Saturday, July 15, 2000

In/Exhale - February 10, 2001 - Part III

February 10, 2001 - Part III

Another thing that had struck Kai about the common building was how it wasn’t segregated at all. At JMH, the men and women were kept separate at all times, except for group therapy, and after Kai’s chair-throwing incident, that might have changed, too. Since there was only one common room, the men got it certain times of the day and the women got it the other times. But here, the sexes mingled freely. Dennis gave Kai a funny look when he’d asked about it, explaining how men and women had separate living areas but otherwise were allowed to intermingle. It made Kai wonder if the staff was incredibly naive or if they simply got paid enough not to care. Either way, Kai wondered how many children were conceived in this place every year. He was tempted to ask, but decided he wouldn’t do that to Dennis, who looked like he might actually have a real heart attack if Kai gave him any more of a hard time than he already had.
Take your time,” Jon signed. He’d checked his blood sugar and eaten before they’d come, encouraging Kai not to worry about him or his diabetes. Jon wanted Kai to be certain about Harbinger before they made any decisions.
Kai scanned the room, trying to decide who he wanted to talk to first. He skipped the social butterflies and zeroed in on a man in his 20s sitting by one of the windows. When the interpreter started to follow, Kai shook his head. This was something he wanted to do on his own, without a third party interfering or making anyone he might talk to think twice about being honest with him. As Kai drew closer, he saw the man had a book resting on the nearby table, but he wasn’t reading it. Instead, he seemed to be watching the wind move the bare tree branches outside the window.
“Hi. I’m touring the campus,” Kai said, choosing his words carefully, feeling like an idiot, “and I wanted to meet some of the patients. Can we talk for a few minutes?”
The man tilted his head back to take in all of Kai’s height, his brows going up a little, but then he nodded and gestured for the other chair.
Kai sat, casually observing the other man, who was restless and twitchy. Every few seconds he’d wink and his head would turn and his shoulder would come up. And when Kai got a better look, he saw he had more facial tics, too, and now that they were closer, Kai could hear a strange sound he couldn’t make out with his hearing aids, and finally realized it was the guy clicking his tongue. “Tourette’s?” Kai asked once he was settled.
The man offered an awkward nod.
“Do you like it here? At Harbinger?” Kai decided to jump right into things. He didn’t like people obsessing or fussing about his disability. “I’m Kai, by the way.”
“T--T--T--Tom,” the man said, fighting to get the word out. “Y--y--y--yes,” he said after a pause. Kai was worried he would have trouble understanding him because of his severe stutter and the clicking he couldn’t stop doing, but Kai focused and figured he’d get enough and fill in the rest. “I li--li--li--like--” His tics seemed to get worse. Maybe Kai made him nervous?
Kai did his best to make himself seem nonthreatening, patient.
Tom seemed to relax a little, and his speech got a fraction better. “Li-like it he-he-here. They’ve he-he-he-hel-hel-helped me a lo-lo-lot.” If that was true, Kai wondered how bad his tics had been before. Tom must have read Kai’s disbelief and managed a smile. “I wa-wa-was wo-wo-wo--bad. Before.” He spoke a little slower, with some unnatural stops now, but that seemed to make it easier for him to chew the words up and spit them out. “Li-li-like,” Tom said, and he threw out one arm in a move that was too purposeful to be a tic, “and,” then kicked out one leg. So he was showing Kai instead of telling him.
“Your tics were so bad it’d make your limbs jerk like that?” Kai asked, genuinely curious and wanting to be sure he had understood. He had no idea Tourette’s could be that bad.
Tom nodded in his way. His neck was twitching a little less now, but his blinking had gotten worse. “Could--couldn’t go out. Meds ma-ma-made me a zo-zom-zombie. Tics st-st-still.”
Kai could relate, on one level. He indicated his crutches. “I have a neuromuscular disease that makes my muscles spasm pretty bad sometimes.” As if to prove his point, Kai’s right leg kicked out, almost like it would when the knee reflex was triggered, kept in check by the brace. Kai barely suppressed a grimace, trying to work his fingers into the muscles around his knee, though it was difficult with his brace in the way.
Tom seemed to be studying Kai, as if he were wondering if Kai was making fun of him.
Kai’s right leg was jittering, and the muscles in his left thigh were spasming too, even if it wasn't visible. Too much walking. And Kai had begun to suspect Dennis strode as fast as he did--no matter how many times Kai asked him to slow down--because he was a passive aggressive little fuck. “Believe me, I understand.”
Tom relaxed subtly. The jerk of his shoulder had become a little less frequent. “Meds?”
“Nothing really works. Mostly when it gets really bad. They make me sick.”
Tom nodded, then smiled faintly, though his face contorted a little and he made a few random noises. “Not ju-ju-ju--only drugs he-here. Other stu--stuff. Really hel-hel-helped me.”
“Thanks for talking to me. I hope you keep getting better.” Kai normally didn't lock his left knee until he was on his feet, shifting his weight to trigger the mechanism. But when he was spasming, standing, even with his crutches, was tricky. So he locked his left leg so he knew he could rely on it if his right failed him, slipped his crutches on, and carefully, slowly, stood up. Gravity could do wonders, pulling and stretching stubborn muscles, and so he shifted his body until both his feet were flat on the floor, then pushed against his crutches handles to straighten up, forcing as much of his weight on his legs, down to his feet. A long assisted stretch of the muscles in his lower back, butt, hips, thighs, and calves. It couldn't completely stop the spasms, of course, but it helped, and it meant he could keep walking for awhile longer.

#

Tom seemed reliable enough, but Kai wanted a second opinion. He spotted a college-aged girl sitting at a table not far from the fireplace, head bent over a puzzle. He’d observed her while he stretched, waiting for his legs to behave enough to make his way over, and noticed she’d push her sleeves up, revealing bandaged forearms, then seem to catch herself and hurriedly shove them back down. Perfect.
Kai made his way toward her, having to lean a little more on his crutches than he normally liked because his right leg was still acting up.
“You are way too good looking to be a patient,” she said with a flirty smile. She reminded him a lot of that girl who’d flirted with him the other day in psych class, and for a fraction of a second, Kai panicked, fearing he’d be recognized. But her hair was naturally blond, even if it was highlighted so much it looked fake, and Kai had to acknowledge she was actually very beautiful--in that woman’s magazine model kind of way.
Kai took her remark as an invitation to sit, relieved to give his legs and arms another break. He was grateful for the dull, throbbing pain in his arms from the cuts, but at the same time regretting them. He didn’t miss how the girl watched him, not in that “freak in the circus” way most people usually did but with hunger. Still, could be something he could use to his advantage to get her to talk. “Didn’t think attractiveness was a qualification of insanity,” Kai replied.
She laughed, one of those forced laughs some girls did when they were flirting because a lot of men were stupid and felt flattered when a woman laughed at their jokes. She pushed her hair behind her ear and leaned forward, letting the jacket she was wearing over a skin-tight tank top fall open, giving Kai a nice look of her ample breasts, her nipples jutting at the fabric. It distracted Kai for a good long moment. His big brain may have been totally uninterested in her, but she had nice tits and his little brain had certainly taken notice. Why did so many very fuckable girls flirt with him now that he wasn’t free? Kai’s dick wished he’d broken up with Renee only so he could find a closet somewhere and fuck this chick’s brains out without hurting anyone in the process. Truthfully, it scared Kai how badly he wanted to do that anyway.
“You’d never know based on the guys in this place,” she said in a late response to his earlier statement.
But Kai didn’t even remember what he’d said, and he had to blink a few times and swallow to get himself back on track. Seriously, Nikki had the nicest rack he’d ever had personal contact with, but he suspected if he saw this woman naked she might have Nikki beat. And Kai couldn’t help imagining exactly that. This girl and Nikki, naked, making out in front of him . . .
She grinned hugely, like she was proud of the effect she was having on him. “I’m Lucy.”
“Kai,” he said, and he had to clear his throat and repeat himself. He very purposefully forced his eyes up to hers and tried not to let them wander. He was here to ask her something. What was it?
“I saw you talking to Twitchy over there,” Lucy said with some disdain in her voice. “No way you’re a cop unless they’re desperate enough to hire cripples now.” She pouted. “Do you have a cigarette? We’re not allowed to smoke and I’m dying for one,” she said melodramatically, stretching for his hand.
Kai frowned and pulled away. Words by themselves didn’t offend him, it was how they were used. Call him a freak in one context and he’d laugh, but in another, he’d punch you out. Wasn’t that what had happened the other day at the Cattle Baron, at least in part? Everything about what Lucy had just said pissed him off, from the disgust in how she talked about Tom--she obviously had been too busy looking at other parts of Kai’s anatomy to notice his spasming legs--to the way she’d dismissed him so easily because of his disability. He suspected if he had been less handsome she wouldn’t have even responded when he spoke to her. And yet he still wanted to fuck her. It was almost all he could think about.
“You’re hot when you pout, too,” she said.
Kai sighed and decided it would be better to get to the point. “The last hospital I stayed in was terrible. This place seems great, but I’m talking to patients to get the real story.”
She studied him for a moment. “Are you actually writing a book? Like Girl, Interrupted but with guys?” Kai suspected she’d only watched the movie, but maybe it wasn’t fair to judge a book by its cover.
“Is this place really as nice as it seems?” he asked, redirecting her.
“Better than my real life, I’ll tell you that. Except for the cigarette thing. Yeah. I mean, we’ve got shit we’ve gotta do, like activities and therapy and crap like that, but we get a lot of free time, too, if you know what to do with it, you know what I mean?”
Kai did. He was breathing faster, and his vision had tunneled in that way it did when he was super-aroused and knew he was about to get laid. The logical part of Kai’s brain fought hard against it, but it was an uphill battle. Forget the closet. He’d take her right here, in his lap, not giving a flying fuck who watched as long as he got his dick wet.
Kai dropped his arm under the table to his crotch, half to adjust and half to touch himself. The movement irritated the wounds in his arm and the pain was sudden and sharp, enough to dim his erection and allow his conscious, logical brain to take hold again. Kai let out a difficult breath. Tried to focus. Remember why he was talking to her in the first place. Right. Those bandages on her arms. Don’t be too Deafie. Don’t be blunt, Kai coached himself. He was still trying to regulate his breathing. “Can I ask why you’re here?”
Lucy didn’t seem to mind. She flashed her wrists, then adjusted her jacket again, apparently deciding her cleavage couldn’t tempt him anymore, or maybe she was just cold. “My boyfriend said he wanted to move out, that he needed ‘space.’ I told him if he left I’d kill myself. He didn’t believe me.” She said it so matter-of-factly, like her behavior was perfectly rational.
“Really?” Kai asked, trying not to sound as shocked as he felt. If he were in the wrong state of mind, he could see himself taking similar actions if Renee left him, but would he ever use it as a threat? He couldn’t imagine it. He’d probably pretend he was fine until she was literally gone, and then, once he was faced with the suffocating reality of being alone, of finding out that all his fears about not being loveable were true, then he . . . Kai straightened his back and forced his face into neutral, not wanting to reveal anything to Lucy.
She tilted her head as if she were trying to figure him out. “You’re not just a cute face, are you?” she murmured, so that, especially with the background noise of the large room, he had to rely on reading her lips. She shifted. “It worked, too. He comes to see me a few times a week to tell me how sorry he is. I’m kinda over him, though.” She flashed Kai an inviting smile and bat of her eyes
Kai honestly felt bad for Lucy’s boyfriend, but that was neither here nor there. “Tell me about the high-security ward. The one at my old hospital was awful. Not quite, but almost the stereotype of the padded cell.” Nausea swirled in Kai’s gut and he shivered, focusing hard on one of the puzzle pieces, the fur on a cat, he suspected based on what Lucy had already assembled, as a way to keep his mind from taking off in a bad direction.
Lucy seemed surprised by the question. “Not much different from a regular room, or floor, really. Just . . . I don’t know, less stuff you could use to hurt yourself, I guess. Once I was here I wasn’t really into the whole thing anymore, you know?” The whole “thing” being suicide? Damn, this girl was crazy, and Kai wasn’t even entirely sure if it was due to mental illness or just a fucked up personality. “They’re watching you all the time, which is kind of kinky, but you’re not like, locked in your room or tied to your bed or anything, unless you’re into that kinda thing.”
Kai really wanted to see the secure building for himself, but Lucy’s response made him relax substantially. He glanced over where he saw Jon waiting by the door, Dennis beside him, clearly impatient and irritated, although he immediately smiled and pretended like all was well in the world when he noticed Kai looking his way. “Do they ever drug you? I mean, like make you a zombie?”
Lucy blinked at him like she didn’t know what he was talking about. “I mean, they give you some drugs to like, ‘stabilize your mood,’ but they’re always giving the speech about how ‘drugs are only part of their overall treatment experience here.’ It’s not as easy to score stuff as you’d think, either.”
Kai let out a relieved breath. Maybe this place really was nice. Nothing at all like JMH. “I should be going. Thanks for talking to me, Lucy.”
She licked her lips as she watched him push himself to his feet, needing to use his upper body more than normal to get his stubborn legs in line. “You look me up if you come stay here and I’m still around.”

#

“Vic? Vicky?” Roni called as she entered through the laundry room, stripping off her outerwear and hanging it up. No answer. Her sister wasn’t in the living room or the kitchen, so she called out again as she headed toward the hallway that led to the master suite and the rest of the bedrooms.
“I’m in here,” Vicky finally replied.
Roni followed the voice to the end of the hall. The door to this spare bedroom was open, so Roni entered. The room was small and totally empty now; when she’d done the renovation on the mother-in-law suite for Kai she’d also gone ahead and cleared out this room.
Vicky stood in the middle of it, her back to the door, her arms wrapped protectively around her stomach, her long hair in a messy braid. “Thanks for coming,” she said without moving.
“Please, anything to get a break from the rugrats for a few hours. I would have been here sooner, but apparently there was some confusion as to which of the twins’ wives was supposed to babysit. . . . Anyway, you sure you want this kid after all? They ruin your life.” Roni was teasing, partially because she loved her kids but between the two boys she couldn’t remember the last night of full sleep she’d had.
Vicky burst into tears, though, and Roni immediately felt like an idiot. Her big sister had moved on with her life, but this second pregnancy, especially with all the hormones, had made the wound fresh again.
Roni hugged her sister. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
Vicky sniffled. Smoothed a palm over her belly. “He’s not moving as much as Andrew did. What if something’s wrong?”
Roni nudged some stray hair off her sister’s face. “It’s early. What are you? Twenty weeks? Something like that? You still have plenty of time for him to start Irish dancing on you in there. Believe me. In about a month or so you’ll be wishing you could go back to these peaceful moments.”
But Vicky didn’t seem convinced.
“Let’s go look at some of those catalogs. Viv gave me a ton for you to look through. Apparently some lady she knows through Mary Kay hoards them. Decorating this room will help.”
Vicky shook her head, and fresh tears bubbled up.
“Come on. Picking out his crib and all those adorable baby things will help make this more real.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Vicky blubbered. “If it’s real, and I lose him . . .” Vicky fell into Roni’s arms. “I don’t think I’m strong enough to lose another baby.”
Roni contained her sigh, supporting her sister. She’d had a couple miscarriages, and that had been hard, but she couldn’t begin to imagine going through nearly a full pregnancy only to lose her child. At the same time, dwelling on the past and assuming the worst wouldn’t help Vicky, and part of Roni worried about what would happen if her sister’s baby was born healthy and Vicky wasn’t emotionally ready for it, not to mention not getting a crib or changing table set up.
Roni took a step back, wiped some stray tears from her sister’s cheeks. “We don’t have to order anything yet. Let’s just look. OK? It’ll cheer you up.”
Vicky didn’t seem convinced, but she sniffled. “Promise me you won’t let Viv throw me a baby shower, at least? It would remind me too much of last time. I don’t want to have to pretend to be happy in front of all the cousins and sisters-in-law and everyone else, opening boxes of blue onesies and pacifiers when seeing a diaper commercial now brings me to tears.”
“You know Viv’s a force of nature, but I’ll do my best.”

#

Dennis had tried to end the tour shortly after Kai’s meet-n-greet with the patients, but Jon had reminded him in his authoritative voice that managed to be level and yet powerful that they had an appointment with Dr. Byron, the head psychiatrist of Harbinger. Dennis was overly polite, but it was obvious he didn’t like Kai and he didn’t appreciate how the brothers had totally screwed with his tour plan. Still, as the demonstration in the common building had shown, Jon had enough pull so that Dennis did what he was told, parking in front of an edifice slightly different from those they’d seen before. It had more windows, for one, and had an elevated walkway leading into another building that also had a totally different look, with smaller, higher windows on each floor. So the first building was probably where the doctors and nurses had their offices, while the other was the high-security ward Kai had been asking Lucy about.
Kai was pleased and surprised when they were met by Dr. Byron in the lobby and he instructed Dennis that he would take care of Kai and Jon for now and they’d call him when they were done so he could give the brothers a ride back to the front of the grounds. Again, Dennis didn’t seem real happy, but he didn’t argue with the doctor and soon disappeared. Kai’s interpreter stayed behind. He’d continue using her for now, but he suspected he might decide he wanted to speak to the doctor alone later.
Dr. Byron was a slightly pudgy middle-aged man with a full beard streaked with white and a friendly face. He was short, probably about David’s height, and the two brothers dwarfed him by at least half a foot.
“Dr. Taylor, Mr. Fox, I’m Dr. Byron.” He offered his hand for them to shake.
Kai didn’t really want to, but shrinks were always judging you, and you had to be careful of every little action or inaction. Something he’d learned growing up. So he smiled, dropped his hand out of his crutch just enough to shake before stabilizing himself again.
“I hope you’re enjoying your tour so far?” Dr. Byron laughed when they didn’t really answer verbally and said, “I understood you both had some questions for me, so why don’t you follow me to my office and we’ll talk.”

#

Fortunately, Dr. Byron’s office wasn’t far from the entrance. Kai was running out of steam and seriously wishing he hadn’t been so stubborn and had come in his chair. He had no idea the campus would be this large, or that he’d be standing and walking for hours and hours with the only rest the brief moments in the “shuttle” as they went from building to building.
Fortunately, Dr. Byron had two very comfortable-looking chairs facing his desk, and he gestured for them to sit. “Can I get you two anything? Coffee? Tea? Water? Soda?”
Jon asked for coffee, even though he was supposed to be cutting back.
“Do you have any herbal tea?”
“I’m sure we could rustle some up for you,” Byron said politely. Then he used an intercom on his desk to presumably relay their order to his secretary and took a seat.
The chairs were even more comfortable than they looked, and it felt amazing on Kai’s aching back and hips in particular. He reclined with a sigh and momentarily forgot why he was even there.
Dr. Byron chuckled. “I picked those chairs out specifically for comfort. Glad you enjoy them.”
Kai was a little embarrassed at giving so much of himself away. He was used to physical pain and fatigue. He had to push it to the background and focus on why he was here and make sure his concerns were addressed. It was difficult, though. He was suddenly nervous. Byron’s office was large, well appointed, and brightly lit, yet part of Kai’s brain was panicking, telling him this was all a front and any minute big, burly orderlies would come and take him away. He wasn’t sure what scared him more, that thought, or the fact that he’d had it at all. When had Jon ever done anything to purposefully hurt him? Kai forced a few deep breaths.
Dr. Byron evidently sensed Kai’s anxiety, but he didn’t point it out and instead tried to steer the conversation, perhaps to distract Kai or help him open up. “What was your favorite part of our facility?”
Kai swallowed. He realized he was gripping the chair arms far too tight and hoped he hadn’t opened his wounds--if hev hadn’t already with all the walking--and forced himself to relax a fraction. “The library.”
“Kai loves to read,” Jon said a little too much like a proud father.
Kai gave him a sideways look, and Jon shut up.
“Wonderful. And your least favorite?” Dr. Bryon’s questions felt a little patronizing, but Kai appreciated that they gave him some time to calm down.
Kai wanted to be honest, to say that this whole place felt like he’d been giving some sort of hallucinogen when they’d arrived and he was waiting for it to wear off so he could see the gruesome reality beneath the pretty facade, but that sounded paranoid. And one of the last things you wanted to do with a new shrink was give them any ammunition against you. So Kai made a joke instead. He indicated his crutches, “I wish the campus was smaller.”
Bryon let out a deep laugh Kai could almost feel. “It’s particularly welcoming in the spring and summer when the gardens are in bloom. Ah, thank you,” he said as his secretary brought in their drinks on a rolling cart. Kai shouldn’t have been surprised because this place was fancier than anything he’d ever experienced in his life, but once she’d served Jon and the doctor their coffee, she pushed the cart to him and opened a wooden box with rows of different teas, encouraging him to make his selection.
It was surreal, and Kai couldn’t help glancing at Jon and then Dr. Byron as if to ask permission as he studied each variety before finally picking a ginger one to help settle his stomach.
“I spoke very generally with Dr. Miller,” Dr. Byron said once his secretary had departed again. She’d left the cart in case they wanted refills, and the tea was some of the best Kai had ever had. Clearly more expensive than the stuff he bought at Walmart. “She of course couldn’t speak much about your case because she didn’t have your permission, but she did express concerns that you had a difficult time at your last hospital.”
Kai’s breath caught and suddenly he desperately wanted to escape. He stared at his interpreter, almost panicked. Someday, maybe even if he stayed here, he’d have to get used to the idea of using an interpreter for talking about these things, but today he could manage between his hearing aids and looking at the doctor. “Please wait outside. I’d like to do this alone,” Kai signed single-handedly to the interpreter.
She nodded and disappeared.
“I’ll be more comfortable if she isn’t here right now,” Kai explained to Dr. Byron’s interested look.
Dr. Byron nodded. “Of course. I’m not sure what your previous experiences have been, but here at Harbinger we really do put patients first. You’ll have to forgive Dennis as he gets a little too much into PR babble, but it’s the truth.”
Kai glanced over at Jon. He wanted to tell him to go, too, but decided maybe he could keep things general enough that it would be OK. Kai set his tea on the little table between them since he felt himself shaking. “Because of my disability and communication problems . . .” Kai took a huge breath since it felt like his throat was closing up. “My whole life, people have tried to . . . control me.” Kai now wished he’d let the interpreter stay because he wasn’t confident his English was conveying what he really meant. But he continued anyway. “I get panicked if I feel like I’m . . . helpless. If I’m locked in a room, if my movement is restricted, if I’m left in the dark.” Kai had to pause and struggle to take a few breaths, leaning forward a little as if it were due to his FS even though he knew it was all in his fucked up head. “Dr. Miller had explained these things to the JMH staff, but they didn’t listen. They saw me as a problem and they did everything they could to make me less of one, even if it made my anxiety and PTSD worse.” Kai felt sick, like he was going to throw up, and he hated that he wasn’t doing a better job of being stoic with this new doctor. But the fact that he wasn’t flashing back or sobbing or having a full panic attack meant something, and Kai tried to focus on that small accomplishment instead of letting the negativity take over.
Jon smoothed Kai’s back in a slow, encouraging gesture for several minutes.
Dr. Byron didn’t pressure Kai, staying silent until Kai finally felt he was calmer.
“I’m sorry. . . .”
Dr. Byron shook his head as if to say Kai had nothing to apologize for. “I think you’ll find our secure wards are far different from anything you’ve experienced before. Patient safety is of course a priority, but we don’t have any universal treatment strategies here. Every patient is different, and we treat everyone differently.”
Kai glanced over at Jon for a long moment before taking a breath and forging ahead. “I get confused sometimes. Lost. Sometimes I . . . get violent. Or I try to . . . hurt myself. I don’t want to, but I can’t always help it.” Kai’s stomach had contracted into a tight knot and he was really glad he hadn’t eaten anything all day. “I need to know if I stay here that you won’t decide I’m too much for you to handle and dump me somewhere they won’t care about my phobias, or that too much sedation can make my dissociations worse.”
Dr. Byron leaned forward on his desk a little, as if to make himself more friendly and less intimidating. “I’d like you to consider signing a medical release form so I can get your records from Dr. Miller and the last hospital you stayed. That way I can fully and properly review your case. However, I will remind you that we put patients first here. If the situation arose where we felt we weren’t adequately prepared to care for you to ensure your safety, I would personally contact your brother, as your proxy, and Dr. Miller and make sure we transported you somewhere you would be safe.” It seemed like the doctor equivalent of PR babble, and Kai wasn’t fully convinced.
“I get desperate if I’m backed into a corner,” Kai said, trying to make Dr. Byron understand without outright admitting he’d try to kill himself if he was put into a situation like at JMH again. “If I decided to stay here, it’s because I’m looking for somewhere safe. I need to trust that I’ll be safe here.” Kai felt himself trembling a little and hoped it wasn’t noticeable.
“Perhaps if I gave you a chance to see our more secure building it would reassure you. It’s not something we conventionally show prospective clients, but again, we look at every case uniquely. Do you think that might help? I think you may be surprised by what you see.”

#

Ms. Evans lived in a small apartment behind the County House lobby and across from the cafeteria, separated by a large courtyard that apparently gave the children a secure outdoor space to play when the weather was nicer. Her office was designed so she could access it from the front desk or her living area, and from the look of it, she spent a lot of time there. Books, files, and paperwork littered every surface, along with numerous coffee mugs. Several file boxes were stacked on the floor near her desk, and a few more on its surface.
“Coffee?” Evans asked.
“Sure,” Dr. Miller said, approaching the stack of files. “These are all Kai’s?”
Evans gave Dr. Miller a long look. “You really have his permission to go through them?”
“Yes.” Dr. Miller produced the signed form from her bag and handed it over.
Ms. Evans studied it a long moment before deciding it was legit. “Kai lived here twelve years and had his share of problems. You’re lucky I’m organized.” From the chaos of her office, Dr. Miller would never have guessed, but she didn’t say anything. Just sat down and decided she’d flip through some of his records. Maybe Evans would be willing to let her make copies. No way she could get through all of this in a few hours.
Like the reception area, Ms. Evans office and living quarters were visibly old and in need of updating and repair--but it was well maintained and clean, or as well as it could be, anyway. Kai had admitted that although David and he had given her such a strict nickname, she had run County House to the best of her ability for forty-something years, and she really did care about the kids, even if no one else seemed to. If Dr. Miller’s observation of Kelsey was any indication, it did seem like Ms. Evans did this job for the love of the children. Certainly not for perks.
Ms. Evans talked to her through the doorway as she prepared their drinks. “How is Kai doing? If you’re allowed to say? He came by on Halloween and hell didn’t freeze over, but I haven’t seen him since. The kids were really hoping he’d come back to visit and play with them.”
Dr. Miller really wanted to say something, as if the two of them were simply mutal friends of Kai’s, but patient confidentiality prevented her from sharing anything about Kai, even the most inane detail. “I’m sorry. I can’t. But the children were really asking about him?”
Dr. Miller heard Ms. Evans pour water into the coffee pot. “Especially the younger children, yes.” A few beeps, and then Ms. Evans stepped into the doorway, folding her arms on her chest. “Kai showed up with sweets and toys and just played with them for two hours, Dr. Miller. I know that sounds like a silly thing, but for these kids, that was a big deal. It’s a sad fact that they have a lot of human contact, but it’s mostly caseworkers and physical therapists and doctors. The few volunteers I do still have are here mostly to help me fill in the gaps in funding. Assisting me with administrative tasks or even helping care for some of the more severely disabled kids’ day-to-day needs. Even the few visitors who come on Saturdays do so mostly to assuage their own guilt and don’t stay long. No one comes here just to play with the children. The fact that Kai is one of them? That’s an even bigger deal. Most of these kids have never seen an adult with a disability before. Kai could be a role model.” Ms. Evans sighed sadly. Looked like she was going to say something else, but the gurgle of the coffee maker pulled her attention back into the little kitchen behind her.
It was interesting to see Ms. Evans' side of the story, and not just Kai’s. Kai had told her how lonely and isolating growing up in County House had been, how they didn’t really have any toys, how they never had visitors, how they didn’t celebrate holidays or birthdays, and Kai’s perspective had always been because Ms. Evans was a cold, calculating woman who might have cared about the kids on one level, yet still only saw the limitations of rules and budgets. Dr. Miller knew she’d have to use this information the next time she saw Kai. Volunteering here would potentially be good for Kai--he was already wallowing in self doubt about his future working with children because of his disability and his mental illness. Not only would it be experience he could put on his resume, it would be good for the kids. And good for him, too.
Dr. Miller went back to flipping through some of Kai’s files. It amazed her how many caseworkers, social workers, psychologists, counselors, and other mental health specialists had treated Kai over the twelve years he’d lived here. Well, “treated” was perhaps too strong a word. Most of them had only ever seen Kai once or twice before either giving up on him, being reassigned, or moving on for whatever reason, many without ever listing a diagnosis. Though those did run the gambit, nearly every possible code in the DSM. The most common one when he was very young was selective mutism, not surprising considering he didn’t speak, and many of the early counselors had attempted to either trick Kai into talking or catch him speaking, part of the reason they’d initially forced him into the local mainstream kindergarten. But that hadn’t lasted long. Most of the files were pretty thin, since none of these therapists ever used an interpreter with him. They either recorded his refusal to communicate with them as obstinance or lack of intelligence. It was actually really embarrassing as a mental health professional herself to skim through some of these notes. No wonder Kai was so distrustful. One psychologist had given Kai a tentative diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder despite the fact that she hadn’t managed to actually communicate with him at all. Another suggested Kai’s withdrawn nature and lack of communication was a sign of autism. Several other social workers and therapists had marked Kai as anorexic only because of his BMI, without actually being able to talk to him about how he felt about his body or food. A few listed him as bipolar--interesting--and had recommended putting him on lithium, but the notes that followed, from apparently the psychiatrist who would have needed to write the prescription, suggested that Kai was depressed, not manic, and suggested an antidepressant, instead. And the notes went on, and on. The only really enlightening piece of information were a series of files from the early to mid 1990s, essentially when Kai was in high school.
At this point Kai was being seen weekly by a social worker (who, specifically, changed, though not quite as rapidly as they had in the past), and every three months by a psychiatrist, along with a nutritionist. It felt like the first time, at least in this box of records, that Dr. Miller could see that Kai had actually been properly diagnosed and treated by a team that was attempting to understand Kai’s issues instead of simply stamping a label of the day in his file and moving on to the next case.

#

Dr. Byron had offered Kai one of the hospital’s wheelchairs, or even to send someone to fetch Kai’s, but Kai declined. The tour wouldn’t be much longer, and if he was going to need as much dissonance from past and present as possible, it was now, going into the secure ward. Kai had also thanked his interpreter but dismissed her, insisting he’d be fine on his own for the duration. Kai didn’t want any more people going into the secure area with him than absolutely necessary.
They crossed the bridge and entered a small waiting/reception area that again, seemed far more innocent than Kai would have expected, but it didn’t take a trained eye to see the desk was enclosed behind glass or to notice the beefy security doors with warnings that the secure ward lay beyond.
Dr. Byron checked them all in, and although the desk nurse--this one wearing scrubs--gave them a look, she didn’t question him. “We don’t utilize most of this building, as the majority of our patients are safe enough in one of our standard dormitories. However, we do have two tiers of security, and I’m going to take you first to the less secure ward, to one of the uninhabited floors, just to give you a sense of what you can expect without violating any of our patients’ privacy.”
Once through the multiple security doors and through a common room that Dr. Byron explained was a place for the patients who needed a secure environment to gather, he led them into the main hall of a moderate secure floor. It more closely resembled a hospital than the previous “dorms” Dennis had shown the brothers, but it was still nicer than anything Kai had ever experienced as a patient of any sort at JMH. Nothing was cold and dingy here. The walls were painted cheerful, relaxing colors, and the space was bright with what felt like natural light. Instead of being arranged in a long hallway, with doors on either side representing rooms, like it was at JMH, rooms were clustered in groups of three with a central common area and a place for at least one staff member to observe the patients.
“We have a ratio of one staff member to each patient on the more secure floors,” Dr. Byron explained, and Kai appreciated how the man made sure to stop and face him so there wouldn’t be any issues with communication. “We also get your permission to use video surveillance to help the staff and doctors monitor you. It’s impossible to have physical eyes on every patient at all times, even with a low patient/staff ratio, and we find that many patients like the added security.”
Unless they’re paranoid, and that just makes things worse, because they’re literally being watched, Kai thought. Though as creepy as it would be to know someone was constantly observing him, it did reassure him to know that he’d have to be super sneaky if he was going to do anything here.
“However, in case Dennis didn’t make it clear, every room on campus is safe. Staff check in on all our patients a minimum of every thirty minutes when they’re not in a supervised activity. And that frequency can increase if deemed necessary.”
Which was a fancy way of saying, “misbehave and we’ll stalk you.” Kai was tempted to remain silent, but then he said, “At my other hospital they assigned a guy as my personal warden,” Kai said, trying to keep the emotion out of his voice. The man was huge and so Kai had given him the nickname Ogre. Kai had resented him most of the time, but Kai knew Ogre wasn’t a bad man. He’d been the one to save Kai’s life, and embarrassingly enough, to reassure him when Kai sobbed afterward, in despair that he couldn’t even kill himself right.
“I didn’t think a small hospital like Jonesville would have the resources for that,” Dr. Byron said, sounding surprised.
“Amazing how you knock out an orderly and they stop trusting you,” Kai responded bitterly. A remote part of his mind knew Kai was baiting Byron; he’d had enough therapy with Dr. Miller to recognize one of his self destructive behaviors, but he couldn’t stop himself. This tour made it all real. He was crazy, and sooner or later he was going to kill himself or end up here, whichever happened first, and that depressed and infuriated him.
“Kai.”
“It’s all right,” Dr. Byron said. He remained genial despite Kai’s attitude. “You have every right to have reservations about Harbinger, especially if you had bad experiences. But I think it’s likely you’d find your stay here relaxing. You’re a student, correct?”
“Until I come here and lose another semester, you mean? Yeah.”
“There’s no reason you couldn’t bring your textbooks with you and continue your studies during your stay. We have computers for patient use that you could access to email your assignments. You wouldn’t be the first student we’ve had as a resident here.”
Even though Kai had seen some of the occupied rooms in the other buildings, and he’d witnessed how many patients had personalized them, or that no one seemed to be wearing scrubs or other hospital-issued clothing, it had never occurred to Kai that this place wouldn’t be like JMH, where he’d had to fight to keep his own wheelchair and his history textbook that Jon brought him. “Really?”
Bryon smiled warmly. “The point of Harbinger is to create a safe, low stress environment to help our patients recover and get back to their lives. You’re not going to make much improvement if you’re worrying about missing school, are you?”
Kai suddenly felt like crying and he didn’t even know why.
“You wouldn’t be a prisoner, here, Kai,” Dr. Byron continued. “You’re allowed your own clothes and any approved personal items. We want you to feel as at home here as you can. That’s one reason we allow a single visitor to stay with you overnight.”
Kai’s body was sending him mixed signals, like he was overwhelmed; he wasn’t sure if he was going to panic or break down. All he knew was he couldn’t breathe and the world was spinning and he felt like he was going to throw up.
Jon was speaking but Kai was too lost in the swirl of signals to make out what he said. He didn’t fight when Jon led him and helped him sit down. He smoothed Kai’s back and put his other hand on Kai’s chest, urging him wordlessly to breathe.
It took a long while for Kai to calm down. He still felt a little dizzy. Maybe it was his vertigo?
Jon was whispering to Dr. Byron.
Kai’s heart was still beating too fast, and he felt a little disconnected from his body, so he focused on Dr. Byron’s tie, a conservative burgundy with pale pink stripes, grounding himself. Kai finally met his brother’s eyes to reassure him before reluctantly looking up at Dr. Byron. “It’s 2001,” Kai said to Jon’s unanswered question. Then to the doctor, “I’m not sure what happened.”
“It’s all right,” Dr. Byron said, and there was no judgment in his voice. It shocked Kai that he didn’t try to diagnosis him or suggest he do this or that, or chastise him for not being more careful to stay grounded and calm in the first place. “This can all be pretty overwhelming. It’s all right. Take as much time as you need. I’ll give you some space. Feel free to explore the rooms and I’ll be around when you’re ready.”
Kai felt mortified, that uncontrollable shame that always to clung to him.
Jon seemed to sense his brother’s turmoil and rubbed Kai’s back encouragingly. He didn’t seem to know what to say, though, so he said nothing.
Kai’s thoughts were racing, his fear and paranoia trying to take over while he wrestled against it. He shut his eyes, focused on blue, on the knowledge that Jon wouldn’t betray him, that they couldn’t keep him here against his will, not without a court order, not as long as he kept his fresh cuts hidden, which could give them a reason. He was just visiting. Tonight he’d be fully switched over to the Zoloft, and maybe by Monday he’d feel better. Kai tried to focus on all that, to regulate his breathing, but his body didn’t want to listen. It felt like defeat. He’d done so well for the tour until now. But Kai made himself say, “I think I need a Xanax.”

#

Dr. Miller was engrossed in the files, barely noticing that Ms. Evans had returned and left a mug of coffee nearby for her. Evans sipped her own drink quietly from her seat across the desk, observing Dr. Miller as she skimmed through the myriad of paper chronicling Kai’s childhood.
As Kai had informed Dr. Miller already, his MLS became more active and severe in about 1992, at which point his neurologist, Dr. Gates, started him on Mexitil. However, the side effects caused severe nausea and vomiting, and Kai, who was apparently always a very small and underweight child, dropped into dangerously low weight range and stopped eating. The situation got even worse in 1994 when David O’Donnell, his roommate, aged out, and Kai was diagnosed with severe depression and eating disorder otherwise not specified, and put on first one antidepressant, than another, then a combination, none of which seemed to work or help his appetite. In fact, Kai didn’t seem to improve until Dr. Gates took him off the Mexitil a few months later, combined with an appetite stimulant in the form of an antihistamine his nutritionist prescribed.
Dr. Miller closed the file. “So from this it looks like Kai was treated with several different psychiatric medications before, but he never really responded to them. True?”
Ms. Evans leaned back in her chair, almost looking like a persian cat curled up there, content with her warm drink. She smiled knowingly. “The orderlies dispensed the medications to Kai. They watched him put them in his mouth and supposedly swallow them. But that doesn’t mean he actually took them.”
The Kai Dr. Miller knew took his medications faithfully. “So you’re saying the reason he didn’t respond to the antidepressants and other medications over all these years was that he wasn’t actually ingesting them.”
Ms. Evans took a sip of her coffee and shrugged. “After Kai aged out, we cleaned his room, as is procedure, and found dozens of caches of items he’d left behind hidden in the walls and floor. There were a lot of pills. Throughout the years Kai was often labeled as retarded or mentally incompetent, but the fact is, he’s probably one of the smartest kids I’ve ever come across. If he didn’t want to take those pills, he wasn’t going to take them. But he sure as hell wasn’t going to give away that he wasn’t taking them.”
All Dr. Miller could do was sigh and shake her head, because she knew Kai, and she could definitely see him doing that. But why had he resisted the pills? Especially in high school, his depression had seemed very, very deep, and these notes were superficial. At this point in time, Kai talked a little, but nothing like how he spoke to Dr. Miller--he wasn’t flattering her when he told her that he trusted her more than any other shrink he’d ever seen.
“Do you remember Kai when he was in high school? What he was like back then?”
“A lot of children pass through here every year, Dr. Miller,” Ms. Evans began, sipping her coffee, almost as if she were about to say no. “But Kai was always special, and not just because he was different than most. Yes. I remember. That would have been, what, ten years ago?”
“About,” Dr. Miller said, setting the stack of files she’d already examined to the side and reaching for her coffee.
Ms. Evans let out a sigh. “I know I did the right thing, finding a way to get Kai into speech therapy, making him go to the public high school. He speaks so beautifully now. I hardly recognized him,” she added proudly. “But it was difficult for him. He got very depressed, even before David aged out." She stared into her mug for a long moment. "Sometimes I wonder if I did the wrong thing putting those two together."
“If it’s any consolation, David has been a huge part of Kai’s support system in the past few months.”
That made Ms. Evans sit up. “Really? I didn’t even know David was back in town. I always assumed he’d end up in prison, to be honest.”
“I can’t speak for what he was like as a kid,” Dr. Miller said, but I’ve met him a few times. We can’t communicate much, but he’s very loyal to Kai. He’s been a good friend--” Dr. Miller was about to add more, how David had largely been responsible for bringing Kai to his appointments after his discharge from the hospital, how he’d split the time with Jon ensuring Kai took his medicine and ate and didn’t hurt himself. “From what I can tell, he must have grown up,” she finally concluded.
Ms. Evans snorted, but then she went back to sipping her coffee. “I suppose if Kai can change, so can David.”

######

4 comments:

  1. Omg, I'm a Tourette's dev! *wanders off dazed*
    (I wish for a trillion more scenes with that guy. Holy shit!)

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  2. I really enjoyed the "tour." Thanks, and Happy Thanksgiving!

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  3. Wow. I love the patients. Would be interesting if Kai would stay there for some time...

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  4. It would be interesting to see Kai staying there one day and interact with the other patients.... lots of potential for the story there.

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