Saturday, July 15, 2000

In/Exhale - February 10, 2001 - Part II

February 10, 2001 - Part II

Kai had stayed in the shower until the cold felt like tiny needles stabbing his skin and he was shivering so violently he struggled to stay seated. But it had helped, and he was able to wrap his arms tight without trying to reopen or create new wounds, and by the time he rolled out of the bathroom he felt better, more in control, and that was important. He didn’t need to tell Jon that the main reason he’d been so freaked out by a non-accessible room was the idea of the bathroom seeming too residential, too much like the one that haunted some of his nightmares and flashbacks. Instead, he’d insisted he was calmer and that he wanted to drive because driving would help distract him and literally put him in the driver’s seat. He and Jon had fought bitterly about it; with Kai’s anxiety and tendency to blackout, Jon put his foot down and wouldn’t allow Kai to drive in an unfamiliar city. In the end, Kai had to relent, especially when Jon reminded him he would have to put off his next dose of Xanax if he drove.
Kai was relieved when they finally pulled into the first available handicapped space in front of the Harbinger Clinic’s main building. It meant Jon could stop desperately trying to talk about their aunt or what had happened between them earlier in the hotel. Could stop making little comments about how Kai should have eaten the sandwiches Jon had brought for them as a quick lunch before heading over to the hospital. Could just stop.
Harbinger wasn't at all what Kai was expecting. Rather than looking like a health care facility, it more closely resembled a really nice apartment complex, with decorative iron bars on the windows that appeared as if they were meant to keep burglars out rather than patients in.
And even in winter, Kai had never seen landscaping like this, with rows of perfectly manicured bushes and trees that stayed green even in the depth of winter. It looked welcoming and innocuous, and both of those things terrified Kai. Because just like he’d told Jon earlier, Kai had learned growing up not to trust the surface, because who knew what really lay beneath.
Jon gently touched Kai’s arm, and when Kai looked over, he could see his brother was feeling guilty about earlier, and apologetic. Kai could also tell that Jon wanted to ask Kai if he was really up to this, but obviously was biting his tongue so as not to further irritate him.
“This is what we came for,” Kai said tiredly, as if in answer to his brother’s unasked question. Even though Omaha wasn’t nearly as cold as Jonesville, Kai took a moment to secure his scarf around his face before he opened his door.
Despite the stretches he’d done, he was sore and already wondering if he was making a mistake. As Kai rose to his feet, adjusting his weight, he could see now that some of the bushes were actually cleverly disguising high brick walls. And he felt like he was already beginning to see through some of the outer layers of this place. Although, in fairness, if able bodied people as sick as he could be were patients here, then he would have felt the place was naive if not irresponsible for not having security.
Kai began the trudge toward the front entrance, indicated with a large wooden sign that was probably beautifully ornamented by flowers during the warmer months.
Once more, the innocuous facade belied genuine security precautions; you had to be buzzed in from the outside door, and then, like at County House, there was an intercom you needed to use to be buzzed past the inner door.
Kai waited for Jon, although it probably took his brother a tenth of the time to walk the few feet from the car that it took Kai, and then he shifted his weight, dropped his arm out of one crutch, and hit the button. “Hello? It’s Kai Fox and Jon Taylor. We have an appointment.” Kai’s gut began to swirl. The irrational part of his brain wanted to tell him this could be a trick, that Jon had brought him here to leave him, but he tried to breathe and remember that Jon could be a lot of things, but he wasn’t normally in the business of manipulating Kai.
There was a buzz that sounded a little too painful with his hearing aids, and then the click of the lock. Using the same hand he’d used on the intercom, Kai pulled the door open, grateful Jon held it since it was actually very heavy and set up so that it would shut automatically. Another surreptitious security measure--again--like the front door at CH. The lobby, however, was nothing like County House’s. It was large and inviting, tastefully decorated to look much more like a nice hotel’s than a hospital’s, with potted plants, paintings on the walls, armchairs and polished wooden tables.
The woman at the front desk wasn’t dressed in scrubs and had a friendly smile, her blond hair twisted into some kind of fancy bun. She resembled a legal secretary or a receptionist in a fancy office rather than the sentry at a private nuthouse. It didn’t escape Kai’s notice that the burly man sitting not far from the door pretending to read the newspaper was probably a plant. Maybe Kai was paranoid, but he and David had snuck out of County House enough, and broken into plenty of places they weren’t supposed to that Kai had gotten good at being a lookout.
Kai forced himself to pretend he hadn’t noticed the man and approach the front desk. He and the receptionist exchanged those charming fake smiles that normally won people over, and she had the decency to only glance momentarily at his crutches before guiding her eyes back to his, her smile never failing.
“Mr. Fox?”
Kai kept his smile in place although he was gritting his teeth a little at the assumption that Dr. Jon Taylor couldn’t be disabled. He nodded.
“Let me just give Dennis a call and he’ll be right out to give you the tour. Feel free to have a seat. Can I get you anything while you wait? Water? Coffee?”
“We’re good. Thank you,” Kai said, responding for both of them.

#

Saturday was visiting day at County House, Kai had told Dr. Miller on one or two occasions, and Kai’s least favorite day of the week, because it always reminded him of how alone he was, no matter how much he tried to pretend he didn’t care. The parking lot was decently busy, so despite Kai’s cynicism that “no one ever visited anyone,” it seemed he’d been exaggerating. Not surprising, since Kai did tend to view the world through a fairly negative filter.
Dr. Miller waited to be buzzed inside, reading the lettering announcing County House’s full name over and over. Finally, the door opened and she stepped through into what looked like the foyer to a nursing home. The reception area had been decorated to look cheerful, but it was dated despite the staff’s best attempts. The desk resembled one in a hospital, partially built into the wall so that unless someone climbed over it the only way to get behind it was to walk through a door tucked to the side that said, CH STAFF ONLY on it in peeling lettering. A few chairs that looked like they’d been there since the Eisenhower administration were tucked into one corner, and behind the reception desk lay several unmarked doors. To the left were two sturdy doors like the kind that Dr. Miller was used to seeing sealing psychiatric units, giving the place a very prison-like feel. No one was getting in or out easily here. She knew it was for the children’s safety, but it still felt disconcerting, even if the doors were cheerfully decorated with what looked like some art the children who lived here must have made.
On the wall above the desk, prominently placed to catch a visitor’s eye as soon as they entered, hung a large poster. A group of disabled children, some in wheelchairs, a few with walkers or crutches, others looking like they might have Down’s or some other visible cognitive disability, a couple with oxygen tanks or bald heads. And though most were white, there were just enough minorities to make the photo look even more staged than it otherwise seemed: a single Hispanic, a Native American. An African American. Calhoun County Cares About Kids! It announced in bold letters above their smiling faces. Dr. Miller didn’t normally consider herself a cynic, but the depressing dinginess of what she’d seen of County House so far, combined with an entryway that looked like it was trying far too hard to seem cheerful couldn’t mask the fact that this place really was an institution. And a neglected one at that. The carpet was industrial and threadbare beneath her feet, and the walls were clean but in desperate need of a new layer of paint. Even the flicker of the fluorescent lights above her seemed to give the place an ominous feel. She hadn’t even gotten past the front desk and she could already sense why Kai spoke so bitterly about this place.
After a moment, one of the unlabeled doors opened and an ancient-looking woman stepped out. She was dressed simply in a blouse and chinos with orthotic shoes, and she didn’t greet Dr. Miller with a smile, merely an acknowledgment. “Where is that girl? I told her not to leave the desk! Go ahead and sign in. What child are you here to see?”
“Ms. Evans? I’m Dr. Miller. We had an appointment? About Kai Fox?”
Ms. Evans’ eyes narrowed almost distrustfully. It was hard to believe this decrepit-looking great-grandmother of a creature could be the one Kai referred to as the Warden. “Oh. Yes. Well, I need to find the worthless girl who’s supposed to be checking visitors in, so if you want to come with me, you can have a cursory tour while we’re at it.”

#

Kai hadn’t wanted to sit, but Jon had insisted, especially since they’d be walking for awhile and Jon knew that his brother was hurting today, even if he hadn’t admitted it or asked for Jon’s help when he was stretching earlier. Jon couldn’t stop thinking about what Kai had accidentally admitted about the woman who’d abused him and why, but he knew Kai was already angry and had told Jon more than once during the drive that he didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to think about it, and so Jon was doing his best to pretend it hadn’t happened.
What do you think? About this place?
That my insurance won’t pay for it. How much does this place cost, anyway?
The trust I set up for you will cover it. I would rather use that money and know that you’re actually being taken care of in a safe environment than risk . . .” Jon dropped his hands. Neither Kai nor Dr. Miller had said anything, but Jon had seen the healing wound on Kai’s neck when he’d first gotten sick with his fever, the kind of wound Jon had encountered before from his internship work in the ER. The kind of wound someone only got when a thin cord was wrapped tight around the neck in an attempt to choke off the airway. Kai had tried to kill himself while he’d been an inpatient, and his sometimes irrational, paranoid fear of being sent back to the JMH psych ward lent credence to how bad that place had been for him. And being allowed only one brief supervised visit had been very hard on them both. It was one thing that had sold Jon on this place, and he didn’t care what it cost.
Kai frowned, but he didn’t say anything else.
Jon got the hint and shut up, checking his watch and pushing a hand through his hair.
They settled into waiting. Kai kept himself stiff and alert, occasionally digging the heel of his hand into his thigh, but otherwise barely moving.
It seemed like it was forever before Dennis appeared, accompanied by a woman in black. So the hospital had paid attention when Jon had mentioned Kai might need an interpreter. Dennis was a slim man with an expensive tailored suit but no tie, and although he looked like he was about Jon’s age, he was balding on top despite how he styled his hair to hide it, and it made him look older.
“Mr. Fox? Dr. Taylor?” he said with a pleasant smile, and the interpreter transposed the man’s words into fingerspelling. “I’m Dennis Roettinger. I’m the head of guest services here,” he said as if he were working for a ritzy hotel chain. “Are you two ready for the tour? Or did you have any questions first?”
Kai seemed surprised by the interpreter, and cast a questioning look at Jon before signing, “This interpreter is for me for the duration of the tour? Or just for now?
Once the interpreter had done her job, Dennis nodded with a cheesy smile. “We’ve arranged for the interpreter to stay the entire afternoon. She’s at your disposal. We pride ourselves here at Harbinger in fully accommodating all our guests. Should you stay with us, you would have access to an interpreter at any time of day or night.”
Kai clearly seemed shocked and skeptical both. Omaha was a much bigger city than Jonesville, and that meant more interpreters, but sign language interpreters weren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Jon remembered what it had cost him to hire George for a few hours back when he’d first gone to see Kai at County House. He couldn’t imagine what it would cost to have someone--likely more than one to cover a full 24/7 availability--on retainer. Nevertheless, Jon would be willing to pay more if that’s what it took to mean Kai didn’t have to struggle with communication on top of everything else.
Kai finally stood, and it seemed to take him a little more effort than normal, pain flashing over his features, but it was so fleeting Jon could have imagined it. Once they were both on their feet, Dennis smiled even more hugely--Jon honestly wouldn’t have thought it possible, and offered his hand to Kai first.
Kai stared at it for a moment, and Jon wasn’t sure if Kai wasn’t in the mood to touch anyone today or if he was purposefully doing it to make Dennis uncomfortable, because the man seemed to hesitate, glancing up at Jon as if he weren’t sure if offering to shake with Kai had been the wrong thing to do. The hint of mischief in Kai’s eyes was the only giveaway that he was totally fucking with Dennis, and Jon had to hide his own smile. Finally, Kai shifted his weight to the left and lifted his right hand off the handle of his crutch, completing the shake.
Dennis seemed to let out a breath of relief, his smile turning nervous, and then he shook with Jon as well. “Wow, you two didn’t look nearly that tall sitting down,” Dennis said with a nervous laugh. “Are you related?”
Jon glanced at Kai to give him a chance to speak, but he was quiet, so Jon responded, “We’re brothers. I’m also his proxy. I was the one who arranged this tour.” Jon expected a glare from Kai, but Kai was impassive, or at least he was outwardly. Jon knew it was his defense mechanism, that even after months of therapy he still didn’t like to show his cards, especially to a stranger.
“Ah, yes. OK. Well, first we’ll take a little detour through the eating disorder unit--”
“Why?” Kai said, a little defensively. He was still outwardly stoic, though Jon saw his hands grip his crutch handles a little tighter.
Dennis hesitated a fraction of a moment, perhaps surprised that Kai could speak. “I thought you might want to meet our resident nutritionist, Leah.”
“Why?” Kai said with a little more grit in his voice.
Dennis cleared his throat. “Leah manages the meals for all our residents.”
Kai breathed out his nose. It was clear he felt blindsided. Jon knew from their dual sessions, from how difficult eating had been for him since his infection, how sensitive Kai was about food. He’d admitted to being diagnosed with an eating disorder when he was in high school, something he didn’t think was fair, and he didn’t like anyone insinuating otherwise. Jon wasn’t so sure, and one reason he’d liked this hospital was that they did have a staff nutritionist who would monitor Kai’s diet and eating habits if he ever had to stay here.
Jon turned subtly, a hint to the interpreter not to voice what he was saying to Kai. “You have special nutritional needs, Kai. Let’s talk to her.
Kai wrinkled his nose in assent.

#

Ms. Evans led them past the security door into the common room, a large space crowded with children of various disabilities and the occasional adult visitor. A couple orderlies stood to the side, stoically supervising the place like eagles watching their prey. The room was even more depressing in some ways than the lobby. A few old wooden tables and chairs were clustered on one side of the room. An ancient TV and couch sat in one corner, some shelves with a pathetic collection of books and board games, and a small bin of broken-looking toys. Still, the children in the room seemed happy, for the most part, though it didn’t miss Dr. Miller’s notice the few who sat off to the side, watching those with visitors with sad, longing eyes.
“The common room,” Ms. Evans said like an afterthought, searching the crowd for the missing desk jockey. Without a further word, she led Dr. Miller through the room toward the exit, which fed into a dark hallway. To the left there was a door and straight ahead another small hall. “The dormitories are that way,” Ms. Evans indicated. “Cafeteria this way,” as she led them directly ahead.
The cafeteria was large and had a high ceiling, with old windows typical of 1950’s architecture lining one wall. In the summer, it was possible they filled the room with light, but on a dreary, cold winter’s day, nothing but gloom pierced their dirty glass. Rather than the picnic-style tables Dr. Miller was familiar with from most school cafeterias, this one had tables with individual chairs, which she supposed made more sense for disabled children, and many look repaired or mismatched, like Ms. Evans had done her best over the years to keep her kids supplied with a limited budget.
Dr. Miller had expected the cafeteria to be empty, but instead there was a young woman in pink scrubs consoling a girl near the kitchen. As they approached, Dr. Miller could see the girl was about ten and was sobbing no matter what the staff member tried to do.
“How many times have I told you the cafeteria is off limits during visiting hours?” Ms. Evans snapped.
Initially, Dr. Miller had thought she was talking to the girl, but soon realized she was instead chastising the woman in scrubs.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Evans. Kelsey was upset and she ran off. I was just trying to convince her to go back.”
Ms. Evans sighed. “Get back to the desk. Someone needs to be there for any other visitors that may arrive. I’ll handle this.”
The employee marched off, head hanging, and the girl--Kelsey--looked up, rubbing her face and sniffling. It was now that Dr. Miller could see the girl had Down’s syndrome.
Ms. Evans cast a glance toward Dr. Miller she couldn’t interpret and then sat beside Kelsey. “Why are you upset?” she asked as if she knew why.
Kelsey sniffled. She stared hard at Dr. Miller and then looked at Ms. Evans. “My mommy didn’t come again to see me. Was I bad? I try to be good.”
Ms. Evans sighed softly. “You’ve been a very good girl, Kelsey. But sometimes mommies and daddies do things that we don’t like, and it’s not because we’re good or bad. We’ve talked about this.”
Kelsey sniffled. “But the other kids’ mommies and daddies come and see them. Why won’t mine come and see me?”
Ms. Evans frowned and stood up slowly, offering her hand and encouraging Kelsey to join her. “Not everyone has a visitor, you know that. Why don’t you play with some of the other kids? You can draw me one of your pictures and I’ll hang it up in the front lobby.”
Kelsey seemed to brighten. “So if my mommy comes she can see it?”
Ms. Evans forced a smile, though her eyes were sad. “Yes. So she can see it.”
Kelsey clapped her hands and then scampered off toward the common room.
Once she was out of sight, Ms. Evans said, “Kelsey’s mother loved her, but she died a couple years ago and her father decided he couldn’t handle her on his own. He visited once or twice at first, but then said it was too sad and never came back. Kelsey doesn’t understand. She’s not the only one in a situation like that. Most of these kids are here because their parents couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them. And now the state’s pressuring us to find them homes since they want to shut us down. It’s not easy to find good foster parents willing to take in a child with special needs.” Ms. Evans sighed heavily. “I’m scared for every one of my kids that I send away.” Evans gave the doctor a long, knowing look, and Dr. Miller wondered if she was trying to convey something about Kai. Whatever it was, she said, “We can cut through here to get to my office if you want to see those files.”

#

Harbinger was posher than anything Kai had ever experienced, and it made him wonder what Jon's life while they had been separated must have been like. Maybe Jon returning--and staying--in Jonesville because of Kai was even more of a sacrifice than he'd ever truly appreciated before.
The rooms in the eating disorder ward looked far more like hotel rooms or expensive dorm rooms than anything he would have expected in a hospital, roomy and nicely furnished, brightly lit and welcoming. To Kai’s surprise, most of the patients had theirs decorated and personalized.
Dennis had been talking almost nonstop to the point of which Kai had honestly felt bad for the interpreter, and had been tempted to dismiss her. He could turn his hearing aids off and ignore Dennis entirely, but it was nice being able to shut out the English for the most part and focus on the signs, which even with a lot of fingerspelling was still easier for him to follow than all the PR babble about exclusivity and patient--no, "resident"--comfort, etc., etc. Jon was practically taking notes, but Kai was more focused on trying to see behind the curtain. So far, everything about this place made him uneasy, like it was hiding something. Kai tried to tell himself it was his cynicism, but he wanted to be absolutely sure about this place before he gave Jon an OK on it. Especially if it was going to drain his trust to do it.
"Ah, Leah. I'd like you to meet Kai and Jon. I'm giving them a tour."
Leah wasn't at all what Kai had expected either. She was a short, fit woman in her late 40s who looked more like someone who would feel comfortable sleeping in a tent rather than living a posh existence. She smiled and offered her hand, which both Kai and Jon shook in turn.
"Dennis told me you'd be visiting today. I hear you're a vegetarian?"
How much had Jon told these people? Kai nodded.
Leah seemed to be sizing Kai up, and he wondered if she could tell he was still at the low end of his recommended weight range. "How long since you stopped eating?"
Kai swallowed, his stomach doing a flip. He shifted his gaze between Leah and the interpreter. “Excuse me?”
“How long since you stopped eating meat? How long have you been a vegetarian?”
Kai let out a breath. Either his paranoia was causing him to hallucinate, or the interpreter had accidentally dropped the sign for “meat” the first time. "Uh, it's been about a year? A little more?"
Leah didn’t betray her surprise that, despite the interpreter, Kai responded in perfect English. Instead, she studied him for a moment, which made Kai uneasy, and then nodded. “Well, you’ll find that we’re capable of designing tasty, nutritious meals to fit any diet.”
Kai shifted his weight very visibly on purpose to try to signal he was so ready to be out of this section of the hospital.
Dennis noticed, and there was a brief moment of discomfort on his face before he hid it behind his professional smile. “Well, if you don’t have any questions for Leah, let’s continue the tour?”

#

It turned out that Harbinger, rather than being a single building, was actually a complex of separate units, making it resemble a fancy apartment complex even more than it had from the outside. Partially enclosed walkways linked all the buildings, and in between lay several gardens. Kai imagined the place must be beautiful during the spring and summer, with the trees and fountains and benches interspersed throughout. It made it look far less like a psychiatric hospital and much more inviting, even with the trees bare and the fountains drained.
The grounds were so extensive that they actually drove around in a modified golf cart of sorts, with four seats in the back, benches facing each other. When a worker had first driven up in one and Dennis had beckoned them both to take a seat, Kai had blanched, insisting that he could walk. Dennis had laughed in a way that made Kai want to punch him and explained that the campus was several square miles and the “shuttles”--as he called the carts--were a common mode of transport for staff and patients alike.
He then proceeded to drive them around the grounds, occasionally identifying a building or two, or to brag about what important person donated money for a particular garden. Kai sat beside his brother, facing forward, and the interpreter sat across from them, essentially behind Dennis. “Nearly all the gardens are open to residents in the warmer months,” Dennis chirped. “We also supplement our Western medicine approaches of talk-therapy-backed pharmacologic approaches with other holistic therapies such as yoga and Tai Chi.”
Now that they weren’t walking, Jon actually was taking notes. No wonder he’d powered through school and Kai could barely pass a couple classes. Kai slouched in his seat, keeping a firm hold on his crutches.
“Of course, I’m sure that any therapy could be modified to meet your unique needs,” Dennis quickly added. And Kai didn’t miss how the interpreter’s gaze went to Kai’s crutches for a fleeting second when she interpreted that.
Kai rolled his eyes.
“We take great pride here at Harbinger in offering all our patients a tailored approach to their recovery.”
Kai’s eyes narrowed. Dennis had talked a little about how patients--sorry, residents--weren’t prisoners here, how many had free roam of the grounds during the day, which included access to their own building plus the common building they hadn’t yet seen, but he’d neglected to talk about the more high-risk patients. Kai knew that with his history he’d never be given free reign. “And what about the patients who are violent or suicidal? Where do you keep them?” Kai asked acerbically, purposefully using English so his tone wouldn’t be misinterpreted.
Dennis cleared his throat. Kai obviously made him uncomfortable. “Well, generally speaking, we don’t accept residents with violent tendencies. We’ve found it isn’t healthful for our other guests.”
The JMH psych ward used colored wristbands to identify patients from least to most violent. Kai had been ultimately labeled a red at JMH, which they only gave to the patients who were at extreme risk of not only harming themselves, but also others, after he threw a chair during a group session, was put into isolation, and tried to kill himself. “Stop the cart,” Kai said.
Dennis seemed to be nervous, and he started to protest about tour protocol, but Kai was insistent.
“Stop. The. Cart.”
Dennis must have heard something in Kai’s voice, because he obeyed. Kai told the interpreter to stay put and not to interpret till he came back. He climbed out of the cart once it was stopped, leaving his crutches behind temporarily and signalling for Jon to follow him. “Mr. Fox, I must insist--”
“Just five minutes, OK?” Kai snapped. He carefully walked a few feet away from Dennis, then crossed his arms on his chest while he waited for Jon to join him. “They will never take me here. You heard Dennis.
He’s just a PR guy. Dr. Miller already talked to their head psychiatrist and although she didn’t go into any details because she didn’t have your permission to do so, she asked a few questions very generally about a patient like you and they said that you would be welcome here.  I know you don’t like this Dennis guy, but don’t judge the entire hospital just because of one balding douchebag.
Kai’s eyes widened. He didn’t know Jon knew how to sign that. He couldn’t imagine Jon even saying that in English.
Jon laughed. “David taught me a lot while you were sick.
Kai sighed. “I don’t want to agree to stay in a place like this, freak out, and then they decide I’m too much of a problem and send me to some nightmare. You have no idea what they did to me in JMH. Maybe for someone else it wasn’t so bad, but for me . . .” Kai glanced over at Dennis, who was watching them intently. Kai signed something quickly, basically calling him a bald moron, nothing too gesture-based, just a test. Although the interpreter stifled a smile and then looked away, Dennis didn’t react. Kai was certain that, as he suspected, the man had no clue what Kai was saying, so he turned back to Jon.
Kai had already told Renee about what happened, and it should have been easier to tell someone else once his secret was already partially out. But the way Jon had reacted over Kai’s blackout yesterday and the whole thing about their aunt, Kai was worried what Jon would think if he knew the real reason Kai was so afraid of being hospitalized again. Jon was terrified already that Kai would attempt suicide, and last night Kai had all but admitted that he thought about it all the time and didn’t think he could stop himself from doing it some day. So Kai took a few breaths and decided he’d stay vague. “I know that the hospital is supposed to be a place to help me, but I’m scared of what I’ll do if I’m put in a situation where I have nothing but my fucked up thoughts to keep me company. I can’t risk staying here if they’re just going to send me somewhere potentially worse than JMH.
Something happened while you were an inpatient, didn’t it? You tried.” Jon gestured to his neck.
Shame slammed into Kai like a strong wave and he actually put his hand out to brace himself on his brother because he was scared for a moment he’d fall. He couldn’t meet Jon’s eyes. “Yes.” Kai’s heart was beating a million miles a minute. “I needed to escape.” Kai’s hands were shaking subtly and he wished he hadn’t left his crutches behind because he could use them to try to still them.
Jon nudged Kai to get him to look up. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there.
Kai grit his teeth to control his emotions. “I don’t need you to be sorry. What I need is for you to help me decide if this place is right for me. If it’s really somewhere that I can come if I need to, where I will be safe. Where the experience won’t make my PTSD even worse. Understand?
Of course. I want you to be safe. To get better. I will make sure Dennis lets us sit down with the psychiatrist Dr. Miller spoke to and we’ll get a clear answer about the feasibility of your staying here, should it come to it. I promise. OK?

#

The Deaf club meeting was even longer and more boring than David had anticipated. Just when David was sure they were going to call it to a close, a man David didn’t recognize stood up and signed something to the president David couldn’t see from his angle. The president nodded and waved the man foreword.
It took a few minutes for him to make it up to the stage, and then he started with a quick greeting and thanked the officers for letting him speak. Then he introduced himself as Brandon Kepler--that last name was familiar--before getting to the point. “All of you have probably heard how the state wants to shut down several northern Iowan institutions, including JSD and County House. This isn’t the first time, but the threat is more real than ever.” The man was older than David, maybe in his thirties or even forties, and he had a look that reminded David of himself, and his signing style emphasized that. A man who was used to working with his hands but also had an education, and knew how to use both his brain and his brawn. “JSD is a cornerstone of our community. If we lose our school, we lose our heart. I’m hoping if enough of the community in Northern Iowa--both hearing and Deaf--rally, we may be able to keep JSD open a few more years. The president has given me permission to start a small committee to get things started. Who’s interested?
David immediately raised his hand. He didn’t have an enormous amount of free time, but he agreed with everything Brandon said. If JSD closed, the Deaf community in Jonesville would wither and die. David owed everything he had--his life, his relationship with Megan, his education--to JSD and CH. If the Warden hadn’t rescued him from his last disastrous foster home, he would have ended up in juvie. He hadn’t realized it then, but he knew now how common it was for wards of the state who were considered problems to be sent to juvie, some as young as six or seven, for even the most minor offenses. And once you got that label of juvenile deliquent, you were ruined. No decent foster home or group home would take you, your chance of adoption dropped to almost zero, and no judge would hesitate twice to send you back to jail if you so much as blinked wrong.
And David would probably never have gotten the chance to go to JSD, to learn to sign, to get true language development. He’d met Deaf who’d been denied the chance to sign early, who barely had any language at all, some of them brilliant but trapped in their own minds. Nothing terrified David more than the thought that he could have been one of those people.
David glanced around, including behind him, appalled by how few others had volunteered. Apathy had never been one of David’s weaknesses (probably one reason he got in so much trouble), but it was rampant in the Deaf community, and one thing about it that embarrassed him as a Deaf man with a huge capital “D.” Far too many Deaf believed they were helpless against the tide of the hearing majority surrounding them. Yes, a Deaf person was fighting a constant uphill battle (as David’s struggle to find a job proved), but that didn’t mean you had to lay down and drown in it.
A few people were signing to themselves about how Brandon was stupid and the whole idea pointless, and David’s anger surged. He lept out of his seat, not giving a shit about permission, and rushed up to the stage. The elderly officers were pale, trying to get him to return to his seat, but David signed that he had to speak and he would not be censored.
What the fuck is wrong with all of you? Some hearing asshole in the capitol says we don’t need two Deaf schools and you are all just going to take it like cows going to slaughter? Yes, we don’t have much power. There aren’t many of us. But there are many hearing Deaf supporters we could rally. And we have a voice, even if we can’t speak. If we could take over Gallaudet to get our voice heard, then we can at least try to save our community. If we let the state close JSD without a fight, what’s to stop them from shutting down the school in Council Bluffs, too? For insisting deaf don’t need to sign. That we can go to mainstream school and learn to talk English? Before we have no identity, no community left? JSD matters--or at least it should--to every single Deaf person in America. In the world. We may not win, but we shouldn’t go down without a fight.” David snorted, breathing heavily and sweating brutally from his rage and the heat of the lights. A few people in the audience raised their hands in applause, but David barely saw them, because he’d already stomped out, furious.

#

The tour of Harbinger continued, and Dennis kept up his overly peppy attitude although it was even more obvious by his posture and body language how uncomfortable Kai made him. He may have hid it from a normal hearing person, but Kai’s Deaf upbringing meant he picked up on the subtlest of nonverbal communication. It actually amused Kai, because he still didn’t like Dennis. He didn’t need to impress him, and fuck him.
Dennis finally brought them to the community building. Well, he didn’t call it that. He had some fancy name like “Rejuvenation Center” or something, but honestly, Kai was only half paying attention to the interpreter, and he was all but ignoring the many long fingerspelled words and focusing on her ASL explanations of those terms instead. Kai always had a hard time focusing, but today his mind was particularly distracted. He kept trying desperately to remember anything that had happened while he’d been at the Hitchhiker yesterday, an actual visual memory and not just the story Nikki had told him. But there was nothing. Frustrating and depressing nothing, and thinking that Kai might not go back home with Jon, that they might both decide he needed to stay behind was incredibly disheartening.
Dennis parked the shuttle and waited for the interpreter, plus Kai and Jon to join him at the door, where he swiped a card to unlock it. “This building is the center of the campus,” he said as he led them in. “Here is where our residents come to relax and socialize, but it’s also home to several of our supplemental therapies.”
Dennis guided them through key parts of the building, showing off a few of the therapy rooms, including one of the art therapy classes that was currently in session. With permission from the teacher and the patients, Kai and Jon were allowed to stand in for a few minutes to see what it was like for themselves.
Firstly, the facility was amazing. More like a real art studio than the all-purpose generic room at JMH. Kai had experienced some art therapy while he was an inpatient, some of it in the eating disorder clinic, where he’d learned that coloring was relaxing and that tearing up pieces of paper and focusing on making a picture out of them was a way for him to relieve his tension and focus his anger. But his experience in JMH felt like visiting a cheap preschool, and this was college. The teacher was guiding the patients to use the paint colors that represented their mood and paint out their emotions. Kai knew his painting would be filled with shades of blue for the darkness he always carried with him. Orange and red for his anger and self hate, tinged with the greenish yellow of disgust and shame. And maybe a hint of bright yellow for hope.
Next, they walked past a music therapy class, but Kai didn’t want to sit in on that, not sure how he would even hear music now, and not in the mood for feedback. Then a yoga class, and the instructor had just finished and was eager to promise Kai that she would consult with a few colleagues and adjust her routine for his disability. She was polite and not condescending, without the flowery language Dennis used, which made him uneasy, and made Kai smile. He actually wondered if he could benefit from something like yoga. It seemed silly, but meditation helped his mind, and stretching helped his MLS, so if he combined them?
Finally, Dennis took them to one of the main community rooms. Again, he had some fancy term for it, like “communal recreational therapy pagoda” or something ridiculous like that. Kai really wasn’t sure and he didn’t care. It was a rec room. But fuck, it wasn’t like any common room Kai had ever experienced in his life.
Kai couldn’t even have imagined it, because he had no frame of reference on which to base it. The room was large and open and full of natural sunlight, inviting and cosy, with a huge gas fireplace, comfortable yet posh chairs arranged around it. On one side of the room was a TV area with the biggest, nicest TV Kai had ever seen in his life, ensconced in a cabinet that looked custom built to hold it and made out of nice dark wood. Several patients, none of them in scrubs, all of them in lounge clothes or PJs, sat on the sofas watching a soap opera, while others sat at chess tables near the window, heads bent over their next move.
“We have video games, too,” Dennis announced. “DVDs. Nothing violent, of course. And there are other TV lounges, including one on each floor of most of the dormitories.” Yes, of course he called them that.
Other patients curled up in recliners reading, still others worked on puzzles or sketched. A few played a game of foosball while others cheered them on. It wasn’t at all like the cold, sterile, old and forgotten feeling of the rec room at JMH’s psych ward, or the dark and dingy common room at County House. It felt more like a huge parlor at some wealthy grandparent’s estate, like any moment a doting granny would come wandering in with tea and cookies and ask if she could get anything else for her grandchildren to play with. It was surreal, and as nonsensical as it was, made Kai very uncomfortable.
Jon seemed to sense this and asked with only his face if Kai was OK.
Kai nodded and forced a smile.
Dennis, of course, was oblivious, still rattling on about how there were athletic facilities in another part of the building, including a pool and gymnasium, and a library. That piqued Kai’s interest enough for Dennis to notice, so he led them there next since it was adjacent to this rec room, apparently.

#

The library took Kai’s breath away. It wasn’t huge, but it was still impressive. All wood paneling and furniture nicer than JU’s library. The smell of books permeated the air, and there was another fireplace here, flanked with comfy chairs, and as much as Kai’s back and hips and arms ached right now from all the walking and standing, the appeal of one of those, of relaxing by the warm fire with a good book felt like heaven.
Dennis laughed, amused, since this was the first time Kai had let his guard down enough to show his genuine emotion (other than irritation and disdain). “The library is open to all residents. We have books in every genre, and can also get anything you’d like that we may not already have. Additionally, we have movies and books on tape you can rent as well to use in your room.” Dennis gave Kai a moment and then tried to direct them away again, but Kai shook his head.
“I want to talk to some of the patients.”
Dennis blanched. “That’s not really protocol--”
Kai planted his crutches. “I’m not leaving without talking to a few of the people here or in the rec room.”
Dennis looked like he was about to correct Kai’s nomenclature, but thought better of it. Smiled nervously and said he’d make a call if Kai and Jon would follow him.
Dennis left the interpreter, Jon, and Kai in the beautiful, sun-filled indoor garden between the library and rec room. It was a little chilly, which was probably why none of the residents were there, but it was peaceful in a way that was foreign to Kai. There was a lot to love about this hospital, and yet Kai couldn’t help thinking it was all too good to be true. One reason he wanted to talk to patients that he picked and not that Dennis had carefully preselected for him.
A few times Jon looked like he desperately wanted to ask Kai his thoughts, but must have seen something in his brother’s features that changed his mind, and he kept silent, not even attempting to sign anything. Instead, after a moment he sank down into a chair and seemed to be going over his notes, making new ones. Maybe questions he wanted to ask later.
Kai chose to remain standing, because if he sat down he wouldn’t want to get up again. Fortunately, Dennis returned not long after, walking stiffly and looking chastened. He apologized profusely to Jon in particular. Kai cast Jon a questioning, confused look that his brother ignored. How much money did Jon really have? Who was his adoptive father?
Jon definitely didn’t live like he had a trust, preferring to pay his own way and living simply. Kai had everything he needed, and nicer things than he’d ever had in his entire life, and he was perfectly happy that way. But how Dennis was acting now? And how expensive this place must be? It made Kai curious in a way he’d never been before.
“You’re welcome to speak with any of our guests, but if they choose not to speak with you, that’s their prerogative,” Dennis explained as he led them back into the rec room.

#

David was pacing in the covered walkway just outside the auditorium of JSD, hoping the movement and the cold would relieve some of his pent-up anger. David loved the cold weather. It felt like home, which he knew was totally insane, but he was probably one of the only people who missed it when summer came around. He loved the way it smelled, how it burned in his lungs, how his skin prickled with it as he ran on a cold morning. He loved seeing his breath poof in front of his face, like a visual proof he was alive. The cold invigorated him, energized him, motivated him to keep going, to push through the pain, to not give up.
It probably helped that he knew what living on the street was like, the fight to stay warm, to keep living as hunger tore at his stomach and despair struggled to pull him down. The cold was like a beast David had fought and won against, and now he had tamed it. It was still dangerous, of course, but it was no longer his enemy.
David felt a sharp tap on his shoulder. When he turned around, he was surprised to see Brandon, who looked almost as if he were analyzing David. David didn’t like that, and he bristled, his hands clenching into fists out of reflex before he forced himself to relax. He raised his brows in both a question and a challenge.
Brandon grinned--not the reaction David had expected. “You have balls. I like that.
David still wasn’t sure what to make of this man, so he shrugged. “Just because hearies rule the world doesn’t mean we have to lie down and let them walk all over us without a fight.
Brandon nodded sternly. “I agree. That’s why I came back to town.
David’s face showed his confusion. No way Brandon showed up just to fight the state on the school closure.
If it was up to my brothers, they’d sell Dad’s business to some greedy corporate chain that probably would end up shutting it down after a few months. They think because we’re Deaf we can’t possibly run it ourselves. I’m here to show them they’re wrong.
It then hit David how he knew Brandon and why his last name was so familiar. “You’re Brandon Kepler. Kepler’s Kopy & Print Shop.
Brandon nodded.
But your dad died months ago. Last I heard the shop was closed.
That’s what happens when I trust my brothers to handle anything. No. I’ve officially moved back and I’m taking over the business. I’m buying my brothers out and making a go of it. It won’t be easy, but nothing worth doing is easy, right?
David couldn’t help grinning. His first impression of Brandon was spot on. This was the kind of guy he could get behind.
Why don’t you drop by the shop some time this week. The gossip mill is you’ve been looking for a job, and I’d rather hire a fellow Deafie with a good education and common sense than some hearie to help me run the business. We can talk about our plans for saving the school, too, since our committee seems to have a grand total of two members so far.” Brandon offered David his hand to shake.
David felt hope bloom inside of him. It wouldn’t be easy working for a small business, but it could be exciting, especially if he was among fellow Deafies. “I’ll look at my schedule and drop by. Thank you for the opportunity.

######

3 comments:

  1. This was a wonderful, intricate chapter with many avenues explored. I enjoyed it immensely. Your writing is captivating.

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  2. Your characters always feel so real for me. Thank you for the update.

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  3. I hope this will be a good place for Kai. But maybe it all sounds too good!?

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