“Ten baht each! Fifteen baht for two,” Rehan shouted, standing at one of the busiest intersections in Bangkok. Just like any other boys selling goods on the road, he strode between the cars and motorcycles, pulling his cart. He smiled big; that’s what his dad—God rest his soul—once taught him. Smile—that’s how he sold flowers here.
Just then, a tuk-tuk sped by, with its wheel treading on Rehan’s right foot. He lost his balance and fell to the ground.
Then he heard a car stop and its door open. A face was looming closer—an old lady. Rehan remembered her. She was the one who would never open the car window while waiting for the light to turn green. She would stop the car in the red light and stare the whole time at the boys, including Rehan. Especially him. Rehan wondered if he had met this lady somewhere else.
The faces of old people flashed in his mind. He had seen them passing by while strolling through his neighborhood. He decided that he hadn’t met this lady anywhere else. For one thing, she looked too clean and neat. For another, she had a car.
Rehan didn’t like her. She always looked too sad and serious. Sometimes, she shook her head before driving away. Rehan wished she would not look at the boys at all. He thought, after all, she isn’t going to buy anything from us, is she? She never did.
Now in front of Rehan lying on the ground, she cried out, “Oh, dear. Oh, dear. Oh, dear.”
“I’m fine,” Rehan said, raising his head. But his right foot was so painful that tears welled up in his eyes.
“Let me take you to the hospital, boy.” She helped Rehan stand up. As she held his arm for support, Rehan looked around and called out his brother’s name. “Nattapol. Hey, Nattapol!” He knew Nattapol was somewhere on this road, too.
“Why? What’s up?” Nattapol replied from a distance. He was in the middle of selling a fresh coconut to a driver.
“Got something to tell,” Rehan shouted.
“Come here then.”
“I can’t. I can’t walk!”
A car beeped. Nattapol turned back and sold a couple of coconuts to a driver nearby and put the money into his pocket. Then he looked back at Rehan. Between them, cars sped like sharks crossing the sea. Nattapol waited. Then pulling his coconut cart, he came over.
“Are you limping or what?” Nattapol said. “You didn’t break your leg, did you?”
“Sort of. I don’t know.”
Rehan could tell, by that look, what was going on in his brother’s mind: how costly and luxurious calling the ambulance was, how he couldn’t afford a doctor, not to mention taking some time off from selling the coconuts. Nattapol’s cart was still half full.
Nattapol thought for a moment, then, before the old lady, he made the wai gesture, bowing his head down. He thanked her for helping Rehan and called her “a kind, merciful, gracefully old lady.” She didn’t show much reaction to that. “I’m Aparporn. We’re going to the hospital.” That’s all she said, squeezing Rehan’s hand. Warmth like freshly baked bread flew from her hand to Rehan’s.
Nattapol checked his wristwatch, and then said to Rehan, “Phone me later!” He left. Back to his coconut business.
“I’d just go home,” Rehan said to Aparporn. “I’ll be fine.” But as soon as he said that, he realized he couldn’t even stand still without her help. He found himself leaning on her again. She behaved as if she couldn’t hear any no’s from Rehan. She took him and his flowers to her car and made him lie down in the back seat. Holding a frilly cushion in his arms, Rehan felt as though he were becoming a baby again; he smiled.
Aparporn drove to the hospital. “I saw you every time on my way to the marketplace.”
“I know, ma’am,” Rehan said.
She tried to say something more, and then stopped. They fell silent. At the entrance of the hospital, she handed him her cell phone. “Call your dad or mom.”
“No longer alive. So I live with my older brother and you saw him.”
Later, Rehan had a cast on his right foot. At the reception desk, Aparporn paid the bill for him, and then gave him a business card.
Rehan looked at the card.
“That’s where I live, with my son.”
He read and looked up. “Rujiporn Thai Cultural Center?”
“I know it’s an unusual place to live.” Aparporn laughed. “Anyway, visit us anytime you want.”
“Okay,” he said timidly.
Then Aparporn gave him a ride home, said goodbye, and left.
* * *
Several weeks later, when he was fully recovered, Rehan went out to pick flowers. This time, he rode his bike to a university, instead of a public park or garden; he didn’t go to the same place every day, afraid he might be caught.
It was still dark outside. In the rose garden, Rehan made sure no one was around, took out his garden scissors, and wore white gloves.
He had just finished picking when someone approached him, holding a flashlight. “Who’s there?” a man said.
Rehan ran to hide, but the man caught him right away.
“You! Come with me,” the man said. “Who are you trying to impress, your girlfriend? Your mom?” He took away the roses and grabbed Rehan’s arm hard. Rehan felt his heart beating fast. The man took him straight to the nearby police station.
He turned out to be a security guard at the university. “Good morning, sir,” he said after sitting Rehan down in front of a policeman.
“Hello, Mr. Armymee,” the policeman said. “Pickpocketing? Or robbing on campus like yesterday?”
“Oh, no. But it is as bad as that. This little thief touched our school property. From our famous rose garden!” Armymee showed the policeman the bundle of roses Rehan had cut. “This, this much.”
“Too bad,” the policeman said.
“Yes. And see here? Look at how it’s cut. It’s so professional. I bet he stole flowers quite frequently. Didn’t you!” Armymee glared at Rehan.
“I just needed to sell flowers. I needed to,” Rehan said.
“What? Stealing flowers and selling them? That’s a crime! A serious crime,” Armymee said. “Oh, it’s worse than I thought.”
The policeman shook his head. “Huh, boys with crazy notions.”
Rehan stared at the ground. He couldn’t stop himself from trembling. This was his first time ever being in the police station, and he had heard about how scary and heartless the local police are. He wanted to say, “I didn’t know it was a serious crime, sir. Really, I didn’t.” But no words came out of his mouth. Fear ate him up.
“Boy, look at me.” The policeman slammed a wooden stick on the desk. “You are…what, nine? Ten? Here’s a pen. Write down your guardian’s phone number so I can call.”
“Well, sir,” Armymee said, “I’ll leave now if you don’t mind. Please don’t go easy on him so he learns a lesson.”
“Staying in a cell will teach a boy to behave,” the policeman said.
He wanted to say, “I didn’t know it was a serious crime, sir. Really, I didn’t.” But no words came out of his mouth. Fear ate him up.
Rehan stayed in a cell, waiting for his brother. He held the metal bars and looked out. As he did so, cold air washed over his face, and he shivered, wondering if he would be caged here forever. The policemen outside the cell acted as though they didn’t see him, as though he was completely forgotten by the world. An hour passed. Would his brother ever come? Would he? Hot tears dropped from his face.
Later that night, Nattapol appeared. He went to the policeman and apologized, begged, and even bribed him; Rehan had to swear that he would never pick flowers, which were not his, not to mention selling them. Then, the policeman finally let Rehan go home.
Nattapol was silent until they got home, brushed their teeth, and put on pajamas. He turned his back on Rehan and said, “You could’ve gone to prison and stayed there forever. Or been killed by the police at any time. And no one in the world would know you died. You were lucky this time.”
“I know,” Rehan said.
“Oh, what do you know!” Nattapol said. “Anyway, I’m going to bed. It was a tiring day.” He switched off the light and went to bed. Soon, he snored.
“I’m sorry.” Rehan sighed deeply and closed his eyes.
The next day, Rehan opened the windows for fresh air and made breakfast for his brother. While he tidied up the place, he found the business card Aparporn had given him. The card had a phone number and address.
Rehan hesitated for a while, staring at the card. Well, she is a good old woman, he thought, and then went out to the public phone booth to place a call. When Aparporn answered the phone, Rehan asked her if there were any part time job positions available at her place.
“We shall see,” she said. “So, are you going to visit us? I’m glad. Come! I’ll show you around. Wait, let me tell you how to get here easily from there. Do you have a bike?”
After the phone call, Rehan went home to get a map and a bicycle. He then rode from Bangkok to a neighboring city about 40 minutes away. The silky wind tapped his face. “Countryside,” he murmured, breathing in the greens and blues from the sky, trees, and river. The sound of birds replaced the shouts and horns of cars and motorcycles.
Soon, the sign that said The Rujiporn Thai Cultural Center appeared. Aparporn was there to greet Rehan. She then led him to an elephant stable. Rehan wondered, in surprise, if she lived in the stable. He had heard of circus people living inside a camp with their animals.
“That’s my son.” Aparporn pointed at a tall man who was walking the elephants. As Aparporn and Rehan went closer to the fence, the man stopped the elephants and came out. He had a broad forehead, thick eyebrows, and a big nose.
“Who is he, Mom?” the man said.
“Son,” Aparporn said. “You have a spot for a flower boy, don’t you?”
Puzzled, the man was quiet for a moment, and then he burst into laughter. “Well, I guess you’re right about that. We only have flower girls.” He gestured at two small girls standing next to a wooden bangle artist: one with a red flower in her hair and another with a yellow flower behind her ear. Each held a handmade Thai traditional umbrella. A Korean tourist stood between the girls, having a picture taken with them.
Rehan thought the girls looked pretty in Thai traditional dress. Then he found Aparporn’s son staring at him, standing closer. “What are you doing?” Rehan said.
“Looking into your eyes,” the man said. “You have the eyes of a sparrow. Good. Now show me your teeth.”
The man nodded.
“They’re the window to your soul, dear,” Aparporn said.
“No worries, boy,” the man said. “Let’s be friends. I’m Bank. The manager of this cultural center. And your name?” He held out his hand.
“Rehan.” Rehan shook it.
Outside, the sky darkened and the warm evening air blew. It was not too humid. At first, Rehan insisted on sleeping in a stable with elephants, but both Aparporn and Bank said no-no to that. They said Rehan was their guest. So Rehan decided to make himself useful by helping Bank feed the elephants and hungry street cats and dogs.
The three went inside the house. As Aparporn went to the bathroom, Rehan stood in the living room and looked at the photo hanging on the wall—dozens of smiling boys in school uniforms. Next to them stood a man who appeared to be a principal, and Aparporn in a black dress.
“Taken right before my mom retired,” Bank said. “It was a private secondary school for boys.”
“Does she miss her students?” Rehan said.
“I don’t know. She hardly talks about them anymore.”
The following day, Rehan stayed in Aparporn’s house and helped Aparporn prepare to cook, clean up, water the plants, scrub the windows and mirrors, and dust off the piano and closets. He even followed her to the Buddhist temple for early-morning prayer and to a walk along the river around the palace. He felt as though he had become her secretary. And a friend.
Just as Aparporn suggested, Rehan phoned his brother and told him that he would probably be here for a couple of days, like having a short holiday.
“Okay. Cool. My girlfriend will stay here until then. Bye.” Nattapol hung up the phone.
Rehan at first hesitated to stay longer, but then he thought about Aparporn’s delicious Patai and Tomyamkum. And her breakfast plate: banana bread, mango, and coconut milk ice cream. And a shower with hot water every night. That’s something, he thought. Besides, he loved the small books Aparporn lent him. They were boys’ adventure novels written in simple language. Rehan enjoyed reading them and talking about them with Aparporn afterwards.
One week later, Bank, Rehan, and Aparporn were looking out the living room window at the stars. Bank pointed at the elephant stable and said to Rehan, “You can commute to here and clean that place. And other places I might ask. I’ll pay you, of course. Which means you’re hired! What do you say?”
“Er…” Rehan thought and thought.
“It’s good,” Aparporn said, “that you decided to find another job. I never liked you selling flowers on that road. Too dangerous. Risking to earn so little. What’s the point?”
“No!” Rehan felt as though he was suddenly awake. “I sell flowers. I have to. I must.”
“No, boy, we won’t allow it,” Aparporn said.
“Haa.” Rehan wondered why everyone was trying to stop him from doing what he wanted, what he loved to do. The policeman, the university security guard, the tuk-tuk driver, and his brother, they all flooded his mind. He thought, leave me alone. Leave me alone!
“You could have been killed by cars,” Aparporn said.
Rehan shook his head. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Gosh.” Aparporn covered her mouth with her hand.
“You’ve cleaned our house so well,” Bank continued. “And what I pay is much better than what you would’ve earned by working all day on that road. And safer!”
“He’s right. Safer! And I’ll take care of you, like a grandson,” Aparporn said. Then she gave Rehan a hug. “Yeah?” She looked at his face.
Rehan bit his lip. He couldn’t think of something excellent to say. Maybe, if he thought hard enough. He wanted to show them he could make a judgment on his own. Hadn’t he already survived three months without his parents?
“Whatever.” Rehan opened the door and walked outside, leaving Aparporn and Bank alone.
Rehan walked towards the forest, past the elephant stable. Soon, his shoes met the dark brown earth, and the forest perfumed. He sat down near milky mushrooms. “I’m a flower boy. I am,” he murmured, his finger pushing down a fern leaf, again and again. All was so quiet that he imagined the whole forest was silently listening to him. So he went on. “I wonder if my parents are a gardener and florist in another world, just as they were on Earth. And I wonder if their place is crowded with flowers. And if they have a room left for me there.”
“Rehan! Rehan!” Somebody shouted at a distance. Recognizing the voice, Rehan stood up.
Bank came to him. “All right? What about a big mug of hot chocolate? With lots and lots of cream on top.”
“Okay.” Rehan choked back his tears.
He followed Bank to the house, then to the kitchen. There, he felt drowsy. He sat on a chair, gulping his hot chocolate, feeling the stream of water inside him. A chocolate river.
Aparporn came in, looking anxious. “Umm.” Her mouth was moving a little to form a word. “Sor—”
Rehan cut her off, saying loudly, “I’m a flower boy, and I’m proud of it!”
Rehan cut her off, saying loudly, “I’m a flower boy, and I’m proud of it!”
Aparporn said nothing. She made tea for herself and sat in front of Rehan, sipping the tea and spreading the smell of peppermint. She stared at him for a while, and then said, “Yes, my friend. You would wear a sunflower smile, big and bright, I remember.”
“You do?” Rehan said. After swallowing the tears and wiping tears from his eyes, he took out a photo from his wallet and showed it to Aparporn.
Bank came closer to Aparporn, and they looked at the photo of a young man and woman in front of a flower shop. Bank and Aparporn looked surprised.
“Mom and Dad. They sold flowers there. And I helped them.”
“Ah,” Bank said.
“And I told them I would become a florist, too…that I would sell flowers.”
“I see. They look lovely, dear,” Aparporn said.
“Nice shop,” Bank said.
“Ummm, hummm.” Rehan nodded, trying hard not to cry. He wished he and his brother hadn’t lost the flower shop after their parents’ death. Then he wished they hadn’t lost their parents.
“Hmmm, it’s getting late. Goodnight,” Bank said. He gently tapped Rehan’s shoulder and left the kitchen.
Aparporn led Rehan to the guest bedroom and tucked him in. She didn’t need to do this; Rehan said so, but she made no reply. Rehan thought, she seems to be enjoying all this. Aparporn smiled and turned off the light before leaving the room quietly.
Rehan stayed wide awake until late at night, thinking over what Bank had said and imagining his new future. A possibility. Maybe not, he thought. I’d better not. Oh, I’m not sure.
At dawn, Bank woke up Rehan and took him to the marketplace that was about to open. He led Rehan to a wooden cart containing baskets of blooming flowers and small plants pots. The seller stood, half hidden behind the bombardment of colors.
Rehan gave Bank a questioning look.
Bank gave him some coins. “You shall remain a flower boy. Be our flower boy plus our cleaning boy. You can buy flowers here every day.”
Rehan looked. It was enough money to buy a bundle of flowers. Rehan chose light pink and cream-colored calla lilies. Then he said softly, without looking at Bank, “Thank you.”
“So, is everything good?”
“Then you’re welcome. I’m happy if you’re happy.” Bank walked to his car. Rehan followed him behind, holding the bundle in his arms real gentle—like someone falling in love.
* * *
In front of the elephant stable, Rehan stood handing out the flowers—which he had bought this morning—to the tourists who came to ride an elephant. This had become his daily routine.
Now there was only one flower left in his basket; a tourist in spring dress gladly received it. One hand holding the hem of her dress, another hand holding the hand of her fiancé, she sat on the back of an elephant. She then leaned toward her fiancé, holding the flower right in front of her chest. The elephant glanced at Rehan once and set off with a hoot, toward the forest under the noon sun.