Saturday, July 15, 2000

In/Exhale - February 10, 2001 - Part I

TRIGGER WARNING for the second scene. It's critical to the story, but some people who've self harmed or attempted suicide may find it triggering, so proceed with caution.

February 10, 2001

Kai barely slept. He’d forgotten how difficult sleep was for him without the pill. Jon, on the other hand, despite not taking one either, had drifted off not long after he’d laid down and sunk deep. He was exhausted, and Kai felt completely impotent that, once again, Jon had to put his own life on hold for his pathetic, helpless little brother.
After a fitful sleep punctuated by nightmares, waking up drenched in sweat, Kai finally gave up. It didn’t help that he had the most painful morning wood he ever remembered having, a deep ache in his balls he just wanted to go away. It was one of those hard-ons that coming wouldn’t solve; he was too far gone, even if he could manage an orgasm. He pushed himself up into a seated position, grimacing at the spike in pain, willing his dick to just give it up already. He rubbed it and squeezed it but that felt anything but good, and he knew only cold would alleviate it.
Once, Kai had asked Nikki if it was as painful for a woman to go without sex as it was for a man, and she’d laughed and admitted she’d never gone long enough to know. Nikki. One good thing about this erection from hell was Kai could be sure they hadn’t had sex last night. He hadn’t admitted it to anyone, and he’d been too out of it to question Nikki, but he’d worried she hadn’t told the whole story. That maybe he’d called her and that was why he’d gone to the Hitchhiker. That maybe they’d had sex. Of course, maybe even sex with Nikki couldn’t have pulled an orgasm out of him, and maybe that explained why every little movement that jarred his hard-on made the ache intensify.
No, Kai thought as he carefully transferred into his chair, struggling to find the least uncomfortable position, adjusting himself several times and squeezing as if that would make it go away. No, he wouldn’t have cheated on Renee, no matter how desperate and out of it and horny he may have been. Wouldn’t it have been in Nikki’s interest to tell him they’d had sex if it had actually happened?
Kai’s stomach turned, and he hurried to the kitchen, grabbing a bag of vegetables out of the freezer. He wrapped them in a towel and pressed it against his crotch. It ached, but he knew it would relieve the swelling and pain quickly. When had this become his life? How fucking crazy was he when he couldn’t even be sure if he’d cheated on his girlfriend? His thoughts were beginning to swirl along with his upset stomach. Doing it. Actually going through with it, suddenly seemed so appealing. After all, what would he ever amount to? It was becoming increasingly clear that Kai couldn’t get better. That he’d probably be on psychiatric meds his entire life, and Dr. Miller was already talking about adding a third drug. How long till that became a fourth? Or a fifth? Where he’d be too zombified to function? He already had enough problems with memory and concentration. Throw drugs into the loop and there’d be no way he’d finish school or hold any kind of real job. Not to mention sex, Kai realized as his dick finally softened. His balls still hurt, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that. Between not trusting himself not to rape her and not being able to finish, how the fuck could Renee possibly want him? And even if she could put that aside, why would she--who was so smart and talented, who’d probably be able to work at any architectural firm in the country when she graduated--want to hitch herself to a loser like him? And that was before she even learned the worst about his past, the truth of why the dark freaked him out, why certain men threw him into panic.
If Kai didn’t do it now, Kai would only have failure and abandonment to look forward to. Become the bum and leach he always knew he was, to watch Jon and Vicky and their child move on with their lives, be happy. And he’d just be that poor invalid brother that everyone felt sorry for (and secretly disgusted by).
Kai pushed to Jon’s bedroom, sitting in the doorway, watching his brother sleep. Jon wasn’t drugged, just exhausted. Would Kai have time before he woke up? A slash to his carotid or femoral artery could kill him in seconds to minutes, but he needed a very sharp blade for that, and Kai had thrown out or locked up anything he could use to do a job like that. Suffocation was quick, potentially, but he didn’t have time or access to anything that would knock him out, and the body had a very powerful urge to keep itself alive. If Kai went into it conscious, his struggles would wake up Jon for sure.
The apartment was too safe, Kai thought miserably, for him to do anything without being interrupted. Like he’d realized in the nuthouse: he couldn’t even kill himself right.

#

Kai sat in front of his bathroom vanity, his shirt off, just staring at how disgusting he looked, so pale, his ribs, clavicles, and even the edge of his hip bones visible beneath his skin, marred by healing scabs and pale cutting scars. He was still tinged pink in places where the marker he’d used at Martin’s the other day hadn’t completely washed away. Kai’s chest ached, his body hungering for a bout of painful, self-hating tears. He wanted to do it, to just escape for once and for all, to stop this endless war with himself.
He shifted his gaze to his middle drawer, where he knew he kept his final blade taped to the paneling behind it. It was his “break glass in case of emergency” blade. The only one Kai hadn’t thrown or locked away because the idea of leaving himself with no way out had felt so incredibly terrifying. To get it, Kai had to pull out the full drawer, lean down, stretch, and pry off the tape that held it in place. Kai’s fingers itched to get it, to press the cold steal to his wrists, to take the coward’s way out. Renee and Jon and everyone he cared about would hate him. Probably never forgive him, if Art’s little adventure had taught Kai anything. But they were going to hate him anyway. It was just a matter of time. He’d managed a week on the wagon, but it was obvious from the moment he’d signed that stupid contract that he was never going to make it.
But now that Kai thought about it, he couldn’t get the image of Robert’s cold, lonely grave out of his head. Or of Martin, in tears on the steps because he was dying and it had finally really hit him. Or Renee, how upset she was last night when she thought he’d done it, the look of guilt she hadn’t hid, as if somehow what happened, his blackout, was her fault.
A sob bubbled up and Kai choked it down. Glared at his reflection in the mirror. “You fucking asshole,” he signed to himself. “You fucking selfish asshole.” He took a huge breath and dug out his wallet, pulling the contract from it and unfolding it in his lap. He smoothed a finger over each line, each name. He should call someone. Even though it was . . . he actually had no idea what time it was, but it was the middle of the night. Would Dr. Miller drop him if he called her now? She’d said he could call any time, but that was usually a platitude. Not something to take literally.
Tears filmed Kai’s eyes and despite his best effort, a few fell, making wet splats on the paper. Half of him, the dark half, told him that Jon and everyone else would be relieved that Kai was dead. The other half, the logical half, reminded him he might very possibly destroy Jon’s life if he killed himself, and his brother might never recover. And with a child on the way, it was possible the ripples of Kai’s selfishness would affect even an innocent. Someone who had never been unfortunate enough to know him, and yet still would have his life ruined by Kai.
Kai glanced up at himself through his tears. Jon had promised Kai he loved him too much to ever hate him, but Kai hated himself so viscerally, especially in moments like these, it was hard for him to imagine that Jon would never look at Kai and see the mother he loathed and blamed for everything bad in his life. Despite the contract, despite half of him knowing the other half was lying, the call for the blade was strong, wanting to cut deep and long, not even caring if he couldn’t bleed out before Jon found him.
Kai’s phone was plugged in on the bathroom vanity, and Kai grabbed it. He didn’t have his hearing aids in, but maybe if he put it on speaker he’d be able to hear a male voice well enough it wouldn’t matter. His hands trembled as he dialed, straining to hear the ring, his heart thundering. A beep low enough Kai could hear it. Then Art’s voice, a recording, saying something about leaving a message, or so Kai presumed. Kai quickly hung up. What had he been thinking? Of course Art was asleep. And what would the old man even be able to do? Maybe he understood what it was like to be left behind, but that didn’t mean he knew what it felt like to be Kai, to want to die so badly and yet know that he couldn’t. That he shouldn’t.
And even worse, knowing that deep down, he actually did want to live. He was just afraid to.
Kai pulled the second drawer out and set it aside, then leaned in to get that precious blade. Cleaned his skin and the blade and pressed it to his skin, on his left forearm where he could still see the faint scars from a week ago. It made him physically sick, his stomach swirling, and a voice echoed in his head.
“You’re worse than a dog--peeing and shitting and throwing up everywhere--but if you were a dog I could at least have you put down. That’s killed, you retard.
Kai is lying on a cold, white tiled floor cowering up at his aunt. She’s still yelling at him, and he’s sorry, especially because he’s so scared now he can’t even understand her anymore. He aches everywhere, especially along the leg he fell on, and he feels tears wanting to burst through, but if he cries she’ll be angrier, so he digs the fingers of one hand into a wound on his leg. The pain he creates helps him be strong.
Dr. Miller had been working with Kai to help him recognize when he was in a flashback and distance himself from the memory. The ultimate goal was for Kai to be able to pull himself voluntarily out of the flashback, but so far Kai had barely made progress in recognizing them without getting totally sucked in.
Right now Kai was able to realize he was in a memory, so he tried the technique Dr. Miller had taught him to manage in the meanwhile. Change his point of view in the flashback, shift from the first-person re-experiencing to something more detached. If he could force his fucked up brain to think it was watching the memory like a movie, it would be less traumatic and would take him once step closer to owning his past and taking control over it, rather than letting it control him.
But it wasn’t easy to do, and Kai had only managed it successfully on easy, non-traumatic memories he and Dr. Miller had practiced on. All the others pulled him in so quickly and so thoroughly the most he could manage was a hybrid. Like now. He knew it wasn’t real, that it was only a memory and a memory couldn’t hurt him, and yet. . . . He felt the cold tile on his skin. The fear and the shame and the knowledge that he was a disappointment in every possible way. That no one would ever love him because he couldn’t be loved. The desire for someone to just hug him and tell him he was safe and it was OK to cry so strong it threatened to yank Kai’s shaky pseudo-detachment and pull him full-on into the memory again.
He was so focused on his internal battle he didn’t realize that in the present he had the blade pressed to his wrist, and it slipped and cut and the pain immediately snapped him back, out of the memory entirely except for the mood hangover that lingered in his gut like food poisoning.
Kai took in a huge breath, as if he’d been drowning and finally reached the surface. Blinked. Stared at the small trail of blood leaking out from his arm, his right hand trembling. Jesus fucking Christ. Kai breathed shakily. He’d never survive tomorrow unless he cut, unless he had that pain of his own making to fall back on to keep himself grounded. And the last thing he needed was to panic. To flashback. To blackout in a strange city. Maybe while he was touring the nuthouse. Which would only get him locked up, the key thrown away, and . . .
Kai heaved into the sink, suddenly overcome with nausea, but the little he had in his stomach stayed firmly in place.
He’d compromise. A failure, but not a complete one. He’d cut deep enough the pain would linger all day long and give him something to focus on, to ground himself with, to remind himself that life was pain and trying to escape it was weakness. But not too deep. And he’d limit himself to his arms, and only his arms.
Kai’s hand trembled as he pressed hard, drawing down, painting a line in blood from his wrist to his elbow. Deeper than he would normally cut but still shallow enough it wouldn’t kill him. Kai stared, transfixed at the blood, mesmerized by how more spilled out when he squeezed his fist, relishing the pain. The ache faded, and Kai found himself thrown into another brief flash of memory.
Kai is in a dimly-lit room. Someone is holding him. A man, but Kai isn’t afraid. He hurts so much, everywhere, but especially his legs and his butt. A screaming pain that feels like a monster invaded his body and is trying to destroy it from the inside. The man has him wrapped in a warm blanket, cradling him. He whispers, “You’re safe,” and other words Kai isn’t sure of, and Kai forces his eyes open. Kai knows this man. He’s the book man who visits him when he’s sick. Who cheers Kai up with stories and pie and keeps him company when he would otherwise be alone. Kai’s nose twitches as the pain flares and he clings to the man, trying to hold back his tears because boys aren’t supposed to cry. He’ll get in trouble if he cries. But the man smiles in a way the grandfathers in some of the books he’s brought Kai do. The pain is so bad Kai can’t hold the tears back any longer and he starts to sob. Half because he hurts so, so much and half because he’s afraid what the man will do to him for crying. But the man never stops smiling. He smooths some of Kai’s tears away with his thumb and rocks him gently, his voice soothing as he says, “It’s all right. Everything will be all right.”
Kai blinked. It felt like he’d been physically thrown out of the memory, one that had taken him totally by surprise and that he didn’t recognize. He felt disoriented. He wasn’t sure where he was, or how old in that flashback. Only that Art was there. Comforting him when he was in pain and frightened and feeling alone. The panic and confusion that made Kai’s heart race and his chest tighten battled with the lingering feeling of warmth and safety.
Freaked out and desperate to take control again, Kai picked up the blade with his left hand and painted a vertical line along his right. Part of him worried he might space out and accidentally cut an artery, and he mused that it would be ironic if he ended up killing himself unintentionally. It scared him that he didn’t care enough about this possibility to stop. One, two, three long lines from wrist to elbow to match the ones on the right.
Despite his self-disgust, he didn’t bandage his arms right away, but instead stared at the blood seeping from the wounds, admiring his handiwork until that little evil voice in his head spoke up. Reminded him of how horrified Renee would be when she found out about his nasty little habit. He should tell her; after all, he’d promised no more lies. And yet . . . once she saw how much he hated himself she’d realize she’d been wasting her love on him. And Kai decided--as the pain in his arms faded to a dull, pleasant ache and the blood dripped onto his legs--that the lie that kept Renee close was better than the truth that sent her away.

#

It was difficult for Jon to wake up. A combination of weeks of stress and exhaustion blended with his blood sugar irregularities. He panicked at first when the bed beside him was empty and Kai’s wheelchair was gone, rushing out of his room. He let out a huge whoosh of air when he saw his brother, fully dressed and sitting in his chair at the stove, cooking what smelled like eggs.
Kai smiled at first, but then he frowned. “I’m sorry if I worried you. I couldn’t sleep.”
Jon’s heart was beating far too fast as he tried to calm himself down.
“Breakfast will be ready in a few minutes.”
Jon nodded and went to the drawer where he kept his testing supplies and tested his blood. He didn’t feel well and he suspected his sugar was sky high. Stress always made his diabetes more brittle, but he felt like the older he got the less he was able to adjust. Or maybe it was just the fact that he was under more stress than ever, between work and Kai and the baby.
Kai seemed to pick up that Jon wasn’t well. He turned off the stove and shifted so he was facing Jon. “I’m OK,” Kai said as if he thought Jon’s worry was causing him to look the way he was. “I spent a few hours packing and cleaning and cooking.”
Jon’s monitor beeped. Jesus, his blood sugar was even worse than he’d expected. More than 300. Normally the long-acting insulin Jon took in the evening kept his levels in check overnight. Had he somehow forgotten to take his insulin with the chaos of what was happening with Kai? Or maybe taken the wrong one? Whatever it was, Jon had to inject himself immediately and retest in thirty minutes. If it didn’t go down, it wouldn’t be safe for him to go anywhere. But he’d had high numbers before from time to time. No need to worry Kai just yet.
“You OK?” Kai asked as Jon injected himself.
Jon forced a smile. “My blood sugar’s a little high. I’m going to put off eating for a little while to see if it goes down. But you should eat.”
Kai studied Jon for a long moment, perhaps not fully buying his lie, but he nodded. “I’ll make you something else, later, then.” Kai pushed back to the stove, pulled the pan off, stared at the scrambled eggs in it for a long while, grew a little paler, then dumped the contents into the trash.
Jon wanted to say something, but he was just grateful Kai was safe and seemingly OK despite what had happened and what he’d revealed last night. Jon knew it was possible Kai was pretending, because that’s what Kai did, but the last thing he needed to do was alienate him.
“I’m going to call Renee. Tell her I’m OK and we’re still going to Omaha.” Kai looked like he was about to throw up, but he didn’t really give Jon a chance to say anything before he disappeared into his room.

#

Renee lay in her bed in the dark, crying. It was only a dream. She knew it was, but it didn’t change how real it had felt. The same nightmare she’d had every night since Kai had confessed how bad his suicidal thoughts were. They didn’t tear her from sleep as viciously as Kai’s did, of course, but she woke with the lingering image of Kai’s cold, pale corpse lying far too still in a beautiful coffin, surrounded by flowers like he never could have been in life because he was so allergic. In the background, a priest droned on and an organ played. Renee knew her brain was taking memories of her paternal grandmother’s funeral and putting Kai into it. Kai wasn’t religious. He wasn’t Catholic. And though Renee realized she didn’t know exactly what Kai believed--or if he was an atheist--she suspected if Kai had a say in what his funeral would be like it wouldn’t be anything like her grandmother’s.
But the sadness lingered, and the tears fell, and even though she knew she had to get up soon to get ready, all she could do was lie there and cry.
Renee’s phone interrupted her sob session. She reached for her cell anyway without checking to see who it was. It had to be either her mom with some crisis with her younger brother Luc that couldn’t wait, or her maw maw, breaking her promise about early-morning calls. “Hello?” Renee asked, not able to completely mask the effect the tears made on her voice.
“Re?” Kai. Renee’s heart exploded with that feeling of hope and joy and love, a warmth that shot through her limbs and danced around inside of her. A feeling no one had ever given her before, and all from one word. “Did I wake you?” Kai seemed tired. Renee suspected he didn’t realize how hot he sounded when he was, especially early in the morning. His voice was slightly deeper, raspier, more nasally, and his articulation slipped just a little so that he tended to speak his final syllables with a lazier, more rounded pronunciation. If Renee mentioned it, he’d probably be embarrassed and angry with himself, so she’d never brought it up.
“No. No,” she said, wiping her tears as if that would somehow stop her voice from sounding so choked up. “I need to get ready for work anyway.”
He paused. Maybe he could hear that she was upset, but because of his hearing aids, he couldn’t quite tell that’s what it was. “We’re leaving for Omaha soon.” He hesitated. “Are you OK?”
She smiled that even as fucked up as his life was right now he still worried about her. “I wish I could see you before you go.”
Kai’s voice was anguished. “It’s hard enough for me to force myself to do this. If I visited you, that’d just be one more excuse for me not to go.”
“I know.” She sucked in a breath to try to keep fresh tears from spilling. “I’m scared something will happen to you.” She immediately regretted saying that.
Kai sighed. He didn’t answer immediately. “I’ve taken precautions, and Jon will be with me. He won’t let anything happen.”
Renee appreciated Kai was trying, but she remembered how even as a psych patient he’d nearly succeeded. What could Jon really do if Kai was so determined?
“I’ll be OK,” Kai tried again, his voice softening. “I’m scared of another hospital stay, even if it’s a different hospital.” She knew it took courage for him to admit that, despite how open he’d been with her this week. “I really don’t want to miss Valentine’s Day, either.” Kai took a huge breath, almost like he was fortifying himself. “But I promise you, if I think I’m bad enough I won’t be safe, I won’t come home. I’ll stay in Omaha.”
Renee felt fresh tears, but these were more relieved and full of the heartache of knowing that they might have to be separated again. Even if it was for the best. “Please call me. Or text me. So I know you’re OK?” Renee hoped that didn’t sound clingy.
“I will. And I’ll tell Jon to do it for me if I fall asleep or something before I can. So you won’t be worried.”
Renee let out a long breath. “I love you. I love you more than I thought it was possible to love anyone. Please remember that.”

#

The brothers were only about a half an hour southwest of Jonesville when Kai began to fidget. He kept pressing his hands into the seat to lift his butt up and shift his weight, far more often than necessary. And then he’d roll the window down a few inches, then back up. Then he’d drum his fingers on his leg or on the door or on the console. And he’d do these all over and over and over. It was driving Jon crazy, but he was trying not to say anything because he knew Kai was anxious and this was his way of relieving some of that nervous energy.
“You OK? I don’t mind driving the whole way; it’s not that far, if you want to take some more medicine.”
“That obvious, huh?” Kai said, the nerves evident in his voice. Kai took a deep breath. “I don’t know why I’m so anxious. We’re not going far. I have my chair and my braces and my crutches and all my meds, and you’re here, and this is my own fucking car.” Kai took a strangled breath.
Jon suspected part of Kai’s nerves had to do with last night. He’d tried to insist Kai have an emergency session with Dr. Miller this morning, but Kai wouldn’t have it. He was determined to act as normal as was possible under the circumstances, and considering the pressure Kai already seemed to feel, Jon didn’t feel like pointing it out would help. “Breathe. Give yourself some credit. A couple weeks ago, you’d barely left the apartment. This is a big step for you. If you don’t think you’re ready, it’s not too late for me to turn around.”
“No. No. I need to do this,” Kai said, gasping. Jon darted his eyes to the side and saw Kai had shifted, digging in his bag for his medicine.
Jon had to return his gaze to the road, but he heard Kai pop open his plastic pill case, and a moment later, his breathing quieted. Dr. Miller still had Kai on his regular low-dose of Xanax, though her plan was to wean him off that once he’d gotten to a stable therapeutic dose of the Zoloft. But to help Kai better manage his panic attacks, she’d given him a supplementary prescription of sublingual Xanax tablets only a few days ago, for him to take in emergency situations. Unlike the pills he’d been taking for months, these worked within a few seconds, since they melted under his tongue, hitting his bloodstream quickly. They were also a stronger dose than what he took three times a day, since they were meant to stop a major panic attack and not to regulate his everyday anxiety levels.
“Better?”
Kai was reclined in his seat, his head lazily tilted to one side, his breathing beginning to regulate, his eyes half lidded. “Yeah. I may sleep awhile.”
Jon reached over and patted Kai’s head. “That’s all right. We still have a ways to go. I’ll wake you when we get there.”

#

David strode into the auditorium of the Jonesville School for the Deaf looking for familiar faces. He and Megan had joined Deaf Club (officially the Northern Iowa Association for the Deaf, Jonesville Chapter) as soon as they’d moved, but after only a couple meetings, they’d stopped attending. David especially made a point to attend as many socials as possible, but he’d always been more interested in parties than politics, and it didn’t help that the meetings were on Saturday mornings when both David and Megan were often working lucrative overtime jobs. Besides, these meetings were notorious for being overlong and incredibly boring, and sitting still for hours on end had never been David’s strong suit. One reason he’d struggled so much in school as a kid.
Still, Megan was right. Lots of people came to these meetings who didn’t go to the socials (or at least not the ones David went to), including many Deaf-friendly hearing people from the community. Exactly the type of people David needed to start making connections with if he ever hoped to do more than mediocre handyman work. As much as David enjoyed working with his hands, he knew he needed to find something steady, with benefits and security so he and Megan could get married and start a family. Although David wouldn’t admit it to anyone, he really did want a houseful of Deaf children with Megan.
Although the meeting was scheduled to have started thirty minutes ago, by Deaf time David was still early, and groups of people were gathered around, chatting animatedly to each other. Many of the Deaf who came to these meetings regularly were farmers or ranch hands, and even with less work in the winter, still could only get away for a few hours once a month and this was their rare opportunity to socialize. A few people recognized David and waved him over, but he smiled and made an apologetic face, then pointed vaguely off into the most crowded part of the theater as if he were on his way to meet someone.
David wished Kai was here, even though Kai would probably hate this meeting even more than David did. Honestly, David was worried about his friend. He’d seen Kai weather more than one depression throughout the years, but this was the first time David was genuinely afraid Kai would go through with it and kill himself. Even though from David’s perspective Kai had everything to live for, he’d witnessed how Kai thought about himself when things got bad, how hopeless he could get, how convinced that the world was better off without him. Very little frightened David, but losing his friend, especially when nothing he seemed to be able to do could help, terrified and frustrated him. He’d had to increase his heavy bag workout over the past few months as a healthy way of releasing his anger, which--red-haired stereotype or not--could take him over easily if he wasn’t careful.
David was still searching the crowd for anyone worth approaching when someone practically crashed into him. David turned, ready to lash out at the interloper, when he recognized that goofy face. Peter. The guy who’d nearly pushed both he and Kai to their limits at the bowling social the other day. David was going to need to be creative if he wasn’t going to be stuck with this guy the rest of the meeting.

#

Omaha wasn’t nearly as cold as Jonesville, but the air was still bitter, especially when the wind blew. Jon hadn’t been in the hotel lobby long, and Kai had insisted he needed the chill air to help clear his mind and shake off the grogginess and lingering anxiety from the trip, but Jon didn’t like the idea of Kai being out in it any longer than necessary, no matter if he knew how to take care of himself. Kai’s common sense hadn’t been working very well lately, and Jon knew from his reading that mental illness, especially bipolar disorder, could affect a person’s rational thinking process. It’s one reason Ann had been so . . . erratic, Jon had learned from his research. In her mind, when she was manic, she could do no wrong. Though other than the disappearing act last night and some of his moodiness, nothing about Kai’s behavior reminded Jon of their mother. He just didn’t have that insane elation that came with mania, the belief that he could do anything. In fact, especially after Kai’s confession last night, his beautiful image of the deep pit, Kai seemed to think he couldn’t do anything.
Kai was apparently doing laps, pushing down toward one end of the parking lot, turning around and coming back. Jon saw him at the far end and waved as soon as Kai looked his way, beckoning him to come over. Kai gave a nod and pushed hard, racing up to Jon at a decent speed despite the cold. When he stopped at Jon’s feet, he was breathing hard, and what was visible of his face was tinged with pink. He raised his eyebrows in question.
Let’s go inside,” Jon said, giving Kai the chance to go first despite the look his brother cast his way as he rolled through the automatic doors.
The lobby was more crowded than before, a few businessmen meeting near the lounge area, talking seriously to each other.
Kai took a moment to stretch his shoulders and warm up a little. He rubbed his forearms like they were sore, but as soon as he saw Jon notice he stopped. “What’s wrong. You’re giving me a look.
“A look?” Jon replied in English on instinct.
Kai shrugged.
“They don’t have an accessible room. Do you want to stay here anyway, in a regular room, or find another hotel?”
Kai stared hard at Jon and then he shook his head. “It’s really loud in here. I’m not sure what you said. Something about a room?
To Jon’s ears, it was a little noisy, but not nearly loud enough he couldn’t hear someone talking to him, but he had to remember that Kai’s hearing aids made every noise louder, and especially since he’d only had them a few days, his brain hadn’t fully adjusted to them yet. Jon repeated himself in ASL.
Kai nodded to signal he understood and glanced around the room. It was technically rude but part of Kai’s PTSD, a habit he did unconsciously, especially in large, crowded, unfamiliar spaces. He seemed to stare a little too long at the businessmen. “I didn’t bring my shower seat. You told me not to.” Kai’s anxiety was clearly ratcheting up as much as he was evidently trying to act normal.
The hotel said they had one.
Yeah, and if I don’t stay here, what, we going to drive around Omaha all fucking day looking for a hotel with an accessible bathroom and a shower seat? I knew I should have brought it anyway!” Kai’s anxiety was clearly fueling his impatience.
Jon took a breath. “Since it was their error, I’m going to ask the concierge to make some calls for us.” Jon had no idea how he’d sign “concierge,” so he just said “woman over there,” while he mouthed the English on his lips. “If worse comes to worse, I’ll find a medical supply store and buy you another one.
I’m going back outside,” Kai said, beginning to hyperventilate. “I can’t handle this place right now.
Before Jon could say anything else, Kai did a 180 and headed out the automated doors.
Jon sighed, although he picked up how some of the businessmen were staring even now, in that way that adults did, trying to seem oblivious but failing miserably. Jon frowned. “Can I help you?” he barked as he strode up to the front desk again.

#

Diane stumbled into the kitchen in search of coffee. She didn’t know what time it was, but it was somewhere closer to lunch than breakfast. She’d been at an art party with a bunch of her friends, one of those get-togethers where they were supposed to bask in each others’ creativity but in reality they just got drunk and high and usually ended up having sex. Last night had been particularly wild; one of the guys had this crazy idea that they should roll out huge swaths of paper, strip, coat themselves in paint and make art with their bodies. With enough chemicals in their blood, it had been hilarious and amazingly insightful, but now Diane was just hungover and wondering if the only way to get some of this paint out of her hair would be to chop it all off.
Diane jumped when she saw someone sitting at their kitchen table, bundled up in a blanket and hovering over a mug of coffee. No way she was still drunk and/or high, but maybe she was dreaming. She rubbed her eyes a few times and looked again. Nope, Renee was still there. “Renee?”
Renee grunted, leaned forward and loudly slurped her coffee.
Diane’s head was still pounding like an aspiring teenaged drummer, but she forced herself to focus. She checked the time on the microwave, poured herself a full cup of coffee, black, and joined Renee at the table. “Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Renee shrugged. The blankets slipped and she hurried up to grab them. That’s when Diane saw how red and puffy her eyes were; she’d been crying for hours, it looked like, even if she wasn’t at the moment. “Called in sick.”
Diane suspected this all had to do with Kai. She’d been very busy the past week and she and Renee had kept missing each other, so they hadn’t really had a chance to sit down and talk. But she remembered Kai the other night, when he’d come over. And Renee had stayed with him the night before. And unless Kai had raped her--God, could he? I mean, was that possible? Oh, no. What if that’s why she was upset?--this wasn’t about sex. Diane decided to tread carefully. “What’s wrong?”
At first, Renee looked at her friend like she wasn’t going to say, but then her eyes spilled over and soon she was bawling.
Diane scootched over and pulled her into a hug. “You know you can talk to me. Whatever it is, it won’t leave this room. And I’ll help any way I can.”
Renee was quiet a long time, and then she asked, “Is it true . . . what you told me about your high school boyfriend?”
Diane gulped some coffee, partially to help her wake up but mostly to stall. She’d nearly forgotten telling Renee about Kevin. It had been two years since he hanged himself, and although she’d convinced herself she was over his death, he still haunted her. If she was honest, he was probably the reason she’d done nothing but date casually and hook up since. The fact that Renee was asking about him in a conversation she suspected was really about Kai made Diane nervous. She didn’t know Kai well at all, really only from what Renee had told her in their confidential venting sessions, but if he was anything like Kevin, all of Diane’s instincts screamed at her to hit the brakes, hard.
“It’s OK if you don’t want to talk about him,” Renee said when Diane was silent too long, clearly not hiding her disappointment. “Guess I’ll try to go back to sleep.”
Diane grabbed Renee’s arm to stop her. “No. No. It’s OK. Let’s talk.”

#

Kai was particularly irritable by the time they found and arrived at a hotel with a decent accessible room and with a loaner shower seat. Kai helped Jon unload the baggage cart, grabbing his braces and bending them at the knee, arranging them in his lap so the calves rested on his shoulders. This way, they’d be less likely to fall as he wheeled to his bed. He’d elected not to wear them for the drive so he could be more comfortable, but he was determined to be walking for the tour of the hospital. It would make him feel more . . . in control. Maybe because it would completely distance him from his memories of JMH psych, since he’d used a wheelchair while he was there. Walking instead of wheeling might be enough dissonance between past and present to help keep Kai grounded and prevent dissociating. Doing so while on a tour of a new nuthouse was probably one of the worst things that could happen.
The Xanax he’d taken this morning with the rest of his meds was fading, and the booster was also nearing the end of its full potency. It meant his anxiety was controlled but still humming beneath the surface, itching for a chance to break through. It was possible the vitamin shots Molly had given him a few days ago were helping, but Kai wasn’t sure. The reality was he was hours from home and--as ridiculous as it was, as much as he wanted to be excited to be in a new town on an “adventure” with his brother--it terrified him. His mind wanted to spin off into worry, and his insides felt like water must as it begins to boil. Agitated and hot, afraid of change.
“Kai? Kai?” Jon was kneeling on the floor in front of Kai, speaking his name and waving to try to get Kai’s attention. “What year is it?”
Kai glared. “Why does everyone always have to ask if I’m here? I’m fucking here,” Kai snapped.
“You disappeared for hours yesterday. Not even you knew where you were.”
Kai switched to sign because he was too angry for the English to come to him readily. “Then put a fucking tracking device in me so you can always know where I am.
Jon didn’t flinch at Kai’s angry signs. Instead, he sighed softly and calmly signed, “Are you angry at me, or just angry?
Kai snarled but he forced himself to take a few breaths until he’d calmed down again. Jon was calling him on his anger, the way Kai had asked him to, and after a few minutes he was able to think a little clearer. He’d been angry with himself, as usual, for ruining something he’d dreamed of doing--having a weekend with his brother regardless of the circumstances--because of his petty fears and anxieties, and Jon reminding him about how out of control he really was hadn’t helped. Last night had been some serious, “lock him up and throw away the key” kind of crazy, and Kai knew he should be grateful he was here and not back in JMH’s horrifying white cells. Kai let out a long breath and gave Jon a nod to signal he was calmer.
Jon got up and sat beside his brother on the bed, looking worried, but that was pretty much Jon’s default expression.
After a long moment of stillness between them, Kai said, “Me angry at you in a hotel room reminds me of when you first got me out of County House.”
Jon let out a low chuckle that Kai saw more than heard, even with his hearing aids. “I didn’t think you’d ever stop hating me. Or trust me.”
“And I thought you were probably a pervert,” Kai said nonchalantly. He put his hands behind him and pulled himself back so his legs were more on the bed, then grabbed one at a time to bend them, crossing them at the ankles to help keep them together. “I have time to stretch before we go, right?”
Jon stared at Kai stupidly for a moment without saying anything.
Kai shifted his body with his hands so he was facing the foot of the bed and straightened his legs. He didn’t want to be walking for potentially hours without stretching first. “I knew you had to want me for something.” Kai pulled on his pants to help align his legs, making sure they were together and as straight as they’d go, and then bent forward, reaching for his toes, stretching his back, glutes, and hamstrings. On a good day, Kai was actually pretty flexible, but today he was stiff and could barely keep his legs straight let alone reach his toes. He did what he could, holding the stretch for several long seconds, then releasing, then stretching again. Jon was talking, but Kai didn’t quite hear what he said. “What’d you say?” Kai asked when he was upright again.
“Kai, how could you think that?”
Kai pulled on his pants and guided his right leg towards him, bending it at the knee. This next stretch was Kai’s least favorite but most essential for walking as it helped loosen the tiny tight muscles inside his hip joint he couldn’t stretch manually. “You had to want me for something,” Kai repeated.
“Kai!” Jon said, alarmed.
Kai spoke as he carefully pushed on his knee to begin rotating his hip outward. He had to do it slowly, in steps, gradually moving his foot closer to his body, and he always started with his right because his left was far more reluctant to give in. “I had nothing else to offer you.” Kai breathed through the stretch. Sometimes Jon was so incredibly naive it made Kai love him even more for it. “And I’d learned that nothing comes free.”
Jon was silent, and when Kai glanced up, he noticed Jon looked like he was ready to hurl at any moment. “I’m your brother, Kai.”
Kai switched to his left leg and was so focused on the stretch he didn’t think of what he was saying; it all just tumbled out. “And my aunt locked me in a bathroom and starved me. I didn’t exactly have the best track record with family members coming to 'rescue' me.”
Through the mattress, Kai could feel his brother go still.
Shit. Kai had never told Jon their aunt had taken him in when he was ten; he’d always kept the details vague. “We didn’t have an aunt. Our mother’s brothers were killed in Vietnam, and our father’s brother died when he was a kid. That’s why we went into the system.”
“We did have an aunt. She was our father’s sister.” In his burgeoning anger, Kai pressed too quickly on his left knee, bending it outward suddenly and he had to suck in a breath to keep Jon from noticing. It didn’t help that his forearms burned and he was worried he’d reopened his wounds from early that morning. He’d definitely have to rewrap them before their tour if he was going to be walking all afternoon.
Jon had risen to his feet and was pacing, clearly an unconscious habit. It made Kai anxious, but right now his anger was hotter than his anxiety. “Dad didn’t have a sister. If he’d had a sister, he would have told us about her.”
“Considering what she did to me, maybe he didn’t want to talk about her.” Kai glanced up at his brother, his eyes flashing a warning for Jon to fucking drop it already.
“You’re confused, Kai. Maybe that’s what she told you, but it wasn’t true.”
Kai grit his teeth hard. He gave up on his stretching and switched to ASL. “Just because my brain is fucked up post-transplant and I can’t remember shit the way I used to and I do get confused sometimes doesn’t mean I was always that way. She was our fucking aunt. I remember. Julia fucking Taylor. Why do you think I was so desperate to shed my last name after that summer? I couldn’t stand to be a Taylor anymore.” Kai was breathing heavily, his heart racing, and his skin felt like it was ready to burst into flames.
Why didn’t you tell me before?
So you wouldn’t react like this!” Breathing was becoming harder; Kai could feel the edge of panic creeping in, trying to convince him he couldn’t breathe, but he fought it. He wasn’t done. “She was angry at her brother, our father, for something that happened between them years before I was even born, and since he was dead, she took her frustrations out on me.” Kai was shaking violently, and it was all he could do not to pass out or break down into sobs. “Fuck you, Jon. Fuck you.” But Kai’s words didn’t have much bite to them. Kai dug his hands into the sheets below him to help hold himself upright and for something to focus on to keep from flashing back, to maintain control. “I didn’t even remember our dad. I was just a kid. I just wanted a family.” Kai’s voice broke on the last part against his will. He felt his eyes tear up and he clenched them shut, fisting the covers even tighter. He was not going to let this happen. The pain in his arms helped here, and he focused on that to keep himself grounded, to stem the breakdown. Even if Dr. Miller insisted it wasn’t true, every time Kai “gave in” to his memories, he felt like his abusers won all over again. And he couldn’t fucking stand that.
Jon tried to touch Kai’s shoulder, and Kai jerked away violently.
“Don’t. Don’t touch me. Don’t even--don’t even look at me. I need to go. I need to . . .” Kai looked around for his bag. He could swim. But then he remembered his arms. Fuck. His gaze caught the open bathroom door. It would be ironic, but other than leaving the room it was his only privacy. “I need a cold shower.
Jon checked his watch. “Don’t take too long. We have to be at Harbinger soon.
Kai spoke while he transferred, his words a little halting because when he was furious his English didn’t come to him as easily as his signs. “Then go without me. This whole trip is about . . . you cutting me in half . . .” Kai’s eyebrows furrowed. He could hear Dr. V’s voice reminding him not to translate literally, to find his English, and Kai took a breath and calmed down a fraction and found the word he meant. “You convincing me to stay. Because I’m too fucking crazy to be out in the real world, right? So I’m not your problem anymore and you can go back to your perfect fucking family and forget you even bothered to get me from County House at all.” Kai’s sinuses burned and his chest felt like some giant hand was squeezing it tight, like he couldn’t breathe at all.
Jon sat back on the bed and stared at Kai with an open, placating face that made Kai feel like someone trying to soothe a wild animal. “This trip was your idea. Staying is your decision. I know you’re angry. I know I messed up. But you need to breathe.
Kai glared at Jon, partially to stave off the tears, and he tried to focus, tried to untangle the web of emotions he was feeling that was expressing itself as anger. As he did, the shame he always felt pushed through. That oily, dirty, unclean feeling that never seemed to go away no matter how many stupid therapeutic exercises he did.
I know I can’t begin to understand what you’ve been through, and I understand if you don’t want to talk about it. But know you can. Talk to me. I’ll try to listen and not be stupid like I was now. I’m human. I know you see me as the perfect older brother sometimes, but I make mistakes all the time. Like now. Talking when I should have been listening.
Kai felt like someone had taken him and shaken him up, this strange buzzing anxious feeling floating around his whole body. It was probably partially that he was due for another Xanax dose, but he also knew it was a kind of mood hangover expressing itself physically. “I need a cold shower to snap myself out of myself, and then I have to finish stretching and put my braces on. I need space,” Kai emphasized, not wanting his overbearing brother to barge into the bathroom and see his arms, how close Kai had come this morning to giving up.

#

Kai was becoming increasingly unstable. Or at least that was the theme Diane picked up from the past hour of her conversation with Renee, as her friend filled in the details of the past couple weeks and ploughed Diane for more info on Kevin. Particularly the days leading up to his death, as if Diane hadn’t gone over those in her head repeatedly in the past two years. As if she could somehow figure out what she should have done or said that could have helped him, stopped him. She’d finally come to terms with the idea that Kevin’s suicide wasn’t her fault, but there was always that part of her brain that nagged that it was. If she hadn’t glamorized suicide and depression so much, maybe she could have convinced Kevin to get help before it was too late. Or maybe there was something she could have done to help him with his family situation. Even if there was, it was far too late, and all Diane could do was help Renee from falling into the same trap. Twenty-year-olds weren’t supposed to be dealing with life and death. College was a time for partying, getting drunk and having fun.
“Maybe you two should take a break. It might be best for both of you. Give you both space before you get in too deep.”
Renee’s eyes filled but she didn’t cry. “I think Kai would kill himself if I left him now.”
Diane felt anger burning in her gut, her instinct to protect her friend from the men who would hurt her. “Did he threaten you with that? That’s abuse, Renee, even if--”
“No. No,” Renee interrupted, insistent. “Kai would never say that. Last night he even told me I could--should--forget him. But you didn’t see him. The way he signed it, he was shaking so hard . . .” Renee sighed. “But I can’t do that. Loving him is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Renee sniffled. “Do you know what I find myself doing when I have a spare moment? I imagine myself walking down the aisle in a beautiful white dress, and he’s waiting at the end of it with that gorgeous lopsided smile of his. And I know it’s stupid, because we’re young and we haven’t known each other very long, but . . .” Renee took a huge breath. “I’ve never felt about anyone what I feel for Kai. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know if he really wants me. After all, his exes do have a habit of reappearing just when we’re getting close. What if he likes the idea of me, but he doesn’t actually like me? He’s never said he loves me.”
Renee was convinced that Kai’s blackout last night had more to it. He hadn’t explained why he’d gone to a bar, especially a biker bar, or how his ex coincidentally happened to be there. In fact, as far as Diane knew, Kai hadn’t even mentioned the incident at all when Renee talked to him this morning.
“Maybe it’s sex that’s pushing him back to her. You didn’t see this girl, D. She’s . . . I don’t know. Like a ten and I’m a two. Kai and I haven’t done anything close to sex in months. Any time I try to bring it up he freaks out and says he’s not ready. But what if he doesn’t want me?”
Diane found that hard to believe. “I don’t know Kai the way you do. But it sounds like he doesn’t open up to just anyone. With Kevin . . . I thought we were close. We’d had sex. He’d shared some of his fears about his family with me. But I didn’t realize until after he was gone how little I knew him. How much he’d held back. Getting help, reaching out to people when you’re hurting isn’t easy. You know that from your own experience with Jude. It’s hard to trust. But Kai told you things he hasn’t told anyone. He came to you more than once when it would have been easier to . . .” Diane wouldn’t let herself say “kill himself,” not wanting to make Renee cry. “He didn’t need to call you this morning, but he did. Do you think he was lying when he said he promised he’d get the help he needed?”
Renee wiped her face on a paper towel. “Part of it was to reassure me, but . . .” Renee sighed. “No. I think he was sincere.”
“Then try not to worry.”
Renee nodded mechanically. After a long moment she asked, “You’re OK?”
Diane wasn’t sure what her friend meant.
“After losing your boyfriend like that?”
Diane didn’t want to lie to Renee, but it was clear Renee was stuck on Kai no matter what, and she needed reassurance. “Kai is his own person,” Diane began carefully, noting Renee managed a smile when she said that. “Be there for him. Be supportive. Encourage him to get help when he needs it--that’s my biggest regret about Kevin. But whatever happens, you can’t blame yourself, OK?”
“I hate that I can’t be as honest with him sometimes as I’d like. Because I’m terrified he’ll misinterpret what I say and that could push him away from me. And then when the bad thoughts hit him hard, he won’t come to me. I keep thinking that’s really what happened Friday night. Yes, I believe he blacked out, but something pushed him into it, to not calling me, to wandering off instead of coming to the ASL class to meet me. I only wish I knew what it was. Maybe I’m not good enough for him. Strong enough to help him through this? I could barely help myself with Jude, after all.”
“Stop,” Diane said, taking her friend’s hand. “I think you and Kai need to have a talk. Maybe do it with his shrink so she can be there to moderate things. Heck, maybe go see her yourself, by yourself. Whatever happened to Kai, whatever he’s going through, of course you want to be there for him and help him through it, but you can’t put yourself through the wringer in the process. And if you lie to him, if you hide what you’re really feeling and how all this is really affecting you--even if it’s in his best interest--it will come back to bite both of you. How much did it hurt you when he kept the truth from you before? When he did or said what he thought you wanted?”
Renee suddenly burst into tears. “I know he needs to go back into the hospital, but I don’t want him to. Especially all the way in Omaha. We’ve been separated too many times since we met, and I can’t stand the thought of being apart again. How selfish can I be?”
“You’re not selfish. You’re human.”
Renee sighed, blew her nose, not convinced. “The last thing he wants to do is go back into the hospital, but I have to encourage that because his safety is more important than anything. If I told him I didn’t want him to go, that might give him one more excuse not to get the help he needs. Then it would be my fault if anything happened to him.”
Diane felt so far over her head she couldn’t even see the surface anymore. “How about a day where you don’t worry about Kai, OK? He’s safe with his brother in Omaha, right?”
Renee nodded.
“Good. So you and I can have a bestie day without any guilt. Then I think you should consider talking to his doctor and getting her advice. I personally think if you’re honest with Kai like you were with me that he’d appreciate that more than platitudes, but get her advice if you think it will reassure you.”
“Thank you, Diane. I’ve never been scared for someone else before like I am with Kai. It feels like if I lost him I’d be losing a huge part of myself I didn’t even know I had until a few months ago. I know that’s crazy, but . . .”
Diane couldn’t help smiling since Renee’s devotion leaked through Diane’s tough outer shell. “That’s love, Renee. The real thing. Caring more about someone else than you do yourself.”

######

3 comments:

  1. Oh Kai, I hope you will get better....

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  2. Again a very emotional chapter. I am looking forward to the next one and to Dr. Millers discoveries.

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  3. Incredible chapter. You had me hanging on every word.

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