## Chapter 5: Balance: ฿856

Kongpob doesn’t think he’s ever been at school this early, especially on a Monday. As Arthit had told him they would be, the gates are already open, but the entire campus is still with the grey morning, the only movement coming from a few dragonflies circling the garden pond.

It’s almost 7:00 as Kongpob enters the equally silent library. The librarian herself isn’t at her desk yet, and the only person guarding the place is a rather reluctantly breathing member of custodial staff.

Most of the library isn’t even lit, many rows of bookcases stand in the relative darkness, the only light coming from the windows.

One corner, however, towards the cluster of tables in the study area, is illuminated. Kongpob sees Arthit already there, although his head rests on his backpack on the table, and he’s asleep. He moves closer and looks at his friend, who looks oddly at peace, a contrast to his usual tense and slightly agitated demeanour.

Kongpob doesn’t know if it’s normal to feel this, but he finds himself staring at the boy and admiring his soft features – snowy white skin, a strong, pronounced nose, long lashes and small, pink lips hanging slightly open. He smiles to himself and tries to push down the foreign fluttering in his stomach as he sits adjacent to Arthit, wondering if he should wake him up or not.

His decision is made for him, though, when Arthit’s phone alarm goes off, buzzing on the table to jolt both Arthit awake and Kongpob out of his daze. Arthit rubs at his eyes and stretches like a cat, tilting his head side to side to work out the cricks in his neck, before noticing Kongpob, at which he startles a little.

“How long have you been there?” he says, his cheeks slightly flushed.

“Just a few minutes.”

“Should’ve woken me up…” he mutters, unzipping his backpack to take out his pencil case and maths textbook.

“You seemed tired. Not an early riser?”

“Not exactly.”

Kongpob smiles, taking out his own things and placing them on the table. He also pulls out a linen bag and sets it on the table, taking out a large thermos.

“Mae made breakfast for us when I told her you were tutoring me.”

Arthit eyes the blue thermos for a moment before biting his lip and absentmindedly flipping through the pages of his book to find the right chapter.

“Uh…that’s okay. I already ate at home.”

“Come on, just have some. My mother makes really good congee,” Kongpob unscrews the lid, and Arthit can already smell the fragrant waft of soupy comfort food, which awakens his empty insides. It does look very appetising.

“It’s fine,” he says. “I’m still full. Maybe later.”

He clears his throat loudly over the sound of his growling stomach. Kongpob eyes him strangely, but nods and screws the lid back on.

“So…algebra.”

“Yeah, I didn’t do so well on the last homework.”

Arthit nods and writes something on a blank page of his open notebook, then slides it over to Kongpob.

“Okay, have a look at this question.”

$\left(2x+3\right)\left(x-2\right)$

Kongpob nods, waiting for him to go on.

“So in order to find the answer, we need to multiply whatever is in the first set of brackets with whatever is in the second set of brackets. He takes a highlighter out of his pencil case and highlights 2x, 3, x, and -2 separately.

“But you don’t multiply within the same set of brackets. So we multiply the first number in the first set with the first number in the second set. What is 2x times x?”

Arthit taps the blank space below the question, gesturing for Kongpob to write his answer. Kongpob thinks for a second before he writes 2x².

“Right. Then you multiply 2x with -2, which is…?”

4x, Kongpob writes. Arthit draws an invisible circle with the back of his pencil around the minus sign in the question.

“When you multiply a positive number with a negative number, the answer becomes negative, so the answer wouldn’t be 4x, but…”

-4x?” Kongpob raises an eyebrow.

“Exactly.”

As Arthit continues explaining the question, Kongpob just stares at the boy in front of him, watching as he speaks with ease about the question, explaining it step by step. It’s probably the most at ease that he’s ever seen Arthit be in his presence, and Kongpob is slightly in awe of the way his voice is quite animated, clarifying his points with his hands and circling different parts of the question as he speaks.

“Do…I have something on my face?”

Kongpob is jolted out of his thoughts, and realises he’s been staring at Arthit for the past minute or two. Suddenly, he feels slightly embarrassed and shakes his head rapidly.

“No,” he says. “I was just thinking.”

“Um…okay. So the final answer would be…?”

Kongpob ponders Arthit’s arrows and scribbles for a moment, before putting all the different parts of the equation together.

2x² – x – 6, he writes.

Arthit nods.

“Good,” he says, before flipping the textbook around and pointing to a set of exercises. “Now try these.”

Kongpob gets through about four questions before his attention is drawn back to Arthit, who’s just…watching him work. He suddenly feels slightly self-conscious and puts his pencil down, pondering his next words.

“Arthit,” he starts. “Do you want to have lunch together today?”

Arthit just looks at him, eyes narrowed.

“I mean like, not with just me. With M and Oak as well,” Kongpob feels the need to clarify.

“I told you, I’m busy during lunch.”

“Doing what?”

“Why do you want to know?

“I’m just asking. Who do you usually eat with, then?”

Arthit sighs through his nostrils, pressing his lips together into a tight line.

“But—”

“What is this? Studying or interrogation?” Arthit snaps, and looks anywhere but at Kongpob. “Finish the set and I’ll have a look.”

Kongpob relents with a sigh and works through the remaining questions before sliding the notebook over to Arthit, who is noticeably stiffer than before. Arthit scans each of his answers with his pencil and nods, circling one or two parts.

“Two negative numbers multiplied make a positive number, so this should be a plus sign instead,” he points to one of Kongpob’s answers. “Otherwise, you seem to have the idea.”

“You explained it well,” Kongpob smiles softly, at which Arthit grimaces a little, closing the book.

“Anyway, we should get back to the classroom.” he says, hurriedly packing his things, as though he wants to get away as quickly as possible. Which makes no sense, of course, seeing as they’re in the same class and therefore heading to the same classroom.

Kongpob just nods, putting his own things away as Arthit practically bolts out of the library and past the sleeping custodian.

“And then she gave me detention again because she said the homework I turned in wasn’t ‘up to standard’! Are teachers allowed to punish us for being bad at English now?”

Oak is complaining yet again about his supposedly unfair treatment. Kongpob just shakes his head and tries to open his lunchbox, struggling a little with the lid as the suction on the air-tight container is particularly strong. Today’s lunch consists of flat rice noodles with a chicken gravy and gai lan.

“No, but you can be punished for only writing idk lol I don’t get the question when the topic is asking you to write 300 words about a childhood memory,” M rolls his eyes.

“Fine. Kong, you can help me with English homework, right? You got the top score in the grade last year, didn’t you?”

“Knowing you, by ‘help’ you mean ‘let you copy’. Therefore, no — ah, crabsticks!”

He finally gets the lid off of the box, and a splatter of the brown gravy sauce plops onto the front of his crisp white uniform. He tuts and puts down the box.

“I’m going to the bathroom,” he shakes his head, getting up from the table.

All the toilets in the main school building are closed off due to drainage issues on the first floor caused by a group of seniors who’d thought it would be funny to flush an entire roll of toilet paper that morning. As a result, Kongpob has to make his way to the side building, where students usually only go when the school holds community service activities and supplies for annual events are kept. There’s a small toilet with only two stalls and three urinals, and Kongpob can only recall ever having used it once before.

As suspected, the building is whisper quiet and probably the source of many ghost stories told throughout the year, but Kongpob isn’t fazed by such ridiculous tales. As he approaches the washroom, he hears shuffling inside, and the click of a stall door’s lock. Just as he’s about to push open the door, it swings open, and he comes face to face with none other than Arthit, who stumbles back in shock, dropping what looks like an empty food container and some eating utensils.

“Arthit, wha—” Kongpob says in surprise, trying to help pick up his things. Arthit shakes his head and holds a trembling hand out to stop him. His entire face goes pale, and his mouth is gaping open and closed like a stunned fish. His eyes dart around in panic for a moment, before he hurriedly wipes his mouth, grabbing the fallen items and hiding them in his arms before darting out before Kongpob can get another word in.

Kongpob blinks after him, trying to parse what had just happened, his breath caught in his throat. He considers going after Arthit, but the boy seems traumatised enough by Kongpob’s discovery that it probably wouldn’t be wise to bombard him with questions at this precise moment.

“Kids used to pick on him all the time…he almost switched schools…lost all the weight before our freshman year…now he just never talks to anyone…”

Suddenly, M’s comments from last week creep into his thoughts, and his throat clenches. He wouldn’t….would he?

Fearing the worst, Kongpob peers into the large bin next to the sink counter, praying not to find what he suspects, and breathes a sigh of muted relief when he sees only one scrunched up paper towel.

Turning around, he eyes the fallen spoon at the door of one of the stalls. He picks it up – it’s definitely been used, but his mind still reaches into the darkest possibilities. Biting his bottom lip, he slowly pushes open the stall door. Wincing a little, he lifts the lid off of the water closet and finds it still full, an indication that it hasn’t been flushed in a while.

He doesn’t know if he should be relieved or not. He recalls his mother doing all of these things almost eight years ago when his sister had gone through some difficult times with her relationship to food as a teenager.

So why was Arthit eating in the toilets, then? And in such an inconspicuous location, too.

His entire mind is plagued with questions as he works at removing the gravy stain from his shirt. When he returns to the courtyard, M and Oak have already finished eating, and are bickering over their DoTA stats. He rejoins them, quietly eating as they continue talking, but not really enjoying what is usually his favourite dish.

“Hey, M,” Kongpob says, after a while. “Can you tell Coach Pak I can’t make it to practice today?”

“What? Why?”

“I have to handle something at home after school.”

M eyes him suspiciously, but nods.

“Okay. Everything alright?”

“Yeah, just…I have to be there.” he forces a small smile.

Kongpob doesn’t rush after Arthit when his friend scurries from his seat and out the door as soon as their teacher dismisses them. He’d stolen a few glances at Arthit during their afternoon classes, only to see the guy with his head ducked down, refusing to look at anything other than whatever is on his desk. He can’t focus on anything during the lesson, and ends up being scolded by their teacher for spacing out when asked a question.

He sighs, looking over at the empty desk after the bell rings. Tilting his head, he can see that Arthit has left something behind. He goes over to the desk to see what it is, and pauses when he sees that it’s the same eraser he’d lent to Arthit a while back. It has the same tattered paper casing held in place only by a shabby piece of clear tape.

It looks like Arthit has used it religiously, the small pink piece of rubber half the size it was when he’d lent it to him. He almost decides to just keep it, when the casing slips off  and Kongpob notices that the letters “Kongp” are scrawled on the side in blue ball pen, slightly smudged and faded.

That’s strange, he thinks. Why would he write half my name on my eraser? Did he run out of space?

Still, he pockets the eraser and heads straight for the front gate.

Despite his suspicions that Arthit would still be avoiding him, Kongpob sees his friend at the cart as usual, busying himself with grilling and stirring despite the small Monday crowd.

Neither of them say a word when Kongpob approaches the cart, Arthit only looking up briefly before turning his attention back to stirring the bucket of marinade.

Silence hangs between them, both daring the other to speak first. Arthit doesn’t ask what he wants to eat, and Kongpob doesn’t push with his usual playful comments.

Eventually, Kongpob picks up the pen and notepad from the side of the worktop and quickly writes something, filling almost the entire page of the small page. Arthit glances at what he’s doing from the corner of his eye, but says nothing. Kongpob tears the entire page out and carefully tears off the bottom strip, pushing over to Arthit.

Wordlessly, Arthit takes two skewers off the grill and places them in a container before setting it down next to the notepad.

Kongpob picks up the skewers and leaves the remainder of the page he’d written on where the container was, folded up on the worktop. Then, he takes the eraser out of his pocket and places it on top of the paper. Arthit eyes it briefly, but says nothing.

Kongpob just gives him a small smile, before walking down the street towards the bus stop.

As soon as Kongpob is far away enough that Arthit can no longer see the outline of his fading back, Arthit grabs for the eraser and paper, heart beating out of his chest as he unfolds the note.

Arthit,

I just want you to know that you don’t have to tell me anything if you don’t want to, but I’m here if you do want to talk. I hope you’ll still tutor me and be my friend. By the way, I never gave you my contact information, so here’s my Line ID. Hope I’ll see you tomorrow.

Kongp 🙂

Arthit reads the note over and over, biting his lip in a subtle smile before pocketing both the note and eraser. He pulls out his phone, punching in Kongpob’s Line ID and immediately finding his classmate’s profile picture. He stares at it, finger hovering over the ‘Add friend’ button, but pockets his phone again.

18/08/2014 – ฿10

Balance: ฿846

## Chapter 21: Balance: ฿361

It’s the second time that Kongpob steps foot into Arthit’s apartment, but the first that he’s seeing his room.

Unlike the rest of the place, the walls of the small room are painted an off-white. In the corner, a single bed with faded cartoon-print bedding, worn soft from years of use, and tucked under the bed frame, a collapsible bed tray and a cluster of plastic storage containers. A small wooden desk by a large window that overlooks the inner street that the building is on, although the surface of the table is piled with a variety of seemingly random objects that would make it impossible for one to feasibly spread any work out onto it.

By the door, there’s a chest of six wide drawers, the paint on the metal knobs chipped off in parts, and with sporadic scratches and light dents in the wooden paneling. Kongpob takes in every detail, eyes scanning over the titles among a small stack of Peanuts comics, the corners of certain pages dog eared, and a couple of the covers curving at the edges from being repeatedly being bent backwards. Clearly, they’ve been well-loved over the years, unlike Kongpob’s pristine collection of manga volumes, the spines of which he doesn’t even dare to crease.

“Hey,” Arthit says, stumbling in through the door frame, his jeans and t-shirt in hand. He’d gone to the bathroom to change into something more comfortable, an oversized T-shirt and soft cotton shorts that came down to the knee. He drapes the jeans over his desk chair before sitting on the edge of his mattress. He looks over to where Kongpob is still standing, tilting his head sideways to read each of the titles. “You can sit if you want,” Arthit gestures at the chair.

Instead, Kongpob makes his way over to the bed, sitting himself next to Arthit and leaning his crutches against the wall near the headboard.

A faint echo of his mother’s cheeky comment pops into Arthit’s mind, and he finds himself subconsciously bringing his knees together, his feet overlapping one another.

Realistically, he knows nothing will happen. Not really, anyway. They’re both young and inexperienced, and besides, their game of push and pull will probably see them silently pining for each other for some time to come. Still, the fact that the boy he likes is sitting next to him, on his bed, makes Arthit slightly giddy with excitement, even if it outwardly manifests itself into a look of constipation.

“You’ve got a lot of those comics,” Kongpob remarks, still looking over at the ten or so volumes stacked on top of the furniture.

“Yeah,” Arthit follows his gaze, shrugging lightly. “I’ve had those for a while. Prae’s father gets them for me every year on my birthday.”

“Your families must be close, then.”

“Yeah. Our parents were busy working a lot, so Prae and I kind of looked after each other growing up. Prae’s parents used to run a small bookstore, but then e-readers started getting popular and they had to shut down. Her Por saved a lot of their remaining stock, though, and he gives them to me one by one.”

Kongpob smiles as Arthit looks on fondly at the tattered books.

“Why the Peanuts?”

Arthits pauses for a moment to consider the question seriously. “I relate to every kid in that universe on some level or another. Except maybe Lucy,” he adds jokingly.

“Which one do you feel the most like?”

“Truthfully?” Arthit gives a short laugh, to which Kongpob nods. “Snoopy.”

Kongpob raises his eyebrows, incredulous.

“Out of all the characters, you relate most closely to the dog?”

“He’s a bit lazy, likes his food, gets a bit moody sometimes and…” Arthit sighs, almost whispering his next words. “…he engages in fantasies because…the real world is lonely sometimes.”

Kongpob’s features soften, and they allow the quiet to engulf them for a short while. Eventually, Arthit clears his throat, looking up from his fingers, which he’d been picking at to distract himself.

“So, uh…tomorrow’s the first group session,” he supplies, trying to redirect the topic. “I don’t know if I can really teach three people at once.”

“M is right, though. You’ll get to make three times as much in a third of the time. And you’d be helping us while getting your own homework done, too.”

Arthit suddenly thinks of the conversation he’d had with Kongpob’s mother in the waiting room. He knows a thing or two about trying to be the dutiful son, but Kongpob never talks about his personal struggles. Perhaps he doesn’t think he has any worth speaking of, being the rich, good-looking, popular kid.

“Do you actually even want to go into engineering?”

The question brings Kongpob’s gaze directly towards him, his face crossed with mild confusion, before he looks down again.

“I don’t know,” he says finally. “I’ve never thought about it, I guess. It just always seemed like the most natural option because I have to take over Por’s company one day.”

“Is it because you’re the only son?”

Kongpob laughs briefly. “Actually, Por really wanted my eldest sister to take over, but she’s more of the creative type. She’s one of the curators at the National Museum.”

“I see,” Arthit twists his mouth to one side. He doesn’t think he should ask about his other sister, given that the last time, Kongpob had quickly brushed it off. “But you don’t want to take over?”

“It’s not that I have a problem with it,” he says slowly. “I just don’t really know what I want, but doing what’s already available to me feels too easy. Like I haven’t done anything to earn it.”

Arthit simply watches him quietly. It’s the first time he’s seen Kongpob appear so…vulnerable. Not at all like the kind, heroic boy he’d put on a pedestal when they were younger, nor the annoyingly confident flirt he’s grown accustomed to. He’s just…another kid.

“What about English? You’re pretty good at that, right?”

“I like it,” Kongpob nods. “But only because I’ve had some decent teachers.”

“Teacher Lynn once called me a sausage. I don’t know what that’s about,” Arthit brings his legs up on the  mattress to sit Indian style. “Is it supposed to be a physical comparison?”

“It’s an alliteration,” Kongpob snickers. “Like, silly sausage. It’s just what she says when you’ve done something careless.”

Arthit thinks it sounds strange, and still doesn’t quite get it, but he shrugs in defeat.

“Whatever, she’s weird. I don’t dislike her, though,” he shakes his head, recalling his doodling incident that could have been far more embarrassing. “Anyway,” he turns to look at the boy beside him again. “You still have time. I’m sure whatever you end up deciding, your mae will support you.”

“I know,” Kongpob sighs noisily. “But for now, engineering doesn’t seem like the worst option ever,” he smiles briefly. “We might even end up at the same school.”

Arthit rolls his eyes.

“That’s what it is, isn’t it? You just can’t stand not being around to pester me,” he says teasingly. “Besides, who says I’m applying to same schools as you?”

Kongpob just looks at him, barely reacting. His breath becomes shallow and his brows pinch together, wanting only to appear sincere in his expression. Perhaps this is it, he thinks. Maybe I’ll tell him.

But as a few more agonisingly slow seconds tick by with no words forming in his mouth, he says the next best thing on his mind.

“I just know that I want you in my life after we graduate.”

It’s Arthit’s turn to grow quiet now, gulping as he meets Kongpob’s intense stare, eyes shining with the reflection of sunlight pouring in through the window. For a moment, he almost swears that the boy’s gaze flickers downwards, which sets his heartbeat accelerating like a windmill right before the worst of a storm.

And then Kongpob’s phone rings.

The alarming interruption catapults both boys out of their enraptured game of Don’t Blink. Arthit clears his throat, immediately standing up and pretending to tidy the contents of his never-used desk while he hears a stammered H-hello? behind him.

“Um…yeah. I’ll come down now. Just give me a minute,” Kongpob says emotionlessly into the phone. “Yeah, okay. Bye.”

Arthit rubs his slightly damp palms on the back of his shorts as he turns around to face Kongpob again.

“You leaving now?” he says, eyes darting around the room.

“Yeah, Shin is parked on the main street.”

“Okay,” he nods repeatedly, as though ceasing to do so would force him to acknowledge what he thinks had almost just happened. “Um, I’ll see you out.”

Then he’s swiftly making his way out of the room, his bare heels hammering in muted thuds on the floor. He stands awkwardly near the front door, and then curses himself when he remembers that Kongpob might need help with his foot.

He makes to go back towards the room, only to almost knock Kongpob over as they collide at the bedroom door. Arthit stumbles backwards, face completely red now.

“Sorry,” he sputters, turning around again, seeing that Kongpob had not, in fact, required his assistance. He pretends to look for his guest’s shoes, before remembering that he’d told Kongpob not to bother, what with it being a hassle with his walking boot and all. Caught in yet another awkward state of fumbling, he fiddles with the lock on the door before finally managing to turn the knob enough times to unlock it, then pulling it open.

“Um…do you need help getting down the stairs?” He still doesn’t look up.

“No, that’s okay,” Kongpob says, almost sullenly. “I can manage with just the banister.”

Arthit goes into another nodding marathon, partially hiding behind the large wooden door now.

“I’ll…see you tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Kongpob looks down at his feet, his shoulders still raised by the crutch pads under his armpits. “I’ll text you?”

“Sure,” Arthit smiles meekly as Kongpob shuffles his way out of the door, met with a tight-lipped smile in return as the boy turns to slowly his shuffle his way down the steps, grabbing onto the banister and lowering himself down each step onto his good foot.

Kongpob doesn’t text him that evening.

Instead, he lies awake for most of the evening, replaying the moment he’d almost confessed his feelings over and over again and mentally berating himself.

One would naturally be anxious about the matter, what with the consequences that could ensue as a result of his recklessness. M had been right – he often acts too impulsively and sticks his nose into places they don’t always belong, mostly because he assumes he knows what he’s doing.

It really isn’t as easy as just having his feelings unrequited. If only it were, Kongpob thinks that he could eventually move past the awkwardness of getting through his final year of high school with them being in the same class and then never have to deal with it again. No, it really isn’t so simple.

To tell Arthit how he feels would almost feel like betrayal, like he’d only gone to the trouble of helping him and gaining his trust because of some silly (but painfully intense) crush that might eventually pass. The thought of breaking Arthit’s trust and unintentionally sending him spiralling back into self-inflicted isolation makes Kongpob’s stomach churn. Trying to be anything more than his friend right now would seem selfish.

But I like him so much, he stares at the ceiling, trying to breathe through the ache in his chest. And he can’t be sure, but even the prospect that his feelings might be returned gives him a whole other world to worry about. Aside from their closest friends, and hopefully their parents, Kongpob doesn’t know if he can bear the idea of having to hide from the rest of the world.

For now, he takes one last look at the ten or so photos of Arthit he’d taken during one of their tutoring sessions, with the excuse that he was taking pictures of notes for reference. Most of them are of Arthit glaring at him and reaching out to try and take the phone from him.

Then he turns his phone off, rolls over in bed to face the window, and stares until the sun comes up.

Arthit finds that M is particularly terrible at algebra.

The four of them—himself, Kongpob, M and Tew—are all seated around the single picnic table on the rooftop, their textbooks and paper spread around them and their various lunch trays and containers wedged in wherever there’s any remaining space.

“Wait, so x multiplied by x isn’t 2x?” M is scratching his head. “No wonder I’ve been getting stuff wrong the entire time…”

Arthit doesn’t comment on this seemingly obvious epiphany, but he’s still biting back a laugh.

“Here, now that you know it’s x², do those first, and I’ll look over them when you’re done,” he points to a set a questions on the open page of their textbook. “If you still don’t get it, you can ask Kongpob. Right?”

Kongpob, who’s been quiet the entire time, faintly colouring in the squares on his grid paper like a chess board, doesn’t respond. M raises an eyebrow expectantly.

“Kong,” M taps his pencil on the table in front of Kongpob, who finally looks up.

“Hmm?”

“You spaced out.”

“Oh, uh…” he puts his pencil down, his face still unreadable. “I’ll be right back, I just need to use the bathroom.”

He picks up his crutches and makes his way towards the steel door

Arthit watches after Kongpob curiously, unsure of how to react. Contrary to what Kongpob had said before he left his apartment on Saturday, he’d not received any word from him, even in the form of asking about homework.

“What’s his deal?” Tew says, his eyebrows pinched.

“Whatever,” M brushes it off, sensing that Arthit has now become quiet, too. He knows that he’ll have to mediate somehow, but not in front of Tew. “Maybe he’s just tired. Walking around with crutches like that is probably exhausting.”

They resume their studying, Tew nodding enthusiastically as Arthit talks him through a question on algebraic functions. It’s actually past what they’re being taught in class, but if Tew is already doing well with the current material, then he should be doing something more challenging. M on the other hand…well, he’s a different story.

“Wow, you’re really good at this, Arthit.” Tew smiles at him as he finishes talking.

“Not really,” he laughs awkwardly, a little self-conscious. “I just like it more than other subjects.”

“Well, still. What else are you interested in?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, like, other stuff you do outside of school and work.”

M keeps his head down, trying to concentrate, but Tew’s unfounded interest in Arthit piques his interest. Still, he doesn’t say anything, choosing instead to listen.

“Um,” Arthit puts his pencil down to pick up his lunch box, mixing the rice around with his spoon. “Reading? And cooking, I guess.”

“What about sports? Or video games? Do you play any?”

Arthit knows Tew’s just being friendly, but he still finds it awkward to explain that he can’t exactly afford either of those hobbies.

“Not really,” he settles on this, scratching at his knee.

“If you ever get some time off work, you should come play with us,” M speaks up now, saving Arthit from combusting with discomfort.

“Yeah, maybe.”

Arthit is silently thankful. They resume working, until M catches a glimpse of his watch.

“Shit,” he mutters, quickly gathering up his things. “I forgot that I was supposed to be on corridor duty for the last quarter of lunch.”

“Wait, you’re a prefect?” Tew scrunches his nose up in disbelief.

“Oh, screw you,” M shoots him a look of disdain. “See you guys later.”

As M disappears down the stairs, Arthit briefly notes that Kongpob still hasn’t returned from the bathroom, leaving him alone with Tew.

“Well, I guess we should pack up, too,” Arthit replaces the lid on his lunchbox and begins gathering his things together as well as Kongpob’s.

“Yeah, thanks for today.”

Tew makes to tidy up his own materials, too, shuffling his papers into a tidy pile.

“Hey, Arthit,” he says, as they stand up from the picnic table.

“Mm?”

“Can I…can I ask you something?”

He pauses in his movements, looking straight at Tew for a moment. He seems nervous, mashing his lips together in a thin line. Arthit nods in response.

“I…uh, I was wondering if…maybe you want to, I don’t know, hang out sometime…just the two of us.”

Arthit’s mouth falls open a little, his heart beating erratically. He’s not sure, but he thinks that Tew might be…asking him out?

“I think you’re great,” Tew says. “And maybe this is weird and you don’t like boys, but I thought I would ask anyway. But if you don’t, and it’s uncomfortable for you, then—”

“We can hang out,” Arthit interrupts him.

“We can?” Tew smiles nervously.

“Yeah, of course,” he scratches at his neck just below the collar. “But, you know…like, as…friends,” he adds slowly, trying to brace himself for any negative reaction from Tew. “I’m flattered…but I just don’t…you know…s-sorry.”

The boy takes a few quiet moments to absorb Arthit’s words, before nodding in acceptance. He looks back up, his smile a little sad.

“It’s Kong, isn’t it?”

“Wh-what?” Arthit sputters, almost choking on his spit. Had he just heard correctly?

“I don’t know, maybe I’m just reading too much into it,” Tew gives a short laugh. “At first I thought you guys were just close friends…but so much makes sense now. I was hoping that John being a dick last time was just that, but…there’s something there.”

“We’re not…he’s—we’re just friends.” Arthit fails to form coherent sentences. His face is hot with embarrassment, and suddenly, his entire face feels numb.

“But you like him.”

“I…” Arthit swallows, looking at the table. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

His voice is quiet, almost a begging whisper.

“Hey, no, of course not,” Tew says quickly, as if it’s the most obvious thing. “I mean, I’m disappointed, but clearly my silly crush is nothing compared to what you guys have.”

“There isn’t anything—”

“But there will be,” he smiles again. “Anyway, thanks for the session. Don’t worry, I’m not going to be weird about it or anything. And don’t feel like you have to avoid me, either.”

The corner of Arthit’s mouth curves up in a small smile, nodding.

“I’m still taking you up on hanging out, though,” Tew chuckles as he picks up his books and turns to walk towards the door. “Oh, hey, Kongpob.”

The aforementioned boy is simply standing in the doorway, brows furrowed as he moves his glance between Arthit and Tew, but he doesn’t say anything.

“I…I’ve got your stuff,” Arthit says, holding the books up, then side stepping past Kong into the stairwell, deliberately avoiding his look of confusion. “Let’s go, class is almost starting.”

As Kongpob and Arthit walk down the inner street that leads to the main road, neither of them say a word. Arthit merely listens to the rhythmic clink of Kongpob’s crutches as the rubber point hits the pavement with each step.

Even as he sets up the grill, tidily distributing the coals under the wire rack and moving the flame gun over each piece, Kongpob makes no move to say anything, simply watching.

“Is everything okay?” Arthit finally says, somewhat embarrassed by being watched so intensely.

“Why wouldn’t it be okay?”

“Because you’ve been really quiet all day, and you said you were going to text me after you left on Saturday, but then you didn’t, and you haven’t said a word the entire way here, and now you’re just staring at me, and I don’t know why.”

Not that he really cares about whether or not Kongpob texts him or not, but he doesn’t like when people don’t follow through on their word, and what with the boy in crutches, he’d at least wanted to know if he’d gotten home safely.

Kongpob sighs, most of his breath coming out through his nose.

“Sorry, I just…” he trails off, eyes looking downwards. Arthit pauses to look at him a moment longer before huffing a sigh of his own and lightly fanning the grill. He pulls a tray of skewers out from the mini fridge behind him and plops it noisily on the worktop.

“What do you want to eat?” he finally says, somewhat indignant.

“Um…five of the beef.” Kongpob’s voice is distant, his mind still elsewhere.

The skewers land on the rack with a loud sizzle, thick marinade dripping onto the coals, emitting small sparks. The two boys simply watch, the aroma of the sweet and savoury flavours wafting between them.

Arthit pulls out the notepad, scribbling in the order.

15/9/2014 – ฿40

Balance: ฿321

As the number of the balance gradually decreases, Arthit can’t help but recall the day that Kongpob had first proposed the ridiculous deal, and everything that had happened between them since then. How much had changed, and how now, he can barely remember what it was like still eating in a bathroom stall, or spending his entire weekend working, or never looking anyone in the eye in case they noticed his presence.

Would that all come back once the bill hit zero? Kongpob would have no reason to keep buying from him so frequently. He could try to convince himself that something more was there, that Kongpob’s friendship thus far, his prolonged stares, and a handful of flirtatious remarks are all the evidence he needs. But a part of him braces himself for the day it all comes to a crashing halt.

“What were you and Tew talking about earlier? On the roof, I mean,” Kongpob suddenly says, finally speaking of his own accord for the first time that day.

Arthit swallows, turning over a few skewers, and flushes slightly upon recalling how Tew had managed to pick up on his well-kept (or so he thought) secret.

“Um, not much. He just wanted to know how I study for tests and that kind of thing,” he says, feigning nonchalance.

“Oh,” comes the quiet response, with a tinge of surprise. “Nothing else?”

Arthit blinks at him a few times, trying to read Kongpob’s expression. He almost looks…relieved? He shakes his head in response before putting his order into a bag and handing it to him.

“So…how are you getting home?” he gestures towards Kongpob’s crutches.

“P’Shin is picking me up.”

Arthit nods, placing a few more skewers down over a particularly fiery patch of coals.

“Are you okay making it there by yourself?”

“Yeah, I should be fine,” Kongpob’s mouth forms a faint smirk. “Why, are you worried about me?”

“Ah, there’s the Kongpob I’m used to. And no, who’s worried? Just don’t want to have to taxi you to the hospital again.”

“Okay, P’Arthit,” he says, and Arthit can’t help but feel a sense of comfort in hearing the teasing tone of his voice return. “I’m going now.”

Arthit nods as Kongpob turns to make his way back up the street slowly pressing forward with his crutches. He watches after him for a few seconds, biting his lip, before calling out.

“Kong,” his voice projects from a couple of meters away. The boy turns his head to look at him, eyes wide in surprise.

“What?”

“N-nothing,” Arthit scratches his ear. “Just…get home safe, I guess.”

And there it is; the wide smile that lights up his entire face with his perfect, sparkling teeth and Arthit knows that if neither of them say anything soon, he might spontaneously implode. He’s truly become the blushing mess around a cute boy that Prae had teased him for acting like.

“I will,” Kongpob calls back. “And I will text you later. Promise.”

As Kongpob rests his elbow on the windowsill of the car seat, he realises that it’s the first time that Arthit has called him Kong.

## Chapter 6: Balance: ฿846

Kongpob spends most of Monday evening conducting thorough research about what he’d unintentionally unearthed (but only after he’s finished his homework, of course).

He knows he needs to give Arthit space to open up and not push the matter, but curiosity still eats at him and he’d be lying if he said he weren’t at all worried. Despite that they’ve only been friends for a week and a half, Kongpob has already developed an intense fascination with his classmate. He narrows it down to feeling guilty for not knowing his name even though they’d gone to school together for so long.

But his discovery at lunch had struck a painful nerve with him.

He remembers clearly the days when his sister would leave the dinner table early and hide for hours, her frame shrinking like plastic around a coat hanger as time went on. He remembers his parents pleading with her, begging her to eat, obsessively checking the water closet and forcing her to stay at the table after meals. He remembers the frustrated crying he’d hear from the next room and the empty candy wrappers he’d find stashed under her bed when looking for his toys.

He remembers screaming and crying when the stretcher had taken her away and he’d visit her after school sometimes, and she’d snap at him for bringing his favourite books and snacks for her. He remembers the tube in her arm and the blank stare in her eyes and the tantrums about getting fat and I’ll show them. He remembers her absence for over a year, and when she’d returned, shy and reserved, but with a hint of the pink her cheeks and the way she’d ruffled his hair and said Love you, kiddo

He remembers it all.

But now, he’s at a loss. All factors pointed to the same thing – the dramatic weight loss, the distancing from anything social, the hiding and sneaking around when it came to eating…and yet Kongpob had found no obvious trace of what he had suspected. Clearly, Arthit had in fact eaten his lunch, if the empty food container and dirty utensils had been any indication. He hadn’t thrown it out in the trash or up into the toilet after eating it. So why would he be eating in a toilet stall?

He knows it’s rudimentary to consult Google rather than a professional but he still wants to get a scope of different possibilities.

Eating in the bathroom, he types into the search bar.

What comes up is surprisingly diverse, ranging from an article about lonely Japanese students, to stories of Alzheimer’s patients avoiding their loved ones, to studies of hygiene analysis for consumption safety in bathrooms.

He clicks on a forum called My friend locks herself in the toilets at lunch.

I have a friend who I’ve known for a few years now. She always used to be really happy and outgoing, but in recent months, she’s been avoiding our friendship group and disappearing at lunch. I recently accidentally found out that she eats lunch by herself in the toilets at school and I don’t know what to think. I don’t know if we did something wrong for her to be mad at us or if there’s something else. I’m just worried.

One user replies:

Your friend could have an eating disorder, like anorexia or bulimia nervosa. Has she lost a lot of weight since this started happening? Does she seem really tired all the time? Or maybe a lot of mood swings?

Another user writes:

She might be bullied by someone else and be trying to avoid them. I remember when I was in high school, kids used to bully me a lot because I had to wear a headgear for my braces so I would try to be alone as much as possible, especially at lunch because food got caught in the metal a lot. I just didn’t need people staring at me all the time.

Kongpob pauses at this. Was Arthit still being bullied? According to M, it had been over a year since Arthit had lost weight, but there was always still the possibility.

Who might still be bullying him? It made Kongpob’s blood absolutely boil to think that people could be so cruel.

He scrolls through a few more comments before stopping at one that catches his eye.

When I was in school, I was really overweight. Morbidly obsese, if you will. I’m still overweight, but much less so than before. I’ve always had a bad relationship with food, and I eat emotionally. I definitely have it more under control now, but in order to do that, I had to stop caring what other people think. The reason I ate alone in the bathroom at lunch is because I didn’t want other people to see me eat. Being fat, I get made fun of for literally everything I do, even basic things like laughing and breathing or walking, and I feel completely embarrassed to eat or talk to anyone or even smile in front of other people because I still  feel guilty for being happy and just doing normal things. It’s like I don’t deserve to eat at all because I’m fat.

Kongpob doesn’t realise it, but there are tears trickling down his face as he reads this. Is this how Arthit was feeling? He can’t even begin to relate to this kind of trauma, but there’s still an overwhelming sadness and anger that overtakes him.

Deciding that reading any further will just get him even more upset, he shuts the laptop and takes a shower.

It’s almost 10:00 PM when his phone buzzes on the desk. Kongpob hurriedly rubs the moisture out of his eyes and glances at the notification on his phone screen.

LINE: New friend: Arthit☀️

He immediately clicks on the banner and sees Arthit’s profile, although the icon picture is just the default white outline of a silhouette against a gray background.

Kongpob is unusually excited that Arthit has actually added him, and contemplates messaging him right away.

Hi Arthit! Glad you acknowledge that we’re friends. What’re you up to? This is Kongpob btw

His eyes scan over the message before he shakes his head, deleting all of it.

Hi, Arthit! This is Kongpob. What’s up?

But wouldn’t Arthit already know who he was? He was the one who’d added him, after all. Kongpob chews at his thumb for a moment before finally settling on

Kong: 😊

He hits send and puts his phone screen to sleep, thinking that he’s not likely to get a reply anyway, and should probably head to bed. It had been a long day, and his eyes were exhausted from staring at his computer screen for hours.

Just as he’s coming out of the bathroom after brushing his teeth and about to climb into bed, his phone pings with another notification.

He practically leaps across the bed to grab the phone.

Arthit☀️: 🙄

The single emoji brings a wide smile to Kongpob’s face, and he clutches the phone in his hand as he climbs under the covers, heart still thumping erratically.

Kongpob plops himself down in front of Arthit’s desk again the next morning, filling in his planner as Arthit reads his Peanuts comic book. They don’t say anything to each other, Kongpob only smiling before sitting down and flipping open to this week’s page, the two of them sharing Arthit’s tiny desk space.

Arthit occasionally glances at what Kongpob is doing, raising an eyebrow at the immaculate colour coding and carefully drawn symbols and extremely tidy handwriting. Tilting his head sideways, he can see his own name written as the first item on Monday morning in red, as well as on Wednesday.

“How long have you been working at the cart?” Kongpob suddenly says, as he ticks off various items with a black pen, a neat check mark in the little square boxes he’s drawn. Arthit hesitates a moment, but looks up from his book slightly.

“Since I was old enough to work. So a little over a year.”

Kongpob just nods, placing the cap back on the black pen before taking out a blue one.

“Are you saving up for something?”

“What?”

“You said that you needed the money.”

“Um…well, it helps to pay the bills.”

Kongpob looks up from drawing the tiny cloud in the corner of the page.

“So you don’t keep any money for yourself?”

Arthit fingers the edge of the page he’s reading, the yellowed paper softened with time and use.

“I do,” he says. “I’m just not really saving up for anything at the moment.”

Kongpob nods again and takes out a yellow pen, doodling a sun peeking out from behind the cloud.

“Well, if you could, what would you save up for?”

Arthit rubs the nape of his neck, pondering the question.

“I don’t know…maybe hire help for Mae so she doesn’t have to work so hard.”

Kongpob smiles softly at this, colouring in the sun and adding small rays around the edges.

“What about for yourself? You don’t want anything for yourself? A car? A new phone? Nothing?”

Arthit lets out a short laugh and shakes his head.

“I don’t really need that stuff,” he says. “I guess…I would save up to go to university.”

Kongpob bites his lip, capping the yellow pen. It occurs to him that he’s fortunate enough to not have to even think about the financial aspect of going to university, but he doesn’t comment on it, fearing it might make Arthit uncomfortable.

“What would you want to study?”

Arthit rolls his eyes and closes his book, sliding it into his desk drawer.

“You ask way too many questions, you know that?”

Kongpob smirks and closes his own planner, zipping up his pencil case.

“Well you don’t make it easy to get to know you, Arthit,” he crosses his legs, sitting sideways in the chair. “Fine, what do you want to know about me? Ask away.”

Arthit narrows his eyes, but taps the desk in thought. He seriously considers all the different possibilities, but none of them seem appropriate to ask as a first question.

“How come you sometimes go back up the street instead?”

Kongpob raises an eyebrow at the unexpected question.

“My family’s butler drives me home when I don’t have practice. He parks outside the school, so that’s where I go.”

Arthit nods, huffing a snort at the fact that Kongpob is truly rich enough that his family has a butler. Then, he pauses.

“Wait, but then…the cart isn’t on your way to…” he trails off. Kongpob stiffens, a slight blush forming in his cheeks.

“What can I say? I just like grilled pork,” he laughs awkwardly. “Oh, uh, the teacher’s here.”

He gathers his planner and pencil case, hurrying back to his desk, willingly moving away from Arthit’s desk without being shooed off for the first time.

As usual, Arthit has dashed out of the classroom at lunch before Kongpob can even finish copying down the assignment. Kongpob waits a minute, lingering in his seat before walking outside to the open corridor overlooking the rest of the school. He watches as Arthit scans his surroundings, lunch bag clutched to his chest, before heading towards the side building again, disappearing around the corner to the back where the toilet is.

“Kong,” M claps a hand onto his shoulder. “You coming to lunch or what?”

“Uh…I promised Teacher Lynn I’d help her with something for English Week, but I’ll come find you guys later.”

M nods and shuffles his way down the stairs to the courtyard along with everyone else. Kongpob waits until the corridor is mostly empty before making his own way downstairs with his lunch bag, slyly making his way towards the side building.

He pauses outside the toilet door, trying to decide if what he’s about to do is more harmful than helpful. Pacing the space outside the door, he finally decides to knock.

There’s no response, but then Kongpob figures it’s not every day that someone knocks on a toilet’s main door. He pushes the door slightly open, poking his head around it.

“Arthit?” he calls softly.

He hears him shuffling around inside of the stall, and walks all the way in.

“Um…” Arthit’s voice comes from behind the stall door. “Kongpob?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

There’s a moment of quiet, neither of them speaking or moving. Kongpob sees a large empty bucket in the corner. He walks over to it, turning it upside down and brushes the back of his shorts off before sitting down.

“Wh-what are you doing…in here?”

I could ask you the same thing, Kongpob thinks, but he doesn’t want to scare him off on his first attempt.

“Having lunch,” he says aloud, opening the lunchbox. Coconut rice with a cashew, chicken and sweet potato stir fry. “You?”

“I…um…” Arthit seems to stumble for words. “Yeah. But I mean, why are you here…and not, like…out there…with your friends?”

Kongpob scoops up a spoonful of rice.

“You’re my friend, aren’t you?”

Another moment of silence passes, and Kongpob can hear that Arthit still isn’t eating.

“Arthit, I just want to have lunch with you. Nothing more. But if you want me to leave, I will.” he says quietly, having anticipated Arthit’s resistance. “Do you want me to leave?”

A small breeze sifts through the open window, whistling inside the echoey room. Arthit bites his lip and stares down at the half empty lunchbox in his hand, debating Kongpob’s offer. His breathing shallows, and he glances at the acrylic wall that separates them.

“No,” he finally says, almost a whisper. “Please stay.”

Kongpob smiles, shifting the bucket closer to the wall so he can lean against it.

Arthit would never admit it, but he’s smiling too. He shovels a spoonful of food into his mouth, chewing slowly before swallowing.

“Kongpob,” his voice is still shaky.

“Hmm?”

“You…won’t tell anyone, will you?”

“Never,” Kongpob says immediately. It had never been a question for him. “I promise.”

The two boys eat in silence, separated by a thin wall.

Kongpob finishes his food, and makes to wash his utensils in the sink before gathering his things into his lunch bag.

“Arthit, I have to go.”

“Okay,” Arthit nods, even though Kongpob can’t see him.

“Thanks for having lunch with me.”

Arthit doesn’t know how to respond to this, and simply replaces the lid on his now empty lunchbox.

“I’ll see you later, Arthit.”

It takes another five minutes after Arthit hears the washroom door swing shut for him to come out of the stall, having just sat in silence, his mind repeatedly running through the events of the last twenty minutes.

Clutching his lunch bag to his chest, he chews at his bottom lip as he takes the long route back to the classroom, catching a glimpse of Kongpob and M sitting in the courtyard on his way.

Arthit is walking out of the school gates when his phone pings with a message.

Kong☕: Hey! I know you’ve just left and haven’t opened up shop yet but I have to hurry off today but I’ll stop by quickly in about twenty minutes.

Kong☕: Could I ask for 3 each of 🐖 and🐓 ?

Arthit☀️: wut, like a skip the line order?

Kong☕: Pleeeeease, Arthit 🥺

Arthit☀️: 🙄

Kong☕: Thank youuu 😊

Arthit shakes his head but nevertheless begins walking faster, hurrying to set up the grill and work station. He doesn’t even bother going home to change, simply dumping his backpack under the worktop and wasting no time turning charcoals under the grill and pulling out the three buckets of skewers his mother has already set out for him and unlocking a cabinet at the bottom of the cart to take out the cash bucket.

Exactly twenty minutes after Arthit had received the message, Kongpob, true to his word, comes jogging towards the cart, all smiles.

“Hey, sorry. I have to rush off soon.”

Arthit simply hands him the bag with his order.

“Are you even still keeping track of how much you’ve spent?”

Kongpob shrugs, biting into a skewer.

“I thought you were already doing it for me.”

“So you just trust that I’m not accidentally knocking off a few more baht each time?” he scoffs, tilting his head in question, hands resting on the cool metal worktop.

Are you?”

“No!” Arthit shakes his head, sighing. “Never mind.”

Kongpob just smiles, finishing off the skewer.

“Why, how much am I at now?”

“฿815.”

“Wow, you really don’t charge enough. Maybe you should be sneaking a few baht off my tab.”

Arthit just rolls his eyes, placing five more each type of skewer on the grill.

“I thought you said you had to rush off?”

“Oh! Yes. But before I forget,” Kongpob pulls out his wallet and slides a ฿500 note across the counter. “For this week’s tuition.”

Arthit stares at the purple banknote, and quickly glances around before pocketing it.

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning, Arthit!” he calls out as he’s jogging back up the street.

Arthit watches after him for a little bit before rubbing his hands on his apron. He wonders how in such a short time, he had allowed Kongpob, of all people, into so many parts of his life that his days almost seemed off balance without seeing him at least once every weekday. He shakes his head and smirks, about to pick up his set of tongs, before a voice makes him jump almost three feet in the air.

“Shit, Prae, don’t sneak up on me when I’m handling burning coals!”

Prae just grins, leaning against the worktop.

“Just how much did Super Kong order that he gave you ฿500? What, is he feeding a small army?”

“Don’t call him that,” Arthit glares at her.

“What, that’s what you used to refer to him as for three years straight.” she jabs at his side teasingly.

“I will tell your dad you’ve been flirting with P’Boyd’s daughter instead of working.” he snaps, swatting her hand away.

“You wouldn’t!” she gasps in jest. “Anyway, you still haven’t answered my question.”

Arthit sighs, turning over one of the coals.

“If I tell you, will you go away?”

“I will leave you to poke at burnt wood in peace.”

“I’m tutoring him for some extra cash.”

Prae’s eyebrows raise almost halfway to her hairline.

Tutoring, huh?” she nods repeatedly. “Is that what the kids are calling it these days?”

“Prae, we’re the same age. And yes, literally tutoring. In Algebra.”

“Mmmmhmmmm…..” she keeps nodding, eyebrows raised and a shit-eating grin threatening to form on her face.

“Prae,” his tone warning her. “Don’t read into it.”

“You sure you don’t want his autograph? Or tell him how cool and awesome you think he is? Or to show him your Super Kong shrine?”

“I do not have a shrine!”

“Not even a little one? Just a small photo and a few blades of lemongrass—”

“I thought you said you were going to leave after I told you?” he holds up a white-hot lump of coal with the tongs.

“Okay, okay. Yeesh, get your act together before Super Kong finds out what a drama queen you are.”

Arthit side-eyes a glare at her as she backs away mouthing Super Kong and batting her eyelashes mockingly.

19/08/2014 – ฿31

Balance: ฿815

## Chapter 22: Balance: ฿321

Maybe he should be the one to say something.

Arthit could spend the rest of his high school life waiting for Kongpob to tell him, but at this rate, he’d rather just rip the bandaid off now than have to continue suffering through this seemingly endless pining. If this were a story, he imagines that readers would be pulling their hair out from the agonisingly slow burn by now. It’s definitely more than just a silly crush at this point, although he can’t pinpoint when exactly his deep admiration had morphed into such intense attraction that he can barely concentrate on anything else.

He could probably bear with eating lunch alone for just one more year. After all, he’d been doing it for so long before he and Kongpob had even started talking.

Of course, that would suck, and he’d probably have to go back to working his original hours at the cart, what with the prospect of no longer having his tutoring jobs.

But he doesn’t want that—the part where Kongpob no longer talks to him, not the part about losing the tutoring money.

He sends himself into a frenzy on Tuesday evening, pacing around his room while trying to think of all the reasons Kongpob could possibly be holding back. Hadn’t something almost happened on Saturday? If Shin hadn’t called, would Kongpob have elaborated on what he’d meant by I just know that I want you in my life after we graduate? And then the way he’d sulked all of Monday, but then smiled again by the time he left the cart? Arthit doesn’t know what to make of Kongpob’s polarising behaviour anymore.

He needs new perspective.

Arthit☀️: do u think i should tell him

Prae🍐: tell who what

Arthit☀️:  tell kong that i like him

Prae🍐: yes

Arthit☀️: but what if he doesn’t like me back

He’s waiting for her reply, when he hears the front door being jiggled open, and Prae kicks her shoes aside before casually strolling into his room and promptly pulling the chair out from under his desk. She throws a leg over the seat so her chest is facing the chair back, then looks at him pointedly. He’s not even fazed at how she makes herself so at home in his apartment anymore.

“Are you blind? Do you need your head checked?” She tilts her head, moving her index finger in circles to outline his head. “All that logical thinking you do with your math nerd stuff and you still can’t come to the obvious conclusion that the boy likes you?”

“This has nothing to do with Maths, Prae!” he rolls his eyes.

“What are you still waiting for? I thought his mae practically claimed you as her son-in-law? You don’t even have to hide from her!”

“Okay, first of all, that is not what she told me. Secondly, I…” he pauses, trying to articulate what he’s thinking. “I don’t think it’s as simple as that.”

Prae sighs, resting her chin in her hand. “What is it that you’re afraid of? If it’s not about whether he feels the same or not, then is it because of…you know, everyone else? Because you know that even if you let Kong go, you can’t just deny yourself like this for the rest of your life.”

“I know,” he flops down to lie on his bed. “But Kong and I started talking under pretty weird circumstances, and…I guess I just knew what he was thinking. I thought that if he did like me, he would’ve said something by now.”

“I thought as much, too.” She scratches behind her ear. “Have you tried talking to someone else about it? I can only tell you so much; I barely know Kong.”

“Like who?”

“One of his friends?” she shrugs. “Aren’t you chummy with M now?”

He ponders this for a moment. M is probably the most knowledgeable about how Kongpob feels or is thinking, and likely already knows what’s going on. The thought of starting that conversation, however, has him reeling with embarrassment.

“You could try calling him,” Prae interrupts his thoughts. “I’ll be right here if you need help. I won’t say anything.”

“You mean now?” he turns his head to raise an eyebrow at her.

“Yes, now. When else?”

“I mean…” he trails off, searching for an excuse, but coming up empty. “I…alright, hang on.”

He pushes himself up and sits cross-legged on the bed, then pulls his phone out of his pocket. His fingers tremble a little as he finds M’s name under the ten or so contacts he has saved in his phone. The four rings of the dial tone feel like forever.

Hello?” comes a familiar voice, andArthit puts the phone on speaker so Prae can listen, too.

“H-Hi. It’s Arthit,” he says slowly. “From school.”

Prae smacks her hand to her face in exasperation.

Yeah, I know who you are, Arthit,” he chuckles. “What’s up?

“I…um…” he looks over to Prae desperately, eyes wide with panic. Ask him about Kong! she mouths exaggeratedly. “I wanted to…ask you about something.”

“Is this about homework? I’m not sure you’re calling the right person.”

No, no. Not about homework. It’s…” he exhales heavily from his nose. “I just wanted some…advice? Is that okay?”

There’s a moment of quiet before M speaks again.

Yeah, of course that’s okay. What about?”

Well,” he eyes Prae’s anticipative face. “It’s about…a friend?”

A…friend.

“Yes.”

Do I know this friend?

“Maybe? It doesn’t matter.”

Arthit watches as Prae buries her face into her knees now, gripping at the roots of her hair in an agonisingly silent groan.

“….My…friend….wants to tell someone about something,” he says quietly, his fingers gripping the corner of his pillow. “They have a…a c-crush on this person.”

Right,” M says slowly. “Okay…and what’s the issue here?”

Well, uh…my friend thinks, maybe…this person likes them too, but…that person hasn’t said anything.” Arthit nods through each phrase. He realises he’s being completely ridiculous, and M probably already knows who he’s really talking about, but this is about as much as he can muster up the courage to say for now without spontaneously combusting. “And my friend is just wondering why that could be.”

“Are they close?”

He pauses to consider this. Yes, he supposes that he could call Kongpob a close friend.

Yeah, I guess.”

“Well, maybe that person treasures their friendship and doesn’t want to ruin it. Or they’re worried.”

“That your friend doesn’t feel the same way.”

“But I do!” Arthit blurts out, before slapping a hand over his mouth in realisation. “I-I mean….I—”

As he stutters through his slip-up, he grabs the pillow next to him and buries his face into it with a silent scream. Prae has slid off of the chair, lying face down on the floor in a fit of silent laughter now. Her shoulders shake as she grips her sides at his predicament.

“Hey, relax. It’s fine, I won’t say anything,” M reassures him, chuckling slightly.Arthit, however, can feel that his face has gone extremely hot, and his ears probably an alarming red. He breathes through his embarrassment. “But…seriously. If you really like this person that much, you don’t have to wait for them to speak first.”

Arthit falls back onto his pillow, rolling over to one side with the phone still held in front of him.

“So…what do I do?” he finally says after a few moments.

Maybe you need to make things clearer for them,”  M says. Prae flings her arms out, and mouths Thank you! in agreement. “What is it that you’re worried about?”

Arthit contemplates his question for a moment, pressing his tongue inside his cheek in thought.

“I don’t know how. I’ve never done this before.”

It’s probably going to be awkward no matter what, trust me. The first time I asked someone out, she didn’t even hear me because I whispered it at the library. I ended up repeating myself so many times that I was just shouting and everyone stared at us.” Arthit snickers a little. He finds it hard to believe that someone as seemingly articulate as M would have trouble in that department. “Anyway, my point is, just be yourself, and be honest. It’ll be fine. And if it isn’t, you’ll get past it eventually.”

He nods, even though M clearly can’t see him.

“Thanks, M.”

No worries. We’re friends, too. You can talk to me any time.”

“Yeah, same, I guess.”

Well, it’s great that you say that, because I could really use some help with the physics homework. What the fuck is refraction?

“It’s when you shine light on water and it appears underwater at a different—you know what? I’ll look at it tomorrow.” He quickly glances over at Prae, whose attention is dwindling.

Alright. Bye, Arthit. Good luck.

“Thanks. Bye.”

He hangs up, dropping the phone face down on the mattress before groaning into the pillow. As he does, he feels the mattress next to his legs dip down, and Prae pats his back gingerly.

“You did good, kid. Also, M would make a great counsellor one day.”

“I, on the other hand, need the floor to swallow me whole and never allow me to resurface.”

“Yeah, okay, you can disappear into oblivion another time. Right now, we need a game plan.”

Arthit finds himself exhibiting his personal range of nervous tics more prominently than usual. It’s a frankly a bizarre choreography of his knee bouncing up and down, twirling one particular tuft of hair between his fingers, and the other hand furiously clicking his pen with his thumb. It seems, though, that Kongpob’s concentration on the task in front of him obscures him from paying them any attention. That is, until he reaches out to grasp Arthit’s arm firmly, and swiftly plucks the offending pen out of Arthit’s hand.

“Stop,” he says, eyes widened with mild amusement. “It’s driving me mad and I can’t focus.”

“Sorry.” Arthit almost reaches for the pen again, but decides against it, instead sitting on his left hand. Kongpob waves a hand over Arthit’s head to flick at the protruding tuft of hair, grinning through a gentle laugh.

“What’s gotten into you, anyway? You’ve barely said a thing this morning.”

Arthit shakes his head, his knee still bouncing.

“Yeah, here,” Kongpob pushes his notebook over to Arthit, who pretends to examine the set of questions carefully, even making a show of running his finger over each row of simplification, and occasionally pausing to nod.

“It looks fine,” he concludes, pushing the paper back towards Kongpob.

“Really? I thought for sure that I’d done something weird on that last—”

“It’s fine,” he interjects, reaching out to turn over a new page, tapping it with his pen. “Let’s work on something else.”

“Something else? Isn’t this as far as we’ve gotten in class?”

“Well, it doesn’t hurt to do some recap of older stuff, does it?”

“Uh…yeah, I guess. What do you think I should cover again?”

“Maybe some…simplification on both sides of inequality symbols.”

“Oh,” Kongpob nods, as if the entire thing makes perfect sense. “Yeah, I had some trouble with that before. Did Teacher Danai say that would be on the quiz?”

“I don’t remember. Maybe? Anyway,” Arthit rambles, biting his lip as he writes down an equation he’d spent the better part of his evening thinking about. The pulsating of his heart feels incredibly loud to him, so much so that he thinks Kongpob might be able to hear it in the deafening quiet of the library, too. You need to make things clearer, M had told him. Well, this is about as clear as Arthit is currently ready for.

$3\left(4x-3i\right)>12x-27u$

He stares at the problem momentarily, before nodding once and tentatively placing the book back in front of Kongpob. “Here, you need to solve for i.”

“Just the one question?”

“Well, we’ll see how you do with this one first, and then I’ll give you more.”

“Is this from the textbook?”

“Kongpob, just do the problem!” he runs a trembling hand over his face in frustration. Of all the people in the world he had to fall for, it had to be someone as persistently annoying as Kongpob.

“Okay, okay,” Kongpob says, laughs softly. “I’ll do the problem.”

Arthit holds his breath as he watches Kongpob work through the first step.

$12x-9i>12x-27u$

“Mmhmm,” he hums as Kongpob looks to him for confirmation. “Go on.”

He gulps, the temptation to begin clicking his pen again making his hands twitch as they grip at the hem of his shorts.

$-9i>-27u$

“I can eliminate 12x on both sides here, right?” Kongpob tilts his head, examining the equation.  “Because they’re of equal value, so it doesn’t affect the final answer…”

“Yeah…now you just need to simplify it again,” the vein in Arthit’s forehead threatens to pop at any moment from how hard he’s tensing. Perhaps he should’ve waited until towards the end of the day, or done it via LINE, so if things went badly, he could lock himself away and never see the world again. Still, it’s too late to back out now.

$i<3u$

And there it is.

His breath feels unbearably tight in his throat as he waits for a reaction, his hands now laced together in front of his mouth, lips pressed together in a thin line. He stares pointedly at Kongpob’s face, searching for any indication of what he’s thinking. Kongpob’s eyebrows furrow for a moment, squinting at his work.

“I can get rid of the negative signs, too, right?”

Arthit has to gather his tumultuous typhoon of thoughts for a moment, breathing noisily into his fingers.

“Okay,” and then Kongpob shrugs. Shrugs

Over an hour of Arthit searching up ‘romantic algebra’ and customising the equation, only for Kongpob to fucking shrug. “Next question, then?”

Arthit just stares at him, unsure of whether he’s more exasperated or relieved. His entire face feels numb. At the very least, they could go about the rest of their day without any sort of awkwardness.

And actually, as Arthit begins to force quit the 500 or so tabs open in his mind, it’s probably better that Kongpob hadn’t at all registered what had just happened, because while there’s some element of truth, it seems awfully early on to talk about the L word.

That said, it’s less complicated than trying to construct an equation where the answer would spell out

i like you so much it’s actually stupid how many of my thoughts you consume but if you don’t feel the same that’s fine but also i might dissolve into a puddle and run down the drain. Solve for i.

“Never mind, it’s almost time anyway,” he eyes the nearby wall clock. “We should get to class.”

Perhaps clarity is subjective, and like M, he would have to shout for everyone to hear.

Their early morning classes feel like Arthit had merely hallucinated them. He spends both of them either staring at a random spot on the chalkboard, or gazing over at Kongpob’s back, before sighing quietly and staring at his books, simply allowing the time to pass while willing himself not to fall asleep.

It’s only when someone stands next to his desk, nudging his arm to attention, does Arthit realise that it’s already recess.

“Oh, hey, M,” he peers past him, noticing that Kongpob has left his seat, probably to use the bathroom.

“You seem really out of it,” M takes a seat in the chair in front of Arthit’s desk. “Does this have something to do with what you told me yesterday?”

Arthit heaves out a sigh and nods gently, watching as M inspects the underside of his white socks, blackened from the residue of dirt on the classroom floor.

“I…tried something this morning, but it just didn’t work out the way I wanted.”

“Wait, you actually said something?” M sits up now, genuinely intrigued. Had he missed something when Kongpob had come in that morning?

“Well, not exactly,” Arthit rolls his pencil between his fingers, feeling the hexagonal edges bump over his knuckles. “I…kind of worked it into a math equation and the answer said something to the effect of a confession. Um…he didn’t catch on, though. He thought it was just another equation,” he adds this last part quietly, burying his face in his hands at the embarrassing recollection.

M is biting back a smile, but fails. That’s disgustingly cute, he thinks. He watches as Arthit’s ears turn red, and is somewhat surprised at the boy’s boldness. Suddenly, though, it occurs to him what Arthit has just admitted out loud to him.

“You said ‘he’…”

Arthit quirks an eyebrow at M now, eyes darting from side to side to see if anyone might be listening in on their conversation.

“Well, yeah, I figured you’d already connected the dots by now. The three of you are the only friends I have other than Prae. And well, Tew…”

“Jumping is for trampolines, not conclusions.” M points at him. “That’s…thank you for trusting me with that information,” he says, more softly now.

“Anyway,” Arthit merely nods in response. “I’m fine.”

“You should keep trying. Do something more obvious.”

Like what? Just say it out loud to him? Just grab Kong by the face and kiss him?

How positively absurd, Arthit thinks.

“By the way, I still need to ask you about the homework. Lunch?”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Cool. Take it easy, Arthit.”

M softly bumps his fist on Arthit’s desk before strolling back over to his own.

“Three of the beef,” Kongpob tells Arthit as they’re standing on either side of the cart again. “Oh, and two of the chicken for Shin.”

“Is he picking you up again?” Arthit sniffs, the aroma of the skewers slightly tickling his nostrils.

“Yeah, Mae refuses to let me take public transport until my ankle is full healed.”

Arthit nods, brushing marinade on top of Kongpob’s order. As he does, he subconsciously smiles, his dimple forming in one cheek. He chortles a little at his own failed attempt. Even though his day had started out somewhat oddly, it had hardly produced the worst outcome possible, and Arthit at least feels a little less apprehensive about trying again.

“What’re you smiling about?” Kongpob says, wearing a smile of his own.

“Hmm?” Arthit snaps out of his daze, looking up in surprise. “I…nothing, just remembered something, that’s all.”

“Was it me?” Kongpob smirks, eyebrows wagging playfully.

Arthit rolls his eyes, shaking his head as he pulls Kongpob’s skewers off the grill, adding a few more to replace them. Perhaps it’s because he’s in a better mood, or because he doesn’t know if he’ll find another time when he has the guts to try again, but something occurs to him in that moment.

“Hey, Kong,” he says as he hands him his order.

“Yeah?” Kongpob loops the plastic bag over his wrist as he grips onto his crutches again. He looks back up at Arthit, who’s gazing right back at him, his eyes narrowed slightly in thought. “What is it?”

“Um…I won’t be working tomorrow,” he licks at his chapped bottom lip. “Do you want to come over after school? Like, just to hang out, or something.”

Kongpob’s gaze falters for a moment, trying to make sense of what is happening before he responds.

“Just us, right?”

“Just us.”

“Without M or Tew?”

“Just you and me.”

As much as Kongpob’s smile does funny things to his heart, Arthit feels like he will soon have to stick his face in his mini-fridge if the boy doesn’t stop grinning and give him an answer.

“I’d love that, P’Arthit.”

“Tomorrow it is, then.”

And as Kongpob hobbles away, turning around to smile at him again, Arthit finds himself unable to hold back his own grin. It only momentarily falters as he notes down that day’s order.

17/9/2014 – ฿36

Balance: ฿285

## Chapter 7: Balance: ฿815

“Okay, slow down a moment, I’m still trying to figure out this step.”

$2\left(x+6\right)+3\left(x+4\right)$

Kongpob scratches his head, staring at the question and trying to pick out how to best expand and simplify the equation. They’re in the library again this morning, Arthit diving straight into practice questions before Kongpob gets the chance to distract him with small talk.

$=2x+12+3x+12$

He looks up at Arthit for confirmation.

“Yeah. Now, you see that 2x and 3x are both of x value, so when you add them together, it becomes…?”

“5x.”

“Right. Any other values you can simplify?”

= 5x + 144, he pencils in after a moment of hesitation.

Arthit shakes his head, pointing at the 144

“You’ve multiplied the two 12’s instead of just adding them. You only multiply when one value is outside of the brackets.”

“Right,” Kongpob nods, reaching into his pencil case for an eraser, but finding none. “Hey, could I borrow an eraser?”

Arthit feels around in the small grey bag holding his stationery and pauses a moment, before handing Kongpob his own eraser. Kongpob smirks upon seeing the familiar piece of stationery.

“I meant to ask before; why do you have only part of my name written on this?”

His friend audibly gulps, eyes shifting between the book and his suddenly fascinating pencil.

“Oh, uh…I…so that I would remember who I borrowed it from so I can return it. I’ve still been using it, though, so the o and b are gone now.”

Kongpob just nods, erasing his incorrect answer.

“Uh…you can have it back,” Arthit adds quickly. “I just keep forgetting to return it.”

“It’s fine, you can keep it. I can get a new one,” he smiles. “Look after this one for me.”

Arthit raises an eyebrow.

“Look after it? It’s an eraser, not a domesticated animal.”

“Just keep it,” Kongpob laughs, shaking his head. He takes Arthit’s hand, placing the shabby eraser in his open palm. He subconsciously notes how soft and warm his skin is, and shrinks his own hand back, suddenly intensely interested in the practice questions.

If the tips of Arthit’s ears grow slightly pink, Kongpob doesn’t notice.

“So uh…why this bathroom?” Kongpob asks between bites of food. Mae has made one of his childhood favourites; pan-fried shrimp cakes (non-spicy) with a side of pomelo salad.

He’s sitting on the up-turned bucket again, his lunch box propped up on the sink counter as a table. Arthit doesn’t answer him at first, taking his time to chew and swallow his food.

“I can lock the doors,” he finally replies.

Kongpob nods, cutting into a shrimp cake with his spoon.

“I remember in middle school, kids used to say that the third floor boys’ bathroom was haunted. I think the rumour started when the second Harry Potter film came out, and then people just passed it on over the years.”

Arthit snorts at this.

“Yeah, I’ve heard about that,” he presses his spoon against a clump of rice, squishing it into mush. “Although the only ghost you would have found in there was yours truly.”

He says this almost bitterly, and it doesn’t go unnoticed by Kongpob, who feels awkward.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“It’s fine,” Arthit says. “I…don’t even know why I still do this. I’m just used to it, I guess.”

“You don’t have to.”

“It’s not that easy, Kongpob.”

“I know,” Kongpob adjusts his seat. “Or, well, I guess I don’t. I just mean…I would never judge you or anyone else like that.”

Arthit remains quiet again, rolling the mouthful of rice around on his tongue until the grains separate.

“They…they used to call me…‘Porky’.”

Kongpob already knows this from M, but doesn’t say anything, waiting for Arthit to continue at his own pace.

“That was my dad’s nickname, hence the name of the cart. I…uh, used to be a lot bigger than I am now, and kids weren’t exactly nice about it, so…I started eating where nobody could see me. It was just easier that way. Nobody wanted to eat with me, and I didn’t want to eat with anybody, either.”

Arthit isn’t even sure why he’s telling Kongpob all of this when they’ve literally only started talking for less than two weeks. Until now, they’d been ships passing each other in the night, and he has no real reason to trust someone who clearly leads such a different life. He thinks that maybe it’s because it’s the first time someone is listening to him. Then again, he thinks, it’s often easier talking to someone that you can’t see.

“I wish I’d known you back then,” Kongpob says, breaking the silence. “I would have eaten with you.”

Arthit smiles a little at this. I know, he thinks. But you clearly don’t remember anything, do you?

“I’m pretty sure that would have ruined your reputation or something.”

“What reputation?”

“You…I don’t know, you had people flocking around you all the time. Teachers loved you, you did well in school, and girls wrote you notes and left you snacks hoping you’d notice them.”

Kongpob bites into another shrimp cake, amused at the remark.

“For someone who had such a hard time accepting me as their friend, you sure paid a lot of attention to me.”

“Did not!” Arthit is glad that Kongpob can’t see his face right now, red as the curry in the carton on his lap. “I notice things about everyone in my class.”

“Sure,” Kongpob’s laughter rings and echoes against the washroom walls. He replaces the lid on his lunchbox, and his smile fades as he realises something. “Wait, we were in the same class?”

Arthit almost drops his spoon, realising he’s said too much.

“Um…only for the first half of eighth grade.”

“Why only the first half?”

There’s silence again, and Arthit briefly contemplates sinking into the toilet and flushing himself away. Way to accidentally overshare and potentially scare away the first friend he’s made in four years.

Kongpob must sense his unease even through the door, because he drops the subject.

“Sorry, never mind. I’m being nosy again,” he says, half laughing as he stands up. “Anyway, I’ve…got to go before M starts looking for me.”

Arthit nods, licking at the sauce at the corners of his mouth.

“Thanks for having lunch with me,” Kongpob says again, and the washroom door swings shut.

The tiled room becomes silent again, the only remaining sound being the faded shouts and chatter from the courtyard a good twenty metres away.

Arthit wonders if he’ll ever be able to blend into that crowd.

“Hey, where were you?” M shuffles over on the bench as Kong approaches their usual table.

“Just went to help Teacher Lynn with the display board.”

“When is English Week again?”

Kongpob stills a moment, trying to recall when the actual event he’d now adopted as his excuse actually is.

“In a few weeks, I think.”

M eyes his friend blankly. Surely the club president would know this crucial piece of information. In fact, M has noticed that in these past two weeks, Kongpob has been behaving rather unusually on the whole. He doesn’t question it, though, peering into Kongpob’s lunchbox. Kongpob rolls his eyes and slides the box over to him, earning an excited clap from M, who sticks a fork into a shrimp cake.

Kong: 3 🐖 2🐓 1 🐄? 😊

Arthit☀️: y didn’t u just tell me what u want in person

Kong☕: This is more fun, I like the animal emojis ☺️🐖🐓🐄

Arthit☀️:🐍🐸🐢

Kong: No! I would never eat a turtle!😱

Arthit☀️: rly? it’s the turtle that bothers u?

Kong: Turtles are cute. Snakes and frogs, not so much.

Arthit☀️: pigs & cows are sorta cute

Arthit☀️: tho if ur saying that u would eat anything that’s not cute, there’s a guy a few stalls away who sells crispy frogs legs

Kong: 🤢I think I’ll pass…

Arthit☀️: it just tastes like chicken

KongI’d still know they were frogs’ legs, though!

Arthit☀️: aite stop texting me if u actually want ur order

Kong: Thank youuuu😍

Arthit stares at Kongpob’s choice of emoji for a moment, deciding not to read into it. It seems like the type of thing that his annoying new friend embeds into his texting behaviours, including complete sentences with correct capitalisation and full spellings.

He shoves his phone back into his apron pocket, and sets about lining up a fresh batch of skewers. A few other customers are already in line, but he sets aside enough for Kongpob’s order on the grill, so they’ll be hot when he arrives.

“Thank you,” he smiles politely at a customer as they walk away, just in time for Kongpob to come jogging towards the cart.

“You should smile more,” Kongpob smirks, taking the bag from Arthit. “It suits you.”

Arthit immediately scowls in protest, but a blush creeps up his neck.

“Relax, I just mean that it would draw in more customers,” he laughs as he takes the bag from Arthit. “I’ll text you later!”

And he’s off again, disappearing back in the direction that he’d come from.

20/08/2014 – ฿35

Balance: ฿780

Kong☕: 😋🍢🤗

Arthit☀️:😒

## Chapter 23: Balance: ฿285

His father’s grave, one of many in a tightly packed row of headstones, looks mostly the same, if a little worn from a few months worth of built up grime due to heavy rain. Not that Arthit had been expecting any different, seeing as, well, the dead can’t rise up and make a significant mess to clean up. It’s a quiet morning, though, perhaps because most people visit during weekends rather than a Thursday morning.

After shooting Kongpob and M a quick text saying he wouldn’t be in school that day, but not to worry themselves, he’d turned his phone off, packing into the back of a tuk-tuk with his mother towards the cemetery. Neither of them had exchanged a word over the course of the entire journey until they’d seen the familiar faded green gates come into view from the back of the rickety vehicle.

Every time they’d visited other relatives before, Arthit had mostly felt empty, bowing out of courtesy to generations of people he’d maybe met once before, and never in close proximity. That had changed two years ago when his father had suddenly collapsed in the living room, a meaty hand clutched to his chest.

Arthit stands to the side as his mother rubs a damp cloth over his father’s photograph, as well as those of a cluster of relatives, including his paternal grandparents and a great uncle he’s never met. Arthit scans his gaze over the rest of the epitaph. The inscription on the terracotta marble is in golden Chinese lettering, and while he can pick out the character that’s a transliteration of the family surname, everything else is still a mystery to him. His father’s monochrome picture stares almost mockingly back at him, his larger-than-life grin, slightly tanned complexion, and slicked-back hair an optimistic image of the man he’d grown up with.

On either side of the small gravestone are two small stone vases, one with wilting flowers from the last time it had been visited (a few months ago), and the other empty. Between them is a small pit of sand, half-burnt joss sticks still wedged firmly in the dirt. He assists his mother in pulling them out and discarding of the flowers into a small plastic trash bag. She takes out a few fresh new sticks of incense from her bag, clicking the lighter over them a few times before a waft of smoke trails its way through the air around them.

They both bow, paying their respects.

“How are you, tee rak? Oon and I have come to visit you,” Arthit’s mother is sitting on her heels now, a picnic blanket laid out underneath them so they don’t scuff their knees. “Are you still eating well? Don’t forget to eat vegetables as well,” she chuckles, crows’ feet forming in the corners of her eyes, her skin thinner than it used to be, though she’s no less beautiful. “If you’ve already reincarnated, I hope you live a good life full of fortune and that you get to achieve your dreams.”

She bows again in a wai, before turning to smile warmly at her son. It’s the same few things she’d said the last time they were here during Cheng Meng Festival, and the time before that on his father’s birthday, and one year ago, on the first anniversary of his death.

“Oon, do you have anything to tell your father?”

Does he? Arthit swallows, thinking hard about her question. There had been so much that had happened since the last time he’d visited, so much that had changed about his daily ongoings. And yet, he hasn’t ever felt a sense of yearning or interest in sharing anything with his father before.

All his recollections of interacting with the man as a child had been of being helplessly dragged around Chinatown, blindly eating their fill until they couldn’t move, or crouching in the corner of his room listening to his parents argue over money behind the door or, the last few times, over his hypothetical interest in boys.

“Hi, Por,” he starts. “I hope you are well and have reincarnated into a good life.”

He raises his hands to wai, but then pauses a moment before putting them down again, exhaling a sigh through his nose. Instead, his hands curl into fists in his lap as he contemplates his next words.

“Por, I have something to tell you,” he finds himself saying. His mother turns her head sharply towards him, brows creased in confusion. “I know that…you always wanted me to become what you called ‘a real man’, whatever that means. And in many ways, I failed you,” he laughs bitterly, the memory seeming entirely ridiculous now. “You said I was too weak, too sensitive, and…that real men don’t cry, or feel, or care about what others feel. They don’t get upset when others push them around…or write birthday cards for other boys. But that’s not true.”

He reaches next to him, grabbing his mother’s small, bony, work-worn hand. She’s trembling, a lump caught in her throat. Despite the rather unusual greeting, she doesn’t stop her son from continuing.

“Por, I…there’s someone at school. His name is Kongpob,” he smiles mostly to himself. “And, well…I really like him. A lot,” he adds quietly, and he feels his mother squeeze his hand back. “And he’s taught me that…I can be all those things you disapproved of, and still be worthy of someone’s love. I’m sorry that life didn’t go the way you’d hoped, but I wish…I wish you’d had someone to tell you that it was okay to be sad, or that your failures were just temporary obstacles,” his voice is firmer, angrier now. A stray, hot tear runs down his cheek. “Because you weren’t the only one hurting, Por.”

He grips his mother’s hand tighter now, exhaling sharply through trembling lips.

“Not everyone is going to accept me. I’ve understood that for a long time. But I am so tired of being unhappy just to please other people, including you. I’m tired, Por. I just want to be happy.”

Arthit takes a few more deep breaths before pressing his forehead into his joined hands, concluding his greeting. “Rest well, Por.”

Kong☕: Is everything okay?

Arthit’s phone pings with a message as soon as he turns it on a little past noon, as he and his mother enter the apartment. He almost feels a sense of relief, having gotten his thoughts off of his chest, even if his father would never really be around to hear them.

Arthit☀️: i’m fine, don’t worry

Arthit☀️: tell u more when u come over later

Arthit☀️: ur still coming over right?

Kong☕: Yes!

Arthit☀️: ok

Arthit☀️: stop texting at school!

Kong☕: I’ll see you later! 😊

Arthit☀️: 😊

He smiles, pocketing his phone as he joins his mother in the kitchen. She’s pouring two glasses of cold water from the fridge, pushing one glass towards him across the fold-out table in the corner.

“Thanks, Mae,” he says. The icy liquid is a welcome refreshment from the sticky humidity.

She simply smiles, then pulls out a stool from under the table, joining her son as they sit by the window, the patterned grating forming a shadow on the tiled floor.

They don’t usually open up shop on this day, at least not the grilled pork cart, but his mother has decided that she’ll at least work the evening shift at the drinks stall.

“Oon,” she reaches out, stroking his hair once before allowing her hand to fall to his cheek as she admires her son’s features. “I’m glad you said what you said today.”

“You don’t think I was disrespecting the dead or something?”

She scoffs, erupting briefly with laughter at his remark.

“That stuff is only true if you believe it.”

He gulps  down the rest of his water, allowing it to trickle through him, cooling his insides, too.

“Mae, how do you stay so positive when we visit him? Even after how he was so terrible to us?”

His mother mashes her lips together in thought, eyes searching his for a few moments before heaving a sigh.

“Oon, you can be hurt by what someone has done to you, and still miss the parts of them that made you happy. I don’t want us to be angry anymore, do you understand?” she rubs a thumb at the nape of his neck, the hairs still prickly from a recent haircut. “I don’t want you to hang on to that memory of him for too long. You said so yourself, you should be happy.”

Arthit brings a knee up to his chin, picking at a tiny scab. He nods after a while.

He should be happy.

“Mae,” he says, just loud enough for her to hear. “Kongpob is coming over today.”

“Oh? Should I close up shop earlier then?”

“Mae!”

“Sorry, I’m just teasing,” she giggles, squishing his cheeks between her fingers. “Go on, then.”

He pulls his face away, scowling slightly.

“You said before that…if anything changes, that….you want me to tell you,” the words come out slowly as his glance falls onto the faux wooden veneer of the table. “Well…something might change today.”

His entire face heats up, awaiting her reaction. When he looks back up, his mother’s expression is soft, a small smile on her face.

“Thank you for telling me,” she rubs a thumb over the spot he’d been picking at, soothing away the spot of blood that’s formed. “And…I hope it works out. He’s a nice boy. Cute, too.”

Maeee,” he rolls his eyes as her grin widens. “Stop it,” he shakes his head.

He agrees with her, though.

“Just promise that you won’t let this get in the way of school, okay?”

“Mae, I haven’t even told him yet.”

“Right, like he’s going to say no,” she looks at him pointedly.

“He might,” he suddenly realises. “He might just see me as a good friend.”

“And would that be such a bad thing? To have Kongpob as your friend?”

No, he thinks. It wouldn’t, but it doesn’t stop the nagging feeling of wanting more.

Arthit spends an extortionate amount of time in front of the bathroom mirror after his mother leaves the apartment.

While he’s never cared too much about the more minute details of his appearance, having only ever paid attention to the overall size of his body, he’s lately found himself nitpicking at just about every tiny flaw.

Right now, after a particularly hygienic shower during which he’d actually used his mother’s conditioner for the first time, he’s peering at a painful zit that’s forming right above his eyebrow, as well as scars from older breakouts scattered across his forehead. It’s apparent to him now what Prae means when she says My pores are huuuuge as he inspects his nose so close up to the mirror that his breath creates brief patches of fog on the glass. Now, he’s hyper aware of his warm breath reflecting back onto his face, and wonders if it smells alright.

Maybe I should brush my teeth, he thinks, before grabbing his toothbrush and the tube of Fresh Spearmint toothpaste out of the wall holder above the sink. As he vigorously brushes, he stares at himself in the mirror, wondering when he’d begun to even care about these seemingly mundane details of appearance. Does it matter if his skin is clear or not? If his hair is an appropriate shape and length? If he smells of lavender or of citrus? What does anyone care if his breath is fresh or not?

Alright, so that last one might have less to do with Arthit’s self-esteem and more to do with Kongpob’s impending arrival within the next half hour or so. Arthit might be getting a bit ahead of himself, but he supposes that it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. He’d prefer not to have his potential first kiss be one during which his breath still tastes of the blood sausage and pork intestines he’d had for lunch.

Satisfied that he’s scrubbed the finest molecules of plaque and dirt off of his teeth, he spits the toothpaste into the basin, and rinses his mouth out with a cupped handful of water.

Exhaling sharply through pursed lips, he takes another look at himself, scanning the upper half of his body from head to waist. He grabs the toothpaste again, and dabs a tiny blob of the white substance over the spot over his eyebrow before wiping his finger on a towel. It’s then that he catches sight of his own torso.

Arthit hates the mirror, to be perfectly honest, especially after a shower, when he’s stark naked. His eyes fall on his abdomen, the skin a little looser there, his fingers grazing over fine lines slightly paler than his skin where stretch marks are etched in vertical lines around his navel. The pattern continues under his arms, over his hip bones, and behind his calves. Perhaps he should start doing some basic bodyweight exercises to fill out the skin with muscle rather than what had previously been there. Not that Kongpob would be seeing him with his shirt off any time soon, he doesn’t think, but it still makes him self-conscious to think of being looked at in that way.

He wraps his arms across his front now, exiting the bathroom so he no longer has to stare at himself. Instead, he tries to draw his attention to his small selection of clothing. He’s at home, so it wouldn’t make sense to dress in full street attire, but he doesn’t want to look too sloppy and like he’s just rolled out of bed. Eventually, he settles on a plain black pair of basketball shorts, and a grey T-shirt that somehow makes his shoulders look broader than they are.

At exactly 4:30 PM, he hears a knock on the door, sending Arthit’s heartbeat into hyperdrive, and his hands grow clammy from the mere thought of what the rest of the afternoon could bring.

Here goes nothing, Arthit sucks in another deep breath before pulling back the latch.

“Hey!” Kongpob’s familiar smile greets him as soon as the door opens. He holds up two drinks in hand; a pink milk and a lime soda. “I brought these.”

“Hi,” Arthit finds the corners of his mouth turning up slightly, stepping back to let Kongpob in. “You…you didn’t have to. The drinks, I mean.”

“Well, I’ve already bought them, so if you don’t want it, I can drink both,” he grins teasingly, settling the drinks on the coffee table as they enter the living room.

Arthit doesn’t even argue with him this time, pulling out his phone to make note of the transaction. He doesn’t really want to waste his nervous energy on such trivial matters.

18/9/2014 – ฿36

Balance: ฿249

So…where were you today?” Kongpob settles next to him on the sofa, perhaps a little closer than absolutely necessary, but Arthit isn’t complaining. The mere fact that their knees are touching makes his hands a little jittery, and he has trouble forming a coherent enough sentence to respond.

“I…went to visit my dad’s grave,” he finally says, looking up to see Kongpob’s sympathetic expression. “It’s been two years today.”

Kongpob nods slowly. “Do you miss him?”

“Honestly?” Arthit lets out a short laugh. “Not really. And I know that sounds bad, but…he…was not exactly someone I looked up to.” He takes in Kongpob’s look of confusion, and shakes his head. “It’s complicated. He had his own shit going on, but he often took his anger out verbally on me and Mae.”

“Arthit…that’s…I’m sorry,” Kongpob places a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it gently. It sends a tingle down Arthit’s back, and the hairs on the back of his neck to stand on end.

“It’s fine, I’m mostly over it now,” he shrugs, and Kongpob retracts his hand. “Tell me about school today. How was it?”

“Boring,” Kongpob huffs sulkily.

“Because I wasn’t there?” Arthit teases, nudging him with his elbow.

“Maybe,” comes the shy response. “Oak, uh, got his phone confiscated again so he and M spent most of lunch today talking about a new DOTA update or something.”

“That’s…a game, right?”

“Yeah. I have it on the console at home, but I don’t usually play unless people come over.”

Arthit nods, not really paying attention to what he’s saying, but rather focusing his gaze on how Kongpob’s natural expression is that of a soft smile, and how he always blinks gently, as though with purpose. When he realises he’s staring, he quickly looks back down at his lap.

He doesn’t know where to take the conversation from here and get to where he badly wants it to go, so he simply chews his lip, praying that Kongpob will say something else that can offer him a segue.

“Oh, um, by the way…” Kongpob squints at him, slightly amused.

“Hmm?”

“You….uh, you have a little…” he bites back a smile, looking straight at something right above Arthit’s line of vision. “Is that toothpaste?”

“Shit,“ Arthit whispers harshly, becoming flustered, and begins searching for a tissue.

“Here, I’ve got it,” Kongpob chuckles in amusement, reaching up to swipe at the white blob with his thumb. In a moment’s panic, Arthit grabs his hand, pulling it away from his face.

They both look at each other now, their joined hands falling slowly back down between their laps. The two boys stay like this for a moment, eyes boring into each other’s, as if daring the other to blink. Not breaking their gaze, Arthit gulps, his slightly cold and damp hand hesitantly shifting over Kongpob’s to lace their fingers together.

It’s Kongpob who looks down first, eyes wide with bewilderment at the sight and feeling of their clasped hands, as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Arthit watches him, hyper-focused on every flicker in his eyes and the pinch forming between his brows. He feels his heartbeat pulse so strongly that it pounds erratically in his ears, and he swears his nose become slightly numb. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see the two cold drinks on the table, forming wet rings of condensation as the ice melts.

Please say something, he thinks, Please tell me I’m not the only one

“Arthit…” Kongpob finally says after almost a minute. His gaze remains on their linked hands. “I’m scared.”

“I know,” he whispers back, the numbness now spreading toward his forehead. “So am I.”

“I thought I was going insane. I’ve never felt like this before. I just never thought I would…”

“I know. Me neither.”

Their eyes meet again, and Arthit sees Kongpob physically swallow, unsure of what to say next.

“Do you think we shouldn’t?” It kills him to ask, but he has to know.

“I’m scared,” Kongpob says again, more slowly this time. “That there are people who want to hurt us.”

Arthit tightens his clasp on his hand, gently rubbing the pad of his thumb over Kongpob’s, as though in understanding. It had never been about shame, or whether one felt the same as the other. It had never been about reputation, or the tutoring, or the stupid deal. That would be too easy.

“I’m scared, too,” he chews nervously at his bottom lip. “But I also think that…hiding sucks. Take it from someone who ate lunch in a toilet cubicle for three years.”

Kongpob smiles at this, and Arthit responds with a small one of his own.

“Yes, there are shitty people out there who don’t get it,” he continues. “But there are also the super annoying people in our lives who will pester us into feeling comfortable in our own skin.”

“Hey!”

“I mean it, Kong. I spent so many years hoping for everyone’s approval and that they would see me for who I am rather than just the fat kid, when honestly, they just don’t matter. They don’t. We have our parents, we have Prae, and M, and even Tew. They’re…like, our garden rooftops. And you have me. I know that up to this point, it’s mostly been you looking out for me, but I’m here, too. And if anyone tries to hurt you because of this, I won’t—what…what are you doing?”

He blinks rapidly, slightly startled by the sheer proximity of Kongpob’s face all of a sudden. They’re so close that the tips of their noses are almost touching now, and Arthit thinks he might have forgotten how to breathe.

“I want to kiss you,” Kongpob whispers, lashes fluttering slowly as he brings his gaze down to Arthit’s mouth. “Is that okay?” He looks back up into his eyes now, brown swirls of chocolate tinted with dark hues of desperation. His breaths grow shorter as each second passes.

Yes, Arthit thinks.

But he makes no verbal response, instead tentatively angling his head forward so that their lips meet softly, hesitantly in the middle. It’s merely a single, gentle press of their mouths, both of them holding their breaths for several seconds, but it fills Arthit’s entire body with a tidal wave of warm tingles. It exceeds all his expectations, despite the simplicity. If this is how good kissing someone you like feels, Arthit can’t comprehend how anything else could possibly make his heart swell more than this very moment. He doesn’t dare open his eyes, in case it’s just another incredibly vivid dream of his, and he might wake up from it.

As far as first kisses go, Arthit thinks his is pretty perfect.

Kongpob pulls away first, his smile growing wider as he slowly opens his eyes. Arthit bites back a smile of his own, his face and ears hot with not embarrassment, but the pleasant warmth of shyness.

When they finally manage to brave looking at each other again, they both burst into soft, nervous laughter, barely able to suppress their grins.

“Does this mean…you’re my…boyfriend now? Wow, that sounds weird to say aloud.”

Arthit rolls his eyes, his cheeks still slightly pink.

“Don’t go announcing that to everyone. They’d question my sanity.”

“P’Arthit,” Kongpob pulls their hands towards him, pouting in jest. “I thought you said you wouldn’t let anyone hurt me.”

“I won’t,” he says firmly, softening his expression to convey sincerity. “You do a good enough job of that yourself, falling into exposed drains and such,” he can’t help but add.

“You’re cute when you’re feisty.”

“Oookay, time for you to leave.” Arthit gets up, pulling him up by their still-joined hands and walking them towards the front door.

“But I just got he—” Kongpob pauses, pulling his phone out of his pocket before sighing upon reading the notifications on his screen. “Actually, no, you’re right. Shin is waiting for me downstairs.”

“I’ll uh…I’ll call you later?” Arthit scratches the back of his neck with his free hand.

Kongpob beams at him with a toothy smile, one that Arthit knows for sure is for him.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, P’Arthit.”

Arthit merely nods, a slight smile still lingering from the excitement of their kiss. He finally lets of of Kongpob’s hand, watching almost fondly as his boyfriend—well, yes, it does sound strange to say—awkwardly shuffles down the steps, occasionally turning around to grin and wave at him.

When he disappears from view, Arthit can’t suppress his smile any longer, clicking the door shut and sliding down against it so he’s sitting on the floor.

Arthit☀️: i kissed him 🙂

Prae🍐: !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Prae🍐: i’m coming over

## Chapter 8: Balance: ฿780

Kong☕: Hey, sorry, but I can’t stop by today.😞

Kong☕: Practice finished late and Mae insisted on picking me up herself.

Arthit☀️: uh…ok? u don’t have to eat here every day

Kong☕: I know.

Kong☕: Just letting you know in case you might wonder where I am.

Arthit☀️:ur not my only customer 🙄

Kong☕: But I’m your favourite? 🥺

Arthit☀️: as if 😒

Arthit☀️: other customers don’t require me to manually keep a record of their spendings 😤

Kong☕: ☹️

Kong☕: Hey, when is your birthday, by the way?

Arthit☀️: y?

Kong☕: I’m just wondering.

Arthit☀️: i don’t celebrate my birthday

Kong☕: Why not?

[Arthit☀️is typing…]

Kong☕: Actually, never mind. So when is it?

Arthit☀️: feb 20

Arthit☀️: u tryna dig up dirt on me? u won’t find anything

Arthit☀️: i’m not even on facebook

Kong☕: Haha it’s nothing like that.

Kong☕: But now I’m going to have to start calling you P’Arthit. 🤭

Arthit☀️: we’re the same age

Arthit☀️: i’m literally only 4 days older

Kong☕: You know my birthday?

[Arthit☀️is typing…]

Arthit☀️: yeah u told me once

Arthit☀️: last week

Kong☕: Oh. I must have forgotten about that 🤔

Kong☕: Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow, P’Arthit! 😊

Arthit☀️:😒

“Who are you texting? A girl?”

Kongpob looks up from his phone and realises he’s been smiling. He shakes his head and tucks his phone into his pocket. His mother smiles slyly, an eyebrow raised.

“I go to an all-boys school, Mae. Where would I be meeting any girls?”

She shrugs, slowly bringing the car to a halt at a traffic light.

“And no, I’m not texting a girl. It’s Arthit, my friend who’s tutoring me in algebra.”

“No,” he pauses for a moment. “We went to the same middle school, though.”

“Oh? Was he in your class?”

“Possibly? I actually only started talking to him recently.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re getting help with maths. With your current grade, I’m not sure which engineering programme in the country would take you.”

Kongpob gives her a tight-lipped smile. Taking over the family business one day is the inevitable cliché of his life that he still has trouble stomaching, but he’d sooner kiss a boy than tell his parents that he would much rather be doing something involving less math.

But that’s a conversation for another day.

It’s as he’s coming out of the bathroom after a shower and looking for his phone, that his search pauses at the bookshelf. He has a rather impressive collection of comic books, ranging from Japanese manga, to Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts classics, to some of the more popular Marvel and DC issues.

But he’s not interested in reading comics right now. Rather, his focus falls on the bottom shelf, where all his yearbooks from primary school through to his freshman year are lined up neatly in order.

He pulls out the one from 2011, when he was in eighth grade. It’s a little dusty, as he hasn’t looked at it in a few years, but it’s otherwise still in pristine condition.

Careful not to crack the spine of the book, he thumbs it open to near the front, flipping through the page until he reaches the class photos for that year’s eighth grade. Automatically, his gaze falls on the image of himself, shorter and a little skinnier back then, his grin big and goofy and his hair buzzed short. He laughs at M, who stands a few people down from him in the same row, grimacing awkwardly and blinking just as the camera shutter had gone off.

He runs his finger along each row, trying to identify different people but only remembering the names of about twelve different other kids. It’s only as he gets to the back row that it occurs to him. Arthit isn’t in his class photo.

“Um…only for the first half of eighth grade.”

Kongpob flips to the next page, where the other eighth grade class is photographed. And only because he’s looking for him, does he spot him immediately. At the very end of the back row, looking off to the side, is Arthit. Indeed, he had been noticeably bigger, half of his body sticking out from behind the boy in front of him. Definitely not as much as M had probably exaggerated, but then again, most of the other kids truly were quite scrawny in comparison. His hair hangs loose in front of his forehead, a contrast to the way he has it combed up and off his face now. But Kongpob still recognises the same big, nervous doe eyes and shy, distant look that he’s now grown accustomed to seeing.

“What happened to you, Arthit…”

Arthit isn’t at school the next day, and Kongpob immediately feels like his day has gotten off to an unusual start. Not bad, just…different.

He spends his morning updating his planner as he usually does. He takes careful, detailed notes in each class, making sure to craft his penmanship extra neatly. Then, he slips to the bathroom at recess, locking himself in a stall before pulling out his phone.

Kong☕: Hey, where are you? Everything okay?

He anxiously waits for a response, checking his watch every ten seconds or so, lest he be late back to class. The reply comes a few minutes later.

Arthit☀️: i’m at home, i’m fine

Kong☕: Oh…I just haven’t seen you today, that’s all.

Arthit☀️: just a cold

Arthit☀️: wait, ur on ur phone at school? i thought u didn’t break rules

Kong☕: I wanted to see if you were okay.

Arthit☀️: yeah well i’m fine so no need to freak out

Arthit☀️: probably can’t get ur food today, tho

Kong☕: That’s okay. Hope you feel better soon!

Kong☕: I’ve got to go. I’ll text you again after school.

Arthit☀️: whatever

Kongpob smiles, turning to his phone off and making it back to the classroom just in time for his teacher to follow in closely behind him.

“Excuse me, Teacher Lynn?” he says as she places her books on the teachers’ desk.

“Yes, Kongpob, what can I do for you?”

She looks a bit frazzled, glasses perched on the top of her head as she shoves her wild bush of hair into a bun. His stellar English grade aside, she’s probably his favourite teacher, just because she’s a bit kooky and less uptight than most of their other teachers. That’s not to say that she doesn’t still run a tight ship, her sixth sense for nonsense easily comparable to that of dog to its owner’s scent.

“Arthit is out sick today. I was wondering if I could bring his homework to him after school.”

She tilts her head slightly with a pensive look.

“Sure. I’ll ask the other teachers. Swing by the staff room after school.”

“Thank you, Teacher Lynn.”

“You know, I didn’t know you two were friends.”

Kongpob smiles nervously at this, rubbing his thumb and forefinger together.

“Uh….yeah.”

“Good. Arthit could do with friends like you.”

Kongpob doesn’t ask what she means, as her smile morphs into a terse frown, glaring at two students at the other side of the room who are playing volleyball with a scrunched up piece of paper. They immediately scramble back to their seats.

The cart, as Kongpob suspects, is closed. It’s odd, not seeing the bright lamps hanging over the grill, which is currently empty and covered with a green tarp. He keeps walking further down the street until he recognises Prae, and Arthit’s mum.

Sawasdee krab.” He wais to both of them.

“Oh! N’Kongpob!” Arthit’s mother’s face lights up upon seeing him. “Are you looking for our Arthit? He’s sick today.”

“Yes, I know. I’m bringing his homework.”

He holds up the brown envelope in his hand, filled with various assignments and a photocopy of the notes he’d taken that day. Neither Prae nor Arthit’s mother say anything, but they exchange a very wide, deliberate smile that Kongpob can’t comprehend.

“That’s so lovely of you!” Arthit’s mother finally says.

“If you could pass this on to him, that would be great,” he begins to hand her the envelope.

“You know what? How about you take them to him yourself?” She scribbles down what looks like an address. “It’s just around the corner from here.”

“Oh,” he says, surprised. “Would that be okay? I don’t want to disturb him.”

“He’s been sleeping almost all day. He’ll be fine. Here, what do you want to drink? I’ll make you something. My treat.”

“Oh, that’s okay, you don’t have to-“

“Nonsense! You’re doing him favour; the least I can do is make you a drink.”

“Um…I guess I’ll have an iced coffee then,” he chuckles, finding himself unable to argue with her.

“Oh, I’ll make you a pancake!” Prae pipes in, flipping the pastry on her griddle with two spatulas.

“Really, that’s – it’s too much. I’m just bringing him homework. If anything, it’s a bother.”

She’s not listening though, busy slicing the pancake into eight equal pieces.

Arthit’s mother hands him two drinks – an iced coffee, and a cup of pink milk. Kongpob squints at the latter. It’s not his order, nor something he would really think to choose. The last time he’d drunk pink milk was in elementary school.

“That’s for him. Such a sweet tooth. It puts him in a good mood, though,” she shakes her head. “You know, my son is a bit like a durian.”

“A durian?”

“He acts like he’s all tough and unapproachable but deep down he’s a sweet, mushy kid, really.”

“I see,” Kongpob laughs, agreeing with her fairly accurate—if somewhat odd—analogy.

“But give him some time to warm up to you. He looks up to you, I can tell.”

“Um…” he doesn’t know how to respond to this. Why would he look up to me?

Prae comes to his rescue, though, handing him a paper bag with the fresh, crispy pancake.

“Oh, thank you! At least let me pay for this.” His hand begins reaching for his wallet.

“Stop, or I’m going to be offended,” Prae smirks. “Any friend of Arthit’s is a friend of mine, too.”

He nods, before saying his goodbyes, following the directions on this piece of paper Arthit’s mother has given him.

“Such a nice boy! I’m glad Oon has him as a friend. I like him.”

“Mmhmm…” Prae smiles to herself.

Some things are better left unsaid, and nature should let its course be taken.

Kongpob doesn’t think he’s ever been in a walk-up apartment building before. It’s definitely an old construction, although fairly well kept, the staircase brightly lit and the tiled floors swept clean of debris.

When he reaches the second floor and sees the door for the correct apartment, he hesitates about knocking. Suddenly, he’s oddly nervous, his heart thumping loudly in his chest. Would Arthit be alright with him showing up unannounced like this?

He decides to try a different approach.

Kong☕: Feeling better?

Arthit☀️: yeah i took some medicine and slept a lot

Kong☕: Great!

Kong☕: Are you thirsty, by any chance?

Arthit☀️: uh i guess…y?

Kong☕: I’ve got a glass of pink milk with your name on it and I think you’re going to want to drink it before the ice melts.

Arthit☀️: ?

Arthit☀️: how…? wait where r u?

When Arthit pulls the door open sharply, he almost stumbles back. He has his hair down, loose and slightly messy, and he’s wearing a loose t-shirt and shorts. His nose is evidently red against his pale skin, but he otherwise looks fairly alert.

“Um, hi?” Kongpob holds the plastic cup out to him.

“You’re….here,” his voice is slightly stuffy.  “At my house.”

He blinks, looking left and right as though someone else might be hiding around the corner.

“Yeah…I meant to just drop your homework off with your mother, but then she gave me your address and insisted on giving me a free drink.”

Arthit eyes the pink drink, and takes it from him.

“I don’t usually drink this,” he feels the need to clarify.

“I’m not judging,” Kongpob grins. “It’s cute.”

Arthit rolls his eyes, ignoring the warmth growing in his cheeks.

“Uh…come in, I guess.”

He steps aside, gesturing into the apartment. As Kongpob takes his shoes off, he takes in the surroundings. The space is lit warmly by a lamp hanging from the wooden ceiling fan, the walls a faded turquoise blue, with wooden doors painted a creamy, faded white. The floor is lined with planks of varnished redwood. The furniture is mostly rattan pieces, lined with fitted cushions covered in thick fabric in faded hues of dark purple and pink.

Immediately, his skin prickles with the feeling of home and warmth, a stark contrast to the grand, marble emptiness of the enormous living room in Kongpob’s own abode.

“It’s…probably really shabby and small compared to your place,” Arthit mumbles.

“I like it. It’s very cosy,” Kongpob smiles at him, shrugging his bag off his shoulder and placing his coffee, the pancake and the envelope on the table that Arthit has led them to.

He sits down across from Arthit, who hasn’t touched his drink. Kongpob sips at his own iced coffee.

“Your mother wouldn’t let me pay for this,” he says. “But could you deduct it from our deal? I don’t feel right getting things for free.”

“It’s only ฿5.”

“Still. Prae even gave me a pancake.”

“Fine. Wait, Prae gave you free food?” Arthit raises his eyebrows. “I’ve known her for years and she hasn’t ever so much as offered me a glass of water!”

“You can have the pancake,” Kongpob laughs at his reaction, pushing the bag towards him. Arthit freezes a moment, looking at the paper bag, then shakes his head.

“No, it’s okay,” he chews at his bottom lip, still not taking his eyes off the food.

Kongpob watches Arthit’s expression carefully, but doesn’t comment. Instead, he breaks off a piece of the flaky pastry, marvelling in the delicious, warm, and chewy texture. Arthit’s gaze follows the bite of food, hardly blinking as he watches Kongpob chew.

“Oh, wow that’s good,” he says through a mouthful. “You sure you don’t want any?”

Arthit scratches his chin, eyeing the pancake again.

“Maybe…maybe just a little.”

He cautiously breaks off a small piece. Kongpob pretends to be deeply interested in the envelope, untying the string around the opening as Arthit slowly brings the pastry to his mouth, barely nibbling. It is good.

“So, there’s a reading task for English that’s due on Wednesday. Then Maths, which I’ll probably need your help with. That’s due Tuesday. Nothing for Thai, although Teacher Yong says we’re doing an essay in class next week. Everything else, I took notes for.”

Arthit swallows the last of his bite as Kongpob talks through each piece of paper. When he’s done talking, he shuffles the papers back into a tidy pile and smiles at Arthit.

“Thanks, you really didn’t have to.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Kongpob grins, taking another sip of his coffee. “Or do I have to remind you again that we’re friends?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Arthit smirks, looking through the various papers. “Thanks anyway.”

Kongpob’s phone pings then, alerting him to the time.

“Yikes, I have to go before my mother phones up the RTP reporting a missing person.”

Arthit chuckles at this, and Kongpob immediately notices the deep dimples in his cheeks. He can’t decide whether he wants to poke his finger into one of them, or press his lips to the skin around it.

When he realises what he’s just been imagining, he shakes his head of the thought.

Stop it. That’s completely absurd. Arthit is my friend. A boy, nonetheless!

“I’ll…see you on Monday,” he quickly gathers his bag up and picks up the cup of iced coffee, nodding more to himself than anything else. He’s grateful that his complexion doesn’t naturally show give way to the furious blush he feels creeping over the entire expanse of his skin.

“Okay.”

Arthit stands up as well, walking him to the door. He leans against the open door as Kongpob slips his shoes back on, finding himself observing with unnerving detail the way the other boy’s exposed arms are taut and firm, sinewy muscle moving under olive skin as he does up his shoelaces.

Kongpob looks back and waves at Arthit as he heads down the staircase, and Arthit shuts the door, leaning against it and sliding down until he’s sitting on the floor.

He’s probably out of his mind letting himself get so close to Kongpob. And yet, even if the last time he’d allowed himself to become drawn to him, he’d ended up hurt and even more alone, he can’t bring himself to say no whenever Kongpob asks for his attention.

He sighs, taking out his phone.

22/08/2014 – ฿5

Balance: ฿775

## Chapter 24: Balance: ฿249

Arthit likes to think that he’s many things, but a dazed, lovesick mess has never crossed his mind as one of them. And yet, after Prae had let herself into the apartment, squeezing him till he could barely breathe, he’d been high on the endorphins that were a result of both his relief and excitement about his first kiss.

Now, as Kongpob’s not-so-subtly glancing back to smile at him for maybe the thirtieth time that lesson alone, Arthit has a hard time suppressing his own as he shakes his head in mock disapproval. He sighs, gesturing at the front of the classroom with just a raise of his eyebrows.

Pay attention, they say. You’re being way too obvious.

It’s fairly unlikely that anyone is paying them any mind, given that most people who sit near the back are notorious slackers who spend most of their time staring blankly at the second hand of the classroom clock, or are masters at the art of sleeping with their eyes open. In fact, Arthit is almost entirely sure that the guy sitting directly behind Kongpob (Oak, Arthit thinks his name is) is drooling slightly into his own palm, one side of his glasses pushed up to almost the top of his head as he rests his cheek in his hand. Still, he can’t help but be cautious for both of their sakes.

Kongpob returns Arthit’s look with a slight pout, but relents, turning his gaze back to face the chalkboard. And all in good time, as he’s asked to help hand out materials for the entire class. Arthit tunes out, averting his gaze out of the window for a while as Kongpob leisurely makes his way through each row. Soon, though, he’s quickly approaching Arthit’s corner, startling him a little as he enters his peripheral vision.

Before he puts the worksheet down, though, Arthit raises a brow in curiosity as he watches the boy slyly pull out a pencil from his pocket and scribble something near the top corner of the page. Kongpob smirks a little, clearly pleased with himself, before winking at Arthit and placing the paper face down on the desk. And just as quickly, he makes his way back to his own seat, almost losing his footing and slipping on his socks from lacking peripheral focus.

Arthit shifts his gaze with exaggerated agitation, then peels the corner of the page off the desk to peek at what Kongpob has written.

Is it possible for a person’s entire body to blush? How does a three-word question and silly, hand-drawn emoji send a momentary prickle of warmth down to even one’s calves? Looking up to catch Kongpob’s mischievous smile, Arthit bashfully blinks OK in the subtlest of nods.

For all intents and purposes, Kongpob discovers that kissing Arthit is one of his new favourite pastimes. Far, far better than kissing his own hand while imagining that his finger-lips belong to Arthit. And even though Arthit had yelped a little when he’d found himself gently pushed against the wall outside of the rooftop doorway, he’d all but melted like shaved ice in the sun when Kongpob had murmured a timid Hi, linking their hands together and leaning forward to give him a firm but gentle peck on the mouth.

“Kong, we’re at school!” Arthit half-heartedly pushes him away with an elbow, cowering his neck backwards in a poor attempt to mask his furious blush. He hadn’t been expecting their next kiss to take place so abruptly, not that he’s complaining. Kongpob is a little pink in the face himself, flustered with the pleasant rush that something as simple as pressing his lips to his boyfriend’s brings.

“There’s no rule saying that we can’t kiss at school,” Kongpob grins. “I’ve read the entire school manual seven times.”

“We go to an all boys school,” Arthit looks at him pointedly, but he’s tentatively running a thumb over Kongpob’s palm. He opts not to comment on his peculiar choices in reading material. “It’s not a frequent enough occurrence to bother mentioning. Like, there’s no explicit rule saying that you can’t technically take a shit on the basketball court, but it doesn’t mean that—mmph!”

His protests are smothered by another sweet kiss, which, despite his fear that they may actually get caught by a teacher, has his heart racing with excitement rather than anxiety. Suddenly, his previous protests die on his otherwise occupied lips, his already foggy mind only managing to process enough to kiss back.

A part of him still has some trouble processing that the very boy he’d quietly pined after for so long really, truly returns his affections. If it weren’t for the fact that as he occasionally peeks an eye open, he can see Kongpob’s thick eyelashes so very up close, he would think that he was having a hyperrealistic fever dream. Kongpob’s lips are soft and warm, and meet his own with a care and enthusiasm that Arthit is only happy to reciprocate. Even though they’re just a repeated chain of closed-mouth kisses, Arthit briefly wonders if he’s had some practice.

And he would be right, although not in the way that he dreads to imagine.

When Kongpob finally pulls back, resting his forehead against Arthit’s for a moment, the latter’s hands have disentangled from the other’s, instead settling on Kongpob’s shoulders as he tries to clear the dumbfound dizziness from his head and calm the flutter in his stomach.

“I’ve made a rebel out of you. You never used to break school rules.” He smirks, quietly toying with the back of Kongpob’s shirt collar as he collects his shortened breath. Kongpob’s own hands find themselves on the wall on either side of Arthit’s waist.

“Like I said, it’s not a rule.”

“Oh, so kissing is okay, but not swearing?”

“That’s totally different. Swearing is rude.”

“I’ve still yet to hear you say ‘fuck’.”

“You and M probably make fun of me about that behind my back.”

“Oh, on the daily,” Arthit says in mock confirmation. “We have a flipping good laugh.”

“I hate you.”

“You mouth was saying otherwise just a moment ago.”

“Actions speak louder, or so they say.”

Arthit brings his hands down in front of him now with an exhale of mild amusement, briefly glancing at Kongpob’s walking boot in their now more comfortable silence. Somehow, even though they’d talked for hours on the phone so many times before, speaking in such physically close proximity adds a strangely thick layer of intimacy to their playful banter. Kongpob smells like…well, Arthit isn’t so well-versed in scent varieties, but he definitely smells clean, unlike his own shirt, which probably reeks of char-grilled meat.

Not trusting himself to ask if he looks up, Arthit keeps his eyes trained on their shoes.

“Have you told M yet?”

Kongpob leans back, rubbing a finger across his chin. He shakes his head after a moment.

“Like, I’m pretty sure he already knows. But…it still feels strange to say out loud.”

“Which part?” Arthit mutters quietly, his nervous gaze searching Kong’s. That you’re dating a boy? That you might be gay? Or…that you’re dating me?

Kongpob sighs, shuffling backwards to sit at the picnic table.

“The part where I’ve kind of been neglecting him for a while now because of…this.”

“This?”

“You know,” he gestures vaguely between them. “Spending all my time with you…trying to get your attention…” he trails off, and Arthit suddenly realises that Kongpob is…shy. He doesn’t know why, but this little fact pleases him greatly, and he takes a seat next to him on the bench. “What if it gets weird? Like, when we all hang out and stuff?”

“I…don’t know,” Arthit admits. In his giddiness, he hadn’t thought it through that much. He’d certainly anticipated that some people would disapprove, and they’d probably have to hide, but now, he realises they’d only skimmed the tip of the iceberg of questions they’d have to encounter. “But he’s your best friend, and he likely already knows. I think you can trust him not to be weird about it. Still…that’s your decision to make.”

“Right,” Kongpob nods slowly. “I’ll tell him soon. I promise you.”

“Hey, what? This isn’t about me. I just mean that…it’s nice having more people who support you, isn’t it?”

A small smile grazes Kongpob’s lips, and he nods again.

“I guess it does help that he already kind of knows it’s coming.”

“Yeah. So does Tew.”

Kongpob’s head snaps around to look at him in shock.

“What? How does Tew know?”

Arthit chuckles, shaking his head. Surely, his boyfriend could not be this dense, although the fact that he’d missed his attempt at flirtation a la algebraic equation is a sobering reminder.

“He…asked me out earlier this week,” he rubs his neck sheepishly.

“I…” Kongpob narrows his eyes, suddenly…annoyed? “Did you say yes?”

Arthit has to tilt his head and blink a few times, wondering why he’d ever once thought Kongpob might have been even a little bit the intelligent one between the two of them.

“No! What?”

“Well, I-I don’t know!” Kongpob throws his hands up. “He’s…not a bad guy. He’s friendly, and he got you those snacks at that game. I mean, I didn’t even know he liked boys, but—”

“Kong, I don’t like Tew like that,” Arthit cuts him off. “You really think I would fall at someone’s feet over a pack of seaweed? I…it’s always been you. Even before I realised it, I guess,” his voice trails off in volume at this last part.

Arthit thinks he will never tire of the rare sight that is Kongpob’s blush. If it means he could see it every day, he’d stop holding back on telling him more of his honest thoughts. He bites back a timid smile of his own, but hooks his pinky finger over Kongpob’s on the bench between them.

“Anyway,” he continues. “I said no to him, more or less. And he kind of put two and two together. I don’t think he would be weird about it, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

Kongpob smiles, nodding once. He hooks his pinky around Arthit’s, his own fingers thin and bony next to Arthit’s larger, slightly calloused ones.

“I’m glad,” he whispers. “That you don’t like someone else.”

They hadn’t properly said it out loud to each other yet, despite it being silently agreed upon, but Arthit feels pleased nonetheless. He clears his throat, before slowly pushing himself off the bench.

“We should get back to class. Recess is almost over.”

“Meet you back here at lunch?”

“Kongpob!”

“I want…three of the pork, two of the chicken, and two of the beef,” Kongpob is practically drooling over the grill as he watches Arthit set up the first batch of skewers.

“Hungry, then?” Arthit smirks, but lines up the order neatly, the chicken and pork slightly more spaced out. Then he takes his notepad out, scribbling out a familiar format.

19/9/2014 – ฿43

Balance: ฿206

It had rained the night before, and the air is still a little muggy. With the added heat coming from the grill, Arthit wipes at his upper lip on the sleeve of his shirt. Kongpob watches this with fascinated precision, paying particular attention to the faintest reddened outline of swelling around Arthit’s lower lip.

“We didn’t exactly do much eating at lunch today,” he smugly reminds him, much to Arthit’s embarrassment at the memory. The boy glares at him briefly, but simply shakes his head. In some ways, he thinks that things might be progressing a little too quickly between them, which might leave him with no choice but to have to deal with the increasingly frequent problem in his shorts very soon. On the other hand, he’d waited far too long to fulfil his simple wish to even be Kongpob’s friend, and he doesn’t want to waste any more time.

“We can’t keep sneaking off like that,” he finally says, having mostly collected his thoughts now. “People will start to talk.”

“If they’d wanted to talk, they would’ve been doing it for weeks now, what with how many times we’ve been eating alone up there.”

Arthit shrugs noncommittally, turning the skewers over.

“Maybe we should start eating in the cafeteria then,” he remarks, looking up to meet Kongpob’s unreadable expression.

“Like…with everyone around?”

He seems to be seeking confirmation, one that Arthit isn’t entirely confident in giving himself. But perhaps everything they’d been through together up to this point in time had been building up to that all along. Perhaps he would change his mind over the weekend. For now, though, he’s determined to continue the pattern of leaping over positive milestones.

“Yeah,” he nods. “With our friends.”

Kongpob’s previous uncertainty morphs into a genuine, wide smile, and Arthit falls just a little deeper. They lapse again into comfortable silence as Arthit hands him his order, wiping his hands on the towel around his apron. Arthit doesn’t think that things could be better than they are right now. Well, he could definitely do with less upper lip sweat as his glowing-not-greasy boyfriend stands in front of him, but other than that, he’s pretty satisfied.

“Hey, what are you doing tomo—“ he starts, but his question is broken off by Kongpob’s ringtone. He hurriedly pulls his phone out of his pocket, squinting at the caller ID before tentatively answering the call.

“Hello?…Mae?”

Arthit watches as Kongpob’s brows furrow with concern, listening as his mother tells him something that extends over a good twenty seconds or so. Kongpob’s expression fades into a vague stiffness, mashing his lips together as he listens in silence.

“Okay, Mae. I’ll be home right away.”

He hangs up, staring at the phone screen for a few moments longer before looking up again. Arthit eyes are slightly wide with anticipation, wondering what could possibly call for Kongpob to be needed at home so urgently.

“Is…everything okay?”

“Uh…I-I have to…I have to go,” Kongpob says distractedly, pocketing his phone again. “I’ll…text you. Later.”

“Oh…uh, okay,” Arthit nods ever so slightly, not quite understanding, but seemingly aware that he shouldn’t pry, at least not right now.

He watches blankly as his boyfriend — usually exhibiting at least some sort of emotion, even if it’s a negative one — push off on his crutches back up the street without so much as a goodbye, nor the vaguest reflection of his thoughts.

## Chapter 9: Balance: ฿775

$\frac{2}{x+1}+\frac{3}{2x+3}$

“No! Why are you doing this to me?”

Kongpob whines as soon as Arthit writes out the equation on a scrap piece of paper.

I’m not the one doing this to you,” he rolls his eyes. “This is from the homework due on Wednesday, which you said you needed help with.”

Kongpob wonders why he’d ever asked to be tutored in Maths in the first place.

Because you need to get into engineering school.

Right, of course.

“Fine,” he sighs. “How do I do this?”

Arthit shakes his head in exasperation, pulling the paper towards him again.

“You know how to add up regular fractions with different denominators, right?”

“Kind of? You multiply the numerator in one fraction with the denominator in the other fraction…then multiply the two denominators to get the new one?”

“Exactly. So based on your understanding of that, which algebraic equation do you need to solve first?”

Kongpob blinks blearily at the page. Perhaps it’s because it’s still early, but the numbers read like an alien language to him. Of course, it really isn’t that difficult, but for whatever reason, his brain doesn’t really want to digest it. He’s trying his best though, at the very least so that he’s not wasting Arthit’s time.

$2\left(2x+3\right)=4x+6$

“Great. And the other one?”

Arthit seems genuinely pleased that he’s managed to quickly catch on to this one part. Their session last week had ended in Arthit grumbling about how Kongpob needed a chip inserted into his brain, not a tutor. But seeing him pleasantly surprised makes Kongpob want to try even harder, if only to witness more of his friend’s softer side.

$3\left(x+1\right)=3x+3$

“And then the two denominators?”

$\begin{array}{l}\left(x+1\right)\left(2x+3\right)\\ =2{x}^{2}+3x+2x+3\\ =2{x}^{2}+5x+3\end{array}$

$\begin{array}{l}4x+6+3x+3\\ =7x+9\end{array}$

$\frac{7x+9}{2{x}^{2}+5x+3}$

Arthit squints at Kongpob, who’s just watching his reaction.

“Are you sure you actually need my help? You’re not just pretending to be bad at algebra for some twisted joke, are you?”

Kongpob just shrugs and puts his pencil down.

“Somehow when Teacher Danai explains it, it always goes in one ear and out the other. His voice is…to put it nicely, very…soothing.”

Arthit smirks at this. Their Maths teacher, while an indubitably kind and patient man, seems to lack any enthusiasm for life, an attribute unfortunately reflected in the monotone of his voice.

“Why are you trying so hard to up your grade anyway? Are you really doing that badly?”

“I’m getting a B. But I’m looking to apply to engineering programs in university, so I need at least an A minus. Not that useful excelling at English in engineering school.”

“I’m looking to get into engineering, too.”

“Wow, at least buy me dinner before you try to follow me to college,” Kongpob jokes, and Arthit narrows his eyes in a glare.

“I’m not—”

“I’m just teasing,” Kongpob laughs as he works on the next question. “So…why engineering?”

Arthit shrugs. “I like seeing how things get developed from small plans into real products. Especially in factories.”

“Yeah, like those robots that kiss the conveyor belt to make those chocolates!”

“Yeah,” Arthit chuckles at Kongpob’s example. “Something like that. But more like…everyday things. Home appliances, and that kind of thing.”

“Like an electric grill?”

Arthit nods. “Something like that.”

“Why don’t you use one at the stall? Isn’t it easier than using charcoal?”

The paler boy seems to ponder this question seriously, pursing his lips in thought.

“Well, firstly, it would consume a lot of electricity, and then I’d have to crank the prices way up to cover that. We have a gas grill at home, but the flavour you get just isn’t the same. I mean, too much charcoal smoke exposure and eating too much chargrilled food would probably give you colon cancer eventually, but if I can figure out a way to get the taste without the side effects, then-”

He cuts himself off, shaking his head as he realises that he’s rambling.

“Uh…never mind, it’s stupid. I don’t plan on grilling pork forever, anyway.”

Kongpob is completely fixated.

“No, I think that’s great. I wish I had a legitimate reason to study engineering.”

Arthit raises an eyebrow inquisitively.

“Do you not?”

“My dad’s company works with a lot of factories that supply parts for commercial products. So, I’m kind of expected to take over one day,” he sighs outwardly, shading in a square on the grid paper in front of him.

“But…it’s not what you want?”

“Not really? I mean, I don’t know. I’ve still got time to think about what I actually want, I guess. But my parents expect me to do engineering. I just don’t really have the right kind of skill set for it, I don’t think.”

Arthit says nothing, simply watching Kongpob as he talks, the usual bright and slightly pushy demeanour fading from his face. It’s a little unsettling, seeing the boy so unsure of himself.

“Anyway, sorry. Don’t mean to make this all weird,” Kongpob shakes his hand as if to brush the topic away. “Back to algebra.”

Kongpob manages to catch up to Arthit before he even enters the isolated bathroom at lunch.

“P’Arthit!” he whisper-yells, as if anyone else might be around to hear them.

The boy whips around to look at him, slightly startled.

“Uh…hi,” he finally says after a beat. “You’re…here again.”

“Actually, I was…wondering if you want to go somewhere else.”

Arthit’s glance wavers, clutching the straps of the plain grey and blue lunch bag in his hand.

“S-somewhere else?”

Kongpob doesn’t miss his panicked expression, and retracts his thoughts a few paces, trying to parse his next words so as not to scare Arthit off.

“There’s a sort of…garden on the roof of the main building. Nobody goes there, but it’s actually quite nice. There are a few tables. And a basketball hoop,” he watches his friend’s face morph from anxious to puzzled. “Anyway, I kind of want to eat lunch there today, and you’re welcome to join me if you want.”

Kongpob waits a few more seconds, and seeing no response from Arthit, he nods with a tight-lipped smile, and slowly begins to walk away towards the back stairs of the main building. It’s as he’s reaching the second floor that he hears tentative footsteps following closely behind. He pauses, looking down over the stair railing to see Arthit cautiously peering around them as though he’s not supposed to be in the building at all, and he’s about to get caught for trespassing.

When Kongpob finally pushes open the metal door to the rooftop garden, he inhales deeply, breathing in fresh, open air. The entire rooftop is covered with various potted plants, ranging from flowers, to plain greens, and a few larger pots holding lemon trees and tomato plants.

Arthit is in awe. He walks around, taking in his surroundings. It’s certainly far more pleasant, and warmer than the echoey, tiled bathroom he’s used to.

Kongpob grins at Arthit’s fascination, and swings his legs over a bench at one of the tables under the shaded part of the roof. After a few more moments of visual exploration, Arthit joins him at the table, placing his lunch bag on it with a clatter.

Kongpob chuckles, opening his lunchbox. A baked salmon fillet on a bed of wild rice pilaf. If Arthit is curious about his rather bougie meal, he doesn’t mention it.

“I used to help out with the student council last year, and sometimes they lay their posters out here to dry after painting them. I really liked the vibe, so every now and then I come up here during lunch to hang out alone or take a nap if it’s too loud in the courtyard. I also come here sometimes after school if P’Shin is stuck in traffic on the way to pick me up.”

“P’Shin?”

“My family’s butler, although he’s more like a family friend at this rate.”

Arthit snorts, shaking his head. Such a prince, he thinks. Kongpob digs a spoon into his food and begins eating. Arthit still hasn’t taken his lunchbox out.

“So…what’s for lunch?” Kongpob glances at the linen bag on the table.

Arthit blinks a few times before taking the thermos out of the bag and unscrewing the lid. He peers inside.

“Basil pork with rice.”

Kongpob nods, and chews on a spoonful of his own food.

“Sounds good. Did you make it yourself?”

Arthit shakes his head, still not picking up his own utensils.

“There’s a guy who runs a nearby stall who gives me my choice of whatever he has left at the end of the day for lunch the next day.”

“Really? That’s nice.”

There’s a quiet that dwells between them again, but Arthit still makes no move to begin eating. Instead, he watches Kongpob chew and swallow each bite, his tongue darting out occasionally to lick at the corners of his mouth.

I can do this, he thinks. It’s just Kongpob. Just one spoonful. Just to test the waters.

Arthit slowly picks up his spoon, exhaling heavily, before picking up just the right rice to minced pork ratio, one particularly crunchy-looking basil leaf nestled in the bite he’s compiled. He stares at it a moment, as though it might come alive and start laughing in his face.

Slowly, he lifts the spoon to his mouth, gulping, and watching Kongpob, who seems to take no notice. Arthit knows that he’s feigning his lack of attention, but he’d be lying if he weren’t not at least a little warmed at the thought of Kong wanting him to feel comfortable enough to eat in front of him.

Stop faffing around and just do it, he scolds himself internally.

Before he can argue with himself further, he’s sticking the entire spoonful in his mouth, and pulling it out just as quickly, his lips closed as he holds the food in his mouth. Kongpob merely breaks off another piece of salmon with his own spoon and scoops it up with a dollop of his rice before mindlessly shoving it in his mouth, chewing like it’s no big deal.

Tentatively, Arthit begins to move his jaw, chewing his own food and trying to focus on the flavours: salty, spicy, earthy, and with just the right amount of plain rice to balance it all out. Finally, he decides he’s chewed the one mouthful enough for it to be as mushy as baby’s food, and swallows it all in one gulp.

When he looks back up at Kongpob, the boy is smiling at him softly. Arthit, hands slightly clammy with nervous sweat, turns one corner of his mouth up, and Kongpob simply turns his attention right back to digging into his own food.

Arthit eats another five spoonfuls before Kongpob bids him his leave, claiming he has to rejoin his friends before they question his whereabouts.

The sun feels warm on Arthit’s pale skin, and he grins as he finishes his meal, breathing in the calming scent of jasmine. He thinks it might be his new favourite scent.

Kongpob sputters and almost chokes on his drink.

“Wh-what?”

“Arthit. You guys are friends now, aren’t you?”

M raises an eyebrow questioningly, smacking his friend’s back a few times as he continues to cough. Kongpob finally clears his throat enough to speak.

“Um…yeah. He’s fine.”

Kongpob flushes, and thanks his genes that he’s not prone to visibly blushing. He certainly feels it, though.

“You guys have been hanging out a lot lately. Are you replacing me as your best friend?”

He says this jovially, nudging Kongpob’s arm. Kongpob just lets out a short laugh.

“No, he’s just tutoring me in algebra. Plus…he’s actually kind of nice to be around.”

M scrunches his eyebrows together, inspecting his friend’s face. There’s a small on his lips as he says this, his gaze soft as he fiddles with the straw, dipping it repeatedly in his iced coffee.

“Algebra, huh?”

“Yeah, he’s like a math genius or something. Somehow, when Arthit explains it to me, I just get it right away. When Teacher Danai explains it, it’s like water through a strainer. Arthit makes it easy to understand. Probably because we talk in between as well.”

“So…he’s actually talking to you, then? Like, personal stuff?”

“Uh…sometimes, yeah. Why?” Kongpob looks at his friend curiously. M shrugs, shaking his head gently.

“So…I guess he’s told you about the birthday card incident?”

Kongpob sits up straighter at this, turning now to look M straight in the eye.

“Birthday card incident? What are you talking about?”

M groans, smacking himself in the forehead.

“Never mind. If he hasn’t told you himself, he probably doesn’t want you to remember.”

“No, M. What birthday card incident?” Kongpob says sternly.

M had been hiding things from him, he knows, but if he’s going to get anywhere with his new friendship, he needs whatever intel he can get to aid him in helping Arthit out of his shell.

His friend pauses for a few moments, before sighing heavily.

“Fine. But I don’t know if you’re going to like what you hear.”

Kongpob is a little hesitant today as he makes his way down the street to the familiar yellow sign. He doesn’t know what to make of M’s information, or if he even believes it. Mostly, there’s guilt. Immense, gut-wrenching guilt.

Arthit must notice that he’s not his usual, cheery self, because he actually pauses to look at him instead of pretending to ignore him as he normally would.

“Hey,” he says. “I thought you were going to text me your order ahead of time.”

Kongpob forces a smile, but it comes out looking more sad than anything.

“Yeah, sorry. I forgot. I’ll uh…I’ll get six of the chicken, and two beef.”

Arthit cocks an eyebrow, but moves to fulfill the order quickly, if only to distract from the evident tension.

“Hungry, then?”

Kongpob just nods briefly again, his eyes not once leaving Arthit’s. The boy feels somewhat uneasy under his friend’s unwavering gaze.

“Um…” Arthit rubs the back of his neck, unnerved by being watched so closely that it makes his skin prick. “Is everything, like…okay?” he gestures vaguely at Kongpob. “You seem kind of…I don’t know…down.”

“It’s nothing,” Kongpob forces a thin smile. “Just a bad practice today, that’s all.”

Even if their friendship is fairly new, Arthit knows instantly that this is a lie. But it’s not his place to pry, not his place to know, so he doesn’t comment.

Instead, he hands the bag with Kongpob’s order to him, nodding as Kong mumbles a quiet thanks.

“Um…I have to go,” he says, and doesn’t look at him or say another word as he heads down the street, the usual bounce in his step distinctly missing, and his steps seemingly distracted, as he almost bumps into another pedestrian.

Arthit watches his friend curiously. What could possibly have happened since they’d last spoken that had upset Kongpob to the point that he didn’t even feel like teasing him as he normally would? Hadn’t they had some sort of breakthrough moment at lunch?

Or maybe it really hadn’t been to do with him. Of course not. That would be completely presumptuous.

Still, he makes a mental note to possibly text him later that evening.

25/08/2014 – ฿52

Balance: ฿723

## Chapter 25: Balance: ฿206

Kongpob sometimes feels like a stranger in his own home. He’s acutely aware of how his friends tend to react upon seeing the mansion for the first time — jaw drops, eyes glazed over with wonder, whisper-yells of what the hell? — and if he’s being honest, it’s a little daunting to him at times, too, even if he’s lived in it his entire life. Perhaps the fact that his parents mostly use the common space on the ground floor for entertaining business guests has something to do with it, but Kongpob can recall being told off for leaving his backpack on the marble floor, where the zipper details could scratch it.

Now, the oversized house exudes an aura of foreboding as Kongpob toes off his shoe and sock quietly (well, as quietly as is possible with the clatter of his steel crutches) in the front hallway, although he thinks it might not be because of the sheer magnitude of the living room. Unlike other days, when he would come home to mostly silence, or his mother cooking up a storm in the kitchen, there seem to be voices coming from the living room. One is distinctly his mother’s, the unmistakably calm tones murmuring in a low voice. The other is his father’s.

Are you still at school? Can you come home right away? Your father is home, too. We…have something to discuss with you.

He’s not sure he could have thought of anything to ask even if he’d wanted answers. The fact that his father is home at this hour, and not, for once, cooped up in his soundproof study and neck-deep in paperwork, only serves to exacerbate Kongpob’s anxiety. He begins to conjure up the worst possible outcomes, still stood behind the wooden partition structure behind his parents, who are whispering something to each other. Kongpob can’t make out anything coherent from their hushed conversation, but whatever it may be, it doesn’t sound pleasant.

Maybe an elder relative had fallen ill. That would be a rather arbitrary thing to be called home for, though, given that aside from his immediate cousins and aunts or uncles, Kongpob can count the number of times he’s met his extended family on one hand.

Or perhaps, then, something had happened with his father’s company, which would explain why Por would be home at this hour of the day, and out in the living room, no less. But what would that have to do with Kongpob on such an urgent basis? Had something gone so horribly wrong that would affect all of them?

Then his mind reaches into a part of his worries that he’d been trying to suppress for some time now. Maybe his father knew. Maybe someone had seen him and Arthit on the rooftop that day and reported them to a teacher, who had called his parents. This hadn’t been how he’d wanted to have that conversation with his father, and now, the mere prospect of having to face his potential rejection leaves his face pale and—

“Kongpob? What are you doing just standing out here?” His mother has come around the partition to find her son simply staring holes into a pair of his father’s leather shoes. “I thought I heard someone come in. Come on, we’ve got something to talk to you about.”

She places a hand on his back, gently pushing him into the living room, where he meets his father’s usual, polite business smile. He greets him with a wai before his mother pushes him to sit between them, like a scared live octopus he’d seen on those Korean travel and food documentaries, squirming on a plate with chopsticks hovering over its tentacles.

“Is…everything okay?” He glances back and forth between his parents, sensing some nervous rigidity in their expressions, particularly in that of his father, who, despite his properness, is usually still composed and collected. Now, he seems to struggle for words. At the very least, Kongpob observes hopefully, he’s not frowning.

“Your Por and I…we received a phone call earlier,” his mother starts, her expression terse. Kongpob feels the blood about to drain from his entire body. This is it, he thinks. He’d been caught, and now he would have to explain his actions to his parents. “I’m not sure how to tell you this, exactly, but, uh—”

“Mae, it was just a kiss, I swear! We didn’t do anything else. It’s not even against the school rules!” It all comes flooding out like lava, an oncoming disaster in its path. Or at least it certainly feels that way, as Kongpob realises what he’s said and can only think of all the different ways it could possibly end in his untimely death.

“What?” Both parents narrow their eyes in confusion now, his father especially perplexed by his son’s sudden outburst. “What kiss? You kissed someone? Did you get a girlfriend and not tell us?”

“Uhhh…” Kongpob stammers, willing for the sofa to swallow him whole as he registers his major miscalculation of the situation. He looks to his mother desperately for help, but she’s simply buried her face in her hand, shaking with muffled laughter. “Maaae!”

“I’m sorry, but it’s just that with everything that’s happened today, that’s…that’s wonderful, Kong,” she smiles, wiping actual tears from her eyes before ruffling his hair upon seeing his anxious, sulking expression. “I’m assuming it’s Arthit.”

“Arthit?” his father says, and Kongpob freezes again. In the almost twenty-four hours that he’d been with Arthit, he’d already begun to construct different scenarios in which he would tell his father about his relationship with a boy.

Perhaps he would introduce him at their graduation, so that at the very least, he could argue that it hadn’t at all affected his grades. Or on his own birthday, so that his father couldn’t make a scene in front of guests. Or maybe he’d deliberately allow his father to catch them holding hands or kissing so he wouldn’t even have to say the words aloud. The possibilities were endless, but none of them had come anywhere close to an accidental blurting less than a day later. Such, though, as Kongpob has come to discover in recent months, is life.

There’s a long, drawn-out pause in which both he and his mother exchange a look of shared panic. “Isn’t that your maths tutor’s name? Your classmate, right?”

The boy nods briefly, still holding his breath.

“And…he’s…a boy.”

Kongpob can’t read his father’s expression, and holds his bated breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. His father’s brows are knotted and lips pursed in thought. Kongpob watches his shoulders rise and fall slowly before the man begins to nod.

“Right. Well…” the man trails off, avoiding his son’s gaze.

“Kong…we just want you to be happy,” his mother takes his hand, looking pointedly at her husband, who still has yet to give any sort of indication of his thoughts. “He makes you happy, right?”

Kongpob nods fervently, noisily sniffing. “So happy.”

“Then we’re happy, too, aren’t we?” his mother smiles warmly, still speaking mostly to her husband, who forces a ghost of a smile with the faintest singular nod. The elder Sutthiluck remains silent, rubbing his palms along the length of his trousers.

The tension in Kongpob’s chest remains, and it’s as though a wall has now been placed between the two of them. A part of him is relieved that the man hasn’t outright thrown a fit or disowned him, but his silence, too, speaks volumes. He would have to count his blessings for now.

“I…” Kongpob tears his gaze away from his father’s stiff posture now. “What was it that you wanted to tell me so urgently? Who called?”

His mother’s smile fades now, and she clears her throat before sighing deeply.

Arthit☀️: everything ok?

Arthit☀️: let me know

Arthit☀️: ok…i guess u’ve gone to bed

Arthit☀️: just wanted to know if u wanna do anything tmr morning

Arthit☀️: anyway

Arthit☀️: good night ^v^

Kong☕:  Oh gosh, sorry! I was charging my phone and forgot to turn it back on.

Kong☕:  I’m fine, mostly. I’ll tell you more soon, if you’re going to bed now.

Kong☕:  I have to go somewhere tomorrow, so I probably can’t come over.

Kong☕:  But I’ll call you, I promise. Or I might come by after?

Kong☕:  Either way, I’ll call you.

Kong☕:  Good night ^3^

The sky clouds over with a thick, murky grey the next morning as they make the long drive to the rehabilitation centre. It starts with a few sparse, heavy droplets splattering like pellets on the windshield, then a steady shower, and then like thick, syrupy glaze over a dense sponge cake. Kongpob himself had not gone down this particular route in over two years, and the slurry of rainwater on the window of the passenger seat makes it difficult for him to pick out anything that might have once been familiar.

He knows his parents have been to visit his sister occasionally. Every now and again, he would hear his mother murmuring over the phone with the doctors, checking on her progress, or discussing different treatment options. Other times, his father would go out driving in the middle of the night after receiving a call that Namtarn had once again escaped the facility after ripping out her IV drip and feeding tube.

They aren’t coming this time, though.

Two years had passed since she’d so much as sent him a text or called to say Happy Birthday. Two years since he’d read her favourite novels to her at her bedside. Two years since she’d unceremoniously slapped the book out of his hand and screamed What the fuck do you know? You’re just a spoiled child! You’ve always been Mae and Por’s favourite. Just fuck off!

And so he’d kept his distance, all hope of seeing the light in her eyes again fading with every passing month that they didn’t speak.

“She wants to see you, Kong,” his mother had told him. “I know…I know she wasn’t the kindest to you the last time you went to visit her, but I think she’s trying to make things right. What do you think?”

What did he think? It had taken most of the rest of the afternoon and much of the evening, lying flat on his back in bed, still in his uniform, for him to come to a decision. He’s still reeling from his father’s less than enthusiastic response to him having a boyfriend, and now, he’s a mere twenty minutes away from seeing his sister again. What would she look like? What would they even talk about? Would she lash out at him again?

“What’s on your mind, kid?” P’Shin breaks the into the tornado of Kongpob’s thoughts, eyes still on the road, squinting through the windshield wipers. They turn a particularly sharp corner, splashing the side of the car as it dips into a large puddle. Kongpob turns to look at him, but glances down in his lap again.

“Nothing, just…” he sighs, shaking his head. “A lot is going on, I guess.”

The butler hums in acknowledgement, but he withholds any further comment, instead waiting for Kongpob to elaborate for himself. He always does, even if he always puts on a front of wanting to remain vague and mysterious.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been back,” the boy says after a delayed sigh, as per Shin’s preconceived notions. “And I have no idea what I’m going to say to her, or why she wants to see me after so long. I thought she hated me, P’Shin. She hasn’t tried to contact me all this time, and the last time I saw her, she—well, you know that part.”

The windshield wiper is doing little to alleviate Shin’s blurred vision, but perhaps he’s taken this route so many times in the last six years that he really could navigate it with his eyes shut. Still, he squints as they come to a stop at a traffic light before turning slightly towards the young boy.

“Haven’t you ever said or done something you didn’t mean? Hurt someone you didn’t mean to?”

Kongpob doesn’t respond, simply staring at the glovebox in front of him for a while. Eventually, he nods. Too often his need to uphold virtue lands him in a scrape where he misunderstands a situation, or sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong.

“The way people react to something isn’t always a reflection of how they truly feel. It may just be our deepest fears and worries speaking for us, which doesn’t always turn out well. And then we feel ashamed and don’t know how to fix it. Once you squeeze the toothpaste out, it’s hard to put it back in.”

Still receiving mostly silence from the boy, Shin narrows his eyes as the traffic light turns green, and the car wheels slosh through more puddles. Kongpob rests his elbow on the windowsill, staring in the blurred side view mirror at his own reflection.

“You think she’s trying to fix things?” he finally says as they pull onto a road just outside of the city centre, just as the rain begins to ease up. He can now make out sparse houses distributed along the road between clusters of forestation.

“I do,” Shin turns briefly to give him a small smile, wrinkles forming in the corners of his eyes, his skin thin and freckled both from age and prolonged exposure to the sun.

There’s a response constructing itself in Kongpob’s head, but it dies on his lips as the sight of a familiar gravel driveway comes into view.

It’s as though no time has passed within these walls. Warmly lit, with floral and scenic paintings on faded beige, the occasional motivational poster disrupting the flow of store-bought art. You are your own worst enemy, one says. As Kongpob registers his name at the reception, another greets him with the words Just because your path is different, doesn’t mean you are lost

The common area, really just a large room with a cluster of old leather sofas and a plasma screen in the corner that’s playing a rerun of a 90’s lakorn, is mostly empty. There had been a time when Kongpob could at least vaguely recognise most of the people who would nod at him when he walked past. Not that it makes too much of a difference now, most of them still staring blankly out the window at residual drops of rain merging together into one, or huddled up on a sofa talking to each other in hushed tones.

Kongpob feels his knees and hands go a little numb, struggling to curl his fingers around the strap of his messenger bag as his eyes search for her room. And turning the open-air corridor overlooking a grassy lawn, he sees it. Another poster just next to the door that reads Live. Laugh. Love. He recalls having groaned or rolled his eyes at it every time he’d seen it before, but now, it mocks him in return, as if privy to his unease.

He contemplates turning around and running back to the car, never to return again. And he very well would if it weren’t for the fact that his ankle is still immobilised in the confines of a clunky walking boot. He’d forgone the crutches that morning, deciding that, in fact, they served little purpose other than as a clunky nuisance to carry around. But as the fates would have it, the boot skids in the slimy condensation left by humidity on the floor of tile corridor, and he stumbles in the doorway, startling the person inside to attention.

When he finds his balance, looking up, his eyes meet with a face he’d almost forgotten. She looks…well, she looks different, is all Kongpob can really think. Her frame, as it always had been, is still small, but it’s no longer exaggerated by almost paper-like skin over jutting bone. Much of her once-matted hair has grown back, and it’s pulled back into a slick ponytail up and off her face. There’s colour to her previously sunken cheeks, reminiscent of how he remembers her in the more carefree days of their childhood. He’s still planted in the doorway as she blinks several times, before she’s shuffling off the bed by the window, pulling the upholstered chair next to it so he can sit.

After several seconds, he finally shuffles over to the chair, pulling his bag over his head and placing it on the ground. Namtarn shifts back onto the mattress, tucking her legs together so that her ankles overlap in front of her. She chews at her bottom lip and breathlessly pores over how her baby brother has grown so much in what feels like simultaneously no time and forever all at once.

The pregnant silence stagnates between them for several moments longer, neither of them daring to look each other in the eye. Instead, Kongpob directs his stare at the terrazzo-patterned linoleum floor, one corner of a tile having broken off to expose the concrete foundation underneath. In the midst of his meticulous examination, his sister speaks.

“How was the drive?”

Hearing her voice sounds to him like charging up his old iPod and pressing play on the last song he’d paused on. He clears his throat, finally lifting his head to look at her directly. Her fingers wring the material of her sweatpants, and Kongpob can’t help but notice that her arms are free of the self-induced bleeding welts that he’d once winced upon seeing. In their place are faded, brownish-pink scars where the scabs had healed. He also notes the lack of a tube taped to her arm, only the facility’s in-patient tag around her wrist.

“Why’d you ask me to come here?”

Namtarn nods, knowing well that her brother had never been one for small talk, regardless of how polite they’d been raised to be. She sighs sharply, mashing her lips together.

“I owe you an apology,” she starts, resting her elbows on her knees. “For the way I behaved the last time you were here…and for not calling all this time. I’m sorry.”

Kongpob swallows, her somewhat meagre apology leaving a bitter taste in his mouth.

“Why?” it comes out almost as a whisper, but then grows firmer with each word. “Why didn’t you call? You couldn’t even send me a text, or pick up when I tried to reach you. I—“

“I was so embarrassed, Kong,” her voice trembles now, her eyes shining with tears. “I said some horrible things to you that you didn’t deserve, and I couldn’t take them back.”

“But you still meant every word, didn’t you?”

“No!” she shakes her head rapidly, grabbing for his hand. He sucks in a breath at the contact, soft, cold, clammy hands on his wrist.  “Never. I was just angry…but not with you.”

“It doesn’t change anything, P’,” his own voice begins to shake. “You don’t know what it’s like at home. I was never their favourite. If anything, it’s always been you. You could commit murder and they would say She’s just going through a difficult time. Me? I’ve been having dinner alone almost every day for five years because Mae and Por are never home! Mae cooks all your favourites and leaves them in the fridge for me. Por barely even comes out of his office. You know they want me to take over Siam Polymer? It should’ve been you, P’Nam! You were always the one with the talent, but I-I don’t get a choice anymore. I don’t—”

She pulls his head into her shoulder as he weeps through his words, the rest of his sentence muffled into incoherence. He gives up. Not even a minute had passed since he’d sat down, and he couldn’t even be mad at her any more than he could be at their parents. She’d always had that effect on him, even if he’d tried so desperately to shove it away in a storage bin of its own to collect dust along with other memorabilia under his bed.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers into his hair, her own tears seeping down. “I’m so sorry, kiddo. I should’ve known. I shouldn’t have run away. I should’ve tried harder. There’s no excuse. I’m so sorry.”

They stay like this for a few more minutes, another thousand words of remorse murmured as Namtarn strokes his hair to soothe his choked sobs. When he finally pulls out of her grasp, he makes quick work of wiping at his face, as though suddenly embarrassed to have cried in front of her. He sniffs a few times, swallowing as he regains his composure.

“You…you look well,” he says with a tight smile, his voice still strained.

“I’ve been trying really hard this time around,” she says, taking one of his hands in hers again. “I want to come home soon. I want to see you graduate.”

Her face is earnest, and while she looks the healthiest she’s been in a long time, Kongpob still holds out reservation, having heard some variation of these exact words before.

“I…there was a guy,” she rolls her eyes, slightly blushing. “His mother used to occupy the next room. He came into my room one day and asked to borrow the remote control for the AC. And after that, he would stop in every time he came to visit.”

Now, this is a side of his sister that he’s never seen before. Kongpob can’t help but smile, too, amused by her sudden shyness.

“So…where is he?”

“Well, nothing ever happened. And his mae got discharged a few months ago,” Namtarn sighs, although she doesn’t seem particularly upset. “I don’t know. He was cute. We talked. But it wouldn’t have gone anywhere, not with how I was progressing.”

She’s quiet for a moment, playing with the end of her wrist tag, so old now that her name has almost completely faded.

“And it made me realise that I’d let so much time pass me by,” she continues. “I never finished school. I never had a part-time job. Never had a boyfriend. I missed meeting P’Fang’s baby. None of it was because other people didn’t like me, or because of how I looked.”

“I’ve always thought you were beautiful,” Kongpob says, mostly because it’s true.

“Save that for when you’re trying to chase after someone,” she chuckles, shaking her head. “What about you? Is there anyone you like? And what happened to your foot?”

“Oh, I tripped over an open drain,” he scratches the back of his neck. He hesitates now, although it seems as though the fates won’t let him keep this information a secret for very long. “And…yeah, I’m with someone.”

She breaks into a wide grin, her nose wrinkling in mischief, and nudges his arm.

“Sooo…who is it?”

Kongpob gulps, licking his lips nervously.

“Um…h-his name is…Arthit,” he starts, and immediately locks his gaze with hers, eyes searching for any hint of disgust. Or disappointment. Her face remains expectant, though, and after a few more seconds, she rolls her eyes.

“Well? Is that it? What’s he like? Is he cute?”

“He’s…” Kongpob can’t help but smile now, too, the numbness in his hands fading with his relief. “Yeah, he’s cute. Like, really cute. Really smart, and funny, like, in a deadpan sort of way. He likes the Peanuts comics. Oh, and he makes the best moo-ping in Chinatown.”

“Awww!” she grabs his face by the cheeks and squishes his face in her hands, and it’s like he’s eight and she’s sixteen again, watching cartoons together in the living room until their parents came home from work. “My baby brother has a boyfriend! How fucking cute!”

“Oiii, P’Nam!” he pulls his face out of her grasp. “I’m not a baby!”

“No,” she rubs at his cheek with her thumb. “I suppose not. Has he met Mae and Por?”

“Just Mae,” he sniffs, still slightly congested from crying earlier. “Por…he knows. I kind of told him by accident.”

Namtarn notices the shift in his expression, her eyes narrowing.

“What did he say?”

“Nothing. He said nothing. He barely even reacted.”

Kongpob fiddles with the hem of his shirt, pulling at a loose thread. He exhales noisily, their previous playfulness dissolving into a solemn quiet. Namtarn purses her lips, then reaches to her left, picking up a shabby-looking paperback and handing it to him. He eyes the familiar book, the same one he’d been reading to her the last time he’d visited.

“Will you read to me? You never finished.”

He takes the book from her, opening up to where the tattered bookmark is wedged.

“You always read so well in English. It makes me want to go back to school. Maybe become a teacher one day,” she continues, curling into a ball on her side now.

The corner of Kongpob’s mouth turns upwards, an attempt to convince himself of the possibility of her latest ambitions. Once, she’d dreamt of being a rocket scientist, and at some point, a mattress tester. He clears his throat a little, sitting up straighter as his gaze falls on the paragraph where he’d left off.

In the weeks before they left for Menton, Lili had begun to appear unannounced in the afternoons. Greta would leave the Widow House for an appointment. When she returned, she’d find Lili at the window in a loose dress, the back buttons unfastened. Greta would help her finish dressing…

“You don’t think she’s serious, then?” Arthit says as he makes a note of Kongpob’s order.

20/9/2014 – ฿44

Balance: ฿162

He briefly squints at the inauspicious number, but gives it no further thought. Unlike all other times that Kongpob had visited him at the cart, they’re both behind the grill this time, Kongpob watching Arthit work as he sits on a plastic stool to Arthit’s left.

“I don’t know,” he says to Arthit’s back, where a dark sweat stain has formed down the middle of his grey T-shirt. “She seems a lot better, at least physically, but it’s hard to tell with her sometimes.”

Arthit nods, handing a customer their order over the worktop, then returns to tending to his boyfriend’s order, checking for the browning edges closing in on the rosy pink of the beef skewer before turning them over. There’s a brief lull as an older man slowly heaves past with a large pushcart piled high with bags of flour, on his way to make a delivery.

“Have you forgiven her, though?”

Kongpob shrugs. “It’s complicated. I…I guess I forgive her for the way she lashed out at me, and for the stuff she said. And I logically know that a lot of what’s happened to her, to me…to our family…it’s really not her fault she feels the way she does. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt the same.”

Arthit briefly wonders if he’d ever unintentionally hurt someone in his casual self-deprecation. Perhaps his mother, although she’d never expressed any such sentiment if it existed. He looks at Kongpob now, who’s doodling squares on the notepad, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. He’d always thought that Kongpob had it all—good friends, good looks (although he’d never tell him out loud), both parents, an enormous house, never wanting for anything their peers skipped lunch to save their pocket money for.

Not a person of many words, Arthit doesn’t ask any further questions. Instead, he lightly taps the edge of the worktop to get the boy’s attention.

“Kong,” he says, to which his boyfriend looks up, eyes questioning. Arthit allows his gaze to fall down to his outstretched hand, which he offers to him from behind the cart, out of view from prying eyes. Kongpob takes it, and they exchange a small smile.