“I know I’m being an idiot, coming to the most remote village I could find in all of Thailand. But I figured... since I already did the stupid thing, I should at least give the village doctor my reasons… and maybe beg he doesn’t send me back to Bangkok.”
Dr. Nam doesn’t look impressed by his little speech. His arms cross in front of him as he gives a long-suffering sigh, leaning into his desk. The doctor, Tian figures, certainly doesn’t get paid enough for this.
“Well, they better be some good reasons, if they sent a 5-month heart transplant patient to a place with no electricity, running water, or a hospital that wasn’t 2 hours away; and they made you tell me one whole month after your arrival.”
Tian sighs, and sits down on the only available hospital bed. He didn’t know Dr. Nam, couldn’t read him like the Chief probably could; not yet at least. But, if he had to guess, the man was very angry, or just very very tired . Tian knew that he would have to make a hell of a good case for himself if he wanted the Doctor to let him stay in the village. And he knew exactly how to make it.
He took a deep breath.
“My donor was Torfun.”
One trash can full of used tissues, an open photo album, and an open bottle of cheap vodka (with just one glass, as the doctor had actually glared at Tian the moment he had even looked the bottle’s way) greeted them two hours after his big reveal. Their quiet sniffles echo throughout the empty clinic, but they’ve long since run out of tissues, and their sleeves are a no-go.
Nam hugs Torfun’s diary to his chest, tight enough to squish it a little, before leaving the unsuspecting book back on the desk. Tian had always thought of the man as young and vivacious; but now, he had a somber shadow to his eyes that he felt incredibly guilty about. With half a mind, he opened his mouth to apologize for the umpteenth time that day, when the doctor beat him to it.
“Tian… if I’m gonna let you stay in the village, you’ve got to promise me to take better care of yourself. No spicy food, no alcohol, no missing any of your medication; and definitely no running around five kids with no rest. You need to let other people help you too.”
Tian exhales slowly, not quite a sigh, but close enough to give him away.
“Everyone will look down on me, doc. I may be on better terms with the villagers, but to them, I’m still just some city boy that’s had everything done for him. The last thing I want to do is be a burden. I came to the village to give you back what I took, not to cause any more trouble.”
“Tian, we… Yes, I’ll admit at first we did see you as yet another city boy trying to get a good selfie for his Facebook page, but now we’ve gotten to know you. You’re family now, and we help each other.”
A heartbeat. Then two.
“Even the Chief?”
Nam takes a hold of his hands. They look unbelievably tiny and frail, cupped in the doctor’s bigger ones.
They also feel safe. Warm.
“Even the Chief.”
A comfortable silence falls upon them like a fluffy blanket, burrito-ing them in warmth that is only interrupted by the occasional cicada, and a stray tree branch bumping into the plastic window.
The brief calm is shattered by the sound of Nam’s radio crackling to life, spooking the doctor into giving a tiny jump on his chair. The air crackles again with what is unmistakably the Chief’s voice.
“Nam? Do you copy?”
The doctor’s fingers fumble with the radio strapped to his waist, the vodka hindering his movements even more.
“Yeah, Chief. I copy.”
“Is Tian with you? I… He’s not at the teacher’s hut or the school, and it’s almost sundown.”
Nam wiggles his drunk eyebrows at Tian. He, very maturely, sticks his tongue out to him and promptly lets himself fall back to the cot, his left arm shielding his eyes from the fluorescent lights as the doctor hurries to tease the Chief.
“Don’t worry, Chief, your lover boy is here with me at the clinic. I can walk him back home no problem.”
“I’m on my way.”
The radio falls silent in the doctor’s hands.
Nam laughs hard enough to choke on his own saliva, pointing fingers at Tian and then right back at the radio.
“Thanks, P’Nam. Now he’s going to think I did something stupid and got myself hurt again.”
“He cares about you—” Nam giggles— “Honestly, I’m a little hurt that he doesn’t trust me enough to walk you back home, but it’s really cute that he cares.”
Tian doesn’t even dignify him with a response. Instead, he wiggles his right foot until his shoe slips just enough to become prime projectile material—
Then, he promptly chucks it at the doctor’s leg.
“It’s your fault that he’s coming over. At least help me put Torfun’s diary back in my bag before Chief arrives and I get a heart attack.”
Doctor Nam whines with more insistence than any of his five kids, but he eventually makes his way out of the swiveling chair and carefully tucks Torfun’s diary inside the jacket Tian used to cover it, and into the safety of the teacher’s backpack.
He also stumbles upon a white pill bottle.
“Nong, is this your prescription? Can I take a look?”
At Tian’s affirmative grunt, the doctor takes the bottle in his hands and shakes it around, looking for the label.
Apparently, it was an empty pill bottle.
“Nong… This bottle’s completely empty. Since when?”
The doctor is no idiot, and doesn’t let Tian excuse himself.
“I just told you. If I’m going to let you stay in the village, you’re going to start taking care of yourself, Tian. Tomorrow, I’m taking you with me to the village and we’re refilling this bottle. Okay?”
Tian didn’t even get to answer before the clinic’s door creaked open, the Chief’s powerful steps echoing in the small space.
“Nam? What do you mean Tian is here in the clinic? Did something happen?”
He wasn’t helping his case any, lying down on the bed looking the perfect picture of a sick city boy, lamenting the lack of a proper hospital, or any form of air conditioning.
[Not that he was, but the Chief’s mental image of him was more than enough to condemn him to at least fifteen minutes of scolding.]
“Tian? What happened, are you okay?”
“I’m fine, Chief. I’m not even feeling sick right now. You can go back to the base.”
“Then why—” Tian interrupts the Chief with a sigh, slowly sitting up as if it’s the most grueling of tasks. P’Nam laughs at him from behind the safety of his desk.
“I came to ask the doc for a ride to the village tomorrow—” Tian lies quickly— “I need to buy some stuff for a couple of classes I have planned, and I knew he was going to run some errands too.”
Chief Phupha is occupied acting as a very hungry fish like the ones from his mother’s koi pond, mouth opening and closing rapidly in hopes that it’d help him make a believable excuse for his worry.
“I’m fine, really.” Tian grins at him, Phupha has to admit that he, in fact, looks healthy —if a bit tired.
An awkward silence fills the room.
“Phu… why aren’t you leaving?”
“I’m taking Tian home.”
“I used to like working with cars. I’d buy an old model, and make modifications however I wanted… I used to really like car races.” Tian wets his lips, “It wasn’t always like that. Before my diagnosis, I’d play with toy cars when my parents weren’t home; I think it’s part of the reason my mother signed me up for engineering…”
Nam tries to not make a face when he notices Tian says “my mom”. He doesn’t hide it very well, though Tian says nothing of it.
“Then, a doctor told me that it would be a miracle if I made it to graduation, and I just… stopped caring. If I was going to die, then it was not going to be in a hospital bed.” He opens his mouth to speak, but words don’t come out, trapped behind the tears building up in his eyes. Doctor Nam puts a hand on his knee, his eyes solely focused on Tian.
“I started going to bars, casinos… I would drink everything that was put in front of me, and bet ridiculous stuff in games of dice and cards; and for some reason, I was actually good at it, but…” Tian moves his leg enough to let Nam’s hand fall limply back to his side, “It just wasn’t enough. I was dying, I wouldn’t get to graduate from a degree I didn’t even want , or get to travel with my best friend to America. I was angry, and careless, and toy cars turned into real cars that could go way above the legal speed limit of any country, I… I started car racing.”
“P’Nam? Are we ready to go?”
Tian’s eyes are a continuous stream of silent tears, falling on closed fists and trembling hands.
“I couldn’t even drive a car after the surgery, I- I don’t want to be behind any wheel ever again.”
The doctor’s grip on the Jeep’s keys tightens, his initial idea to offer that Tian drove them to town rejected before it even fully formed.
“Sure thing, Nong. Just thinking if I should bring back a bottle of vodka or two. Think it’ll get me brownie points with Phu?”
Nam can’t help but be in awe of all the similarities Tian has with Torfun. He also feels like a complete idiot for not realizing anything sooner, but hindsight is always 20/20 and he will not admit it to anyone.
[Unless there’s vodka involved. But that is not his fault.]
The doctor remembers Tian and the kids. Sure, at first he had had his difficulties, and Nam was a bit ashamed to admit that he had laughed alongside the rangers at the young teacher’s expense for the first few days. But he also had not seen Tian happier than when he was with the kids.
His smile was very similar to Torfun’s. Carefree, happy… Grateful, in a sense.
It was also the little things, like the way they both stuck their hand out the Jeep’s window, as if they were running their fingers through smooth and warm sunlight the way they would a fluffy blanket. Or their little zone-outs when they were lost in a particular train of thought. Nam would bet that Tian had his own diary —or desperately wanted to get one.
They also looked at Phupha with the same puppy-dog eyes.
Tian’s were sadder though.
Torfun had always looked hopeful —playful even. She bantered with the Chief and used him for her storytime during classes; and even when she had been rejected by the man, her eyes never lost that sparkle until the day Nam went to see her off in the city.
Tian’s eyes didn’t even have that tiny sparkle at all.
Sometimes, Nam saw it. When he taught the kids, got caught in a surprise Ayi-hug, or was faced with a particularly amusing question from Meejo. Other times, it was when Longtae showed him the pictures he had taken around the village, especially the ones from his welcoming party. Less often, when Yod or Rang told a funny joke at the Chief’s expense.
Most of the time, his eyes sparkled like tiny stars when the teacher spent time with Phu.
It was also when the light extinguished the fastest.
Nam could take a guess on why it happened, especially considering the recent events. He wasn’t sure he wanted to think about it.
The doctor didn’t say anything on the ride to the city, content to watch Tian caress the sunshine as they made their way downhill. His thoughts remained his own for the entirety of the trip; and he was pretty sure that the teacher had his own problems to think about. Nam was just glad that he had been made privy to most of them, if only to make sure his heart condition didn’t worsen.
[A sick, and maybe a bit twisted part of his brain told him that he had lost Torfun once, and he was not about to lose her again. It made him feel incredibly guilty.]
“You can leave me at the train station, Phi. I can look for some things for the kids while you run your errands, and we can meet up again later for lunch.”
“Are you sure? This isn’t Bangkok, can you make your way around?”
Tian shook his phone cheekily, smiling with his eyes.
“Google Maps, doc. I’ll be fine. See you here for lunch?”
“You better not get into trouble, Mr. Teacher. Phu would kill me.”
To be fair… At least Nam was there when they inevitably ran into trouble.
They meet up for lunch at one of Nam’s favorite places in the city. Tian’s got a whole tote bag of notes for future lesson plans, and some snacks for the kids and the rangers. Nam’s got a Jeep full of medicines and bandages, along with three bottles of vodka inside a cooler (something that had made Tian spit out his water into the doctor’s grinning face).
“C’mon, Nong, aren’t you tired of northern food already? Don’t you want something else to eat?”
“No, Phi. I guess I became used to it… Though I have to admit that it tastes way better with some spice.”
Nam points his spoon accusingly at him, his eyes reproachful enough seeing as he can’t scold him while his mouth is full of food.
Tian’s already chewing through his bite when the doctor manages to swallow his mouthful of food and an additional gulp of water.
“No joking about that, Tian. I still can’t believe how you managed through the night every time Khama invited you for dinner at his house. His wife’s food is delicious, but it gives even me heartburn.”
“Oh, it felt horrible, Phi.” Tian chuckles, “But the first few times it was more out of spite than anything else. Besides, it was the Chief’s fault, if you want me to stop eating spicy food, you’re gonna want to have a talk with him.”
That sobers the doctor right up.
“Yeah… about that.”
Tian glares at him from the high land that is the rim of his glass of water.
“You can’t tell anyone, Phi. You promised you wouldn’t if I took better care of myself.”
“And I won’t say anything about a heart transplant! But, the village is not the best place to live in if you want to be remotely healthy, and if I’m gonna let you stay, I want to know that you can rely on other people if you need to.” Tian’s glare is unrelenting, surprisingly effective if one takes into consideration that his mouth is full of food and it makes him look like a baby squirrel.
“Besides, one of my conditions was that you’d let other people help you. Phupha already knows that you had heart surgery, I’m pretty sure he’s been looking out for you since the day he came into the clinic asking about chest scars.”
Suddenly, the food in his mouth has a taste very similar to cardboard.
“He really asked about that?”
“Yeah, though he never really told me much about the whole thing. I assumed that’s how he knew you had had heart surgery… My point still remains though, I’d like you to tell at least a few people, maybe Longtae or some of the rangers.” The doctor looks down at the food he’s been pushing around with his spoon for a while now, “I— the whole village, really; we really like you, Tian, and it’d pain us to see you hurt in any way. We really, really want you to stay, just as much as you do; so let us help you, please?”
Tian has the strength to look into the doctor’s puppy-dog eyes for a whole 2 seconds before sighing, slumping into his chair like a scolded child, and nodding his agreement.
Nam’s eyes sparkle with barely-concealed mirth as he waves their waiter over and asks for the check.
“We should head back to the village… It’s getting late, and Phu is probably wondering where we are.”
“Are we going to tell him? About… Just now? That man?”
Nam frowned, his eyes automatically looking for Sakda or any of his men, even though they had gone away a good few minutes ago.
“I’ll tell him when we go back to the base. For now… we should probably get going before the nightfall catches up with us.”
They walk a whole two meters before Tian’s phone rings. He scrambles to find it in his bag before struggling for a moment with the touch screen.
“Tian? Oh my god you actually answered, thank God.”
“Tul? Man, why are you calling?”
“...can you please come pick me up?”
Tian scoffs jokingly, rolling his eyes.
“Ai Tul, did you forget I’m not in Bangkok? How am I going to pick you up from wherever the hell you are? Where even are you?”
A shy laugh sounds through his phone’s speaker, Tian can almost picture his best friend rubbing at the back of his neck.
“Yeah, about that… You’re in Chiang Mai, right? Cuz if you aren’t I have no idea how I’m going to get around in the city.”
“You’re here?! Tul what the hell, where are you?”
“At the bus station! Like I said, come pick me up? Pretty please?”
Doctor Nam looks suitably amused, if a bit confused— what with only having half of the conversation.
“I… yeah, I’m on my way. Don’t move.”
He hangs up.
Doctor Nam stares at him with a knowing smile on his face; half amused, half genuinely endeared.