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“Isn’t there anyone else you could ask? You know I’m not good with kids,” Phupha tried to reason as he looked around the apartment for his backpack. He was sure he’s left it by the door, as he always did, but the hall was empty safe for a couple of jackets and a few pairs of boots.

“We both know that’s not true!” Torfun argued.

Phupha sighed and looked at her sceptically.

“Don’t you remember what had happened when I went with you that one time? When I wanted to help you bring the materials upstairs?”

“Oh, come on…”

“This kid started to cry the very second she saw me, Torfun. I can’t deal with kids,” he crouched down to check if the backpack didn’t somehow end up underneath the sofa.

Where is this damn thing...

“It was Daeng’s second day! She was just nervous because of the new situation. And besides, when the boys learned you’re a ranger they kept asking me about you for two weeks,” Torfun grabbed the corner of Phupha’s shirt and tugged it gently to make the man look at her. “Phupha, please… You know how important they are to me, I can’t just leave them like this or even worse, let some random student who does it only for a few bonus credits take over my shifts.”

Phupha pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew it, of course he did. Over the past two years since he met Torfun, he had learned how seriously she took her duties as a volunteer. She never called to let the hospital know she couldn't come unless she really was sick and afraid of infecting the children. She made a list of ideas on how she could make the time of her pupils more enjoyable, scribbling it down in her notebook. She loved these children as if they were her own siblings and they returned this love. Whenever Phupha visited the girl's flat, there was always a new picture on the fridge, drawn by a clumsy hand, or a new clay figurine on the windowsill, standing between pots of flowers and herbs.

“Please, it’ll be just three months! Maybe three and a half. Anyway, I will for sure be back by the end of April!” she pleaded. “And you won’t have to go there as often as I did, just once a week, okay? I’ll feel calmer if you can give me updates on the kids.”

Phupha glanced at the clock, cursing internally. He really needed to get going. But he couldn't do this without his bag and without answering Torfun, one way or another. And refusal would only lead to another half-an-hour-long lecture on how important it was and how Phupha diminished his own abilities.

“Okay, fine,” he sighed, raising his hands in defeat. “I’ll visit them once a week.”

“And I know you’re a loveable person, so they’ll adore you right away and…” Torfun paused when she processed what Phupha has just said. “Wait, really? Like, really really?” she asked, her eyes widening comically.

“Yes, really.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she rushed forward to give the ranger a tight hug. “You’re the best! I swear you’ll have so much fun with them!”

“Great,” Phupha ruffled her hair affectionately, unable to fight the small smile that appeared on his lips. “Now, can you help me find my things? I’ll be late if I won’t leave in the next five minutes.”

“Oh, I hid your backpack underneath the kitchen sink to make sure you’ll stay here and listen to me.”

“You did what?”

 

* * *

 

“Oi, don’t just stand there, come inside!”

Phupha glared at the young man who wore a doctor’s coat and stood in the open door, waiting for the ranger with a mischievous grin.

“Nam, I told you, I don’t feel good about this. Maybe I should go when there’s some other volunteer? At least at first? You know, so the kids get used to me.”

The door swung shut as Nam walked towards Phupha.

“What? You’re going back off now? I’ve already told them they’ll have a guest this afternoon! Do you know how excited they were?”

“Yeah, but…”

“No ‘but’! Come on,” Nam stood behind the other man and started to push him towards the entrance to the recreational room.

If Phupha really tried, he could easily outmatch Nam when it came to pure strength. But it seemed like a bad idea to get into a shoving match, especially with a bored nurse watching from the end of the corridor and a group of children waiting behind a thin wall, children Phupha would see every week for the next two months.

That is, if I decide to come here again.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to help Torfun or the kids. Truth be told, Phupha missed the interaction with people ever since he came to Bangkok. Having friends was one thing, but when one has spent several years watching over an entire village, meeting only people that were more or less his age wasn’t that exciting anymore. Phupha was a natural-born guardian, helping the weak and defenceless was in his blood.

However, he couldn't understand how he, a tall and intimidating stranger, could become a comforting figure for those kids that weren’t scared of smugglers and poachers but instead lacked family’s warm and attention.

His train of thoughts was disturbed as they entered the room and half a dozen heads turned towards them, small faces showing everything from excitement to curiosity.

“Look who came to visit us today! Everyone, say hello to our new volunteer! This is Phupha,” Nam introduced him and the kids raise their hands in the traditional Wai.

Phupha greeted them, trying to remember their names as they introduced themselves. He stole a glance at the walls of the recreation room covered with drawings and at the cardboard boxes full of board games, some of them home-made. There was absolutely no doubt that the hospital in one way or another owed a lot of these things to Torfun. A warmth spread through his chest.

“So, now that you all know each other, I’ll leave you with Phupha and go back to my duties, okay?” as soon as Nam stopped talking, a girl with two braids lifted her hand and started to wave it a bit to get his attention. The doctor let out a soft chuckle before addressing her. “Yes, Meejoo? Do you have any questions?”

“Doctor Nam, when will miss Torfun come back?”

Phupha swallowed a lump in his throat.

Of course they asked, she’s their favourite volunteer, I can’t just replace Torfun and expect kids to not mention her…

Nam nudged Phupha with his elbow.

Right, I can’t just rely on him to answer everything.

“Um… Actually, miss Torfun needed to leave a city for some time to help her aunt with a few things. But she told me she’d be back in a few weeks.”

“Miss Torfun told you?” Meejoo asked. “Does it mean that you know her?”

“Yes, that’s right,” Phupha eagerly nodded. “Torfun and I are good friends. She’s like a little sister to me.”

It seemed like that was a good thing to say, as the kids’ smiles became a tad warmer. Phupha decided to use this chance and continued.

“So, I came here to spend some time and play with you while she’s gone. I hope we can have good time together.”

“Excellent!” Nam clapped his hands. “Then if there are no more questions I’ll leave you to it. Kids, listen to chief Phupha, okay?”

Phupha frowned at the use of the title, but he quickly understood why Nam did it as the kids turned towards Phupha with confused looks.

“Chief?”

“Yes, chief! But I think it would be best if he told you about it himself,” with one last wink sent towards Phupha, the doctor left the room.

When the ranger looked at the kids again, there were six sets of dark eyes watching him carefully.

“Why did doctor Nam call you a chief? Are you a soldier?” one of the boys asked.

Phupha folded his hands behind his back and took a few lazy steps towards the table surrounded by chairs.

“No, I’m not a soldier. I’m a forest ranger. Do you know what’s the difference?” when they shook their heads, Phupha sat down on one of the chairs and gestured to the kids to join him. “Come on then, sit with me and let me explain.”

 

* * *

 

The time ran surprisingly fast. In theory, volunteers on a children ward were supposed to come and entertain kids between 3 and 5 PM, two hours of distraction in the otherwise dull and predictable schedule. But, as it usually happens, the nurses weren’t particularly strict on sticking to the schedule. There weren’t enough volunteers to visit the kids everyday, so once someone already came and wanted to stay a little longer, no one really complained. The head nurse only asked Phupha to leave the doors open so they could hear from the nurse room if anyone needed them and reminded him that the kids should be back at their rooms before dinner.

Once he realized that his anxiousness from the before was completely irrational, Phupha realised that the countless stories he had of growing up in a distant mountain village and of his work, which allowed him to explore the farthest corners of the country, were an invaluable treat for these children. He could describe the most mundane things and yet, for those eager ears, his words sounded like spells.

He was just talking about how his unit had helped with capturing the people who were smuggling the tiger over the northern border when one of the kids got off their chair and walked towards the cabinet. When the door opened, Phupha saw a stack of water bottles as well as metal cans filled with crayons and lots of paper. 

“Oh, right, how about we finish with the stories for today?” he suggested.

The collective sounds of protest that answered him put an amused smile on his face.

“Don’t worry! I’ll tell you some more next week,” he promised. “I was just thinking that maybe you’d like to draw something now, huh?”

Fortunately, the kids seemed to like the idea as they almost immediately got to work, creating drawings of the creatures and places from his stories. Phupha walked around them, praising their works and helping if they needed it.

A loud thud of the metal can falling on the ground made Phupha look around. One of the kids had to knock it over while colouring, the crayons rolling in all directions.

“Here, let me help you,” he said as he crouched down and began to collect them, making his way up this weird, crayon-marked path from the centre of the room to the door.

Just to make sure that no stray crayon made it past the door frame, Phupha stepped out of the room and came to a dead stop as he almost collided with a lanky figure standing right next to the recreation room’s door.

 The man standing in front of him was most likely leaning on the wall with his shoulder, but he straightened when Phupha stared at him. The guest hours were already over. There was something delicate in his features, but this face certainly didn't belong to someone who might have been a patient on the children's ward. But then again, he must surely have passed the desk at which the nurse on duty sat, and since she hadn't stopped him, the man couldn't have been just an intruder.

Phupha briefly noticed the untamed hair and pale skin of the stranger's face that contrasted with his dark shirt. He felt his lips part slightly as if reading itself to ask a question, but then he looked into those dark eyes and was unable to utter a word.

Normally, when people were standing in front of Phupha, they instinctively backed away, tried to make themselves look smaller. But not this one. There was a hesitance caused by being caught, but it quickly morphed into assertiveness, as if the stranger was about to ask Phupha what he was doing here, as if Phupha was the one who should explain himself. 

There was an itch underneath Phupha’s skin.

Who are you?

The voice calling his name made him look away from the man.

“Chief Phupha, will you help me draw a dog? We’ll have to go for dinner soon!”

“Yes, just a second!” he called back and turned his head again, but he only caught a glimpse of the man from before as he disappeared around the corner.