February 12, 2001 - Part III
Kai pushed through the pain, ignoring his complaining muscles, oblivious to everyone around him, weaving inelegantly through the crowded hallway. He wasn’t even sure where he was going. He just had to get away. Had to escape his failure. He wondered if the elevator would take him to the roof, and if not, if he’d have the strength to drag himself up the stairs. Because he suddenly had a powerful need to push as close to the edge as he could and stare down six stories. Maybe he wouldn’t throw himself off. At least not on purpose. He just needed to literally sit on the precipice, to feel the rush of excitement and fear, knowing that only a few inches and all the chaos would be over.
Kai pushed himself harder. His muscles resisted, spasmed, and he weaved, brushing knees with his knuckles and feet with his front wheels, but he felt detached, like he was sitting somewhere playing a video game of his life, and this level was all about getting to the destination as fast as possible.
Kai bowed his head, making himself as streamlined as he could with his stiff back, long hard pushes with just the joint of his thumbs. Through the maze of bodies Kai could see the elevator ahead. Just a few more feet.
One, two, three, four, Kai counted each push, the world around him a blur. Five, six, seven. Almost there. Eight, nine, te—
Kai crashed so hard he actually rolled backwards and his head spun. Lost in the dizziness, Kai struggled to regain his bearings. What had happened? Was this . . . real? Or was he dreaming? Kai looked around him. He was at school, but that didn’t really mean anything. Kai’s dreams were vivid, so much so they often dwarfed real life in veracity, or at least that’s how it felt all too often.
Through the noise of the students around him, some still on their way to or from class, others standing to gawk, Kai vaguely heard a male voice call his name.
Kai shook his head as if to cast off the cobwebs. He had to get out of here. He felt like the curiosity-seekers were gathering around him, closing him in, laughing at him. It made this ball of lightning build in Kai’s chest, threatening to break free, and Kai closed his eyes tight and imagined he was on the roof, because if this was a dream, perhaps he could will himself there. What would falling feel like? Would he even have time to think before he hit the ground? Would it be far enough to kill him or just fuck himself up even more than he already was?
Kai could feel the energy of all the people, and it made the static ball build, the lightning cracking and twitching and itching to burst forth. Move, Kai willed himself, but he was frozen, hijacked by the web of anxiety creeping through his body and fatigued muscles that did nothing but tremble. Mortification was a slime that dripped from the ceiling and coated his body, weighing him down. Go away go away go away go away go away go away go away. Kai could barely breathe, because if he breathed he would cry or scream or both at the same time and everyone was watching and he just couldn’t do this anymore, he couldn’t do anything anymore, if he ever could to begin with.
Kai reached up and grabbed his hair with both his hands, pulling, as if to yank himself away somehow, or at least to keep the sobs at bay because his chest was heaving and his sinuses burned and—
“Kai. Kai.” A soft, familiar male voice, easier to hear now because the cacophony of the hall had quieted.
Kai’s heart pounded, the thunder to the ball of lightning that hadn’t dissipated, and he was still shaking, and he wanted Jon, not this man, to be here, and he hated himself for wanting that, because he was a fucking grown man and he’d survived far worse than a bunch of teenagers gawking at him in the hall. But his mind kept going back to that cold bathroom, to the penetrating aloneness, to the knowledge that no one cared about him. No one ever had, and no one ever would. Kai was shaking so hard now his chair was rattling, rolling him forward and back a few millimeters over and over. All Kai wanted now as to melt into the carpet and dissolve.
Someone touched Kai’s arm.
Kai flinched, but he opened his eyes. Humiliation complete. Dr. Patrias squatted in front of Kai, staring at him hard, though his face was soft and earnest and totally nonjudgmental.
Dr. Patrias had found a nearby vacant classroom and pulled a student’s desk around so he was facing Kai, at eye level. “What’s going on?”
Kai blinked. He checked his hand. It was steady enough, so why did he still feel like he was shaking? He stared hard at Dr. Patrias, failure engulfing Kai like a choking cloak of darkness. Dr. Patrias had given Kai a chance, and Kai—of course—had disappointed him. Kai’s nose twitched and his chin trembled and his throat closed up. He fisted his jeans, wishing more than ever he’d made it to the roof.
“Do you want me to get your interpreter?”
Kai shook his head. No. No he didn’t want anyone else here to witness his shame.
“OK. Just breathe. Do you want to just turn in your paper and go home?”
Kai grit his teeth hard, and gripped the fabric of his pants as tightly as he could. He held his breath, tried to harness anger, but it was no use. Tears slid out and down his cheeks and Kai hurried to wipe them away, but Dr. Patrias couldn’t have missed them. And Kai’s failure magnified and grew, sucking the air out of the room.
“Whatever’s going on, we can work together to solve it. It’ll be OK.” Dr. Patrias was being so patient and understanding, as always. Just so fucking nice. In some ways, Kai preferred his abusive writing teacher, the one who’s class he’d dropped. Pelto. It would be easier. Less painful somehow, if Patrias yelled at Kai, told him what a disappointment he was, how he would never, ever finish college and he should just quit now.
Kai cradled his stomach. “I forgot,” Kai said in such a small voice he wasn’t even sure he’d spoken out loud. He felt like his insides had tied themselves in intricate knots. Kai held his breath so long he started to get dizzy.
“What did you forget?”
“The presentation topic.” Kai swallowed.
Patrias leaned back, let out a breath. But he never gave up his “therapist’s expression,” that stoic, yet sympathetic mask Kai had seen on dozens of mental health workers. “It’s OK. You can turn it in later this week. Did something happen this weekend? I know you’re not a slacker.”
Kai stared at Patrias, hugging himself tight as if that were the only way he could keep himself from shattering into a million pieces.
Patrias leaned back, as if he recognized Kai needed space. Nothing about his body language suggested he was irritated with Kai, or that his patience was feigned. He was supposed to be teaching a class right now but as far as Patrias was concerned, evidently, the only thing that mattered was Kai and sorting out his problems.
The thought made Kai want to laugh, but he bit his lip because if he started laughing he might not stop and send the wrong message, or worse, he’d start bawling. He needed to man up already and tell Patrias he was dropping the class. Again. Because what other choice did he have? He could be hospitalized for weeks, doped up on who knew what, and even if he wasn’t, the presentation was like half the grade and Kai couldn’t even manage to turn in his fucking topic on time. Kai felt something inside him die, the last sliver of hope he had left that he could actually become a functioning member of society someday. His whole life he had dreamed of this, of going to college and being normal. Hospitals were supposed to be behind him, and yet . . .
Kai’s chest jerked, and a sob bubbled out, and he covered his mouth with both his hands as if to contain it. No. Not now, not in front of Patrias. Kai bit his lip hard until he tasted blood, and took a huge breath. He dropped his hands to his rims. “I should let you get to class.” Kai scanned the room, trying to decide if he wanted to find something to hurl to release the festering, bubbling emotions inside him or escape to the roof after all. Failure—the word reverberated in his head and kept him frozen in place.
Kai felt strong rhythmic vibrations through the floor and his chair, and heard the low rumble of rapid footsteps. Before he could react, someone grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. Kai’s heart nearly jumped out of his chest, and his physiological fear battled with his fury at being manhandled like a fucking piece of furniture. His emotions grew even more complex when he realized David stood before him. David, who knew Kai didn’t like to be touched without permission, especially like that.
David’s skin was red from the top of his chest to his cheeks, and he was breathing hard. His face was a mixture of fury, worry, and relief somehow all rolled into one. “What. The. Fuck?” David asked with a single sign, twisting his hand as he flashed Kai his middle finger, his brows dipped for the question. “I’ve been running around this entire fucking floor looking for you. I even went back to the classroom, hoping you were there, but you weren’t, and neither was the professor, so I just starting going to every single room praying I’d find you before . . .” David’s hands dropped. He pleaded with Kai, though what he was asking for, Kai wasn’t sure.
Kai gestured behind him. “That’s the teacher. And we’re being rude.”
“So? Hearies talk around us all the time. Come on. Let’s go. I’m taking you home. I should have in the first place.”
“No. We’re talking,” Kai said, using the sign for COMMUNICATE, each hand a “C” shape moved toward and away from his body, although he emphasized that the teacher was the one doing most of the talking. Kai’s heart still hadn’t calmed.
David didn’t respond right away. He glanced over at Patrias, then back to Kai. “Fine. Fine. But I’m waiting right outside the door and if you try to pull this kind of shit again I swear I will fucking—” David’s eyes shimmered for a second before he wiped his face as if to clear it. Kai had only ever thought of how much better David’s life would be if Kai were gone. He’d never really processed how worried his friend must be. Kai was always the one terrified of being left behind, and yet only a few minutes ago he hadn’t given a second thought to how the ones he would leave behind would really feel.
“I’m sorry,” Kai signed with sincerity. “I promise I’ll cooperate as soon as I’m done here. OK?”
David swallowed. Nodded a few times. Let out a deep breath. “I guess I’ll go tell the class the teacher will be late.” David hesitated a moment. “Whatever you wanted to do when you took off earlier. Please. Please don’t.” David offered a weak, sad smile, and without giving Kai a chance to react, turned and left.
Kai let out long breath. Took a second to compose himself, and then angled his chair so he was facing Patrias again. “Uh. Sorry. That’s . . . uh, my brother. He’s . . .” Kai’s nose twitched. “. . . my, uh . . . ride today.” Kai cleared his throat. Could Patrias really think any less of Kai than he already did? Being honest was a gamble. It was easier to lie, because a lie he could control: mold and craft it and spin it, keep it as far, far away from anything that could expose himself. The truth didn’t set you free, lies did. Free from being hurt. From seeing pity or disgust or disappointment in the other person’s face. “He’s going to tell the class you’ll be late,” Kai said, stalling.
Patrias nodded. “Thank you.” He didn’t say it, but Kai sensed Patrias knew this conversation couldn’t be postponed. “Whatever you want or need to tell me, I’ll keep it between us,” he said as if to reassure Kai.
Kai felt that floaty, almost-a-panic-attack feeling in his chest, blending with the relentless pounding of his heart. Talking to Patrias shouldn’t have been so terrifying, and yet it was. “I can’t . . . class. Come. Much time. I don’t know.” Kai knew he hadn’t said any of that right. He bowed his head, took a huge breath, and then forced himself to make eye contact with Patrias. “I’m going back into the hospital.” Kai didn’t feel better after saying it. In fact, he started shaking again and held himself as if to stop it.
But Patrias only nodded, even offering an encouraging smile. “OK.”
Kai laughed nervously. “I don’t know how long, and they said I could do schoolwork there, but I don’t know . . .” Kai’s voice hitched and he used all his willpower to keep himself from crying because the feelings of failure and shame were so overwhelming. “I can’t even do a simple assignment. . . .” Kai covered his face and shook his head before dropping his hands, struggling to regulate his breathing and keep the tears at bay. “I don’t want to drop your class, and I don’t want special treatment, but—”
“Kai. Take a breath. It’s OK. It’ll be OK. I’ll work with you through email, and if worse comes to worse, you can always take an incomplete and finish in the summer. OK?”
Kai sniffled and nodded. A sense of relief swept in to wipe away some of his dread, even if he’d known all along that Patrias would be understanding.
“You can do this,” Patrias said, his eyes wide with earnesty. “Not just school.”
Kai scoffed. I can’t do anything.
Kai was moving slow enough David was easily able to jog around him so he could sign and be seen. Kai was tapped out, physically and emotionally, but David’s job when Kai was like this was to take care of his friend, even when Kai didn’t want him to.
“Well, you’re all set for Valentine’s Day tomorrow.” David had hoped setting up would have helped pull Kai out of this black mood, but David had ended up doing most of the work while Kai had seemed to drift farther and farther away, into the recesses of his own mind. David was scared, and he wasn’t sure if Kai could tell or if he even cared, because beyond the obvious, David had been struggling to read his friend all day.
Kai shook his head slowly. “I haven’t cooked, and I haven’t gone to the store, and I don’t feel like doing either. And you can’t leave me alone, and Jon won’t be here for a couple hours.” Kai dropped his hands into his lap like his arms were too tired to keep them up anymore. And maybe they were. “It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“Of course it matters.” Kai tried to push past David, but David could move much faster than Kai, stepping around his friend so David was always in Kai’s path. “You spent weeks planning this and begging me to help you get it ready. Besides, you need tomorrow, to be with Renee before the hospital.”
Kai shook his head dismissively and pushed off hard, as if to finally skirt past David, but he paled, his face drained. He looked ready to pass out. That David recognized.
“Let me help you stretch.”
Kai glared at David as if to suggest he was fine and didn’t need any more of his friend’s help, but he didn’t move. Then his shoulders dropped and he rolled his eyes. His signing was small; he clearly didn’t want—or couldn’t—lift his arms much right now. “Fine, but then I’m going to try to sleep till it’s time for my meeting with Dr. Miller and Jon. You can read me a bedtime story if it’ll make you feel better.”
Kai lay stretched out on his bed, on top of the blankets, staring blankly up at the ceiling. He hadn’t said anything as David helped Kai change into loose, comfortable clothes. His only reaction had been to stiffen once or twice as David was forced to manipulate Kai’s body in a way that was evidently painful. And though David continued to sign to him, he wasn’t certain any of it was getting through to his friend.
“Deep breath,” David signed, then put one hand on Kai’s hip and the other on his calf, bending his knee slowly, not wanting to injure him. David met Kai’s eyes as well as possible, took a deep breath, and nodded to indicate he was dictating Kai do the same. Then, with gentle firmness, David pushed, rotating Kai’s hip so his leg was crossing his body, twisting his back slightly away from David. The stretch worked the muscles in Kai’s pelvis that frequently bothered him, and his entire back. Kai’s body was resisting this stretch more than it ever had since David had learned how back in December, and David had to go slowly.
At County House, Kai had fought fiercely for his independence. When he was young, orderlies had helped him with his stretches, but after he returned to the group home when he was ten, Kai had insisted on doing them all himself. Usually with the aid of resistance bands to help him manipulate his legs and increase the tension of the various movements. But when his MLS worsened in high school, the Mexitil affected Kai’s coordination and strength to the point where Kai was physically unable to stretch his muscles effectively on his own. But Kai hated the orderlies, and so David had reluctantly stepped in since it was one of the only times Kai had ever overtly asked for help.
Everything was very different after Kai’s release from the hospital back in December. Jon and Troy, Kai’s physical therapist, had needed to train David in how to help Kai with day to day tasks he’d normally do himself that he couldn’t—or wouldn’t do—because of his physical and mental state. Everything from transfers to helping him dress and shower, and of course, stretching him properly. At first, it had all seemed uncomfortably intimate. But David had soon learned that Kai totally checked out mentally when David helped him through his routine. In some ways, this kind of dissociation was more unsettling than even Kai’s worst flashbacks. But David put his feelings aside; he owed Kai a huge debt for leaving him behind, for not being around when he was dying.
David finished the first round of stretches, working Kai’s legs, hip, back, and shoulders. Throughout it all Kai had barely blinked. Had never looked at David, just started blankly ahead. It was impossible for David to know if Kai had just zoned out like he normally did, or if it had anything to do with what had happened at school. When David paused before switching to the next phase of stretches, he realized Kai’s posture had changed. His eyes were closed, and David could see the muscles in Kai’s jaw working. Sweat dotted his brow and he held himself stiffly, breathing shallowly enough David couldn’t see the rise and fall of Kai’s chest. Kai’s eyes squeezed tighter and a tear escaped.
David’s stomach contracted. Maybe he’d misjudged Kai’s behavior this morning. Maybe Kai’s MLS had been bad all night. Maybe he’d stolen the bottle of Xanax because it was easier to grab than the Valium. Maybe he was just trying to stay ahead of his muscle spasms. Maybe Kai’s attitude today had been more due to pain than depression. Or maybe he was hurt that David didn’t trust him.
David touched Kai’s face to get his attention since it was a distinct touch from any stretch.
Kai lids lifted and their gazes met. Kai’s eyes were achingly sad, defeated, worn, and yet they also had a pleading quality, as if Kai were asking David for help. But help with what? More stretching? That David could do. More meds? No, David had already given Kai more than he should have based on Dr. Miller’s orders. Something else?
David lifted his eyebrows in a question, asking Kai to give him more. There was also a hint of apology, but with an undertone that everything he did was because he cared and worried about the only person in the world he called his brother.
They connected for an achingly small instant, and then Kai shut down. It felt like arriving at a restaurant right at close, and David could see the light on inside and the employees cleaning up, but the door was locked, and no matter what he did, he’d lost his chance to enter.
David’s mind raced with how he could recall Kai from whatever far-off place he’d sent his mind when Kai’s back arched and he grimaced. This time David was certain Kai had actually stopped breathing for a few seconds, and Kai’s face contorted as the spasm passed and he collapsed down again. Kai panted, his hands fisted the sheets, knuckles turning white.
“I’m going to put you on your side and try to work out the knots,” David signed quickly. Then, with a hand on Kai’s right shoulder and another on his thigh, rolled him onto his right side, his back to David. David could see Kai’s chest moving with jerking, rapid, shallow breaths. The occasional twitch of muscle in Kai’s lumber or shoulders also caught David’s eye, even through Kai’s T-shirt. David arranged Kai’s legs so they were partially bent and splayed and then he draped his hands over the area between Kai’s waist and ribs and alternately squeezed and rolled his thumb into the muscle. Kai used his back and abdominals from everything to sitting up to lending strength to his wheeling to standing and walking, so they were well developed. When they were spamming like this, it didn’t matter how strong David’s fingers and hands were, it was a challenge.
Next, David lifted Kai’s left leg and braced his calf between David’s right arm and body, then put his other hand on Kai’s waist. Slowly, carefully, David pulled Kai’s leg away from his body, working his hip joint forward and back. David knew Kai’s hips had bothered him his entire life, and stretches like this one were the only way to loosen the tight, tiny muscles in his pelvis. As David moved through each rep, he kept an eye on Kai for any indication that he was hurting more than helping. Kai had buried his face with his arms and the mattress, but his stomach still gave away how halting his breathing was. David set Kai’s leg down, growing concerned by how Kai’s stomach was spamming. Normally his MLS didn’t affect him there in a visible way, and the way Kai was moving reminded David of how Kai often had looked back in December and January right before he hurled. Jon had taught David how to position Kai so the vomit wouldn’t go down his trachea and into his lungs. David shifted Kai’s right leg forward, knee bent, angling Kai’s body slightly toward the ground. Then he reached up for Kai’s arm, but Kai resisted. In fact, he rolled forward so he was leaning on his forearms, his face buried in them, his chest shaking. Had David misinterpreted his friend again? Was he crying?
David touched Kai’s shoulder to get his attention.
It took time, but Kai finally dropped an arm, revealing red, puffy eyes and tear-streaked cheeks.
“If the pain is that bad, I’m taking you to the ER.”
Kai shook his head. He looked wrecked like David had never seen before. “I cheated on Renee.”
“What?!” Kai’s signing was small and poorly formed because of his pain and position, so David was hoping he’d misunderstood.
“Last night. I fucked Nikki.”
David stared at Kai as if that would somehow make his friend’s words make more sense. “You remembered something?”
Kai shook his head just enough to signal his response to David’s question. “What do you think I was doing there?” Kai said in a look, echoing what he’d asked David that morning.
David sighed. Kai clearly had no idea how bad he could be, or if he did, he was in denial. Or something. “You were way too fucked up to have fucked anyone. We talked about this.”
Kai gave David a harsh glare, but what Kai meant by it exactly, David wasn’t sure. He tried to roll onto his back. All the blood seemed to drain from his face and for a second David thought Kai was going to pass out. He was clearly still hurting—badly—but being stubborn as always.
David supported his friend as he gingerly got Kai lying flat again.
“I had no good reason to be naked in Nikki’s house.” Kai’s anger seemed to evaporate suddenly. He bit his lip hard. “I’m going to lose Renee.”
David lifted his hands to reply, but Kai shook his head.
“Why would anyone sign up for this?” Kai indicated himself, and added the sign for crazy to emphasize he meant more than his physical health. “I’m never getting better. No amount of pills can fix what’s broken in here,” Kai indicated his head, but all the signing was draining him, and even though it seemed like he wanted to say more, he lay still, breathing roughly.
David held Kai’s hand to help him ride out the pain, thinking, processing. What did Kai mean? If he couldn’t get better, then why was Dr. Miller forcing him back into the hospital? And why was Kai obsessing that he’d cheated on Renee when he couldn’t remember doing it? Did he think it’d be easier to push Renee away than to let her see him like he was right now? Weak, in pain, not fully in control of himself?
“I don’t know what to do,” Kai finally signed once he’d recovered some. “Dr. Miller told me not to tell Renee. But how can I do Valentine’s tomorrow, look her in the eye, when I feel . . . so . . .” Kai’s eyes pleaded with David for an answer.
David sighed. He knew how much Renee meant to Kai. How much she’d done for his recovery without even knowing it. She was like Megan was to David. And even though David was sure that if Kai had slept with Nikki last night he wasn’t in his right mind when he did, David wasn’t sure if Renee would see it the same way.
“I fucked up. I fucked up. I fucked up with Renee and I’ll lose her. And then what’s the fucking point?” Kai was shaking. It wasn’t clear if it was from emotion or pain. Maybe both. His signing was getting worse and David was having to extrapolate a lot even though he knew Kai’s signing almost as well as his own. Kai’s stomach was heaving as he breathed fast and shallow.
David put a hand on Kai’s chest to urge him to relax and breathe. Under other circumstances, David would actually recommend owning up, because the main reason he and Megan’s relationship had started and lasted was because they didn’t keep secrets from each other. It meant sometimes he had to go for a run or punch the shit out of his heavy bag to get his anger under control, but in the end it always worked out for the best. But Kai’s situation was different in so many ways. For one, David was seriously concerned that if Renee decided to leave Kai over this, it would push Kai over the precipice, potentially to suicide. For another, Kai didn’t even know for sure he had cheated. Just thought he maybe had. “Nikki didn’t say you slept together last night, did she?”
Kai looked more fragile right now than David had ever seen him before. And David decided he had to do everything he could to protect Kai from himself. Kai finally shook his head.
David let out a relieved breath. “You need to take that guilt you’ve created about last night and form it into a tight ball and throw it away. You are sick. That’s why you’re going into the hospital. So you can get better. And maybe you won’t be normal, but you’ve never been normal. If you were too normal, Renee wouldn’t love you because you’d be someone else. Tomorrow, you have the best Valentine’s Day the two of you could possibly have, even if it’s on the 13th, because, like I said, you’re not normal, right? And if you decide you need to say anything about last night, stick to what we do know: that you went to Nikki’s, and you spent the night, and I came to get you before the sun was even up because you were . . .” David frowned and tried to wipe the sadness and worry from his face.
“Fucked up,” Kai said with the shade of a smile, even if his eyes were sad. “I didn’t know how much Renee meant to me until I realized I might lose her forever.” Kai took a huge breath. His eyes were misty, like any moment he might finally lose it and break down. “Today, when I ran from you, I wanted to go to the roof.” Kai stopped then, his breathing a bit ragged, but he kept his tears in check. He didn’t need to say why he wanted to go up there. “But I’m glad I ran into my teacher. And I’m glad you were there to take me home. I’m really glad you’re here right now.” Kai dropped his hands and tried to stretch his neck. Their conversation had pushed Kai past his limit, and he was shaking, in visible agony, struggling to breathe, unable to sign anymore.
“No more talking. I will stretch you and massage the tension away until your pain recedes. I’ll take care of you. I promise.”
Jon pried off his overcoat as he entered the apartment. He felt like he needed a year’s vacation, not that he’d likely ever be able to relax near that long. He was dragging, exhausted mentally and physically, and the fact that Kai had needed a chaperone all day was worrying. Not to mention that Dr. Miller had called him to request they both come in that afternoon for a joint appointment.
As soon as he’d hung up his coat and briefcase, Jon shuffled to the kitchen to make a pot of coffee and check his blood sugar. He knew part of why he’d been feeling so bad lately was that his diabetes was out of control, and he made a mental note to find an endocrinologist tomorrow. He loathed going, but he’d promised Vicky, and she didn’t need to add worrying about him to her pile. Because Vicky had gone into premature labor with her first pregnancy, she was at increased risk for a preterm delivery with this one. Her OB had emphasized Vicky needed to live as stress-free as possible over the coming months, because that was the best way to ensure a safe, full-term delivery.
Jon was waiting for his coffee to brew and his tester to register when David wandered out of Kai’s room. He looked about as good as Jon felt, and that was saying something, because even after all those long days and nights when Kai was sick with his fever and it wasn’t certain if he’d recover, David had managed to be positive, and if he’d been exhausted, he’d never showed it.
Jon offered a nod of hello with a raised brow in question.
David sighed and wandered up to the counter, asking if it was OK if he had a cup of coffee when it was ready.
“Of course.” Jon glanced down at his tester as it beeped and grimaced. The insulin shot he’d taken at lunch should have carried him through until at least six, and yet his numbers were in the stratosphere again. Jon looked back up at David. “How is Kai?”
David rubbed the top of his head, shifting his short hair back and forth before dropping his hand to sign. “He’s much worse than he was in December. I’ve never seen his MLS this bad, either.”
That was concerning. Though the fact that David hadn’t taken Kai to the ER meant it couldn’t be as bad as that major attack in the fall when he’d torn muscles and strained tendons. It was probably just a direct result of overdoing it this weekend. Jon shook his head, then held up a finger as he fixed David a cup of coffee in a disposable to-go cup. “Go home. Get some rest. Thanks for taking care of him today. Oh. How did the interview go?”
David seemed surprised Jon remembered. He smiled for the first time since Jon got home. “I got the job!” But then his face soured. “It means I won’t have as flexible a schedule.”
Jon nodded. “Hopefully, this hospital stay will make a huge difference for Kai and you won’t have to worry about him anymore.”
David scoffed. “I’ll get here extra early tomorrow. No matter how bad he is, I need to make sure he spends the day with Renee.”
Jon nodded out of habit. He wasn’t sure exactly what David’s facial expression meant, but maybe Jon was trying to read too much into it. Kai’s depression had been thick enough the past few days it was totally possible that it was going to take Herculean effort to get Kai out of bed tomorrow. Hell, Jon wasn’t sure how he was going to manage to do it now for Kai’s second appointment of the day with Dr. Miller.
David frowned. Checked to be sure Jon had understood him, although he still looked worried. “I don’t start the job till next week. I know you’re pulling a long shift tomorrow, so I’ll be around if he needs me. I won’t let Kai weasel out of Valentine’s Day. It’s important to him, even if he’s too depressed and stubborn to realize it.”
Kai lay on his side, buoyed by pillows so his back was supported and his legs were spread and angled, his knees bent, which put less strain on the muscles in his hips. He stared blankly and his breathing was ragged. He was hurting, that was obvious even if David hadn’t told Jon as much before he left. But what really troubled Jon was how defeated Kai looked. Kai had been a fighter from the day he was brought violently into this world, and if he lost that . . .
Jon actually shivered, rubbed his arms even if he knew he wasn’t actually cold, and stepped into the room. He approached Kai slowly, not wanting to startle him, and when he grew near enough, he sank into a crouch so they could be more at eye level. He waved to get Kai’s attention, and smiled.
Kai’s eyes darted to Jon, and then he seemed to sink as if the air had been released from his body and he were a balloon ready to deflate.
“How bad is the pain?”
Kai’s nose twitched, but he didn’t answer. Instead, he pointed to his wheelchair.
Jon’s gaze followed Kai’s finger, then darted back to Kai with a questioning look. “We don’t have to leave for the appointment yet.”
Kai shook his head and pointed more insistently. He grimaced, groaned, and dropped his arm as if his shoulders hurt.
Jon brought Kai’s chair close and asked again with his face what Kai wanted.
Kai let out a long sigh and reached out to try to spin his chair around so its back was too him. Whether because of pain or fatigue or depression or some combo of all three, Kai gave up.
Jon pointed to Kai’s bookbag, attached to the seatback of Kai’s chair, and asked without words or signs what Kai wanted.
Kai nodded. “Folder.”
Jon opened it. The main compartment was mostly empty, but there was a blue folder that Jon extracted.
Jon flipped it open. On one side was a typed document that Jon immediately recognized as one of Dr. Miller’s handouts she gave whenever she started a patient on a new medication, explaining why the patient was on this drug, how to take it, and some of the side effects. On the other side were several professional medical journal articles. Jon frowned, his eyebrows dipped. But then he actually skimmed a few and noticed all the paperwork was about lithium. Jon’s stomach dropped. His mouth suddenly felt dry and he swallowed. Took a few breaths to try to steel his expression; he didn’t want Kai to misinterpret anything.
Kai said nothing. He barely even moved.
“Is this what Dr. Miller wants to talk about this afternoon?” Jon had needed to set the folder down in order to sign, because he’d nearly dropped it and sent its contents flying.
Kai offered what might have been a shrug. “I’m like Mom,” Kai said in a whisper, his articulation failing him so that Jon had needed to guess at what he was saying.
So Dr. Miller had decided Kai was bipolar? The depth of Kai’s depression had struck Jon as eerily familiar from the days and weeks their mother would lock herself away and stop sleeping and eating entirely—or sleep for nearly an entire day at a time—rarely speaking at all. Yet Jon hadn’t seen anything quite like their mother’s manias, either. Yes, Kai had occasionally been sleeping too little or talking too fast, and he did get obsessive in his cooking or cleaning, but it lacked the freneticism, the self-aggrandizement that Ann had often exhibited. Kai’s sadness was so pervasive, it felt like it was a part of him, some seed that had been planted when their parents died, and it bloomed inside him independent, always there.
Kai cradled one of the pillows to his body, trembling from the pain, exhausted by it but unable to sleep. Jon’s heart broke for him.
Jon shifted Kai’s wheelchair and asked wordlessly for Kai’s permission to sit in it. Once granted, Jon settled in, stroking Kai’s hair softly, wishing he could take all of his brother’s pain away, erase every bad thing that had ever happened to him and cure his MLS so he’d never suffer again. It was a parental feeling, and Jon knew he should squash it; he wasn’t Kai’s father. And yet Jon knew Kai needed him, and as more than a brother. “It’ll be OK,” Jon signed. “We’ll get through this. I promise I won’t give up on you.”
Kai’s eyes met Jon’s and shimmered, then filled, before he buried his face in the pillow. His shoulders shook, but he was silent.
Jon wanted to touch him again to reassure him, but decided Kai probably wouldn’t want that right now. So instead, he opened the folder again and read through the journal article titles and abstracts. None of them were about the use of lithium in bipolar disorder. Instead, they were all about using it to treat suicidality in certain populations of depressed patients, and also for the treatment of patients with PTSD and comorbid depression. Another was a review of lithium being used to treat patients with a specific type of depression called “unipolar” depression, and another about treatments for something called “double” depression. Jon could say one thing about Dr. Miller: she really knew her stuff and kept up-to-date in her field.
Jon relaxed, relieved. Although it was likely—especially from the information in these articles—that Kai would have to wrestle with mental illness his whole life, it wasn’t as hopeless as Kai made it out to be. And in some ways Ann’s manias had been far more destructive than her depressions. Kai was strong, and Dr. Miller was a good doctor. He’d survive this like he had everything else. Jon had faith that he would.
Renee sat across from a couple of her classmates, her back to the door. Their fingerspelling class didn’t start for another fifteen minutes or so, and they were going through their word lists, quizzing each other. Ultimately, fingerspelling was just another kind of reading, and it took a lot of practice until your brain could see the word at a glance the same way it might in print. Renee had since discovered it was more than that, though. Fingerspelling was about patterns, and if you could train yourself to see those, it made the whole process a lot easier: the dip for a “Q” or the zig for a “Z,” the way one letter looked as it led into another. It was almost a kind of problem solving, and even though she’d only been taking the class a couple weeks, she’d already seen her receptive skills improving.
The lights flashed. “Is class starting already?” Renee wondered out loud.
Her classmates shook their heads, and one pointed toward the door.
Renee turned around, surprised to see Kai, sitting in his wheelchair in the doorway.
He smiled, somehow looking both genuine and forced, and waved for her to come to him. “Can I talk to you? Five minutes?”
Renee’s classmates were whispering and giggling to each other, but Renee wasn’t paying attention to them. She hated the way she and Kai had left things earlier, and although she was relieved to see him, at the same time, she was nervous. What if he were here to break things off? If he’d decided it would be easier for him to deal with the hospitalization and all that came with it alone, like he had back in December?
The hallway was mostly empty since it was an evening class. Renee opened her arms, asking for a hug, relieved when Kai nodded. She embraced him, feeling the tension in his back and shoulders. Renee didn’t miss the low moan that shifted into a grunt as they separated, the pain etched in Kai’s face he didn’t hide.
Renee frowned. “MLS still bad?”
Kai sighed. Nodded tightly. He gestured for a nearby bench, and wheeled stiffly toward it.
Renee took a seat and Kai parked in front of her.
Kai’s nose twitched. He seemed tired and anxious, although Renee saw a glimmer in his eye, that softness that Renee took to mean fondness that she interpreted might be love.
Renee held her breath, waiting for Kai to sign.
“I was an asshole earlier today. I’m sorry.” Kai’s nose twitched faster and he reached up to rub it as if that would stop it. “Honestly, I don’t . . .” Kai’s expression was pained. Different from how he’d looked after their hug, like what he was saying wasn’t easy for him to admit. “I don’t really remember what we talked about. What I said that hurt you. But David noticed you were upset, and I didn’t want to leave things. . . . I didn’t want to ruin Valentine’s Day before it even started.” Kai paused and slid his palms over his thighs a few times. It wasn’t clear if it was a nervous gesture or because he was trying to massage away some muscle pain. He glanced around them as if to be certain no one would oversee what he said next. “I am angry at myself all the time. And sometimes, it’s easier for me to direct that fury at another person. I know it sounds like an excuse, but I promise, most of the time I’m not aware I’m doing it until someone points it out to me. I know that’s shitty. I know you deserve better.” Kai let out a long breath, almost as if he’d been holding it the entire time he signed. He dropped his hands as if waiting for her response.
She smiled, relieved he wasn’t really mad at her. But what really made her happy was this conversation felt like major progress for their relationship, and the light in her heart that was beginning to believe Kai might be her “One” brightened. “Thank you for being honest with me. And thank you for apologizing. Do you want to stay for my class? It could be fun.”
Kai shook his head. “Meds or not, I have to lie down soon so I can recover for tomorrow. Another time?” Kai looked so exhausted, and his breathing was forced, like each in- and exhalation hurt.
Renee suspected Kai not wanting to stay wasn’t solely due to physical pain, and she wished she could take it away for him. “I hate seeing you hurting. And not because I pity you. Because I love you.”
Kai scoffed, but he just looked sad. “I said that, didn’t I? Earlier. That’s why you were so upset.”
Reluctantly, Renee nodded. “You accused me of only wanting you if you were sick.”
“Shit,” Kai said out loud in a whisper. “I’m dealing with so much right now, and I’m obviously not handling it well or I wouldn’t be going to Harbinger. I . . .” Renee saw that rawness again, perhaps Kai without his walls up, if only for a few seconds. “It’ll take time for me to learn how to manage my mental illness. So if you can be patient with me, and stand by me, because I want you to help me get through all this. I want you—”
Renee wrapped her arms around him suddenly, kissing him hard enough he rolled back and he had to grab her to keep her from falling. They laughed, finally breaking away from the kiss, staring into each other's’ eyes for a long time. “I love you.”
It took a second, but Kai’s face blossomed when he realized what she’d said. He helped her stand since she’d gotten a bit tangled up between his feet and casters and the bench.
“Do you want me to come over later? After my class?”
Kai smiled, besotted, but shook his head. “I’m hoping I can convince Jon to give me some medicine after all so I can sleep. But I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Kai was pulled up to the kitchen table in his wheelchair, a glass of water in front of him. Jon sat beside him, carefully dosing out Kai’s medications and handing them to him one prescription at a time, watching Kai swallow each. Kai bristled at the lack of trust, but his pain had ratched up after his visit with Renee, and he just wanted to get this over with so he could go to bed.
Next, Jon handed Kai his Valium.
Kai stared at the cut pill in his hand. His brain wasn’t working well, the pain pulling at his concentration, so it took a minute for him to process. Kai typically took a low dose of Valium—half a tablet, or 5 mg—every night, even if his muscles weren’t spasming, as a preventive. When his MLS was bad, he sometimes took 20mg or more. Even though the max dose was usually considered half that, Kai had been taking the drug since he was a toddler, and he had built up a tolerance. “Other pill, where?” Kai asked in his hybrid ASL English, not caring if his accent came out or his grammar wasn’t right.
It took a minute for Jon to grasp what Kai was asking. “Dr. Miller said minimum benzos for you today.”
Kai scowled. “Sleeping pill?”
“She said no to that, too.”
Kai’s back felt like someone was trying to rip the large trapezius muscle off his shoulders and spine, and his hips burned from spasms powerful enough to steal his breath. It was a struggle to plow through, to focus on the conversation with his brother and not the aura of pain radiating from every major muscle in his body. “ONE DAY FINISH! PAIN. ALL (over body). PLEASE.” Kai was trying to say that it had been 24 hours since his supposed overdose. He was fine. He was hurting everywhere. His eyes were pleading, although anger flared. “My car keys and other meds are locked up. We don’t have alcohol in the apartment. Please.”
Jon’s face was stern, although some sympathy remained in his eyes. “I can help you stretch.”
Kai swallowed the meager dose, dry, his fury building. “You just love controlling me, don’t you?”
Jon shook his head, confused.
“Like you decided I should start the lithium.”
Jon sighed. Pushed his hand through his hair. “We decided together. Dr. Miller explained you don’t have to take it, but she recommended you do. That’s why we had that session.”
Kai scoffed. “I can’t say no. I won’t have a choice once I’m in the hospital.”
“A doctor can’t force a patient to take medication.”
“What the fuck dream world do you live in?” It hurt to sign so angrily, his motions large and choppy, but he needed Jon to understand. “If I’m ‘non-compliant,’” Kai fingerspelled the long word for extra emphasis, “they’ll never discharge me. If I’m . . . ‘difficult,’ they can decide it’s an ‘emergency’ and give me whatever the fuck they want. That’s what happened in JMH. And at Harbinger I don’t think they’d think twice about saying I was incompetent and handing you the reins. And then you decide for me.”
Jon had the decency to look wounded. “I would never force you to take a medication, especially one with serious side effects.”
Kai’s sinuses burned, his eyes grew misty, and he told himself it was the pain pushing him toward tears and not the feeling of betrayal. “You would do anything if you thought it would save my life. Fuck the consequences.” Kai pulled off one of his hearing aids as if for emphasis, wanting to throw it at his brother but stopping himself at the last moment and setting it on the table instead.
“That’s not fair,” Jon said, his signing slow, his expression devastated.
“Last I checked, life’s not fair. Just ask Martin.”
Jon stiffened. Swallowed. Stared at Kai for a long moment before composing himself and pushing to his feet. “I don’t deserve that, and you know it,” he finally said. Then he gathered up the basket with Kai’s nightly medications and disappeared into his own bedroom.
Jon opened the door for Vicky. “You didn’t need to come.”
“I did,” she said, unwinding her scarf.
Jon sighed but took it from her, then her coat, and hung them up. “It’s dangerous driving at night.”
Vicky shook her head to dismiss his comment and laid her hand on his cheek. Then she leaned in and gave him a peck on the lips.
“Kai didn’t mean it. He’s in pain, and he lashed out.”
“Doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.”
Jon nodded. After walking out on Kai, Jon had felt all the guilt he’d been working hard to let go of lately rebuild itself stronger than before, overwhelming him. So he called Vicky.
Vicky glanced around. “Where is he?”
“His room. He’s not talking to me, I guess.”
“Leave him be. You need to take care of yourself tonight.” Vicky took Jon’s hand and led him to his bedroom. She pushed against his chest to encourage him to sit on the mattress, where she joined him. She wrapped her arms around him and held him, their heads leaned against each other. “Kai doesn’t really blame you for his hearing loss. He told you so. He would have died without that medicine. He knows that. You know that. And the transplant committee’s decision isn’t your fault either.”
“But maybe if—” Jon couldn’t even begin to think of what else he could possibly have done differently to sway the committee his way. Maybe sucked up to the members? That wasn’t his style. The bottom line was Kai was the guideline for every other FS patient needing a transplant, and unless he continued to do well, nothing anyone could say would change the committee’s mind.
“I hear the gears clicking away in your head,” Vicky said, half teasing. “Your job as a doctor is to keep Martin alive as best you can until the committee can be convinced one way or another to change their mind. And that heart doc is your ally now.”
“Yeah. He’ll do all that political pandering that you suck at.”
That made Jon chuckle and pull away, eyeing her sideways.
“Oh come on. It’s true. You make my job ten times harder.”
“Hey.” Vicky kissed him. “Part of what makes you such a good doctor to your patients is exactly because you care more about them than navigating bureaucratic bullshit. You’re a great doctor. And an even better brother. And Kai knows that. You know that.”
Jon laid her down, lifting her legs so she was flat on her back. Then he crawled over her and kissed her, deep, passionate, pouring out the lingering pain and guilt he still felt, praying she would take it all away. And she seemed to. He broke the kiss and saw she was smiling at him, holding his hand on her belly. No one had made him happy, put him at ease, the way Vicky did. No woman had ever understood and accepted him. The way she embraced his anxiety and yet wanted to help him to get better. How she’d even come to accept that he could never stop being a father to Kai. For a long time after his relationship with Jenny dissolved, Jon had decided that he was OK being alone if that’s what it took to be there for his brother. He never imagined only a few years later he’d be expecting a son.
“I’m really glad you came,” Jon whispered, hoping it expressed his gratitude that Vicky knew sleeping beside her tonight was exactly what he needed.
Vicky beamed. Traced the line of his jaw. “I’m really glad you called me,” she said, and then she pulled him close for another deep kiss.
Continue to February 13, 2001 - Part I ----->