”
“Thanks,” she sucks in a sharp breath, as though relieved, and smirks as he colours in the cape in faint strokes of his pencil. “Do you want to marry Kongpob?”
He near-chokes on his own spit.
“Well, you like him, right?”
Arthit sputters, struggling to form anything coherent for several seconds. Is that what Prae had thought all this time? Granted, to his knowledge, he’s never had romantic (?) feelings for anyone before, but it all seems rather unlikely to him.
“Don’t be ridiculous. H-he…doesn’t even know me. How could I like someone I’ve never even spoken to?”
“Just asking,” she shrugs, as if she’d merely asked him what the time was.
“I just think he’s cool and he’s not mean like the other kids,” he clarifies, although she hasn’t pressed further. “Besides…even if I did, Por would never allow it, anyway. You know he doesn’t like it when boys like other boys,” he says this last part in a low mutter.
Prae blinks, then peers at the drawing that now has two eyes faintly dotted onto the sun.
“You should write him a card. It’s not really a gift, but you can still wish him. It’s friendly.”
He considers this for a moment, then bites his bottom lip. It’s not a bad idea, although he’s not really one for words, and has no idea where to start.
“I’ve never written anyone a card before.”
“Not even your Mae?” She raises an eyebrow incredulously.
“Por doesn’t believe in spending money on trivial things like cards.”
Prae frowns at this, but shakes off whatever comment she might have been thinking to make with a loose wave of her hand.
“Here, I’ll help you. Get some better paper first. Just plain paper will do, but not notebook paper.”
He’s enthused now, dashing to the side table near the front door and opening the slim drawer to retrieve one of several plain notepads and bringing it back with the eagerness of a puppy.
“I…never mind, this will do,” she says, tapping the page with her own pencil. “Start with a greeting.”
Dear Kongpob, he writes, carefully and tidily as possible.
“Alright. Now, he doesn’t know you, right?” He shakes his head, waiting for further instruction. “So you probably want to write something that lets him know who you are.”
“Uh…” he chews at his lip. “Do I have to write my name?”
“Well, no. But you should at least tell him how you know him.”
His lips purse in contemplation, and as Prae observes him, he begins writing.
“Is this okay?” he rotates the page to face Prae, who immediately runs a hand over her face in secondhand mortification. “What? What’s wrong with it?”
“Arthit, you sound like a stalker.”
“What would you think if someone sent you a note saying I’ve been watching you?” she mimics a thwack to the air above his head. “Start over. Try something, I don’t know. Less creepy.”
Arthit sighs, but shoves his first attempt to the side.
“Don’t say you’re a ‘fan’! He’s not a celebrity with a Wikipedia page,” Prae interjects immediately before he can write any further. “Okay. How about something more…profound or refined? Isn’t there anything nice you can think of from reading all those Snoopy comics?”
“Ooh! I know just the thing!” he beams excitedly, becoming bolder with the size of his handwriting now.
“Prae, just say it.”
“What is this quote supposed to mean? Friends come in all shapes and sizes?”
“You said to use something from the Peanuts comics!”
“I meant a general sentiment related to birthdays, not this!”
“Fine! What do you suggest then?”
“I guess…just keep it simple and straightforward.”
“I said straightforward, not boring.”
“Is this not straightforward?”
“At least make it look like you put in some effort!”
“Why’ve you squished the last two letters on the side?”
“I ran out of space.”
“It looks really wonky. The smiley face is cute, though. Maybe you could do a proper drawing?”
“Are you sure you’re okay with him knowing you call him SuperKong?”
“Do you even want him to know it’s you?”
“Hmm. Maybe you could make it sound like you’re already friends with him so he doesn’t suspect anything?”
“I give up,” Arthit groans, letting the pencil fall from his grip. “This is hopeless. He’ll probably never even look at it anyway.”
“No, come on,” Prae shakes his arm gently, pouting for forgiveness. “I’m sorry. I just want you to write something nice.” She eyes her friend’s sulky expression and sighs. “What is it that you want him to know? Aside from Happy Birthday?”
Many things, if Arthit’s being honest. To share his most mundane of thoughts, ranging from a funny poster he’d seen outside the local theatre, to how he notices that water sprinklers are always no more than three metres apart in even the dinkiest of indoor restaurants. Or to ask him his favourite colour, and whether he puts the left shoe or right shoe on first.
But if he narrows it down to the very bare essence, he knows exactly what he would say.
“I just…I think he’s awesome. And I wish we were friends, even if it’s not possible.”
Prae smiles at this, pushing the blank page back towards him.
“Then tell him that. Just write what you mean.”
Arthit exhales noisily, then tiredly picks up the pencil again, quietly scrawling out a message. Prae tries to peer over his hand, but he very quickly pulls the paper towards him. In a moment’s brainwave, he plucks a yellow highlighter from Prae’s open pencil case, make round, raspy strokes before replacing the cap.
“Can I see?”
Slowly, he removes his hand from obstruction of her view, and pushes the page towards her. To his utter surprise, she grins, nodding her evident validation.
“Arthit, it’s perfect. He’ll love it.”
“You think so?”
“If he’s as good as you say he is, I know so.”
He grins, pleased with his work, then folds it into quarters and tucks it into the front pocket of his briefcase. Even if Kongpob never knows it’s from him, Arthit is content with the thought that it may bring him the slightest warmth from a distance.
“Please tell me, Lung Arthit,” Kaofang sidles up to her favourite uncle, nuzzling her sparkly face into his tummy.
They’re lying side by side on the living room floor, exhausted after she’s spent a good part of their afternoon smearing bright red lipstick and, of course, purple glitter all over Arthit’s face.
I have to make you extra pretty for the special day!
He doesn’t know about pretty, but he certainly looks…special.
“I’ve already told you three times,” he laughs, ruffling her hair.
“Well, I want to hear it again!”
“Is this going to be your favourite bedtime story now?”
“Yes,” she sits up, admiring her stripy orange socks peeking out from under a bright green tulle skirt. “Other fairy tales are boring. They’re all about princesses being rescued. I like that the princes mind their own business in this one.”
Arthit can’t help but chuckle, pulling himself up as well and fiddling with the antlers on her stuffed alien doll. “I’m not a prince, Kaofang. But yes, it’s not like other stories, I suppose.”
“From the beginning, please.”
Arthit clears his throat in preparation.
“Ten years ago, Kongpob and I met while we were studying at university. I was his senior and the head of the hazing team. Kongpob was my junior, and he was very naughty.”
“Well, he wouldn’t listen to any of my instructions and always talked back to me, and so I had to punish him a lot. I would make him do jump squats and run laps. I told him that if he didn’t behave himself, that I wouldn’t give him an engineering gear. It’s very serious, you know.”
“Like not getting a sticker on my homework?” Kaofang gasps in horror.
“Yes, exactly like that. Anyhow, he said that if I didn’t give it to him, he would just take it! Imagine!”
“It is. But he didn’t steal it. Instead, he said he was going to, uh…marry me, so that my gear would be shared with him.”
“But you said no?”
“Something like that. He was joking, anyhow. He would always give me a lot of trouble and tease me all the time, so I didn’t like him very much at first.”
“Then…there was one time when I got hurt and sick, and he looked after me. And I realised that he wasn’t really trying to make me angry. He was just trying to be my friend.”
“That’s not how you make friends. He’s silly.”
“He really is. But even so, Kongpob and I became good friends, and we even ended up working at the same company.”
“Electric. That was about six years ago. We saw each other every day, and became the best of friends. Then, one day at a party, Kongpob and I were talking while having some…coffee. Someone came over and asked if I would, um, dance with them.”
“Like at a ball!” Kaofang gushes dreamily, flopping dramatically in her uncle’s lap.
“Kind of, but without all the fancy dresses,” he boops her nose. “Anyway, they asked if I would dance with them, and even tried to pull me onto the dance floor! I didn’t want to dance with them, but I didn’t want to be impolite.”
“And P’Kongpob helped you?”
“Sort of. He stood right between us and told that person that I already had someone to dance with. I said, ‘I do?’. And he said, ‘Yes, you’re dancing with me.'”
“And then? And then?!” Kaofang drums her heels agains the carpet in anticipation, as though she hasn’t heard this story dozens of times over.
“And then I realised that I didn’t want to dance with anyone else but him. Because…I loved him. I think he knew, too. After that, he—”
“HE KISSED YOU! HE KISSED YOU! HE KIS—”
Her outburst of excitement can be heard almost all the way down the street, and Arthit has to muffle her delighted giggles by pulling her face into his shirt again, shushing her through his own laughter.
“You! I thought you wanted me to tell the story?”
“Okay, okay,” she stifles a laugh, regaining her composure. “You may continue.”
“You’re right. He did just that. And we’ve been looking after each other ever since.”
“I love it! Tell the next part! Tell the next part!”
Arthit nods, his voice quieter now. “A few weeks ago, Kongpob got quite upset with me. We were at home, and Kongpob suddenly said that we should get married, but I said no.”
“Well, he used to tell me that he never wanted to get married, you know. He said it was just about signing a silly piece of paper to prove you love each other. So of course, when he said that, I didn’t think he was serious.”
“So he changed his mind?”
“I think so. But I didn’t know that, so I thought he was joking. I told him no, and that made him really sad.”
“Poor P’Kongpob…” she frowns, her cheek squished against Arthit’s knee.
“The next morning, he told me that he wasn’t joking, and that he asked me if my saying no meant I didn’t love him anymore.”
“But that’s not true.”
“It’s not. I…I love him very much.” He smiles down at his niece, whose quiet grin is equally pleased. “And I realised that he wasn’t joking, so I after thinking about it a bit more, I asked him to marry me. And he said yes!”
“That’s so romantic!” Kaofang shuts her eyes, content with the fourth retelling of her new favourite story. Then, her brows furrow in thought. “How did you celebrate?”
Arthit raises an eyebrow.
“Yes, like, what did you do after he said yes?”
“Oh…” he flushes a bright red, recalling the deeply memorable shower they’d taken together that morning. “We, uh…we shook hands. You know, like an agreement.”
“That’s boring,” the girl rolls her eyes. “Didn’t you at least eat cake or something?”
“Well, we ate some crisps in front of the TV, which was quite nice. Does that count?”
His niece sighs, sitting up again. “I suppose.”
“In that case…The End.”
He reaches over to the coffee table to pluck a handful of popcorn from the bowl, and pops one kernel into his mouth, slightly famished after having talked for so long.
Following several moments of quiet, Kaofang lets out a groan.
“What is it now?”
“I want to get married, too!”
Arthit laughs to himself, shaking his head.
“You’re a bit young for that right now. Maybe one day, if you’re really sure.”
“I’m going to marry Boun!” she insists, grabbing her socked feet, rocking back and forth.
“Kaofang, he has to agree to it first. Besides, marriage isn’t for everyone. You should only do it if you really want to. It’s not always like the stories.”
“What’s not always like the stories?”
A head peeks around the door, and Kongpob mashes his lips together to suppress a laugh when he notice the abstract work of art that is Arthit’s makeover. He’s followed by Earth, who snorts in amusement, but shakes her head at the mess they’ve made.
“Mae! P’Kongpob!” Kaofang whines, standing up to swing his arm back and forth. “Lung Arthit says I’m too young to get married.”
“Did he, now?” Kongpob muses, then picks the girl up by the armpits to sit on his hip. “Well, I hate to say it, but he’s right.”
“Whose side are you on?!” she grumbles.
“Mine,” he laughs. “Now tell me about this new look you’ve given your uncle.”
“Oh!” the girl grins in delight, curling an arm around the back of Kongpob’s neck. “I’ve decided to do Lung Arthit’s makeup for your wedding!”
He peers over at his fiancé for confirmation, and Arthit shrugs with defeat.
“I think he looks very handsome, as he always does. You’ve done a excellent job.”
Even as Kongpob humours his niece, Arthit can’t help but blush, rolling his eyes to unsuccessfully mask his smile. He’s glad that the streaks of dark red across his cheeks disguise his sudden shyness.
Then, their voices fading into the background, Kongpob walks with Kaofang on his hip towards the garden, leaving Arthit alone with his cousin, who plops herself next to him on the floor, cautiously screwing the lid back on the infectious pot of glitter.
“I’m really glad for you,” she says, pulling a packet of moist towelettes out of her apron and plucking one out to start wiping at his face. He scrunches his nose as the cool material scrubs at the red and violet graffiti.
“Yeah,” he brushes the front of his shirt of any loose glitter. “You were right. I…should’ve told him a long time ago.”
“But you figured it out. And that’s what matters.”
“You don’t think I wasted time?”
Earth pauses in her cleaning, gazing out of the glass doors and into the front garden, where Kongpob is being mercilessly chased by her unique creature of a child. She shakes her head.
“No,” she hands the towelette to Arthit. “I think that whether the both of you knew it or not, it’s been real all along.”
Arthit ponders this for a moment, then looks back at Earth, who pushes her hair over her shoulder.
“Look at them,” she nods towards the garden. “That boy has loved your mother, my daughter, our family, since the day you brought him home. You might think otherwise, but as you get older, there’s only so much space in your heart that you can reserve for love. And of all the people in the world, he chose to love us. Because he chose to love you.”
She smiles, pulling out a fresh towelette and proceeds with cleaning her daughter’s favourite canvas.
“That doesn’t happen by chance, Oon. He chooses you every time, and you do the same for him. All of that has always been real. I was just trying to help you see that.”
Kaofang squeals as Kongpob zooms around the garden with her clinging to his back, and Arthit looks on with pure adoration. It had taken five years to test the waters, but they would have the rest of their lives to conquer oceans.