February 11, 2001 - Part II
Renee stepped into Kai’s room. She’d knocked, but wasn't surprised when he didn't reply, and she knew he didn't like the lights flashed. His room was that usual mixture of obsessive tidiness and chaos that was so characteristic of Kai. The bed was made, and the floor was clear except for a stack of boxes in one corner and a pile of clothes beside it, but the dresser was a disaster of laundry and school books and more, and the mirror was, as always, coated with Kai’s hand-written post-it reminders. The bathroom door was still gone, and she could see Kai sitting in his wheelchair in front of the vanity, rubbing his hair dry. He had a long-sleeved T-shirt on and a towel draped over his lap, his legs and feet bare. She tried calling out to him, but he couldn't hear her, so she carefully chose a spot on his bed where he could easily see her, and waited.
A few minutes later, Kai wheeled out of the bathroom. He let out a surprised sound and physically started. “Shit. How long have you been there?” Kai was breathing hard, panicked.
“Only a short time. Do you want me to leave?”
What Renee had initially thought was a rumple in the towel turned out to be an erection, and she really hoped even if nothing happened--logically, she knew neither of them were ready to get back into sex--that he'd finish getting dressed in front of her, prove that he still wanted her that way.
Kai blushed fiercely, which was uncharacteristic of him and also amusingly adorable considering they'd both seen each other naked. He pushed up to shift his weight and grimaced. Then he slipped a hand under the towel to adjust himself. He seemed to hesitate, and disappointment crashed into Renee at the thought that Kai would ask her to leave the room after all. Instead, he said, “Warm towel,” blushed almost shyly again, and pushed to the dresser. He yanked out a pair of jeans, brace socks, and underwear, and wheeled to the bed. He threw the clothes beside Renee and stopped in front of her so they were almost knee to knee. “I missed you so much,” Kai confessed, then blushed an even deeper red, as if he hadn't meant to admit it, or as if doing so betrayed weakness.
It lifted Renee’s heart to hear it, and a huge grin spread across her face. “Same.”
Kai pointed to the bedside table, where his hearing aids lay.
Renee scooped them up and offered them to him.
He slipped them both on, activated them, then fiddled with his unbrushed, messy hair a bit. He grinned huge at her, the kind of smile that was so rare and purely natural. “I want to kiss you, but I'm afraid I'll devour you.”
“I’m willing to take that risk.” Renee was honestly terrified of having a repeat of the other night. She’d never wanted to think Kai could hurt her, sexually, because he’d always assured her that he would be careful and gentle and it was one reason she’d fallen in love with him. But she knew he wasn’t always in full control of himself. And yet she needed to taste his lips against hers. Kai could say so much in a kiss, much more than he’d ever dare speak or sign in words.
Kai’s smile turned playful and his eyes sparkled with lust. He reached for her and drew her into him surprisingly gently. He planted a soft peck that for a moment Renee thought would be it. But then he placed one of her hands on his shoulder, as if to brace her there, and he held her tighter, almost as if she would leave if he didn’t, and he kissed her. For real. The way Kai always kissed her and yet there was an undercurrent of . . . Renee couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Kai was happy to see her, and he hummed every now and then, but those hums turned to growls and his grip would grow tighter before he forced himself to hold back. Kai wasn’t fully giving himself into this kiss the way he normally would, the way she would have expected after being apart for a weekend. Whenever she pressed him, her fingers digging and tickling his shoulder as her tongue teased in his mouth, he’d meet her just long enough to let her know he wanted her before putting on the brakes. Remotely, Renee knew she was testing him, but at the same time they hadn’t had sex in months and she missed that, too.
Kai’s hesitancy began to peel away as he started to kiss more aggressively, his hands roaming her body, fingers stroking, teasing, grabbing. It made Renee’s heart lurch and she pushed against his shoulder, trying to break the kiss, turned on and terrified at the same time, uncertain if Kai would listen or press farther.
Fortunately, Kai pulled away. He was breathing heavily, his erection threatening to push through the towel. Kai shifted his hands to his tires, gripping them tightly. His eyes stayed closed a long time, and suddenly, rather than slowly, Kai’s body seemed to relax, as if a switch had been thrown. His lust suddenly replaced with exhaustion. “Sorry,” Kai signed weakly. He shoved his hair off his face. Because it was still damp, it mostly stayed in place. He slid a hand under the towel and seemed to squeeze his dick. “God, how fucked up am I that I can’t even kiss you properly?” Kai’s cheek twitched, but he never managed a proper smile.
Renee reached over and linked her fingers in his. “Hey, it was good.” She smiled encouragingly.
Kai returned the smile, but his lids drooped, and his posture slackened. Almost as if the kiss--or fighting his lust--had zapped his limited store of energy. Kai leaned forward and massaged one leg, shifting his foot on the footrest. His movements were lazy. “I had to take a lot of muscle relaxant this morning. I’m still a little . . .” Kai did a sign toward the top of his head, fingers wagging, that literally meant “watery brain,” but referred to being drowsy or having brain fog. He finally shifted his chair, preparing to transfer. He hesitated a moment, a hand on the towel, glancing over at her. Renee wasn’t sure if Kai was being shy or if he was worried about her misinterpreting his movements. Maybe it was something else. Rather than giving her insight, the kiss had actually left Renee more confused.
Kai tossed the towel on top of his clothes, exposing his naked lower half. Kai had lost so much weight his knees and pelvic bones were more prominent than Renee remembered, and his legs were bruised in several places. His erection immediately faded with the chill room air. It still amazed Renee how Kai really was blond everywhere, even down to his pubic hair. She felt a tingle in her belly and licked her lips unconsciously.
Kai quirked an eyebrow but said nothing. He placed one hand on the mattress and the other on his wheelchair seat, and pushed and heaved his body onto the bed. It took a lot out of him, but Renee figured it was the medicine weakening him. At least she hoped that was it. After a long, quiet moment, seemingly regaining his strength and energy, Kai grabbed his boxers, bent forward and threaded each foot through one at a time, then pulled up with one hand while he used his other to help move his legs to ease his underwear up little by little. When he got to his knees, Kai stopped. He looked so exhausted and defeated, like even getting dressed was too much effort.
“Can I?” Renee asked, pointing to the boxers and then making a pulling up motion.
Kai let out a sigh and nodded slowly. He pushed up, palms flat on the bed to raise his body enough that Renee could help him get his underwear up the rest of the way, settling it at his waist. Kai nearly collapsed back when they were done, his lids heavy, and instead of finishing getting dressed pushed back to lean against the wall. He looked ready to fall asleep. “We skipped over the fun part of the relationship and jumped straight into the retirement years,” Kai said. His voice had levity to it, but his exhaustion and depression weighed it down.
“Hey,” Renee said, brushing a finger over his cheek. He’d shaved, probably in the shower, and his cheek was smooth. She wondered why he’d put in that extra effort, considering how tired he was.
But then he answered her unasked question. “I don’t want to go to Frankie’s tonight.”
It took a moment for Renee to remember what Kai was talking about. “Oh. That dinner is tonight?”
Kai sighed wearily.
“Then don’t go. Postpone it.”
Kai shook his head. “If I cancel, it’ll break Frankie’s heart.” Then Kai signed something Renee didn’t understand. Almost like he was looking up at something. “He looked up to me. Followed me everywhere,” Kai clarified in English. He sighed. His eyelids fell and for a moment Renee thought Kai had fallen asleep. But then he opened them drowsily. “Besides. I’ll be going into the hospital in a few days. I have no idea for how long. And I don’t exactly want everyone to know I’m MIA because I’m in the nuthouse.” Kai’s face grew pained.
Renee took Kai’s hand and kissed it. “I’ll stay with you every night you want me to,” Renee assured him.
Kai frowned, and for a moment she thought he was going to argue, but instead he just smiled faintly. “I need to get dressed.” He let out a grunt and didn’t move.
Renee picked up the clothes he’d left in a pile beside him, and examined them, then glanced at the shirt Kai was wearing. “Don’t you think you should dress a little nicer?”
Kai’s eyebrows dipped.
“For dinner?” Renee prompted.
That didn’t seem to clear up Kai’s confusion.
Renee straightened out the pair of jeans Kai had chosen, finding the knees and sticking her finger through one of the holes as if to prove her point.
“Those are my nice jeans,” Kai said, clearly not understanding. To his credit, they were far less faded than what he normally wore, and the holes weren’t nearly as big, but they still seemed totally inappropriate for a nice family dinner. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” Kai said in a defeated voice. “They’re expecting Superman and they’ll get Clark Kent.”
Renee frowned. “Since when do you quote comic books?”
It took a moment for Kai to process what she’d said. “Since Steve’s cousin gave me a stack of them to read.”
Renee abandoned the clothes on the bed and got up, sorting through the pile on the floor, but those were in even worse shape. “Are you finally giving away some of your old clothes?”
Kai didn’t answer right away. He was clearly drugged and probably hurting and trying not to show it, and his depression was thick today. Worse than she’d ever seen, in some ways. “We’re moving.”
Renee’s eyebrows went up.
“To Vicky’s?” Kai looked confused. “Did I forget to tell you? Of course I did.” Kai’s signing was small and lazy, almost as if he were mumbling to himself. And maybe he was. “I’m sorry,” he said clearly to her this time. “It was a . . .” Kai seemed to be struggling to figure out what he wanted to say, and he signed a few things Renee didn’t recognize before he finally said, “Compromise. For Jon. And me. With the baby coming.” Kai rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry if I’m not making sense. I’m so tired.”
Renee glanced at Kai’s alarm clock. “It’s still early. Take a nap.”
Kai shook his head. Hesitated. “I want this all to end.”
Renee’s eye shot up and her heart started beating a million miles a minute while her stomach fell into her feet. “Kai?!”
Kai seemed to realize what he’d said and shook his head, waving his hands urgently. “No. No, not that way. I’m OK. Really.” He looked guilty and apologetic. He scrubbed his face with his hands, then shoved one through his hair, which was going to look terrible if he didn’t brush it before it finished air drying. “I want to sleep without having nightmares. To have nice dreams. I haven’t slept well without meds since before my parents died. I’m just tired. I’m tired of being me.”
Renee wasn’t sure what that meant, and she abandoned her quest for better clothes for Kai’s dinner and crawled onto the bed beside him. She laid a hand on his cheek, and he closed his eyes and leaned into her touch, reaching up to rest his hand on hers as if to hold it there.
They sat like that for a long time, and Renee almost thought Kai was going to fall asleep, but then he opened his eyes again. They were so, so, so sad. Almost as if those brilliant blues were the source of sadness itself.
Renee pulled back a little and pleaded with him with her eyes to tell him what he was thinking, because she’d fix it for him if she could. Though she suspected what he needed was beyond her power to remedy.
Kai didn’t say anything for a long time, but then his face shifted and he said, “Let’s get out of here.”
“Go. Us. Leave.”
“I know what you mean literally, Kai. We can’t leave.” When Kai gave her a look like he wasn’t getting what she said, she repeated herself in sign.
Kai gave her a hard look and reached over for his brace socks, but Renee put a hand on his to stop him. “Don’t,” Kai said, his voice threatening in a way she had never heard him speak to her before. It was the first time Renee ever worried that Kai might hit her, and she retreated to a safe distance. She’d promised Jon she’d keep Kai safe, but could she? Even with all the weight Kai had lost he was still double her size and, meds or not, stronger than her. If Kai wanted to leave and he wasn’t afraid of hurting her, he could easily do so.
Kai didn’t miss Renee’s reaction. He seemed to sink, as if he were a deflated balloon. When he spoke, it was rapid, his accent coming through strongly and making him more difficult to understand since he wasn’t annunciating as clearly as he normally did, his words slurring together. It was as if he only had a few seconds to get out everything he possibly wanted to tell her and he was rushing to finish. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m . . . I can’t focus. My head . . .” Kai groaned, clearly frustrated he couldn’t better convey what he was saying. “I would never hurt you. I’m just . . . I am fighting through all this buzzing in my head. All these kids think I’m some hero and I’m so fucking worthless. I can’t even take care of myself, so I have to move in with my brother and his girlfriend because I’m just . . . a fucking failure. I’m so angry and frustrated and I want to destroy everything, and every bone in my body wants to fuck you hard and it terrifies me that there’s part of me that doesn’t care if I hurt you, it just wants. And I hate myself for feeling like that, for becoming what . . .” Kai let out a harsh, almost inhuman, panicked kind of noise. “I’m so out of control and I hate that. I hate it. I hate it! I want to, I don’t know, just take off and drive until I run out of gas because then . . . then I won’t hurt you and part of me thinks maybe if I run far enough I’ll finally escape all of it, everything, and my head will be quiet and I’ll be able to sleep and be happy and be the man you need me to be that I can never fucking be. . . . And it’ll mean I won’t have to be locked up, because I’m so . . . I’m scared.” Kai choked on a sob and struggled between catching his breath and fighting tears. Renee had to admit that he frightened her like this. Even if she knew he was still the man she loved and that he didn’t want to hurt her.
Renee took a breath and inched forward, slowly.
Kai hadn’t moved. He gripped the sheets tightly with one fist and the other was in his hair, pulling, and she saw blood. Shit. Was he pulling his hair hard enough to tear his scalp? He was still fighting for air and struggling against all those emotions he’d told her about, fear and loathing and anger and frustration, and more.
Renee finally got close enough she could reach up and urge him with only her hands to relax his hold on his hair.
At first he reacted to her touch by tightening his grip and holding his breath, but finally, he seemed to relax, and he dropped his hand.
Renee smoothed his hair, checking for a wound. A small one she needed to be cleaned. She kissed his temple. “Focus on your breathing,” she said in his ear. She got off the bed. “I’m going to clean your wound. I’ll be right back.”
All the fight seemed to have left Kai, and he nodded lazily.
When Renee returned a few minutes later, Kai was on his side, thankfully with the wounded part of his head exposed, looking defeated. “How am I going to make it?” Renee wasn’t sure exactly what he meant by that. Did he mean to the dinner? Through the next few days? Through his hospitalization?
“I’ll help you. Get some rest. I’ll wake you up in time to get ready for the dinner.”
This time Kai didn’t fight her. In fact, after she treated the small wound in his scalp, stopping the bleeding and disinfecting it, she lightly pulled a brush through his hair, soft and soothing, keeping his head in her lap. He held onto her legs tightly with one hand, but this time it felt more like he was using her to ground himself rather than in a possessive or dangerous manner.
“You are a hero, especially to those kids,” Renee reminded him as he drifted. “Remember: Clark Kent is Superman.”
Kai wasn’t sure if it was the Valium or Renee, but he slept hard for a few hours, waking up naturally, on his own, relieved when he saw the clock and knew he still had enough time to get ready for dinner without needing to rush. Because rushing was not something he was real motivated to do right now. In fact, moving at all wasn’t high on his list. He was stretched out on his side, on his bed, and Renee was behind him. She was probably sitting, because it felt like her thigh was pressed up against his back with the same arm resting on top of his chest, but not in the angles it would have been if she’d been lying down. He turned his head to try to see her.
Renee smiled when she realized he was awake, and smoothed her hand along his side in a way that made him feel amazing. His dick roused, but for once he didn’t feel the lust driving him to grab her. He just felt peaceful. Kai was pretty certain at this point Renee had magic powers.
Nevertheless, the worry and stress and all the other negative emotions began to stir up, building inside his chest like a ball of static electricity ready to ignite an explosion. Kai did his best to focus on Renee’s touch and that calm feeling she gave him.
“Still stressing about dinner? Why?”
Kai played with the edge of the blanket. Confirmed with a single sign that she was asking about dinner. Then he replied, his voice smaller than he would have liked, “What if I have a panic attack?”
“You’ll be OK.” Renee pulled against his upper arm to urge him to roll over so he could see her better.
Kai reluctantly complied. His back still hurt and his shoulders were tight, but the meds and the sleep had helped. He’d need to get some stretching in if he was going to manage walking for dinner, but it wasn’t as impossible as it had seemed a few hours ago. He decided he might as well sit up while he was at it. That was harder. His abs were exhausted after all that walking yesterday. He used his core much more than anyone except Troy, his physical therapist, probably realized, and so it meant that sitting straight up, even using his arms to push, took effort, and his muscles complained and strained. He wanted to blame his MLS, but he knew that it had a lot to do with not eating. A few months ago he could have walked all day no problem. Yes, he’d be sore and stiff afterward, but not like this. Kai felt like he’d just gotten out of the hospital, and he hated that Renee had to see him like this. God, what must she think of him? Kai finally had to twist despite the way his back screamed at him and use both his arms to push, almost push-up like, against the mattress, then hold himself halfway between the mattress and an upright position while he shifted his other arm back to its side. Another hard push or two, and he was finally sitting up. It took longer and was more complicated than sitting straight up, but it removed the stress from his core and meant he’d have less chance of failing in front of Renee. Still, between his MLS, overdoing it, and the meds to treat that Kai wasn’t looking forward to being up on his feet again. He just had to pray that Frankie’s parents had a small home and that he’d be sitting for the majority of dinner and there’d be no house tour or anything like that.
Kai shifted the blanket away so he could adjust his legs, making sure they were straight and his feet were roughly touching each other, side to side, his toes pointing toward the ceiling. One foot was slightly arched. Kai worried he might be getting a contracture there, basically the ligaments shortening and leaving him unable to flatten his foot. But he had bigger problems right now. Like . . . everything. Kai made himself breathe. A few steadying breaths and then he bent forward, reaching for his toes. Today he couldn’t quite get there because of the stiffness in his back and the ache in his abs, so he gripped his calves instead to hold the stretch until he started to feel dizzy. Remembered to breathe as he pushed himself up, walking himself back with his hands.
Once he was looking at her, Renee smiled his smile and said, “Have I ever told you I love how tall you are?”
Kai quirked his head, rolled his neck until it cracked, then massaged out a knot in one of his shoulders. “Once or twice,” he said, noticing that his accent came out yet again. He repeated himself, trying extra hard to make sure he annunciated clearly. “Or maybe a million times.” He smiled, but it was forced and fake and Renee would see through it in an instant. He was getting angry at himself, that huge, powerful, fiery rage that scared Kai and which he wished he could run away from. Breathe. Kai realized how difficult moving had been for him lately, how impossible walking might become sooner than he’d ever realized. He’d never fully recovered from the injuries after that major MLS attack back in September. What if he had another one tonight? What if tonight, at dinner, was the last time he ever walked? “You know I won’t be tall forever,” Kai finally said. Then he pushed himself into another couple stretches because he didn’t want to see Renee’s face. She loved him for his height, and when that was gone? Would that be what sent her away? Maybe not immediately, but ultimately, she’d find him unattractive, and why stay with someone with all his problems if his body disgusted her?
Renee’s hand on his arm helped break him from his thoughts. “Breathe. Talk to me.”
Kai obeyed and took a few gulping breaths before forcing himself to take slower, deeper inhalations. He leaned on her, not like she was supporting his weight but just because the more skin contact they had the more calm he seemed to be. If Jon were here he’d probably have some doctory, scientific reasoning why that was, but all Kai knew as that he loved Renee, a powerful, overwhelming feeling, and he hated that he couldn’t be a better man for her.
Renee smoothed her hand through his hair and kissed the top of his head. Then she urged him away just far enough they could see each other. Her eyes pleaded with him to talk to her.
Kai stared back. He wanted to tell her everything. Everything. He almost wished for the torrent of words he’d spewed earlier, although in hindsight his speech had probably been so bad she couldn’t have understood him. Why did his speech keep slipping? Was that a mental illness thing or a brain thing? Kai wondered if he should call Dr. Vadlamudi. Dammit. He was getting distracted again. What were he and Renee talking about? Kai’s stomach contracted. He hated admitting when he’d lost track of a conversation, and if it had been anyone else he would have done something to hide his memory lapse. But Renee deserved as much honesty as he could give her, even if it was only tiny parcels at a time. “I forget what our conversation was about.”
Renee seemed to relax. “Why are you so afraid of having a panic attack?” Renee thankfully used Kai’s abbreviation sign, “PA,” because he found it less triggering than the actual way he would have signed it under other circumstances.
Kai’s nose began to twitch. He wrinkled it to try to stop it but it wasn’t any use. Kai had realized that it had become a new tic. Either he was that fucking stressed or one of his meds was fucking with him. Kai rubbed his nose frantically to try to stop it and felt suddenly like sobbing, which grew into rage, and Kai had to take a deep breath and dig his fingers into one arm, setting off a spike of icy pain from the healing cuts. But it helped him regain a segment of control. His nose still twitched, but Kai felt less self-conscious about it.
Renee smoothed his back, bringing his attention back to her. “Frankie followed you around everywhere when you were living at County House, right?”
Kai’s eyebrows knit in confusion and he took a difficult breath. Nodded.
“So he must have seen you struggle to breathe? Have an FS attack?”
Kai shrugged, not sure why Renee was going on this tangent.
“Would you be upset if you had an FS attack at dinner tonight?”
Kai shook his head instinctively. “Frankie used to sneak and sleep in David’s empty bed all the time, even though he knew I hated it and it wasn’t technically allowed.” Although Kai lied. As much as he loved being on his own, he also hated being alone, and some nights when he couldn’t sleep it was nice to know the room wasn’t so empty. “Frankie had to have heard me wheezing at four in the morning most days than not.” Kai frowned. Remembering those nights, propping himself up against the wall to help open his chest when everything was spinning and even with the nebulizer the air felt like it had been sucked out of the room, the constant aches in his back and neck and side from straining to breathe night after night, then collapsing, exhausted, once the medicine finally kicked in and his airways opened up as far as they would. Kai’d sleep hard for one or two hours until he was shaken awake and literally dragged out of bed by an orderly. Depending on how exhausted he was, sometimes he’d fight back, other times he’d submit, defeated, gritting his teeth against the torrent of bad memories that tried to slip out from under the door of the fortress Kai had built in the back of his mind to contain them all. The one that had been destroyed somehow by Becca’s reemergence into his life.
Renee kissed his hand, smiled at him patiently. She really was a saint to put up with how often he’d disappear on her. “Would you be mad if you had an MLS attack tonight?”
Likely, Kai realized, if he wasn’t careful. But he’d gotten over being embarrassed by his MLS, for the most part, in high school. Something about walking like he was drunk, having his legs spasm visibly in class and make a clattering sound every time his brace hit the metal of the desk frame no matter how he tried to adjust his legs had sort of inoculated him to humiliation. Although that was probably a lie he told himself, too. “No.”
“Then why are you so afraid of having a panic attack?”
“I don’t know,” Kai signed stiffly, angry with himself. No, furious. Maybe Kai would have time to swing by David’s and spend 30 minutes with his heavy bag punching the fuck out of it. He had to do something to get rid of some of this rage before he went to dinner or he’d take it out on Frankie or his parents, and that was not how he wanted tonight to go.
Renee was clearly reading Kai’s building fury and a hint of fear filled her eyes, but this time she held her ground, right beside him. “Do you think Frankie will think less of you if you have a panic attack tonight?”
Kai’s chest felt tight, and breathing was difficult. “I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t even know why I care what Frankie thinks. He’s just a kid.” A kid who got adopted when Kai didn’t, his mind was quick to remind him.
Renee cradled his cheek and looked into his eyes to show him what her awkward signing couldn’t convey. She loved him and she believed in him. “Whatever happens tonight, it’ll be OK. Take extra medicine and think positive.”
Kai cracked a faint smile. Dr. Miller was always telling him to combat his negative thinking by turning it around. Instead of automatically assuming the worst, he should consider good eventualities. Kai closed his eyes and focused. “I’ve survived far worse than dinner. I’ll prepare. Maybe it will go smoothly.”
Renee planted a kiss on the tip of his nose, which had calmed and wasn’t twitching. “You’ll be witty and funny and charming and his parents will fall in love with you. And you can always sneak away and text or call me if you need to.”
That made the knot in Kai’s stomach unravel and suddenly he could breathe again. He let out a whoosh of air and smiled genuinely. “Thank you,” Kai said, letting his face convey what he didn’t have the courage to tell her quite yet, I love you too.
Jon knocked on Kai’s door even though it was open, and poked his head in. Renee was sitting beside Kai, sorting through some of his clothes, clearly in an effort to convince him to get rid of the rattiest items. It was a battle she’d never win; Jon had tried more than once and failed epically to get Kai to stop wearing clothes that didn’t fit him or that had holes. Too many years at County House wearing whatever he could, Jon suspected, combined with Kai’s willfulness.
Jon knocked again and Renee turned, tapping Kai’s knee to get his attention. It was the kind of touch Kai would have normally hated, but he didn’t even flinch with Renee, and that made Jon inwardly relieved. Renee was so wonderful for his brother that without her Jon was convinced Kai’s recovery wouldn’t be going nearly as well.
Once Kai was looking at him--courtesy even if his brother was likely wearing his hearing aids, Jon signed, “We’re out of tape and I forgot to buy some when I got the boxes. Need anything else? I’ll be right back.”
Renee and Kai exchanged some looks with one another that reminded Jon a little of how well Kai could communicate with David without words or signs. Finally, Renee nodded, and Kai said, in English, “That’s OK. Renee was just leaving anyway. She has a project to finish, so I’ll do it.”
It was a relief that Kai was apparently feeling much better than he had been this morning. Maybe Renee’s influence. Even so, Jon was hesitant to let Kai drive. He wanted to ask if Kai was sure he would be fine behind the wheel, but he didn’t want to embarrass his brother. Jon felt like they’d grown a little closer over the weekend, and he didn’t want to do anything to push Kai farther away. Especially not while he was at such a tenuous point in his recovery. So he settled for a long, worried, questioning look instead.
Kai sighed. His eyes widened, almost panicked, and darted momentarily toward Renee. “I’ll be fine. I need to get out of the house anyway.”
Reluctantly, Jon nodded. “OK. Get the expensive kind. The cheap stuff sticks to itself and you end up wasting the whole roll.”
Kai laughed and nodded, gave Renee a quick glare intended to get her to stop sorting all his clothes into the trash pile. Kai grabbed his wheelchair and transferred, although Jon noticed it wasn’t nearly as smooth a movement as it would otherwise be. Probably the Valium. Then the two of them squeezed around Jon toward the front door.
“Hey,” Jon called since Kai’s back was to him as he put on his outwear. “I may take some of the finished boxes to Vicky’s. Any of yours I can take?”
Kai smiled evilly as he wrapped his scarf around his neck. “Trying to show off your manliness to your girlfriend?” He winked. “Sure. The finished boxes are in my closet on the left.”
Jon had loaded a few of his own boxes, plus most of Kai’s, into the back of his car, and was returning for the last finished one in Kai’s closet. It was different than the rest, older, and when Jon picked it up, the bottom gave out and the contents spilled onto the floor.
“Shit,” Jon said, flipping the now empty box and realizing it was just that the adhesive had dried. He could reuse the box if he retaped it. Fortunately, Kai still had a roll, so Jon figured he could tape up the former top of the box, repack it, and then seal it again on the former bottom. Examining the myriad contents on the floor, Jon at first thought this was some kind of miscellaneous box to catch the odds and ends Kai hadn’t figured belonged with his other items, and he’d just used an old box he’d had in the back of his closet. But then Jon flipped the box and saw in Kai’s handwriting one word: BEFORE. Another glance at the pile on the floor and it hit Jon. This was Kai’s transplant box. The box that Kai had packed with everything that reminded him of the two years before his transplant and the recovery afterward. Kai would be furious to know that Jon had gone through it, even if it was unintentional.
Jon got down on his knees and hurriedly threw everything back into the box--CDs, books, a couple hospital gowns, some get well cards and a photo of Becca that made Jon viscerally angry. Why hadn’t Kai thrown all this stuff away? Jon had everything repacked and was about to close the box when he noticed a VHS tape that had skittered away back into the closet, almost like a cockroach hiding from being squished. He snagged it and checked the label quickly, surprised at what he saw. The tape of Ann’s session with Dr. Looney. The one he and Kai had fought over a couple weeks ago. So that’s where Kai had stashed it.
Jon tapped it against his palm, trying to decide what to do. If the tape had nothing to do with Kai, if it was some routine session where Looney was checking to see how Ann was adapting to a new dosage of medication or something, it wouldn’t matter much if Kai eventually watched it. But what if she said something about the suicide attempt that nearly killed Kai before he was even born? Or something worse? Even though Kai needed another hospitalization, he was still marginally better. He had a real relationship with Renee, he’d switched into an education class and had even started talking about his future. Genuine hopes and plans in a way Kai had never talked before. Depending on what was on this tape, it could potentially set Kai back permanently.
Jon had no choice: he had to watch the tape, at least a few minutes of it, and if it was innocuous, all things considered, he’d pack it back up. But if it wasn’t . . . well, he’d deal with that when the time came.
Jon sat on the edge of the couch cushion as he fast-forwarded the tape. He figured the beginning would be pretty banal, so if there was anything damning to be found, it’d be a few minutes in. Before he pressed play, Jon paused the tape and studied his mother. It was shocking how much Kai looked like her. He had their father’s build, but her face, eyes, hair, and mannerisms. She was dressed in the white scrubs psych patients at JMH wore, her long hair cascading over her shoulders.
Jon took a breath. He didn’t have long to waste. So he hit play.
“Sara isn’t Bryan’s child,” Anne said, and with the position of the camera, it made her seem like she was avoiding eye contact.
Jon paused the video again. Forced himself to inhale when he realized he wasn’t breathing. Jon had always thought it odd that Sara looked so different from the rest of the Taylors. They were all fair with blond hair and blue or gray eyes, but Sara’s skin tone had been almost tanned and she’d had dark brown hair. Part of Jon stared at the frozen image in disbelief, but it made sense. Ann was known to disappear for weeks at time when she was manic, and although Jon had been largely too young to witness the worst of her irresponsible behavior, he’d read about it in her files, and he’d studied up on bipolar disorder over the past few months since he still wasn’t 100% convinced that Kai wasn’t one explosive manic episode shy of the diagnosis.
Jon unpaused the video, and Dr. Looney’s voice asked, “You know this for certain?”
Ann shook her head. Fiddled with her ID bracelet. “No. But about nine months before she was born I had a major manic episode. I took off, went God knows where, did . . . I don’t know what I did, except I got arrested for walking naked through the lobby of the Indian casino on the Nebraska/Iowa border and ended up in the hospital for half my pregnancy. By the time she was born and I saw she looked nothing like my sons or my husband, it didn’t take much to put the pieces together.” Ann shoved her hair off her face. Fiddled with it. Tried to tie it into some kind of bun, but it was the same texture as Kai’s, silky and smooth and it didn’t hold for long before tumbling back down around her shoulders, which sank as if in defeat. “It was good for me, though. They figured out a way to keep me on the Lithium during the entire pregnancy. It was nothing like when I was pregnant with Kai.”
“Does your husband know?”
Ann didn’t immediately reply. She was sitting with one leg pulled up against her chest, and she hugged it, picking at the stitches in the hem of her pant leg. Her nose twitched. Her hair fell over her face and she didn’t bother to move it. “He has to know. Jon gets his smarts from Bryan. But he hasn’t said anything. It hasn’t come out in a fight yet. But even if it did . . .” Ann pushed her hair away, revealing a face that was so sad it would have shocked Jon if it weren’t for the fact that he’d seen it before, on Kai. “Bryan would never leave me. Even though he’d probably get custody since I’m such a horrible mother--”
“Ann--” Dr. Looney tried to interject, but she talked right over him.
“--CPS might take them anyway because he’s working three jobs. He’s never home. He’d never risk losing them. The children mean everything to him. All of them,” Ann said, her tone and posture suggesting she was jealous. What, because she thought Bryan loved his children more than her? “Even Sara. And especially Kai.” Ann scowled. “Kai ruined our lives. You’d think Bryan would hate him. Especially since it’s my fault Kai’s so fucked up.” Ann made a strange sound that was half sob half scream, like she couldn’t decide to be sad or angry and was caught somewhere in between. “It would have been better for all of us if he’d just died. If we both had.”
Looney’s voice remained calm. “Is that how you really feel?”
Ann leaned against the chair as if it were the only thing keeping her from sliding onto the floor. She looked totally defeated. She blinked lazily. “Give me more meds. I don’t care. If I hadn’t--If . . .” Ann shoved her hair out of her eyes and gripped it tight by the strands, almost as if she wanted to tear it all out.
“Ann,” Dr. Looney said in a warning tone.
Ann stared at him defiantly for a second before releasing her hair and resuming her defeated posture. “If I hadn’t tried to kill us both he’d be normal. I’m so fucking sick of doctors and nurses and physical therapists and teachers and everyone trying to remind us how lucky Kai is. How lucky we are. How well he’s doing. It’s a fucking crock of shit. He still can’t walk for shit. He can’t talk, and they don’t think he ever will. And he wakes up every fucking night because he can’t breathe, because his lungs fill up with gunk, and I hear him through the wall. I hear Jon helping him. Sometimes Bryan. The whirr of the breathing machine that gives him medicine. The pounding to get the gunk loose. How Jon or Bryan will sing to him to soothe him. And I know I should go to him. It should be me helping him. That’s what mothers are supposed to do, right? But I lie there, frozen. Sometimes I even fucking pretend to be asleep. What kind of chickenshit crap is that?”
“Why?” Dr. Looney asked. “Why don’t you help him?”
Ann pulled her other leg up and hugged her knees. She hid her face in them but didn’t answer.
“This is important, Ann.”
Ann tilted her head so her cheek was on her knee and she was facing the camera, and presumably, Looney. “I’m always yelling at him. I’m so angry all the time. He’s there. And he’s easy.”
“To take out your frustrations on.”
Ann nodded. “He’s such a good, sweet kid. He tries so hard. At everything. He looks at me with these huge blue eyes that are just like mine and he’s asking for me to love him back and I just . . .” Ann shivered. “Can’t.” She blinked rapidly. Jon couldn’t tell because of the distance and the poor film quality but he suspected she was crying, especially because it came out in her voice. “I told you I’m a horrible mother. What mom doesn’t love her son? Is . . . disgusted by him?” Hearing his own mother talk about Kai like that made Jon nauseous, but he didn’t stop the tape. It was like the proverbial train wreck. He couldn’t look away.
“Do you love your other children?” Dr. Looney asked after a pause.
Ann took in a huge breath. She shifted so that her legs were tucked under her. She spent a good solid minute threading her fingers through the tips of her long hair over and over before she finally said, “Jonny is so smart, Dr. Looney. Even with all the stuff he does to help me with Kai and the house, he’s still skipped two grades. He’s taking classes at the university. He may graduate this year.”
Ann smiled for the first time in this portion of the video. Jon recognized that smile as the fondness only a parent could have for their child. “Sara’s my baby.”
“Do you think it’s possible that you see each of your children as representing a part of your life? Jon is your life before your mental illness presented itself, when you and Bryan were happy. He’s the part of yourself you can still be proud of.”
Ann frowned but said nothing and otherwise kept herself very still.
“Sara came about when your illness had been stabilized. You said it yourself. She is a sort of ‘do-over’ from your previous disastrous pregnancy. She’s the hope that you can be well, that you can live your life and be bipolar, that you don’t need to run from your illness.”
Ann was trembling now. It was difficult to see on the film, but Jon had keen eyes. Once again, her posture reminded him of Kai, how she was hugging herself as if bracing for the worst.
“And Kai is a symbol of what you see as your ultimate failure, when your disease was ruling your life. And his illness and disability is a constant reminder. Perhaps it’s your failures that you see in him, and not Kai himself, that makes you so disgusted by him. That keeps you from loving him.”
“Fuck you,” Ann said, but it had no vehemence in it.
Looney seemed unaffected. “Problems at home are a recipe for mood disturbances, Ann. You’re clearly unhappy, even when you’re not in a low. Is it fair of you to take that out on your children? On Kai? It would be good for your overall wellbeing, not to mention his and the rest of your family, if you could stop seeing him as a symbol of how bad you can get and instead appreciate him for who he is. A good, sweet kid.”
“He just . . . he stresses me out. I know it’s not his fault. Fuck.” Ann messed with her hair again, as if she’d find some escape in it, but she finally gave up and continued. “He tries so hard to make me like him, love him, and I want to, but I just . . . can’t. Bryan hates me for it.”
“You can’t care about your son because of what he represents? Or because of his disabilities?”
“Both?” Ann replied almost before Looney had finished. She seemed to be incredibly uncomfortable, shifting around now and glancing away as if she were deciding if she could make a break for it and physically escape this session. “I don’t know what to do with him. He’s more independent than he’s ever been, but.” Ann blew air hard threw her nose. “I can’t talk to him. I never could pick up signing the way the rest of the family has, and I don’t think he understands what I’m saying most of the time. How can you love someone you can’t communicate with?”
“There are plenty of ways for a mother to bond with her child that don’t involve language.”
Ann looked guilty. “You mean like helping him at night when he can’t breathe.”
“That’s one example.”
Ann leaned against the chair again. “And this is when you tell me it’s not my fault, that we missed the crucial ‘mother/child bonding’ that normally occurs when a baby is born because he was so sick and I was locked up in the nuthouse for months? Fuck you. Everything is my fault. Bryan knows it. Jonny knows it. And if Kai doesn’t yet, he will. Unless he really is as retarded as the doctors say, in which case ignorance is bliss.” Everything from the tone she used to her posture, closed off and stiff, said she was done with this session one way or another.
“Do you think it’s possible you resent Kai seeking out your affection when you feel you aren’t deserving of giving it?”
Ann glared hard at the camera, at Looney, at Jon. A piercing stare that gave him goosebumps. Jon stopped the tape.
“Holy shit,” he said aloud to himself, rubbing his cheek, a bit shellshocked. Of all the tapes for Kai to end up with, this was the worst possible one. So many things Jon had suspected, none of this in the files he’d read or seen before, confirmed. It would be worth Kai never speaking to Jon again if it meant that he never found out how much Ann resented him, how she didn’t love him, how she didn’t think she could.