February 12, 2001 - Part II
Kepler’s Kopy & Print Shop was closed, so David pressed the doorbell, as he’d been instructed to do, and waited. He’d been tempted to go without a coat since he only had one and it looked shabby especially in comparison to his suit. It was the only one David owned and he’d bought it on sale, off the rack, but a Deafie friend of a friend of a friend who was a seamstress had made some alterations so it fit him well and made him look like a professional even if he didn’t feel like one.
After only a few moments, the lights flashed, so David tried the door again and this time it opened. The main room of the shop was dimly lit, like only one section of the lights were illuminated, and the copy machines and furniture were covered in drop clothes with a light coating of dust. Apparently, it really had been shuttered ever since the old man died a few months ago. David removed his coat and tucked it under his arm, rolling his shoulders to try to help get his suit jacket settled without using his hands.
David felt a vibration beneath his feet and glanced up to see Brandon Kepler, dressed more like a contractor than a businessman in work jeans, carpenter’s boots, a henley and flannel shirt. He scanned David from head to foot and chuckled. “Going to a wedding?”
David glanced down at his suit and suddenly felt self conscious. It was bad enough this was his first job interview without an interpreter, and he kept having this nagging feeling like he was forgetting something, enough to set him off kilter.
“I’m teasing you. Relax. Let’s sit down in my office and talk, and then I’ll give you a tour.”
Brandon’s office was a disaster of boxes, paperwork, and even construction supplies. He apologized, explaining he was still sorting through everything from his father’s death and his brothers’ incompetence, and gestured for David to take a seat across from the desk. He perused David’s resume so quickly David was certain he couldn’t be reading it, and then he tossed it aside and studied David for a full minute before signing, “Your first job was in a meatpacking plant?”
David didn’t include that on his resume, but Brandon must have asked around about him, and it was hard to have many secrets in the Deaf community. “Not like I had much choice. I was young, Deaf, didn’t have a high school diploma, and my English was awful.”
Brandon seemed to consider this for a long moment before he said, “And how did a kid who didn’t graduate from high school and barely read English manage to get his GED and a bachelor’s degree?”
David shrugged. “Luck and a lot of hard work and determination.”
Brandon raised an eyebrow, his expression saying he expected David to elaborate.
David sighed, debating about how honest he should be. It would be easy to let his guard down since they were signing directly to each other with no middle man, but Brandon was still David’s prospective employer, and possibly his only shot at a full-time job that didn’t involve processing dead animals or mopping the men’s bathroom. “It’s a long story.”
Brandon smiled. “I have time. In case you haven’t noticed, we’re not open for business yet.”
David really didn’t like talking about his past. Even Kai didn’t know all the details. But David sensed Brandon would know if David withheld too much, and this job was too important. If he and Megan were ever going to have a real future together, they had to start paying off debt and start putting a nest egg away, and they needed health insurance. “You obviously tapped the rumor mill, so you probably know I grew up in the system. But I wasn’t put into JSD right away, so I ended up repeating kindergarten, so I still had more than two years left of high school when I turned 18 and wasn’t the state’s problem anymore. A few Deaf families offered to take me in on rotation, but I was stupid, stubborn, and sheltered and decided I didn’t need the community or school.”
“And learned the hard way that the hearing world is a pretty inhospitable place for the best of us?”
David nodded. With no diploma, no credit, and no job experience, being Deaf was only one of his problems. “I worked when I could, and starved when I couldn’t,” David summarized neatly, vastly understating the harsh reality of the years before he met Megan. “I was a hard worker, but sooner or later my manager would find an excuse to get rid of me so they could hire someone ‘easier’ to deal with.” David paused. No one—not even Megan—knew the full truth, how the longer he went without work the harder it was to get hired, and cold and hunger soon convinced him a little B&E was fine if he only took enough to eat or buy a warm bed for a night. The next part was a “Kaiism,” as David liked to think of it: not a lie, but a deception to mask the painful, complete truth. “I was living on the street when I met Megan, my fiancée. Her family took me in and helped me turn my life around. She’s an interpreter, a CODA—in case you’re too recent back into town to know—and she works insane hours since I haven’t had stable work since we moved back here. A job like this would mean I could start paying her back for saving my life.” David hadn’t intended to get sappy; he wasn’t sentimental the way Kai could be. But he wasn’t exaggerating. He knew he would be dead or in prison if Megan hadn’t come along. He owed her everything.
Brandon studied him a moment before saying, “Don’t sell yourself short. You run your own business, right?”
David shrugged. Nodded. Was tempted to dismiss his handyman side gig as just that, but David had to project confidence.
“And I know about your T-shirt hobby, too. Not bad for a foster kid less than a decade after dropping out of high school. Not a single Deafie I talked to had something bad to say about you: you’re smart, educated but humble, a fast learner and a hard worker. And loyal, too. Hearies don’t know what they’re missing not hiring you.” Brandon stood suddenly. “Come on. I get antsy sitting around for too long with nothing to do. What do you say I give you that tour?”
Kai could make out Renee’s voice, off to his right, just barely above the cacophony of the students as they filed out of the lecture hall since class was over. “Hmm?” Kai turned his head toward her.
Renee blinked as if she’d forgotten his hearing problem, but then she shook it off and smiled. “I was just asking where you wanted to go after this. While we wait for David to come back from his interview.”
Kai’s eyebrows furrowed. “Go? But don’t you have class?”
Renee nodded. “History of . . .” Renee hesitated before she finally signed, “architecture,” as if she’d been unsure of the sign. “But I doubt you want to sit in a class with people you don’t know, in a subject you don’t care about. It’s OK if I skip.”
Part of Kai wanted to go home and crawl under his covers and sleep the rest of the day. Another wanted to grab Renee’s hand and take off on an adventure. Maybe get in the car and drive until they hit ocean. Kai had never seen one, not in real life, and it would be nice to experience that for the first time with Renee. But a third part of him knew he had to stay here, had to go to class with her, had to make sure he was always around someone because he didn’t deserve to see ocean. He didn’t deserve Renee. Or even David. Definitely not Jon. People who’d sacrificed for him. Who did it over and over without a thought.
“Kai?” Renee waved her hands in front of his eyes. “What year is it?”
Kai let out a long sigh and forced a smile. “2001. Let’s go to your class. I’ll be OK.” Kai’s voice felt gravely, unused, and he wondered if it sounded that way to Renee.
She gave him a hard look as if she weren’t buying his bullshit, but then she returned the smile, soft and sweet, and after a hesitation for his permission, slid her fingers through his hair, pushing it out of his face and off behind his ear. “You need a haircut.”
It was true, but it made Kai suddenly sad. No, sad wasn’t strong enough to convey the sorrow he felt swirling in his stomach like a dust devil itching to become a true tornado. He’d promised she could go with him when he finally got it cut, but he was going into the nuthouse the day after tomorrow, so when would they have the chance?? Would they ever have the chance? Kai felt nausea blend with a burn in his sinuses that meant tears were threatening and he dug deep, hugging himself hard enough his arms and shoulders burned with pain, all to keep those tears at bay. He suddenly realized he wasn’t breathing, as if he were trying to squeeze the life out of himself, and he had to relax his grip and gasp for air.
Renee laid a hand on his arm and fixed her eyes on his, searching, pleading.
Say something, a voice in his head demanded. Say something!
“It’s OK. Really. We don’t have to go to my class.”
Kai shook his head. “Two history classes in a row? Talk about a snore fest.” Kai’s signing was particularly exaggerated.
Renee rolled her eyes but laughed. “You’re such a drama queen.” A sign she had to have learned from David, Kai realized, as Renee playfully stuck out her tongue to emphasize she was teasing him.
And it hit him, hard, harder than the sadness brought on by her haircut suggestion. This blossoming of warmth in the center of his chest that stole his breath. Love. That had to be what he was feeling. The real thing. David had explained he’d known he was head over heels for Megan when the smallest moments, the most inane of comments or actions made his world suddenly seem a little brighter, like a dose of concentrated happiness.
“You OK?” Renee asked, worried.
Kai swallowed and managed to nod. He took a deep breath. “There’s something I need to tell you,” Kai said in a couple signs. Kai cleared his throat and switched to English, for her sake. “I—“ Kai’s heart was thundering. He’d come so close to blurting it out, to finally telling her how he felt, but fear seized him. He started thinking about last night, about going to Nikki instead of her, and could he truthfully say he loved Renee after that? His stomach contracted, and the sadness bloomed, and finding a dark hole to crawl into became extremely appealing. Nausea surged and Kai fought against it, pushing himself to say something so she wouldn’t ask if he was OK. Again. “I know you have work tomorrow, but I was hoping it’d be OK with you if we preponed Valentine’s Day.”
“Take a breath,” Renee coaxed, concerned, confusing him, but her hands did a “slow down” gesture. Was he talking too fast? It hadn’t felt that way. “‘Preponed’?”
“Yeah. Dr. Miller wants me to . . .” Kai glanced around. Most of the students had left and the new class hadn’t arrived yet, but Kai was paranoid. “ASAP. So.” Kai shrugged. He was getting antsy. Not full blown anxiety, but the seeds of it. A few minutes ago he’d been confident he could handle Renee’s class, but now he wasn’t certain he could avoid a panic attack.
“Oooh. You mean ‘push it up’?”
Kai’s brows furrowed. He’d definitely defer to Renee for proper English, but that phrase made no sense. Time flowed in the horizontal, not the vertical plane. “Deafies say ‘prepone,’ because it’s the opposite of ‘postpone.” Kai demonstrated by signing both, one looking like you were moving a date back, to an earlier date (prepone) and the other out, to a later one (postpone).
Renee nodded enthusiastically and Kai could tell she was memorizing this info. She was so smart she could pick up a new sign after only seeing it once. He loved her for how diligent she’d been in learning ASL. And there that word was again. “I’ll talk to Art; he’s got a huge soft spot for you. I’m sure I can swing it.”
Kai let out a tense breath. He could feel the cogs in his mind wanting to spin off into self recriminations, so he reached for her without thought and pulled her into a deep kiss.
The wind whipped harshly as Renee and Kai exited the building where their history class was. Kai was in front of her, seemingly determined to make the long trek to the architectural building across campus. Renee could tell Kai was off today. His pushing wasn’t fluid or quick like it normally was. Instead, his movements were jerky and slow, and every few feet he’d pause completely until he’d used up his momentum and rolled to a stop.
They’d only gone a few feet when a gust of wind hit her and caused her to shiver despite her warm coat. February was definitely the coldest month, and at Kai’s pace she’d freeze to death before they’d get to her next class. She jogged up until she was in front of him, then turned to face him.
Kai had wrapped his scarf so it covered his nose and mouth, leaving only his eyes exposed. His hair whipped in the wind, occasionally blocking his view, but he didn’t seem to care. In fact, his eyes seemed dead and lifeless, as if his mind were miles away. And maybe it was. Maybe that was why his pushing was so irregular.
It took some doing to get Kai’s attention. “My car isn’t far. Let’s drive to my next class.” It was difficult to sign with her gloves, but she didn’t dare take them off, and she hoped Kai would be able to understand her anyway. After all, he seemed to get the Deafies who were from other states when Renee could barely make out a sign or two.
Kai stared at her blankly for a long time. So long Renee was worried her signing had been even more unclear than she’d thought. But finally, his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes darkened. “I’m fine,” he said, his voice muffled by the scarf.
“It’s really far,” Renee pointed, wiggling her tongue the way she’d learned expressed a largeness or farness. “Let’s just drive.”
“I’m fine!” Kai wheeled around her, then pushed hard, though it wasn’t his usual force, and his jerky, slow movements of earlier became even more pronounced as he seemed to be trying harder to go fast and smooth and it only made things worse. Now Renee could see how stiff he was, and she suspected it wasn’t due to the cold. Was his MLS acting up?
Renee shivered and jogged and hopped up to meet him, trying to stay warm. “You’re not fine. Let’s drive.”
Kai didn’t stop, but it was evident he’d used up most of his steam and was running on fumes, his breathing irregular. “Don’t fucking look at me like that.”
Renee wasn’t sure how she was looking at him, but she tried to change her facial expression anyway. She got in his path so he could see her and he shoved her out of the way forcefully enough she fell. She let out a yelp of pain and surprise, then kicked his tire in frustration. She felt ready to cry and she hated that Kai had made her want to, which only made the tears build.
The tire kick got Kai’s attention. His eyes changed to pools of sadness and maybe regret, and he pivoted to face her, shifted on his brake, and offered his hands.
Reluctantly, Renee accepted and let Kai pull her to her feet. She brushed off the salt and grime and gave Kai a hard look. “I’m cold. If you want to wheel all the way there, fine. But I’m driving.” Renee knew she wasn’t supposed to leave him alone, but maybe if he realized it wasn’t only about him he’d stop being so freaking stubborn.
Kai’s shoulders dropped. He nodded. “I don’t have a parking tag.” Renee guessed he meant one that would let them park in the handicapped spots. Jon had one she’d borrowed before when she’d chauffeured Kai at the start of the semester.
“We’ll figure it out,” Renee said, and she meant more than the parking situation.
Renee was saying something, but Kai had shut his hearing aids off because of the wind, and even if he hadn’t, the feedback would have made it impossible for him to understand her anyway. She was probably yelling at him to hurry up, bc it was fucking freezing, and if he weren’t so stubborn, he’d admit she was 110% right that it was way too cold to walk across campus. Especially when he wasn’t exactly Mr. Speedy today. Nevertheless, Kai remained where he was, his chair aligned with the passenger’s seat of Renee’s car, door open, dreading the transfer.
Kai had needed David’s help earlier today, but Kai had to manage this one on his own. Even if Renee were theoretically strong enough, she was so much smaller Kai wouldn’t have allowed her to aid him even if he wasn’t trying to squeeze into her clown car. Kai sucked in a breath. The more he thought about it, the worse it was going to be.
Kai used his hands to place his feet on the pavement, as flat as he could make them. He could use this position to give him some additional leverage. Then he placed his left hand on the car seat and the other on his chair cushion. Took another deep breath, and pushed with all the strength he had in him today. Kai’s butt hit the car seat halfway in, enough he wouldn’t fall out, though he’d need to shift to get himself better settled in it, and his legs were still stretched out between his chair, the ground, and the car. But Kai didn’t move. Pain hummed through his body, buzzing in his arms and concentrating in his shoulders and back. Kai was used to pain. The only pain-free moments in his life were when he was heavily medicated. But right now the pain was like an all-encompassing symphony he could almost hear, and he had to remember to breathe. It was like he could feel every single muscle fiber from his feet to his neck, and all of them were tense and angry. The cold felt good because its icy tendrils were a relief from the screams of his body.
Nausea swirled in Kai’s stomach. He felt floaty, like foam on top of a beer, and if he could just follow that maybe he’d escape the pain for a little while. Kai shut his eyes and focused, the pain—a jagged grip digging into his shoulders and tugging on his spine—trying to rip him back. Then Kai felt Renee touch his left arm. It was enough to push the mind-blur away for a moment, and he opened his eyes to look at her.
Renee’s face was full of concern and love but she didn’t say anything. Didn’t ask if he was OK or offer to help. She smoothed his forearm and then slid her hand down until she was able to link her fingers in his. And she just held his hand and looked at him supportively, without a hint of pity or judgment.
“I’m not fine,” Kai said, as if it weren’t already obvious. He braced himself and then pushed with his right hand to ease himself into the seat a bit more, ignoring the pain for now. He rested, even though the twinge in his knees begged him to pull his legs in. He was precariously close to passing out or throwing up or maybe both. Renee had to know, but everything in him urged him to keep it from her. The idea of admitting how much he was hurting was almost as nauseating as the pain itself. Kai grabbed his jeans and lifted his legs into place one by one. Even with the seat adjusted as far back as it could go, he didn’t have enough room in the footwell, so he had to leave his legs bent. The muscles around Kai’s knees were taunt and demanded to be massaged loose, and the pain there almost distracted Kai from the burn in his arms or the tension in his shoulders.
By the time Kai closed the door, he felt spent, as if he’d wheeled for miles or gone through a whole day’s worth of PT. The pain—and the depression that was its companion—whispered in Kai’s ear to give up. If only he still had that bottle of Xanax. He’d down the whole thing just to escape.
Renee squeezed his hand to draw his attention to her. “I’ll get your chair. You relax. I love you.”
Kai let his eyes slide shut. He may have nodded. He may have passed out for a little while.
After stowing Kai’s chair, Renee watched him for a long time. He hadn’t gone out right and said it in so many words—other than the admission that he wasn’t fine—but she could tell. Her hunches hadn’t been far off. He was in a lot of pain. She’d never seen him like this, and realized he probably had never allowed her to. She wasn’t sure if the fact that he was now meant a step forward for them, or if the situation had given him no choice. He was evidently hurting enough he hadn’t been able to hide it from her anymore, and her heart ached for him. She wished there was something she could do to help, but he’d explained more than once that his muscle pain was pretty resistant to medication and most of the time he had to simply wait it out.
He was beautiful, though. The way his long, unkempt hair framed his face, the flutter of his blond lashes on his cheeks, the way he’d chew his bottom lip, catch himself, and stop only to repeat a few minutes later. How his Adam’s apple would bob when he swallowed, the rise of his chest with his breath. She realized more than ever in this moment what love really was. It was seeing another person as if they were everything whenever you looked at them, even if you were freezing in your car together.
Renee touched his arm to get his attention.
Kai’s eyes opened slowly and tracked to her. He didn’t move his head. He looked . . . raw. Like she was seeing him in one of those rare opportunities in which he didn’t put up a mask of any kind. She hoped it was because he trusted her, but she suspected it was the pain stealing his concentration.
“Forget about class. I don’t need to go.”
Kai’s eyebrows furrowed in anger. His voice was halting. “You’ve missed enough school because of me. Drive. I’ll be fine.” His voice broke a little on the last part, obviously a lie, and Renee noticed his visible hand gripped the seat cushion so tightly his fingers turned white.
Renee poked him to get him to look at her again. “You’re not fine! You don’t have any medicine you can take?”
Kai growled. He turned to face her, and Renee caught his fleeting grimace. “No. David fucking took them.” Kai pressed into the headrest trying to stretch his neck and back. He groaned and relaxed, as if giving up. His breathing had ratcheted up and hadn’t calmed.
“We can go get some, then. From your house.”
“David changed the safe combo.” Kai’s voice suggested his growing irritation with the topic. “Besides, Dr. Miller said no benzos for me but the bare minimum. Fucking cunt.”
Renee had never heard Kai swear quite like that, and it caught her off guard. But that wasn’t what made her stomach contract with fear and worry. Dr. Miller and David wouldn’t keep Kai’s meds from him—especially when his MLS was acting up the way it was—without cause. “What happened last night?”
Kai turned faster than he could stop himself, twisting toward her and letting out a grunt and a, “Motherfucker,” under his breath before falling back against the seat and taking a few minutes to catch his breath. He was furious when he finally spoke. “What did David tell you?!”
That hurt. She knew Kai was in pain and his moods had been unpredictable anyway, but she didn’t like the accusation in his tone. “Nothing,” Renee started in sign but switched to English because she couldn’t find the ASL fast enough. “But if you tried to kill yourself last night, I deserve to know!”
Kai’s eyebrows bent in confusion at first, but then rose in shock. He’d clearly understood enough. He didn’t say anything for a long time, and Renee hated how it felt like her heart had been crumpled. He was shutting her out. Again. So showing his pain wasn’t intentional after all.
“Forget it,” Renee said, using a sign she’d learned from David, the sign for FORGET combined with a fast fingerspelling of I-T.
Kai reached up and grabbed her hand from where it was near the top side of her head and brought it down, linking his fingers in hers. His face was contrite. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he seemed genuine. “I’m . . .” Kai swallowed. He stared into her eyes for so long it became uncomfortable. As if sensing it, he dropped his gaze to their hands. “I’m . . . really . . . hurting,” he admitted in a whisper, his words drawn out, like he was admitting to more than the pain his MLS was causing, but the darkness he battled constantly.
Renee squeezed his hand to encourage him.
Kai smiled faintly at that before the edges of his mouth dropped again. Then, as if to give evidence to Renee’s theory, Kai continued in a low voice, “Frankie’s adoptive parents . . . they’re amazing.” Kai’s voice broke. He cleared his throat. Glanced up at her fleetingly, his beautiful blue eyes misty, like Lake Pontchartrain on a foggy morning. “They’ve totally accepted him. His disability. They take him on vacations. . . . They act just like they’re his real mom and dad.” Kai pulled away, covering his mouth with that hand. He avoided making eye contact, as if he were ashamed. “I knew it would be difficult. Going to Frankie’s.” Kai swallowed audibly. He shivered, but Renee suspected it wasn’t because of the cold. Kai leaned his head against the window. In profile, Renee could see how this conversation, their fight, everything, had drained him, sucked away what little energy he’d had. “Growing up, there was one thing I wanted more than anything. More than being normal. More than not being sick.” Kai’s voice was achingly sad.
“A family,” Renee guessed with one sign.
Kai nodded tightly. He gripped the edge of the seat, digging his fingers into the cushion as if he were focusing all his frustration and anger there. His voice took on that practiced monotone Renee recognized from when they’d first met, but she wasn’t offended. It was taking a lot for Kai to be this open with her. She wouldn’t blame him if trying to extract his emotion helped him to do so. “Last night brought up a lot of shit I haven’t worked through.” Kai’s nose twitched. He closed his eyes and was silent for a long time, but the tension in his body told Renee he was still awake. Just when she figured he was done talking, he said, his jaw trembling, “I’ll never have what Frankie has.” Kai grit his teeth hard, and he blinked rapidly as if he were trying to contain his emotions. “If my mother had loved me, I’d remember her.”
This was some of the most intimate revelations Kai had ever offered her. And even though her heart broke for him, at the same time it lightened knowing he was trusting her with this information. She shifted in her seat until she was kneeling so she could lean over and place a hand on his cheek.
Kai flinched away, and his eyes met hers. Renee couldn’t read the tangled web of emotions hidden in them. “Don’t feel sorry for me,” he ground out in warning.
Renee’s fingers curled away from him, and she sank back, hurt.
Kai’s nose twitched more noticeably. He was bracing himself against the door, one hand clinging tightly to the seat, almost as if he were trying to push himself as far from her as he could. Maybe she was reading too much into it, but she felt as if the moment of closeness between them had been shattered by his accusation that she pitied him. “Last night.” Kai took a large breath he struggled to fully inhale, as if his chest were resisting. “David thinks I tried to OD.”
Renee’s stomach fell ten stories. Or at least it felt that way. Kai took so many medications, and though David and Jon did their best to protect Kai from himself, the threat was always there.
“I didn’t,” Kai said a little too defensively. “I stole the pills from the safe. But the bottle was full.” Kai wasn’t making sense. Or at least Renee was struggling to follow him. Kai pushed against the cushion to press himself into the seatback. He shoved a hand through his hair, but seemed to give up halfway through, making his chaotic locks even messier. It was adorable on one level, and yet the seriousness of the conversation kept Renee from smiling. Kai’s right arm stretched out along the doorframe, and he scratched against the vinyl, the scritch-scritch jarring to Renee’s ears, but it was likely he couldn’t hear it. Kai swallowed, grit his teeth hard enough they creaked. “I blacked out again. Last night. David thinks it was drugs.” Kai shifted restlessly. Looked around and through her. “Can we just. Go somewhere? Anywhere? I just.” Kai stared up as if looking for answers in the fabric-covered ceiling of the tiny car.
Renee cautiously reached over for Kai’s left hand, relieved when he accepted her touch. “Why did you steal the pills?” Renee struggled with only one hand, but she didn’t want to risk speaking; she needed Kai to understand her.
Kai stared blankly at her before sighing; his nose twitched rapidly. He shook his head. “I don’t know. I can’t remember.” Kai’s thumb smoothed the skin of Renee’s hand in an affectionate, soothing way. “It doesn’t matter. David and Dr. Miller don’t trust me.” His eyes were achingly sad when he added, “Maybe you shouldn’t either.”
“Kai,” Renee said softly enough he probably couldn’t hear. Why shouldn’t she trust him? Was he lying? He’d seemed sincere. It would have been easy for him not to tell her anything, and yet he’d revealed the kind of things he normally kept locked up in the vault that was his heart.
“Look. If you want to cancel Valentine’s Day, I get it. I suck the light out of a room. Sure everyone would be overjoyed if I committed myself sooner.” Kai didn’t frown or smile. His face was almost devoid of emotion except for exhaustion.
Renee squeezed Kai’s hand, then tugged gently to get him to look up. “Why does it feel like you’re not telling me something?”
Kai smiled, but it was cold, almost creepy. “There’s a lot I’m not telling you.”
Though Renee knew that, it still hurt for Kai to say it so bluntly.
Kai suddenly grunted, grimaced, and grit his teeth. He squeezed her hand hard before he seemed to catch himself and let go. He massaged his right thigh, kneading the muscle with the heel of his palm. When that didn’t seem to help, he tried working his fingers into it, as if willing the individual fibers to relax. That was the leg he’d seriously hurt a few months ago, wasn’t it? Did it hurt more than other areas of his body? Renee wanted to ask, but she knew it wasn’t the right time. His breathing was ragged, although he was clearly trying to regulate it. To hide from her how badly he was hurting, even after he’d admitted as much earlier? Or to help relax himself?
“I don’t want to cancel Valentine’s Day,” Renee signed slowly, thinking as she went because she didn’t want to mess up her point. “Not because the holiday itself is important, but . . .” Renee bit her lip, thinking. She needed to sign this; it was essential Kai understood her. “Maybe, for only a few hours, we can both forget our pasts and just be together.”
Kai smiled. This one seemed real, as it pulled some of the sadness from his eyes. “How can you be so good? What did you do to deserve me?” Then the smile faded, and the sadness returned in force. “I’m never getting better. Not really. My past will always haunt me. It doesn’t have to haunt you, too.”
“No,” Renee said and signed, shaking her head violently. “We promised we’d survive together. No take backs.”
Kai’s cheek lifted in a grin. “You shouldn’t promise something unless you know what you’re getting into.” But he reached for her hand, perhaps a symbolic way of saying he wasn’t going to fight her on this anymore.
They sat in silence a long moment. Then Kai’s eyes slid shut and he let out a soft grunt like he’d been kicked in the stomach. His breathing sped up and he pressed his hands against the ceiling above his head as if trying to use the movement to stretch his spine and angle himself into a more comfortable position. He let out a sound that was part moan, part groan, and part grunt, and collapsed back into the seat, gasping and panting. His eyes were still tightly closed, his head bent as he struggled to breathe. It could have been Renee’s imagination, but he seemed to be trembling.
Even though Kai had confessed how serious his fall MLS attack was, how bad his muscle pain could get, she never imagined it would be anything like this. She took his hand and squeezed it, knowing that the only thing she could do for him was to let him know he wasn’t alone. Not anymore, and this wasn’t going to scare her away.
Kai let his head fall back against the headrest, panting. His eyes slid open and met hers. He squeezed her hand and managed to smile faintly. He let out a puff of air, and then she watched as his body calmed, his breathing still fast, but less panicked. Maybe he’d managed to ride out the worst of the spasms. Still, he surprised her when he suddenly said, “Where do you want to go?”
Kai turned his head subtly. He still held himself tensely, and he spoke overly slowly, like it was taking a lot of focus for him to produce the words. Between them, his breathing was overly controlled, like he was trying to regulate it but not entirely succeeding, tiny muffled grunts punctuating his words. “If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?”
Renee blinked. “Somewhere warm?”
Kai chuckled, then grimaced. He took his hand back so he could use both to shift positions again, wedging himself between the door and the seat. That seemed to give him the most leg room, although he rubbed the underside of his knees, working his fingers into the muscle that linked his leg bones, gritting his teeth hard. “Where is somewhere you’ve always wanted to go?” The question caught Renee off guard considering Kai’s skin was grayish now, and he’d gone limp, somehow retaining the involuntary stiffness while losing the conscious effort of earlier. He looked a hair’s breath from passing out, and it scared her. So the worst wasn’t over, after all. Was Kai acting nonchalant because he didn’t want her fussing over him?
“France. Paris, of course, but I’d love to travel the country. Experience my heritage.”
Kai let out a long breath. “I don’t even know anything about my parents, let alone my ancestors. Bet if they could time travel and meet me they’d be pretty disappointed.” Kai’s cheek twitched in the attempt at a smile. Before Renee could comment, he continued, “Coast. I want to see ocean. I don’t care which. Don’t be so surprised,” he added without giving her time to react, as if he was intuiting what she might say. “I’ve never been farther than Omaha, and that’s not exactly waterfront. Unless you count the Platte, which is a far cry from ocean. Always thought I’d die before I saw it. The sea. Might still.” Kai’s disaffected tone worried Renee. “Let’s go to Vegas. If we drove without stopping we could make it in . . . a day? Of course you’d have to do all the driving. Shit. The Indian Casino northwest of town is closer. Only an hour, maybe two in this weather.”
Renee stared at him a long while. Was the pain getting to him? “I’m not 21.”
“So? I am, and with the wheelchair I’m sure to get you in. Let’s go.”
“No. We’re not going anywhere. Tell me what’s really going on.” Kai’s behavior reminded her a little of yesterday, when he’d suddenly decided they should take off because he was trying to escape the dinner. What was he running away from now? David?
“What about Omaha? The hospital?”
Kai’s nose twitched, but otherwise, it was almost as if he hadn’t understood her. “If we leave now, we can get there before dark.”
“When do we ever do anything fun? This will be fun.”
“We can’t go to a casino.”
“Then we can go somewhere else. Anywhere. Let’s go back to my apartment, get my car, and I’ll drive. We can go to Chicago.”
“That’s days away,” Renee said out loud before she could stop herself. “Kai.”
Kai pulled away from her. Drew up. He became almost comically angry, like a caricature of himself, and yet nothing about his behavior was humorous. “You don’t want to have fun with me. You like me sick, so you can feel good about yourself for being with me.”
Kai shook his head. “So you’re probably happy to know that I’ll never get better. You can forever be the saint for being with me.”
“I don’t know what’s worse. Becca, for claiming she loved me and then leaving because I got too sick, or you doing the same but only as long as I don’t get well.”
“I never said that! Of course I want you to get better.” Where was all this coming from? She knew Kai’s moods could be erratic, but she almost felt like she’d been dropped into some alternate timeline, like the fight had started without her somehow. Renee tried to reach for him, but he pulled away. It was less someone being cold and more the way he’d acted when he’d first gotten out of the hospital, as if her touch would burn him. It hurt, but she tried to internalize that Kai was sick, that he wasn’t thinking straight, that if she told him about this in a few hours or days he might not even realize how he’d acted. “I love you. Without limits,” she signed the same way she had when she’d visited him in the hospital, unable to figure out how else to say “unconditionally.” “My love isn’t . . .” Renee hesitated and guessed at how to sign the rest of the sentence, “dependent on whether you’re sick or healthy. Mind or body. I want to be with you. I want to be with you when you’re well and I want to hold your hand when you’re not. I know you would do the same for me. . . . Wouldn’t you?”
Kai’s right knee was bobbing and she wasn’t sure if it was his MLS or nerves. He definitely seemed restless; he kept looking around as if he were hoping to somehow escape the car. Maybe searching for David to arrive and rescue him. It made a well of sadness swirl inside Renee that Kai might think he needed “rescuing” from her at all.
Suddenly, with no warning, Kai punched the window and the dashboard with the sides of his fists, screaming. “I hate being fucking trapped!” He reached back as if to pull his chair to him, but it didn’t fit in Renee’s meager back seat, and there wasn’t enough space between the hatch and the seat backs for him to get it out of the trunk. Kai screamed again in frustration, making Renee flinch.
Kai angry like this made her uneasy. Maybe a kind of “flashback” of her own from Jude. Maybe because she knew Kai could be dangerous. “I’m sorry. I should have folded the seats down back there.” Though she wasn’t sure the the frame of his wheelchair would have made it into the front seat even if Kai could reach it.
On another day, Kai would have teased her about her “clown car,” but right now he was furious, though she saw pain in his eyes she suspected had nothing to do with his MLS flare-up. He was breathing heavily, but otherwise quiet and still.
“I have no control over my life,” Kai finally said, his voice eerily devoid of emotion. “I never have and I guess I never will.”
Kai was stiff, sullen, and silent. David had helped Kai with his transfers, Kai automatically putting his arms around David’s neck as if he were on autopilot. He’d pushed himself the short distance from David’s car to his psych classroom, moving slowly and mechanically. His MLS was really acting up, David could tell from how taunt Kai’s body had been, how resistant to movement, not to mention the way Kai was wheeling, but he’d been around Kai when he was in pain, and that wasn’t why Kai’s mind had checked out.
Kai’s psych classroom was empty when they arrived, and Kai pushed up to the spot directly ahead of him, barely bothering to nudge the chairs out of his way before he collapsed, face down, on the desk, his arms thrown over it. It was almost comical, as if he were some toy that had run out of batteries, but David didn’t even smile. He’d known Kai most of his life, and he’d been around him the past few months, but he’d never seen Kai quite like this, and it scared David.
David grabbed one of the chairs that Kai had wedged himself between and pulled it around to the other side of the table, so he could talk to his friend if he could ever get Kai to look up. Maybe he should have taken Kai home instead. David checked his messages and sent a few quick replies to various people who’d contacted him while he’d been in his interview, some already congratulating him on the job. Damn, the Deafie gossip network worked fast. Brandon hadn’t even finished the tour when he was offering David the position of “jack of all trades,” because he knew David could do anything from balancing the books to fixing the toilets. He even promised David could exercise his creativity. It was a dream job, and David still couldn’t believe he’d landed it, and with a Deaf boss to boot. It meant focusing on Kai right now was harder than it would otherwise have been. Still, every few seconds David would glance over at Kai, who lay motionless on the tabletop, maybe even asleep. Finally, David couldn’t stand it any longer and tapped the table to get Kai’s attention.
Kai flinched but otherwise didn’t move.
David repeated the tapping, more insistent this time. Then again, and again, until Kai finally popped his head up, his hair a mess covering one eye, the other casting a bone-chilling glare at David. But it had no effect, because David had expected that reaction.
“What did you do to Renee?”
Kai stared blankly at David, almost as if David were some door-to-door salesperson Kai had no time or interest for.
“She looked like she was ready to cry. What the fuck did you do to her?”
Kai didn’t seem as if he were going to answer. He still had his arms stretched out across the table, and he barely moved them when he finally signed so that it took a minute for David to get what he was saying. “Made her fall in love with me.” Kai was about to put his head back down, so David reached out and pushed on Kai’s forehead to keep it up. Kai recoiled, sitting up. “Don’t touch me.”
David rolled his eyes. “If you don’t give me a straight answer, I’m going to punch you. Why did Renee look like you’d ripped her heart out of her chest and torn it into tiny pieces? Did you tell her Valentine’s Day is canceled? Because I’ll help you set it up. I promised I would.”
Kai straightened his back, a grimace crossing his face and one hand dropping to massage his lumbar. He stared down at the table for a rudely long stretch of time before finally making eye contact. He looked . . . guilty. Finally some emotion other than anger. David would take it.
“You know you can talk to me.”
Kai’s nose twitched. “What do you think I was doing at Nikki’s?”
Kai’s question caught David off guard. Honestly, he hadn’t really thought about it. “You were fucked up this morning. You scrubbed until your fingers literally bled.” David didn’t touch Kai again, not wanting to shut his friend down, but he pointed to one of Kai’s fingers that was particularly bad. Kai kept his fingernails short, but even so, they were cracked in places, his cuticles scabbed.
Kai stared at his hands. Dug into one of the scabs with his thumb until it burst open and began to seep. He seemed entranced. Suddenly, almost without warning, Kai’s shoulders began to shake. At first, David thought he was crying, but when Kai looked up, David realized his friend was laughing.
David cast Kai a worried and questioning look, but Kai didn’t seem to see it. He just kept laughing, almost hysterically, and David wondered if Kai thought his laughs would turn to tears if he let them. So Kai laughed, hugging himself, his face a confusing mixture of amusement and pain, and David sat there, staring, totally out of his league, unsure what to do.
After a few minutes—Kai was still laughing—David noticed a blur of movement near the door and looked up. A heavyset girl with short dark hair entered. She’d pulled it into ponytails that poofed out on either side of her head, with longer, colored strands standing out from the rest in shades of magenta and blue. She wore an oversized sweatshirt that slid over one shoulder and made her look fatter, in David’s opinion, and cutoff shorts that seemed totally inappropriate for the frigid February weather, even if she had tights or leggings or something underneath them. She said something, and without context, David only caught part of it, mostly guessing. David suspected she was directing it to Kai, so he waved for his friend’s attention and pointed.
“I think she said, ‘What’s so funny?’”
Kai’s nose twitched more obviously and he stopped laughing abruptly. He turned just enough to see who David was pointing to. David didn’t think Kai spoke, just gave her a nonverbal acknowledgement and waved her over. Once she was closer, Kai pointed to David. “My best friend, David McDonnell,” Kai sim-commed, making his signing clunky. Kai was actually usually really good at that, even better than Megan in some ways, but today his mind was a jumble and it showed.
“Nice to meet you,” the girl signed in that slow, halting way beginners did. “My name is Steve Peterson.” She didn’t divide her name by introducing her last name with the sign, which made all the letters jumble together with her awkward fingerspelling.
“Steve?” David asked both Kai and her, repeating the spelling.
“Yep,” Kai said out loud, leaning his face against one hand as if he were bored or exhausted. “I can’t do the interpreting thing. Not now. Not today.” Again, Kai signed as if he were talking to himself, with one hand low and close to his body, his signs poorly formed.
But David got the message. “It’s fine. I’ll lipread.”
Steve’s head was bobbing back and forth between them almost as if she were watching a tennis match. It was likely she didn’t understand anything Kai had said, and maybe not what David had, either.
“You two talk. I don’t mind.”
Kai nodded so slightly someone else may have missed it, and then he broke eye contact with David and looked directly at Steve, and they talked. David picked up a few words here and there, but after a while he decided to focus on their body language instead of lipreading. Kai didn’t change much from his defeated posture, and Steve was his opposite, full of energy, almost bouncing in her seat. Kai seemed as if he were only half paying attention to her, whereas Steve was totally focused on Kai. She even touched him every now and then in a teasing, playful way, seemingly oblivious to how Kai flinched when she did. Yet he didn’t tell her to stop.
David also didn’t miss how Steve would glance away, smile, and then glance back. Definitely flirting. She’d even blush from time to time and reach up to tuck a stray hair behind her ear or play with the loose fringes of her ponytails. Hardcore flirting. David didn’t miss the way she looked at Kai, the way she’d absently lick her lips from time to time. It was like Steve was wearing a flashing neon sign that said she was totally into Kai, and yet he seemed completely oblivious. Though Kai’s affect was so fucked up today, he wasn’t as easy for David to read as he normally was. Maybe Kai’s indifference was feigned. Maybe he was so focused on keeping his shit together in front of Steve he came off as uninterested.
David was about to pull out his phone again when Kai suddenly shot up straight, his entire countenance transformed. He stared at Steve, muttered something that may have been a question from how his brows popped up out of habit, then the unmistakable muttering of, “Shit. Shit. Shit!” And Kai slammed his fist on the tabletop enough it actually hopped up from the momentum.
Steve was taken totally off guard and jumped back, unconsciously creating distance between her and Kai, whose face was so full of fury David could almost see the flames in his eyes.
David stood up, seriously concerned Kai might shove the table over onto him, or throw a chair, or something else, but instead, he clenched his teeth, shook his head, and took off much faster than David would have expected considering how stiff his muscles were today.
Dammit. David cast Steve an apologetic glance and took off after Kai, vaulting over the table and jogging out into the hallway.
Classes had just let out, presumably, and dozens of students flooded out into the hall, hiding Kai from view. It didn’t help that David was short by Jonesville standards, a good 2-4” below average height for men and just barely taller than most girls. Shit. David picked a random direction, squeezing between bodies as quickly as he could, eyes scanning for any sign of movement at waist height. Fortunately, about halfway down the hall he caught a glimpse of light reflecting off chrome and then Kai’s characteristic golden hair just as he barrelled into the men’s room.
The restroom was busy, too, several guys at the urinals, but David ignored them and ran up just in time to catch the stall door before Kai closed it.
Kai fought David, but he wasn’t as strong, and he soon gave up, settling for a glare instead. “You going to watch me take a shit?”
David glanced around; some of the other guys had noticed David and Kai and were staring, maybe talking amongst themselves. Deafies might use restrooms for private conversations, but when it came to doing your business, hearing or not, you kept your distance from other guys, your eyes didn’t wander, you went, and you left. Anything outside those norms was a violation of some unwritten “bro code.” But David didn’t care. Kai’s safety was more important than a bunch of hearies he didn’t know or care about thinking he was gay.
David relaxed his grip on the door, though he kept his knee in the way so he could make sure Kai saw what he had to say. “Fine. But if I don’t smell stink in thirty seconds, I’m breaking this door down.” David gave Kai a long look that emphasized he was not kidding.
Kai showed his teeth in an almost animalistic snarl, flashed both his middle fingers, and then shoved through the door, running over David’s foot and barreling through the restroom toward the exit.
David’s toes throbbed but he ignored them and dashed after his friend. Kai was not making keeping him safe easy.