Thursday, July 20, 2000

In/Exhale - February 1, 2001 - Part I

February 01, 2001 - Part I


Jon was sitting on his bed, trying to pull on the horrid fancy swim trunks that Kai had convinced him to buy. They were called jammers, apparently, and clung to his skin, making them difficult to pull on. They were like half of the suit that Kai wore, although they didn’t hug his family jewels nearly as tightly, to Jon’s relief. Jon still would have been fine with trunks, but Kai insisted that if he was serious about swimming for exercise, he needed a more aerodynamic suit. And it was definitely better than a speedo. Jon would be far too ashamed to show off his pale, thin chicken legs. Even Kai had better legs than him, and considering he didn’t even walk on them half the time, that was really embarrassing.
Still, especially with the baby coming, and everything Kai had been through in the past couple months, Jon was willing to wear a clown costume if that’s what it took to spend time with his brother that wasn’t at his sick bed.
Jon and Kai had stayed up late the night before, neither able to sleep, until Kai’s physical exhaustion overwhelmed him and Jon coaxed him to go to bed. As supportive as Jon was trying to be--because he knew, even if Dr. Miller hadn’t told him, that was what Kai needed--it was difficult to see Kai struggling. To feel like his little brother had lost the progress of the last month and was sliding back into the confusion and depression that made Jon worry about Kai in a way he never had before.
Jon was on his feet, hopping around a little to get the stubborn suit up over his hips and butt, reaching in to adjust his package when his phone rang. He’d made sure one of the fellows was covering his morning rounds, so he figured it must be him, having a question about a patient. It irritated Jon a little. You’d think that by this point in their careers the fellows could handle things themselves. Jon shook his head as he walked a little awkwardly toward his nightstand to grab his cell, pulling the fabric at his thighs. Damn, this thing was uncomfortable.
“Dr. Taylor,” Jon answered in his slightly deeper authoritative voice.
“Dr. Taylor, I’m sorry to bother you. I know you and Kai had plans this morning, but I thought you’d want to know . . .” Joanna Johnson said, speaking a little hurriedly. She was the head pulmonology nurse and someone who had been the closest thing to a mother figure Kai’d had growing up.
“Jo? What do I want to know?” Jon asked a little curtly, trying to get her to get to the point. Jo was a great nurse, and it wasn’t like her to be so . . . cryptic.
“That boy you admitted yesterday? The one with the Deaf mother? Bad pneumonia?”
“Yes?” Jon shoved his hand through his hair and started to pace. Was this about his condition? If it was, she should have let the fellow handle it. Or even one of the med residents.
“We almost lost him this morning. We’re struggling to keep his sats and pH stable, and he’s in the first stage of sepsis. His mother freaked out and tried to pull his endotracheal tube. CPS showed up and they want to take custody of the kid.”
“Fuck,” Jon said. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He took a deep breath. “She’s Deaf and she’s uneducated. She’s worried about money and she’s been burned by doctors before. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.” Jon paced more furiously, his mind working. “Where is she now?”
“We have her in the waiting room, with someone from security. We couldn’t leave her with the kid. Couldn’t trust she wouldn’t kill him unintentionally.”
Jon went to his closet and tore the door open. “Get her an interpreter and stall CPS. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“I know how you feel about CPS,” Jo said delicately, “but don’t let your personal experiences blind you. Sometimes letting the state take custody can be better for the kid, at least in the short term.”
“She’s Deaf,” Jon said as he pulled out a shirt and pants and tie at random. “If the state takes her kid, she’ll never get him back.”
“It won’t matter if he’s dead,” Jo said in that motherly, “I have more experience than you” kind of voice.
“I won’t let this kid die,” Jon said determinedly, moving to his dresser now to get out a pair of briefs and an undershirt.
Before she hung up, Jo said tiredly, “You can’t save the world.”


#


Kai’s eyes opened to the familiarity of his bedroom ceiling. His heart was racing, and he could feel the sheets clinging to his skin with sweat. He knew he’d been having nightmares, but this was one of the only times he hadn’t woken screaming, in full panic, or in the midst of a flashback, so he’d take what he could get. He glanced at his alarm clock. It was early, even though he and Jon were going swimming and planned to leave the house before seven, meaning Kai had only managed about three hours of sleep.
But that didn’t change what had happened Tuesday, how bad his panic had been, how close he’d come to being re-admitted to psych. It didn’t change the fact that Kai had come far too close to hurting someone--Vicky or Jon or himself--or that Kai’s illusions of independence had been once again shattered by a need for rescue. How could Kai ever truly convince Jon he could handle his recovery on his own when he still woke up not knowing where he was and paranoid that he was going to be locked up again? Dr. Miller insisted that the delirium Kai slipped into sometimes upon waking wasn’t psychosis, that it was another symptom of his PTSD. That it wasn’t yet more evidence of how truly fucking insane he was, but the farther he got away from Thanksgiving, and the more it continued to happen, the more convinced Kai became that she might be wrong.
After all, Jon had admitted their mother had psychotic episodes. Wasn’t that why he’d gotten so angry with Kai for wearing the “I put the HOT in psychotic” shirt? And psychosis ran in families, didn’t it? Kai shivered as his sweat began to cool. He needed the pool today. In fact, he thought he might keep swimming even after Jon had to leave.


#


Kai knocked on Jon’s bedroom door. His hearing was working right now, so when Jon said he could come in, he pushed the door open the rest of the way and wheeled in. Disappointment hit him hard when he saw his brother was fully dressed, just finishing the knot on his tie. Despite all the therapy he’d been through with Dr. Miller, despite how supportive Jon had been yesterday, Kai was angry at himself for believing his brother would actually hold up his end of the bargain, and forced his emotions deep down into the pit of his stomach, where they festered, but at least Jon wouldn’t be able to tell.
“I’m going out on a limb and guessing this means you’re not going swimming with me this morning.”
Jon sighed, adjusted his tie and turned to face Kai. “I’m sorry. I know I promised, but I have to go in to check on Harriet’s boy--”
“You can’t save the fucking world,” Kai spat, cutting Jon off. OK, so maybe he hadn’t done such a good job of hiding his emotions after all. “You’re not the only doctor there. He’s intubated, he’s on antibiotics. It’s just a waiting game at this point.” Kai took a deep breath and squelched his anger. Letting people see your emotions always gave them power over you. Hadn’t he learned that as a kid? “Whatever. I’ll see you later.” Kai did an abrupt 180.
“Kai. Kai, don’t be like that. Please. You don’t understand--”
Kai paused just before the doorway. Took a deep breath to steady his voice. “What I understand is that I’ll never matter to you. Not as a brother. Only as a patient,” Kai said flatly, though inside he was a torrent of pain and rage twined together. “I’ll see you later.” Before Jon could say anything else, Kai pushed hard toward the front door, grabbed his coat, and headed out. The pool would help him forget, help him leak out all this emotion he couldn’t release, and by the time he saw Jon again, he wouldn’t even care anymore. After all, this is what it was always like with Jon, right? And this is how it would be, only worse, once the baby came. Kai had to fucking get used to it and stop letting it get to him like he was still some five-year-old looking for his older brother’s attention.


#


“You know, you’ll probably get more out of that if you open it,” Joanna teased, flipping open the patient’s chart that Jon was pointedly not reading, despite staring down at it intently. She’d noticed he’d been like that for several minutes, and while she’d originally decided to give him space, she’d finally chosen to intervene.
Jon snapped out of his daze with the thump of the file, taking a moment to reorient himself. “What? Oh. Yeah.” Jon sighed heavily and shifted, standing up straighter, shoving a hand through his hair.
Jo glanced around the busy nurses’ station and finally nudged her head down the hall before walking, encouraging Jon to follow her surreptitiously. She glanced backward to make sure he was, then ducked into an empty room. “Shut the door,” she told him once he was inside. Then she patted the bed, an invitation for him to sit.
“I’m fine,” Jon said, sounding a little too much like his brother. And just like Kai, Jo didn’t buy it for a second. “And I’m a millionaire. Sit.”
Apparently, Jo’s tone even worked on Jon, and he obeyed.
“You’re a big boy, and there’s no way what happened with that woman today would affect you as much as it has, personal experience with CPS or not. What’s going on?”
Jon was quiet for a long time, so long Jo was beginning to think that he was going to be even more like Kai and not respond. But finally, he looked at her and asked, “Do you think I can’t ‘turn it off’?” The phrase didn’t seem like something Jon would use, and she suspected that he was quoting someone.
“What do you mean?” Jo asked, although she had her suspicions.
“Work.” Jon’s eyes dropped. “Kai accused me of only caring about him when he’s sick. I was supposed to go swimming with him this morning.”
Jo’s head fell back as what Jon was saying sank in. So that was why Jon had been so off-kilter, and why he hadn’t been able to completely hide how the morning’s events had affected him. “Jon,” she said on a sigh.
Jon’s shoulders drooped. “I know. I know. I’m an idiot. Spending time with me when he’s healthy is so important to Kai, and I--”
“I’m sure that Kai is just upset about what happened Tuesday.”
Jon sighed. “And you don’t know the half of it,” he muttered. Jon pushed his fingers through his hair a few times. “I know it’s time for baby bird to fly and all that, but I’m so fucking worried. All the time. I thought once he got past the first few months post transplant that I would stop worrying about him.”
Jo put her hand on Jon’s shoulder. “You’ll never stop worrying about him. You just have to learn to sequester that worry into what’s productive and what isn’t. Kai’s resilient, and he’s tough, and he likes to think he doesn’t need anyone.”
“But he does?” Jon said with a slight inflection, like he wasn’t sure if that’s what she was trying to say.
Jo remembered yesterday, how Kai had admitted he didn’t want her to leave him alone, not even to get his nurse for more meds. How, when he’d finally gotten some sleep as the drugs kicked in, he hadn’t let go of her hand until he’d finally slipped into unconsciousness. She also remembered how scared Kai had been in the months before his transplant, especially at the end, how he’d begged her with his eyes not to let Jon know. Kai was caught in that constant struggle between wanting to prove to his brother, to the world, that he didn’t need anyone, and at the same time very much wanting the support of those he cared about. Especially Jon.
“Jo?”
Jo squeezed Jon’s forearm. “With your little one on the way, it’s more important than ever for Kai to convince himself he doesn’t need you so that he can prepare himself for when you’re not there anymore,” Jo said, finally figuring out how to articulate what she needed to say without feeling like she was betraying Kai’s confidence.
“But--”
Jo held up her hand to stop Jon’s protest. “Kai’s life has been a series of disappointments, of people moving in and out of his life, of those he thinks he can trust and rely on not being there when he feels he needs them most. Whether that was by their choice or not is irrelevant. But pushing people away is how Kai has survived for the past sixteen years or so, and I know you don’t want to hear it, but you picking this boy over him this morning just supports Kai’s previous experiences.”
Jon let his head fall back and murmured a curse, his shoulders drooping. “And CPS took the kid anyway. They won't even let his mother visit him.”
Jo sighed. “After what happened, that's probably for the best. She could have killed him.”
Jon dropped his head, his voice so defeated. “She trusted me, Jo.” Then he looked up, his eyes so lost and sad his resemblance to his brother struck her.
“She trusted you with his life, Jon,” she said. “As grave as his condition is, he has a chance because of you.”
Jon was quiet. Still. A long time. Finally, he said in a low voice, “And Kai and I? Do we have a chance? Our relationship has been on the rocks since I told him Vicky was pregnant, and I'm doing a shit job of proving he's still important to me.”
“Jon,” Jo said in her authoritative head nurse voice. “That’s bull and you know it. Yes, you messed up this morning, but Kai will forgive you because he knows you care about him. You barely left his side when he was sick with that fever. You’ve done everything you can to help him get back to his life.” Jo paused. “Kai has problems with feeling . . .” She hesitated, unsure how to put it. “He takes rejection very personally, very hard, even when he shouldn’t. Growing up, if I was visiting him and got called to a patient, he sometimes would ignore me for days after if he was in one of his low periods. But he always came back around when he was thinking clearer.”
Jon sighed, his shoulders hunched. “I just . . . I’ve fought so hard not to lose him these past few years, and now that he’s not sick, I can’t lose him in a whole other way. You know?”
“You two love each other. You’ll work things out. All right? Now, if you want my professional opinion? You should take the rest of the morning off, like you were supposed to, and get some sleep. You look even more exhausted than normal.”


#


Kai pushed himself hard, lap after lap, until his new lungs burned and his muscles ached and began to spasm and lock up and he knew if he didn’t stop he’d have an explosion of an MLS attack later that day. But it had felt so good to swim out his anger, his frustration, his fucking helplessness and every other thing about himself he hated, to glide through the water like he belonged there, to forget for a few hours that he was broken, dependent, and he had no control over his life. Especially when his hearing went out again halfway through his set, and the quiet of the water he had always loved warped into an even deeper, more serene silence that he felt more than heard as he moved through each stroke.
He would move into the dorms, and fuck Jon, and Vicky, too. If he couldn’t find an accessible dorm, especially in the middle of the year, then he’d move into an inaccessible one and make do until one of the “handicapped friendly” accommodations opened up. Jon would be free to live his life the way he chose, without Kai as a burden. And everyone would be safer, Kai thought bitterly. He could try to get a job on campus, something that would work with his schedule. It wouldn’t be a lot of money, but with that and some help from the disability office, he could find a way to make himself independent. He needed it, and he might as well be proactive about it, because if he was going to be alone, he should at least manage to be self-sufficient first. It would be tricky figuring out how to pay for his transplant medications, but he’d find a way.
Kai was panting when he popped his head out of the water at the far end of the pool, his eyes first going to his chair--the one thing he hated about swimming was how lost he’d get in it, meaning someone could steal his wheelchair and he wouldn’t know until potentially hours later. Relieved when he saw it, Kai next checked the clock on the far wall. Dammit. He’d swum straight through his scheduled session with Dr. Miller. Oh well. Nothing he could do about it now.
Kai reached down to yank off the pull buoy, letting his legs sink toward the floor. He couldn’t really stand on his own in the pool, but sometimes after a long workout he’d just let his body sink down, his legs resting along the shallow floor, enjoying the buoyancy of the water.
Kai heard what sounded like a female voice nearby, and opened his eyes, turning his face toward the sound. The normal echoes of splashes and voices were muted with his hearing the way it was, but this wasn’t a voice echoing from far away, and he soon saw he was right. Steve, from his psych class, in a black speedo-style suit, sitting on the edge of the lane beside him, her feet swishing in the water, smiling playfully at him and talking. Her hair was damp and clung to her head, looking longer and darker than when it was dry and in ponytails, the streaks of blue and magenta more visible.
Kai reached for the ledge to pull himself out of the water a little more, to stabilize his body, and pointed to his ear. “I didn’t understand anything you said. I have to be looking right at you.”
Steve rolled her eyes and whacked her forehead as if she were chastising herself. “Sorry. I know it’s probably dickish of me not to repeat what I said before, but I feel like the moment’s lost.”
So she’d said something funny, probably. Some kind of quip. He shoved his pullbuoy to the side, then yanked off his swimcap and goggles before levering himself out of the water. His shoulders ached, and he could feel tiny spasms in his upper back that told him he’d overdone it. “Would it make you feel better if I laughed like I had heard you?”
Steve chuckled, and it didn’t escape his notice how her eyes roved over him. It made him self conscious, but he didn’t need her to know that. “At least I know how you keep in shape,” she said. “I got into swimming because of my cousin. He loves the water. I guess you’d probably understand that.”
Kai might have bristled if anyone else had said something like that, but it was the truth. So he nodded.
“Cool suit, by the way. Does it double as your Avengers uniform?”
Kai’s brows furrowed. “I’m pretty sure I caught what you said, but I have no idea what you mean.”
“Not a comic book fan?” Then Steve proceeded to babble and Kai was honestly too exhausted from his swim to bother to figure out what she was saying. Something about comic books, probably, but since Kai knew almost nothing about them, it made it even more difficult to pry out her words. “. . . But I’m totally rambling, and I get if you’re not bothering to read any of this off my lips.” Yep. She took a breath. “My point is, you could totally rock the superhero thing.”
Kai looked at her, a brow raised, but amused. He stretched his shoulders. “How would a disabled superhero even work? I’ll admit that’d be cool, but as capable as I am, without my chair, I’m not getting very far.” Kai pulled his wheelchair closer so he could snag a towel and start drying his hair and arms, then decided maybe he’d soak in the hot tub for a bit. “Hey, you got someplace to be? The hot water is calling my name,” Kai said, rubbing his shoulder with a slight grimace, shocking himself at the invitation.
“So he is human after all. Sure. I can convince myself the hot water burns calories.”


#


The only disabled person Steve had ever been around was her cousin, and his mom assisted him with almost everything, so she couldn’t really help gaping at the way Kai moved. Not just while he was in the water, but out of it, too. How he seemingly effortlessly lifted himself out of the pool, into his wheelchair, pushed over the wet tiles, and then lowered himself back to the ground, using his hands to guide his legs into the tub. Granted, he seemed like he had less rigid spasticity than her cousin, which probably helped, but it made her even more certain that if she were going to create a superhero character with a physical disability, Kai would definitely be the model to start from.
“If you keep staring, I’m going to have to start charging you,” Kai said in a way that suggested he told people that a lot. He was looking at her, his hands gripping the ledge of the hot tub, his legs bobbing in the water. He held himself stiffly, like his back was tight, though if he was in any pain, he hid it completely.
Steve felt her cheeks heat--she was rarely embarrassed, so it had to be from the steam billowing up from the water--and shrugged. “You’re just so independent.”
Kai’s face darkened when she said that, and she noticed his hands gripped the tub edge a little tighter. He looked like he was going to make a retort to that, but instead, he cleared the anger off his face and pushed forward, dropping his body into the tub in one relatively smooth movement.
Steve had no choice but to follow. She touched his arm to get him to look at her. “I told you when we met that I have no tact. I’m sorry. It’s just . . . I wondered if maybe my cousin could . . .” She sighed. “Nevermind.”
Kai pushed a wet hand through his hair, smoothing it down, the water cascading along the sides of his face. “What do you want to know,” he said without inflection.
“Were you always--I mean, you move so well. Were you always like that, or only when you got older? Shit. I’m not saying this right. You should probably just punch me already.”
Kai scrutinized her, but then he seemed to relax, sinking into the water a little. “I’ve always been stubborn. Always wanted to do things my way. Never liked people saying I couldn’t do something.”
“And your parents were OK with that?”
Kai’s face darkened again. “They died when I was a little kid, so they didn’t really have much of a say,” he said with a frown. But then he hid his irritation and shrugged. “It used to drive my mom crazy.”
Steve relaxed. She barely knew Kai, but she could see how he could have been an obstinate child. “My aunt’s so overprotective. Like he’s made of glass. He’s twelve, starting to go through puberty, and she still treats him like a little kid. I just don’t want--” Steve cut herself off. The water felt suddenly uncomfortably hot.
“It shouldn’t be about what you want,” Kai said in a tone she couldn’t determine. “What does he want? Maybe instead of fighting with your aunt about what you think is best for him, you should encourage her to ask him what he wants. He’s old enough to know. And signing is one of those things. You’re just as bad as your aunt if you’re making his decisions for him, even if they’re well intentioned.” Kai put his hands on the lip of the tub behind him, heaving his body out of the water.
“You’re pissed. Dammit. I always do this. I’m sorry.” But Kai wasn’t looking at her, so he didn’t hear her. She touched his leg, because it was closest, to get his attention.
It worked, but he scowled at her. “Don’t touch my legs.” Kai was hella menacing when he wanted to be. He could totally pull off the superhero thing. Blond, handsome, innocuous Midwestern looks that hid a fierce determination beneath bright blue eyes.
“Sorry. Don’t go.”
His face held a hint of curiosity, even if he was still clearly peeved. “I have somewhere to be, and I have to eat and go home and shower and change.”
“Let’s grab something together? We can eat here, or go somewhere else.”
Kai eyed her suspiciously.
“OK, this may come as a shock to you, but while I’m not shy, I don’t exactly make friends easily. If I could ever stop pissing you off, I mean . . .” Steve deflated. What was she even saying? If only she could be one of those people who thought before the words spilled out of her mouth.
But Kai’s body language shifted. “I have a girlfriend,” he said flatly, as if he wanted to make that clear from the beginning.
“So do I,” Steve said. Well, they were technically in limbo, but Kai didn’t need to know that.
He raised a single brow. “Tell me you’re not interested in me only because I remind you of your cousin, so you can plow me for personal details I don’t normally talk about. Because I can’t be that for you.”
Steve hadn’t thought about it that way, but dammit, Kai was right. “I’m a jerk. OK. How about lunch, and you can ask me personal questions in revenge, if you want.” Steve flashed a cheeky grin.
That made Kai relax a little, and he smiled back, though it was slim. “I was planning on eating in the cafeteria anyway. I suppose if you decided to join me, I couldn’t stop you.”


#


Even though Jon had delivered his fair share of babies in the early stages of his medical training, and even though he’d already accompanied Vicky to one ultrasound in which they got her due date--June 30, only a few days after Kai’s birthday--the OB-GYN clinic made him nervous. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was the fact that he was the only male over the age of five in the waiting room. Maybe it was because most of the women were visibly pregnant and it was a stark reminder that this was real. Vicky was going to have his child. He was going to be a father, and though he tried his best to hide it from Vicky most of the time, he was scared.
Yes, she knew he was worried about the health of their baby--she was worried, too, although her fears were more self-directed since she still blamed herself for her last pregnancy and the death of her baby, Andrew, as she called him. But she didn’t realize--or at least he was pretty sure she didn’t--how much he worried about whether he could really be a good father. Bryan, his own dad, had been such an amazing man, and Jon didn’t think he could ever fill his father’s shoes. It didn’t help how royally he was fucking things up with Kai, either.
Vicky reached over and took Jon’s hand, squeezing it. “You’re awfully quiet, and you have one of your ‘worried’ faces on. What’s wrong?” The way she asked it, and the subtle hurt facial expression made Jon wonder if she believed he didn’t want to be here with her.
“You know me,” Jon sighed, trying to smile, “always worrying about something.” He leaned his head against hers.
“Is it Kai? You don’t have your ‘I’m worrying about my brother’ look, but it’s always a safe guess. Is this about yesterday?”
“No, though you should never do anything like that again, OK? And you have to be careful with Kai when he’s drugged or sleeping. It’s not . . . it’s not safe.” It pained Jon to admit that, since he was always encouraging Kai to the contrary, but he had to acknowledge the truth. Kai still didn’t have 100% full control of himself, and neither he nor Kai wanted anyone to be hurt because of it.
Vicky’s eyes widened a little, but she had witnessed enough of Kai’s panic yesterday, even if they hadn’t talked about it. She nodded. “So what are you worrying about, then?”
“About us. The future.” Jon hesitated. “Doubting my abilities to be a good father to this baby.”
“Jon,” Vicky said, turning her head to kiss his cheek. “I’m sure if I asked Kai if you were a good father, he would say you were the best. I know he and I have our issues, but he adores you.” Not after today, Jon thought sadly.
Jon sighed and pulled away from her, stretching his legs. He wanted to get up and pace, something he did whenever he was feeling particularly anxious, but he didn’t want to unsettle Vicky or the other women. Kai was often restless, too, his hands fiddling and fidgeting, and Jon wondered if Kai had been born able-bodied if he’d be a pacer, too. “Kai doesn’t remember our father, and he didn’t exactly have anyone else to compare me to.”
Vicky shifted in her seat and pulled Jon’s shoulder to get him to look at her, reaching up to cup his cheek. “Being a good father is about sacrifice. If anyone knows how to do that, how to put aside his own needs for someone else, that’s you.” But what if you’re “sacrificing” for the wrong person? Jon wondered. What if he did to Vicky and his baby what he’d done to Kai this morning? Made promises and then put his patients first?
Vicky sensed Jon’s increasing worry and kissed him softly, chastely, on his lips, then his cheek. “I can see the worry cogs working behind your eyes,” she said, once she’d pulled back, partially teasing but also concerned. “Take a breath and focus on the present. Isn’t that what Dr. Miller told you to do? Worrying won’t change anything.”
Jon sighed and nodded reluctantly. He opened his mouth to say something else, but he heard the nurse call her name. Instead, he hopped up and offered her his hands to pull her to her feet. She wasn’t nearly pregnant enough that she had trouble getting up, but she smiled at the gesture all the same.
“I love you,” she said. “Let’s see our baby.”


#


Vicky was lying on the exam table, her belly exposed while the doctor moved the ultrasound head around her stomach. Jon stood nearby, holding her hand, staring at the image on the monitor. Their baby. The tech had already gone through and taken a few pictures, but now the doctor was having her own look at the fetus, who was looking more like a baby from the last time they’d seen it.
The OB-GYN smiled. “So far everything is looking good,” she said, trying to catch the baby from a different angle. “You two are both sure you want to know the sex?”
Jon took in a breath and met Vicky’s gaze. They nodded simultaneously.
“You’re having a boy,” the doctor said. “Congratulations.”
“A boy?” Jon said in disbelief, staring at the ultrasound and trying to make sense of it. He could see the head and nose and hands and even some of the bones, but definitely not enough to sex the child.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I’m reasonably certain,” the OB-GYN said with a small chuckle, pointing to a portion of the image. “That’s the penis.”
Vicky started crying. Not just a few stray tears, either, but sobbing, and Jon struggled to comfort her.
“Hey, it’s OK,” Jon said, kissing her forehead and wiping her eyes with the tissue the doctor offered him.
Vicky sniffled. “He looks healthy?”
Vicky’s doctor was familiar with her history; in fact, she was old enough she may even have been Vicky’s doctor twenty years ago. “From what I can see, yes. His heartbeat is strong, and all his limbs seem to be well developed. There’s no sign of any defects that I can see.” Of course, something like FS wouldn’t show up on an ultrasound, nor would MLS. But Jon kept his own worries to himself. The hormones and Vicky’s past were upsetting her enough as it was.
Vicky stared at the image of their baby, crying quietly. “I can’t lose him, too,” she said, almost to herself.
Jon squeezed her hand tighter and smoothed her hair.
“You know there are no guarantees,” the doctor said gently. “But we’re monitoring you both closely, and you’re doing everything you’re supposed to. You’re over the most dangerous part of the pregnancy. Just try to relax and not stress. Stress isn’t good for either of you. OK?”
Vicky sighed and nodded.
The doctor turned off the machine and wiped Vicky’s belly. “I’ll see you back in a month, but call me if you have any questions or issues before then, OK?” She patted Vicky’s hand. “The nurse will have some pictures you can take home with you.”
Once the doctor was gone, Vicky sat up slowly, adjusting her shirt. She didn’t stand right away, though, one hand on her belly. “I’m sorry,” she said in a soft voice.
“For what?” Jon asked, tucking some stray hair behind her ear. “You have nothing to apologize for, OK?”
“I wanted a boy,” Vicky said, her voice thick with tears even if she wasn’t crying anymore. “But . . .” She sighed. “I’m so worried.”
“What did someone tell me just a few minutes ago about worrying? Huh? Come on. I’ll take you to eat. Wherever you and baby want.” He kissed her, just a peck on the lips, just a reassurance.
That made her smile and relax subtly. “We’re going to have the most neurotic child ever, aren’t we?”


#


Steve tapped the table to get Kai to look up at her. “You telling me you swam a gazillion laps and all you’re going to eat is some plain spaghetti and steamed vegetables?”
Kai put a pad of butter in the middle of the pasta, then dumped some shredded white cheese on it, using his fork to mix it all together. “Cheese and butter have fat and protein.”
“I’ve heard of carb loading, but I thought that was supposed to be before the swim. Shouldn’t you at least put some chicken on that, or something?”
Kai was now cutting the vegetables into smaller pieces. “I’m a vegetarian. Remember? First day of psych class?”
“Oh. Right,” Steve said, taking a big bite out of her hamburger. She wasn’t even finished chewing when she said, “Oh. Shit. Is this OK?”
Kai looked at her, clearly not able to understand her, but he glanced down at the hamburger and shrugged. “Eat whatever you want. I don’t care.” He said it like he was used to this conversation.
She studied him for a moment as he mostly twirled his pasta around his fork without actually eating it. And it struck her. God, she was an oblivious ass. “Are you OK? I totally spaced. You weren’t in class on Wednesday.”
Kai looked up, shook his head like he hadn’t caught what she said. Once she’d repeated herself, he smiled. “I’m fine. Just tired. Overdid it this morning. I do that sometimes.” Then he forced a forkful of spaghetti in his mouth and quickly swallowed it, barely chewing it, almost as if he didn’t like the taste but knew he needed to eat. “I’ll miss class from time to time. It’s just what I do. So we can study together, if you want. I could probably use the help, but if you don’t want to deal with someone who doesn’t go to class all the time, I get it.” Kai was nonchalant enough, but something was off, something lurking beneath the veneer. The way he picked at his food, the way he smiled too easily sometimes, and others, not at all, like it was all part of a script.
But she’d been enough of an ass today, so she let it slide. “As long as you don’t try to take advantage of me,” Steve said with a laugh, “I think I can handle that. After all, you were probably out fighting crime or something.”
“Please tell me I read your lips wrong just now. Fighting crime?” This smile seemed genuine.
“Superhero, right? You’ve got this total Clark Kent kinda vibe going on. Hey. You’re a writer, right?”
Kai looked shocked. “Uh, I’m taking a writing class. I don’t know if that makes me a writer. Why?”
“Cause we could totally do a comic book together. I could draw it and you could write it,” Steve said, leaning forward a bit, getting excited.
“We’ve known each other, what, three days?”
“Fine. I’ll sketch some ideas and change your mind. Still gonna call you Superhero.”
“You’re totally insane,” Kai said with a chuckle.
Steve grinned. “So will I see you in class tomorrow?”
Kai twirled some pasta around his fork. Shrugged. “Depends. Crime never sleeps, right?” His eyes twinkled with genuine mirth, and she was pleased she’d finally swung from his hating her to being amused by her.


#


Vicky had picked pizza for lunch, because apparently that’s what she and their son were craving. So the two of them sat in a booth in the only local (not chain) pizza place in town, holding hands over the table.
“Are you sure this is OK?” Vicky asked for the tenth time. She was normally extremely self-assured--she knew what she wanted and she took it. It was a trait that had made Jon fall for her from the get-go. After all, she’d had the balls to pursue him when he’d first arrived and not just accept that he wanted to dive into the old records without question. But since her pregnancy, some of that outer layer had chipped away. It was clear that she thought about Andrew a lot more than she was willing to admit, and even though the OB-GYN had given Vicky and the baby a clean bill of health so far, she’d been a little shaken, a little unsure, since, and Jon didn’t know how to make things better. He hated not being able to fix things.
“Yes,” Jon said, squeezing Vicky’s hand encouragingly. “I’ll order a salad.” Jon didn’t eat pizza often because it spiked his blood sugar too much.
“The salads here are terrible. Especially this time of year. We should go somewhere else.” Vicky started to push up, but Jon wouldn’t let go of her hand.
“I can eat the cheese and only a little crust. Vicky, I wasn’t diagnosed yesterday. I can handle myself. If this is what you and baby want, I’ll figure it out. Relax. What did the doctor say about stress?”
Vicky let out a long breath. “Do you think we can really do this?” Vicky was also never uncertain, so her question surprised him.
“We sort of have to,” Jon joked, but he looked at her seriously. “I have Kai,” Jon said, knowing he’d need to find some way to make up for this morning, “and you have your family. We’re not doing this alone.”
Vicky’s face grew pained. “They’re never going to approve of us. Of not being married.”
Jon leaned over the table so he could nudge her chin up to make eye contact. “Roni will never abandon you. Even if everyone else does. And time heals all wounds as the saying goes, right? Your family will come around once they meet our amazing son. Because with you as his mother, he will be incredible.”
Vicky blushed, but she finally smiled. “I love you. I’m so scared. I’m so scared that he’s going to be . . . that he won’t be healthy. That I won’t know what to do for him.”
It was Jon’s fear, too, but he knew what she needed right now was reassurance. “We’ll just take this one day at a time. Together. OK?”
Vicky inhaled a difficult breath. “God, I’d forgotten what a mess pregnancy hormones make me,” she said, wiping her eyes with her finger and blinking, casting off tears that had sprung up. “I’m going to tell my parents on Saturday when we have dinner with them,” Vicky said, squeezing Jon’s hand hard. “God, I’m 36 years old. I shouldn’t be afraid to talk to my parents anymore.”
Jon was figuring out what to say to that. He obviously didn’t have to worry about talking to his own parents, but at the same time, he hadn’t spoken to his adoptive father in years. He’d dealt with his adoptive father’s lawyers and assistants to work out issues with his trust to pay Kai’s medical expenses, but the actual man himself? Jon had left him a message a few months after Kai’s surgery, once Kai was recovered enough for company, inviting his adoptive father to meet his brother, but the man had never returned Jon’s call, and he’d never showed up. He was probably still bitter that Jon had chosen to return to “bumfuck Iowa” instead of staying in New York.
Jon could still hear the man yelling at him, berating him and suggesting he’d wasted his money and his time adopting Jon if all he was going to do was crawl back to the “little shithole” he came from. Funny how Jon had thought he’d stopped caring what the man thought of him, and yet recalling that conversation, how disappointed his adoptive father had been . . . it still hurt. As stupid as it was.
“I understand,” Jon said after far too long.
But Vicky seemed to know where his thoughts had gone, because she knew him so well. (Sometimes better than he knew himself.) “You should call him. Tell him he’ll be a grandfather.”
“I’m not his son,” Jon said more bitterly than he would have liked. “He made that very clear.”
Then Vicky gave him a look, the one that told him she knew more than he did, partially because she was older and partially because she was a woman, and partially because she wasn’t nearly as socially awkward as he was.
Jon sighed. “All right. After dinner with your parents, I’ll call him. Saturday night his assistants are usually off, and he doesn’t normally have meetings, so he may actually answer his phone.”
“And if he doesn’t, he’s missing out on an amazing man,” Vicky said, smiling at him.
Jon rolled his eyes, but he smiled back.


#


Kai squeezed the grips of his crutches tightly as another shiver coursed through him. January and February were the coldest months, and even standing in the little shelter of the Gomez’s front porch, the wind ate through his jeans and wormed its way through the gaps in his braces, straight past the thin fabric of his brace socks to his bare flesh. He wished, on days like this, he could wear a long wool coat like Jon’s, but he found the length impeded his movement too much if he closed it, making him more liable to trip, and if he didn’t close it, it not only didn’t do much to keep him warm, it also got blown about by the wind and tended to tangle in his crutches, making a fall likely. And falling in his braces, with his crutches, especially outside when it was so fucking cold and the ground was really hard, was not his idea of fun--as the bruise on his thigh continued to remind him. He’d rather suffer.
Kai’s hearing was still out, but Kai was still hoping it would return, so he decided he wouldn’t say anything to Martin unless it became clear he couldn’t understand the boy.
Finally, the door opened, interrupting Kai’s internal monologue. Martin hid behind it, letting the door shield him from the blast of wind that inevitably followed Kai in. “Hurry up,” he urged. “If I get chilled, I’ll never get warm.”
Martin’s words came out understandable enough. Thank God. Even though Martin was tiny, his voice had already changed and was apparently deep enough that Kai could hear him. Kai still had to guess at a few of the words, but it only delayed his processing by a few extra seconds, because context helped him figure out what Martin had to be saying. Kai could keep his secret a while longer.
Kai did his best to drag his stubborn legs inside as fast as he could, but he was tired after his morning swimathon, and the cold didn’t help. Finally, he made it inside enough he shifted his weight and used one crutch to push the door closed behind him. Despite his precautions, Martin was coughing violently; Kai remembered the cold air used to irritate his lungs terribly, and he commiserated, grateful his new lungs seemed to be OK with winter, more or less.
Martin was still coughing, wheezing now, throwing out a hand as if to find something to grip onto, as if he were going to pass out. Kai knew that feeling, too, and shifted, planting a crutch near the kid.
“Hold onto me,” he said. “Breathe through your nose.”
Martin’s fingers blindly found the cold metal of Kai’s offered crutch, recoiling initially at the temperature, but finally wrapping firmly around it while he struggled to breathe through the cannulae, maximizing his oxygen intake, fishing out his inhaler from his pocket. He took a few ragged puffs, coughing some more, leaning heavily on Kai’s crutch, but the boy weighed maybe half of what Kai did, and braced the way he was, Kai could easily take it.
After several minutes, though his breathing was harsher than normal, Martin gradually let go and stepped back. His lids were heavy, and his face and lips were pale. “Winter’s been really hard on me this year,” he said, a word or two at a time, pausing for breath between each.
Kai nodded his understanding. “Maybe you should just give me a key so you don’t have to answer the door.” Against Dr. Miller and Jon’s advice, Kai had met with Martin a couple weeks ago, intending to let the boy ask any questions he might have about Kai’s experiences. It was intended to be a one-time thing, but the first visit had been more about Kai keeping a sick, scared, lonely kid company than really answering many of his questions. So when Martin had asked if Kai would be willing to return, Kai had given in. Today was their third afternoon together. And as of yet, they’d avoided talking about anything too heavy or serious, mostly watching movies, since Martin was a huge cinefile.
Martin nodded, still regaining his breath.
Kai said nothing, but he noticed that Martin looked worse than normal, much paler, his breathing more of a struggle. Kai knew all about the rollercoaster ride that FS was. Some days you were fine, and others it felt like you were a goldfish lying on your side in a tablespoon worth of water.
“Let’s go sit. My legs are killing me today.” It wasn’t a lie, exactly--after that morning swim Kai’s everything was killing him--but if it would take some of the moment off of Martin, he knew the kid would appreciate it.
As expected, Martin smiled faintly. He gathered up the extra-long tubing that fed into the large oxygen concentrator placed as centrally in the house as was possible, which gave Martin some freedom while he was home. Though he still had to be careful that the tubing didn’t get caught or he didn’t stray too far from the machine, it still meant he could roam nearly everywhere in the house and still have oxygen without having to lug around a tank. He also never had to worry about running out of air. The concentrator was noisy, but it created an illusion of normalcy, so Martin could almost forget he needed the supplemental oxygen 24/7.
Martin collapsed on the couch, immediately starting to shiver as he wrapped himself up in blankets and turned the heated one on full blast, his chest and shoulders still working more than normal as he tried to regain his breath. His eyes slid shut, his lips firmly pressed together to force himself to breathe only through his nose. Some days, it was easy for Kai to drop by Martin’s and hang out with him, almost like a big brother and a little brother, but others, like right now, it was hard. Hard to look at Martin, struggling as he was, and not vividly remember being in that exact same spot only a few years earlier.
Kai dropped into the cushions on the other side of the sofa, slipping out of his crutches and taking off his coat and gloves. Not surprisingly, it was warm, very warm, in the Gomez house, and now that the cold had burned away, he felt sweat collecting in the small of his back. He was desperate to remove some of his layers.
Martin peeked his eyes open as he finally regained as much breath as he would. “I’m so glad you came over today,” he said, his voice much less stilted and breathy. “I was feeling too tired and cold to go to school, and I’m bored out of my mind.”
“That’s me,” Kai said, making a joke to keep his thoughts from going to a dark place, “the height of excitement.”
Martin pulled the blankets closer around him, ignoring Kai’s snark. “I got a new video game, but I’m too cold to play it. Do you want to watch a movie?”
Kai glanced over at Martin and suspected as soon as he got warm, he’d fall asleep, but he nodded. “Sure. What should we watch today?”
The Matrix? That’s the one I keep telling you about, where the world is this elaborate virtual reality.” Martin extracted one arm from the blankets and grabbed the remote from the end table. “It’s already in the player,” he said. “I tried to watch it earlier but fell asleep.” Martin yawned as he turned everything on and the DVD menu loaded up.
Kai had never watched a DVD, only VHS, until Martin, and it was really cool how you could jump to any scene in the movie without having to rewind or fast forward.
“I’ll start it from the beginning,” Martin said, scrolling through the menu, then the scene selection to make sure it didn’t pick up where he’d left off.
“Put the captions on?”
Martin looked at Kai oddly, since he’d never made that request before. “Why?”
“Because even when I’m watching movies, I like to read. Just put them on, OK?”
Martin said something under his breath Kai couldn’t quite hear, but he found the option in the DVD’s menu far easier than Kai ever could have, and turned them on before setting the film to play.
Kai placed both hands on either side of his body, pushing up to adjust his weight farther into the cushions, manipulating his legs until they were as comfortable as he’d get with his braces on, and settled in to watch the movie.

5 comments:

  1. There are so many wonderful pieces of this story, but your ability to develop characters really takes the cake. Everyone is so vivid and real—even with a character like Martin who just pops up occasionally, I feel like I really know him. And I *love* the budding friendship with Steve. It's nice to see Kai getting support from other places, and being a support person to someone else. It feels like he's slowly climbing his way to some kind of peace.

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  2. I love Steve! I was wondering when we would see her again. I generally liked the scene at the pool. Thank you so much for writing this story. I always read even if I do not always comment.

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  3. Superb writing! You never disappoint. I loved this installment. Thanks.

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  4. I love Steve too she is s great character. Thank you for posting your writing is amazing. I can't get enough I could read this story all day. Looking forward to next week :)

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