February 11, 2001 - Part III
Jon was still frozen where he was, perched on the couch arm, staring at the blank screen of the TV when the front door opened. Jon knew he had to move, had to get the tape out of the VCR and destroy it at his first opportunity. Hopefully Kai would have forgotten about it, and this way Jon would ensure that his little brother was protected.
“The guy at the storage place gave me the strangest look when I told him I needed packing tape because I was moving. He kept trying to suggest moving companies as a roundabout way of asking if I needed help. He was so flustered, like he’d never seen a guy in a wheelchair bef--are you OK?”
Jon blinked. Reflexively his eye gaze went to the TV, and he let out a sigh of relief that it was off, because Kai would have immediately recognized their mother, and the tape, if it was still visible on the screen. “Fine,” Jon said, forcing a smile. “That was quick.”
Kai’s eyes narrowed. His nose twitched a few times. He glanced at Jon, then at the TV. “Was I interrupting something?”
Jon’s heart began to pound. He glanced over at the TV again and inwardly cursed himself. Kai wouldn’t miss any tiny bit of body language. Should he rush to the VCR and grab the tape, bee-line to his room like a thirteen-year-old caught watching porn by his parents? Or would that make Kai more curious?
Kai let out a booming laugh. “You are human after all! Thank God. When I couldn’t find your porn I was beginning to think Vicky’s pregnancy was a fluke.”
It took a second for Jon to fully digest what Kai was saying. First, that Kai had looked for Jon’s porn stash, and second, that he was somehow asexual or not masculine enough to knock Vicky up. He wasn’t sure what pissed him off more. “You went through my things?”
“My stuff wasn’t cutting it.” Any hint of the better mood Kai seemed to be in when he first returned home disappeared like a magician pulling the linens off a table, revealing Kai’s real emotions underneath. Shame, anger, and more Jon couldn’t quite decipher. “I was desperate.”
Jon didn’t have to pretend to show how pissed he was knowing that Kai had rifled through his stuff, especially since it meant he couldn’t be confident that Kai wouldn’t find the video if Jon had to hide it before he had a chance to destroy it. Would Jon risk putting it in the safe? Regardless, Jon had to get Kai out of the room ASAP so he’d have time to grab the tape before Kai’s apparent insatiable curiosity got the better of him. “I don’t keep porn because I masturbate in the shower. And now I have Vicky, so . . .”
“Eww. TMI, dude, Jesus.” Kai put his hands up as if in surrender. “If I can borrow some clothes for tonight, I’ll go into your room and leave you alone with . . .” Kai’s eye gaze went to the TV before darting back to Jon. “I’ll turn my hearing aids off. Just please never talk about your sex life with me ever again.”
Jon let out a tiny relieved breath. Kai had taken the bait. Jon would describe his jack off routine, would tell Kai it was a sex tape of him and Vicky if that’s what it took to keep Kai away from that video. To ensure Kai never learned the truth about how Ann felt about her younger son, never have to see the disgust in her face when she talked about him. “OK. Fifteen minutes and then I’ll take you to Frankie’s.”
Kai’s face shuttered. His signing was angry, stiff and jerky. “You just trusted me to go to the store by myself, but I can’t go to Frankie’s? I’m going to be locked up in two days and you’re already treating me like a criminal.”
“We were lucky Nikki happened to run into you the other day and bring you home safe. I don’t want you getting lost or hurt.”
Kai gripped his tires hard, leaned back and rocked on his back wheels for a minute. It seemed as if he was trying to contain his fury. When he finally dropped back on his casters with a loud click, his signing was calmer. “I can do this. Please. It would be embarrassing if I was dropped off by my big brother, as if I were a kid. I’m trying to make a good impression.”
“At least let me follow you, then--” Jon’s pager, resting on the table, began to buzz. Part of the deal Jon had struck for having Friday night and Saturday off was being on call Sunday night. “This argument isn’t over,” Jon informed Kai and snagged the pager to check the number--the pulmonary ICU, with the code indicating it was an emergency.
Kai was still clearly hurt and angry, his arms pumping in sharp, tight movements as he pushed around the couch toward Jon’s room to grab some clothes.
Kai sat in his wheelchair, staring into Jon’s closet. His brother didn’t seem to have any pants that would fit over Kai’s braces, and Kai was seriously debating just going to dinner in his chair. But Frankie had only ever seen Kai standing, and Kai knew that his height alone lent him a certain gravitas. He wasn’t sure why he felt he had to impress Frankie and his parents so badly. Dr. Miller would. She’d probably say it had something to do with the fact that Kai hadn’t been adopted but Frankie had, and Kai was compensating for that, trying to prove he had worth when he didn’t feel he did.
Kai had turned his hearing aids off because he really didn’t want to hear his brother and father figure jacking off, and he’d shut the bedroom door since he knew it couldn’t catch thanks to David’s handiwork in removing the latch bolt mechanism from all the interior doors. So when Kai caught a glimpse of the door opening in Jon’s dresser mirror his stomach contracted and sweat broke out on his neck. He could feel the pull of the past, the brightly lit room fading into darkness, a figure silhouetted in the light of the hall. Pure fear and helplessness gripping him.
Panicking, Kai tried to ground himself, but the clothes in his lap transformed into bed sheets, and his struggle to breathe felt like a strong hand wrapped around his throat. Kai bit down hard on the forearm in his flashback. A sudden, sharp, intense pain spiked out from above his wrist and shot down toward his hand and up toward his elbow, so fierce it made him dizzy and yanked him back to reality. Kai stared down at his arm and saw blood seeping through the sleeve of his shirt; he’d reopened the wounds he’d made there days ago, and the pain was intense enough to be distracting and nauseating.
Someone touched Kai’s shoulder and he jumped; his heart rate had never slowed.
Kai glanced up. He’d known it was Jon all along and yet his stupid, insane brain had transformed him into a monster. Kai did his best to hide his bleeding arm. “You scared me.”
Jon indicated Kai turn on his hearing aids with a gesture.
Kai used his uninjured arm to turn them both on. The last thing he needed right now was a lecture from Jon about how that was proof Kai wasn’t capable of being safe out there on his own.
“I have an emergency at the hospital. One of my pediatric patients. I have to go. Now.” Jon grabbed some clothes out of his closet and started changing. “They’re thinking ARDS.”
Jon’s words filled Kai with dread. He didn’t fully understand what ARDS--acute respiratory distress syndrome--was, but he knew it was bad. He knew it meant that the cells in the lung had essentially stopped working, or something like that. It meant even with an intubation and a machine breathing for you, you had a good chance of dying. Something like 50% risk, higher if you were dealing with it because of pneumonia, and even if you lived, more chances than not it seriously fucked up your lungs forever.
Kai knew of at least one time in his life he’d had ARDS. The bad pneumonia that had ultimately scarred his lungs badly enough he’d needed to go on the transplant list. Every time Kai was intubated, he risked going through all of that again, and it made a shiver go down his spine. “Is it Harriet’s kid?”
Jon hesitated. Maybe it was just because he was fixing his belt, but Kai suspected he was weighing whether or not to break patient privacy. Finally, he nodded. “From the sound of it, there’s a good chance he could die tonight. Harriet may not have custody, but she deserves to know what’s happening with her son. Text David for me? Have someone take her to the hospital and sit with her in the waiting room? Hold her hand if I . . . if I have to give her bad news?”
Kai swore in sign language, something along the equivalent of, “Motherfucker.” He inhaled a deep breath and inwardly said a sort of prayer of thanks for Allan Ohlsen’s sacrifice. “Open the safe before you go so I can have some extra meds? I’ll be safe tonight. I’ll text you so you know where I am, OK?”
Jon sighed, exasperated, as if he didn’t have time for that. But he sank down to a crouch by the safe. Before he unlocked it, he leveled Kai a long look. “I’m trusting you to only take what you need and to close the safe after,” Jon said and then he quickly rushed through the combination, shielding the combo with one hand so Kai couldn’t see it.
“Don’t worry about me,” Kai assured Jon. “Just get to the hospital and do your job. If anyone can save that kid, it’s you.”
Kai stood on the Hoffmann's porch, the cold seeping into his jeans and making him shiver. But the cold kept him focused. He wasn’t here to impress anyone, just to make Frankie happy. That was it. No expectations. All Kai had to do was be himself. Whoever that was.
After a long moment, the door finally opened. Frankie stood in the entryway, totally spiffed up for the occasion. He was wearing a crisp button-down shirt and pressed khakis and he’d managed to tame his wild dark hair--normally a chaotic mess of cowlicks and waves--into something straight out of a 1950s sitcom. Even his crutches looked as if he’d applied a fresh lacquer to the metal. Kai glanced down at his worn, scuffed leather shoes that he always wore with his braces, and his “good” pair of jeans that only had tiny holes in the sides of the knee from where the hinges of the knee joints of his orthotics rubbed. At least he’d listened to Renee and put on one of Jon’s work shirts and a sweater, and he’d parted and brushed his long hair into something halfway presentable. Regardless, the pit of anxiety began to swirl in his stomach as self-consciousness kicked in. Kai took a strangled breath and used every ounce of his willpower to put on a mask of confidence he hoped would eventually trick his brain into thinking he actually felt as sure of himself as he feigned. Didn’t Kurt Vonnegut say, “you are who you pretend to be”?
Frankie smiled hugely. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
As he stepped inside, Kai gave Frankie a look that both said, “Are you stupid?” and “I said I would come, wouldn’t I?” Then blew air out of his nose to emphasize his point. Dammit, every part of him seemed to be hurting, the effect of the heat burning the cold away slowly from his skin highlighting the aches in his joints, overused muscles, and every single healing cut from Friday.
Kai ignored the pain and carefully checked his balance before slipping out of his crutches so he could remove his coat and gloves. He’d brought his backpack, since Renee had told him it was polite to bring a bottle of wine, and he wanted to have all his medicines with him, not just a couple jammed in his pocket. Fortunately, there was a coat tree by the door, so Kai first shrugged off his bag, hanging it while he stripped off his outer wear. He was just finishing when a man in his mid-thirties, not much older than Jon, stepped out. He was average height and build, clearly someone who made his living behind a desk from his slightly pudgy, if not quite obese figure, though he had a friendly face and warm eyes. While that may have made him more likely to be trusted by the typical person, it only made Kai more wary. What was he hiding behind that inviting countenance?
Amusingly, the man was dressed almost identically to Frankie, his shirt just a slightly different shade of red bordering on pink, making Frankie look like the older man’s disabled ventriloquist’s dummy. He stepped forward, offering his hand. “Frank Hoffmann. You must be Kai. It’s good to finally meet you.”
Kai quirked an eyebrow, but accepted the man’s hand without a word.
Mr. Hoffmann glanced over at Frankie and laughed in a way that seemed staged, like a bad sitcom. “What a coinky-dink, right? Makes it feel even more like Frankie here’s my biological son.” Mr. Hoffmann hugged Frankie’s neck affectionately. “You can call me Big Frank if it’ll help.”
Kai struggled to keep his facial expressions neutral. One penalty of his months of therapy with Dr. Miller and learning to express his true emotions meant he had a harder time putting up his blank mask as he once did, especially in highly charged situations like this. He pursed his lips, forming them into a polite smile, and nodded. He held up a finger, then opened his bag and fished out the bottle of wine, presenting it to Big Frank and praying it was acceptable. He knew nothing about wine, and had trusted Renee to help him pick out something decent without breaking his wallet.
But Big Frank smiled. “You didn’t need to bring anything, but thank you. Son, why don’t you show Kai into the living room once he’s ready?” Big Frank winked. Actually winked, which made Kai’s skin crawl.
“Actually, can I show him my room first?”
“All right, but don’t keep him in there too long! I’ll go ahead and open this baby up and meet you in the living room in a few minutes,” Big Frank flashed the kind of smile Kai had only ever seen before in horror movies and dental ads, patting Frankie on the head and disappearing with the wine toward an open doorway to their right.
Frankie’s room was not what Kai had expected. At County House, Frankie was known for his piles--piles of books, of clothes, of stuff he’d find and collect. They drove Kai insane. Not only because of Kai’s pathological need to fight his own messy tendencies through obsessive cleaning, but also because he didn’t like tripping on stuff. How Kai had survived all those years as roommate to David “Disaster Area” O’Donnell, he still didn’t understand.
Frankie’s room in the Schneider house was like something out of a furniture catalog. It was unnerving. The room was a decent size, larger than Kai’s in the apartment, with matching bed, desk, bookcase, and dresser all in a dark wood. The bed was perfectly made with navy covers and coordinating pillows arranged as if someone had spent an hour making sure each one was perfectly placed and aligned. The walls were bare of any posters or anything suggesting an actual teenage boy lived here. Instead, carefully framed quotes covered the walls, some of them cross-stitched, detailing bible verses or other religious texts Kai was too much of a heathen to identify. The bookshelves were filled with books aligned by size and height as if more for aesthetics than practicality, along with an encyclopedia set that seemed chosen because they matched the blue of the bedspread.
The desk was totally stripped of any indication it was actually used--books or papers or pencils--except for a computer Kai would have been more impressed by if he knew anything about them. The only sign that the room even belonged to Frankie at all were a couple model airplanes carefully displayed on the top of the desk hutch. These models weren’t kid stuff but actual scaled down designs of real jets and historical war planes that Frankie had meticulously assembled and painted from a thousand tiny parts. He’d gotten one when they were at County House--a gift from Art after he’d discovered Frankie’s interest--and Frankie had spent all year working on the thing, careful to keep it away from anyone who might destroy it or steal it.
Frankie stood in the middle of the room, leaning heavily on his crutches, tense, as if waiting for Kai’s approval. Honestly, Kai wasn’t sure what to make of the room. Either Frankie had been so hell bent on impressing Kai he’d manically cleaned the place, or, Kai feared, more realistically, Frankie’s parents were strict to the point of abusive. Frankie was a project, a living doll for them to keep and display so others could be so impressed by their selflessness. Kai squeezed his eyes tight and forced himself to take a few deep breaths. He was . . . what did Dr. Miller call it? Displacement or something like that? Seeing his own history in those of others? Whatever it was, this room deeply unsettled Kai.
“Kai?” Frankie asked nervously.
Say something, Kai told himself, his instinct to remain silent powerful. But what did he say? What could he? Hearing people like platitudes, Kai reminded himself. Lie. Make Frankie happy. “Impressive,” Kai managed and hoped he didn’t sound sarcastic.
Frankie frowned, but it was fleeting before his expression turned into a smile. “It’s all mine. I don’t have to share with anyone. They even got me a Pentium!”
Kai didn’t know what a Pentium was, but he nodded encouragingly, forcing a smile. “I’m happy for you.”
Frankie’s frown returned. “You’re lying.”
“What? No I’m not.”
“I know you well enough to tell when you’re pretending. You did it all the time at County House. You didn’t even need to talk to lie.”
Kai was shocked by Frankie’s perceptiveness. It was true that Kai was one of the most dishonest people in the world simply because he didn’t feel comfortable revealing his true self. Dr. Miller had tried to go there but failed so far. Kai had too many skeletons in his closet. Lying was easier. But he was happy for Frankie, even if jealousy nibbled at his brain. He remembered how a tiny truth could sometimes reassure people. He used it on Renee all the time. Jesus Christ he was a horrible boyfriend, wasn’t he? “I walked a lot yesterday. I’m hurting. It’s distracting me. That’s all. This house, this room, this life . . . you’re incredibly lucky, Frankie. I’m really glad you found a family.” Kai did his best to seem sincere, to smile his charming fake smile and hope that Frankie bought it.
“You don’t want to be here,” Frankie said after studying Kai for a long moment.
Kai sighed. Would it be rude of him to sit on Frankie’s bed? Anything to get off his feet for a few minutes, give his arms and shoulders a rest. “If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be here. No one makes me do anything.” That was true, at least in part. Kai didn’t want to be here, but he also didn’t want to let Frankie down, which he was apparently doing anyway because he ruined everything.
“You like Martin more than me, but you don’t want me to know that, so you came.”
Kai was way too medicated for this conversation. Or maybe not medicated enough. Kai shifted his weight. Grimaced as his healing wounds on his arms pulled. Sighed. “I’m here because you wanted me to be here,” Kai said, being honest, to a point. He took in a breath to steel his expression because the last thing Frankie needed to see was Kai cringe. “You and I have a bond that Martin and I will never have just as he and I have something in common that you and I don’t. That’s all. I’m genuinely impressed by your room. Now can we please go sit down?”
Frankie seemed to relax--Thank God--and he smiled shyly. “You’re proud of me?”
Kai had forgotten how needy Frankie could be, or maybe he’d changed? Whatever the case was, Kai was willing to tell him whatever he wanted to hear if that would mean this night would be over sooner rather than later. “Of course I am. This is the kind of life that every kid at County House dreams of, that I never had. You deserve it,” Kai said, praying that Frankie would buy it. There was enough truth in Kai’s words that he hoped the kid would. He also prayed that his own resentment, his own feelings--that he didn’t deserve what Frankie had, and that’s one reason he never had it--didn’t show through.
Frankie beamed. And then he said something weird, something very Frankie. “Your all-grown-up voice sounds really nice. You should use it more.” And with that, he strode off to lead Kai toward the living room.
The Hoffmann’s house reminded Kai of Vicky’s--a modest ranch with hardwood or tile flooring that was decorated to the “T” and was undoubtedly a home. Two sofas with a couple of matching wing chairs sat in the center of the room, the fabrics a pastel plaid that Kai was shocked actually existed. Decorative pillows covered them--screaming that they were for aesthetics rather than comfort--and Kai discovered this to be true when he sunk into one of them. As cozy as it looked, the sofa was hard and forced him to sit up straight. Perhaps their purpose, but Kai was tired and he hurt everywhere and the sofa pissed him off. Regardless, he steeled his expression and slid off his crutches, placing them behind him. Frankie soon followed, mimicking Kai almost as if it was intentional, although Kai tried to shake it off. He was being overly critical.
Big Frank was nowhere to be found, so Frankie and Kai sat in an uneasy silence as Kai surveyed the room. He noticed the absence of a coffee table, and that the furniture was spaced wide enough for someone moving about on crutches, but also had plenty of surfaces for Frankie to support himself if necessary without them. Curious, considering Frankie’s bedroom had a lot of open space. Frankie’s balance was shit, although he could move around without crutches if he had enough places to support himself. Of all the rooms in the house to be set up for him to go crutchless, the formal sitting room would have been last on Kai’s list. Maybe Kai was reading too much into this room’s layout, or maybe the pain was getting to him.
A fireplace roared in front of them, although even with his hearing aids he couldn’t quite hear it crackling. Above it hung a huge formal family portrait of Frankie with his adoptive parents. In fact, the walls and every surface available were covered in a mixture of family photos and more of those religious quotes. School pictures, vacations, holidays. All moments that Frankie had shared with his new family. The kinds of memories that Kai didn’t have. No one had pictures of Kai prominently displayed in their living room. No one had taken him on vacation or called him “son” since he was six years old. As hard as Kai tried to squelch those powerful feelings of jealousy and abandonment and aloneness, some of it must have come out on his face because Frankie spoke up.
“You OK?” His expression was complex. Maybe he still hadn’t fully bought Kai’s bullshit back in the bedroom.
Kai inhaled deeply. He pointed to one of the more prominent photos, a shot of Frankie with his adoptive parents in front of Mt. Rushmore.
“Oh, that was so fun! Mom and Dad rented me a wheelchair and we took this special tour so I got to see everything without getting tired or being left behind. You should go. The faces are soooo big in person. It’s amazing.”
Kai couldn’t help smiling at Frankie’s enthusiasm. Maybe the Hoffmans really had accepted Frankie as one of their own. Maybe they didn’t have any ulterior motives. Maybe they had just wanted a son. Maybe they loved him. Kai had to grit his teeth to keep his smile in place as that sunk in. He closed his eyes and focused. Dr. Miller had asked him more than once to imagine what his “perfect” parents would be like. Some kind of therapeutic exercise that Kai didn’t understand the point of. His perfect mother would be a little like Vicky, Kai realized. She’d have long hair but never put it up, and she’d have a reassuring smile that would make Kai feel better just by looking at it. She would have taught him how to cook and they’d cook together, always vegetarian, and she’d have some trick to getting him to eat even when he didn’t feel like it. And her hug . . . it would feel like hitting the “pause” button when it felt like the world was ending. And she’d be a fluent signer.
Kai’s “perfect” father would be tall and strong like Jon told him their real father was. Although Kai pictured him more like himself: hard of hearing and maybe with MLS, too. Kai knew in his mind he saw him using crutches so he could relate to Kai, and because of that his perfect mother could understand Kai better, too. Unlike his real one, or worse, his aunt. Kai’s perfect father would do all kinds of father/son activities with Kai, the kinds of things Kai had never experienced but had read about, like fishing and camping and shooting and . . . other things that Kai wasn’t even aware of. Kai’s perfect father would be handy, like David, and teach Kai. And of course, he’d be a native signer.
Kai realized he was breathing slow and deep. Relaxed. Either all the Xanax he’d taken had finally hit full potency or imagining his “perfect” parents had actually soothed him instead of making him sadder. He finally opened his eyes and Frankie was staring at him as if he wasn’t sure what to make of Kai.
Before either of them could say anything, Big Frank appeared, pushing a three-tiered wheeled cart. “Sorry for the delay, folks. Had to get this baby out of storage. We got rid of the coffee table when we took Frankie in, so this does the job and can be pushed out of the way.”
Kai raised an eyebrow but otherwise said nothing. It was actually very clever and considerate, and even though it went against all of Kai’s instincts, he increasingly began to wonder if Frankie really had found the home that every orphan and abandoned disabled kid dreamed of.
“There’s some cheese and fruit and veggies with dip, and of course the wine,” Big Frank announced. He’d poured it into some kind of weird-shaped decanter and now served out two glasses, offering Kai one.
Kai knew that alcohol didn’t mix well with his meds, that drinking could lead to another blackout, or worse. But the weight of sadness and loneliness was heavy despite the calming effect imagining his perfect parents had given him. The wine might relax him, turn off that critic in his head, and let him just be here for Frankie. Besides, it’d be rude to refuse, right? Kai was about to take a sip when Big Frank spoke up.
“Let’s toast to family and friends, may God bless us all,” Big Frank said, raising his glass and then clinking it against Kai’s. “Cheers.” Big Frank took a sip and smiled. “Not bad,” he said, apparently approving of the wine.
Kai mimicked him, but he had to hide his initial reaction. It was bitter and tasted like a hospital. Like all the chemicals that always lingered in the air there mixed with the sour taste of sickness, and he was drinking it. How the hell did people actually enjoy this stuff? But Kai forced it down, smiled his best fake smile, and nodded approvingly at Big Frank.
“Hors d'oeuvres?” Big Frank asked, setting his glass on the cart and offering the tray to Kai.
Frankie took several pieces of cheese, ignoring the vegetables, and Kai took a couple carrots and a broccoli to be polite, munching on them quietly.
Big Frank popped a cheese cube in his mouth before taking a seat on the opposite couch.
The awkward silence was interrupted a moment later by a youthful, bubbly woman who entered from what Kai presumed was the kitchen. She was petite, though not as short as Renee, and portly, though Kai wouldn’t go so far as to call her fat. “The casserole’s taking a bit longer than expected. I’m sorry,” she said, a little flustered. But then she collected herself and offered her hand for Kai to shake. “I’m Maggie. It’s nice to finally meet you.” They shook awkwardly, and she took her seat next to her husband. The two of them smiled like aliens desperately trying to impersonate normal people.
Kai sipped his wine and hoped this evening would be over soon.
“So,” Big Frank finally said. “What do you do, Kai?”
An uncomfortable pause before Kai replied, “I’m a student.” For a moment, he’d struggled to find the English, seeing the signs in his mind, his fingers twitching, but not able to transpose them immediately. Which meant he was getting nervous. Kai gripped his wine glass a little tighter with his left hand and slipped his right under his thigh. Then he decided that probably came off as weird and uncomfortable, so he settled for laying it on his leg, his fingers curling over a strap of his brace.
“What’s your major?”
Kai shifted. “Undeclared. I’m taking psych and learning theory right now.”
Maggie just kept smiling, and Big Frank nodded. “If you ever think about going into law, call me. I’ll give you a tour of my office some time.”
Kai glanced at Frankie; he could feel his pulse in his throat. This felt like an inquisition, even though he knew that was crazy. “Uh, thank you. Sir.”
More awkwardness. Frankie had his head bowed, picking at a thread near his knee.
“You play sports?”
Confusion played upon Kai’s face.
“You seem like you’re in good shape.”
Kai felt his cheeks heat, but he pushed past it. He was skinny as fuck and in no way near the “good shape” he was in a few months ago, but he wasn’t about to argue the point. “I work out. Weights, sit ups. . . . I like to swim. It’s relaxing.” Kai looked toward Frankie. “Good for your shoulders. And your back.” Crutching was hard on both.
“I don’t really know how to swim.”
The expressions on the Hoffman’s faces immediately changed and Kai realized mentioning swimming was a mistake. “Maybe you could take Frankie with you sometime. He wants to get into MIT, you know,” Maggie said. “We keep telling him he needs more extracurricular activities.”
Kai did his best not to show on his face how much he loathed the entire prospect. “I’m mostly self taught. I’m not going to be able to teach him the strokes.”
“Being active will be good for him. And you obviously know how . . . you know,” Big Frank said, waving his arm in the air, finally indicating his legs.
It took all Kai’s willpower to grit his teeth and not roll his eyes. “Just get a pullbuoy. For your legs. It might be hard at first, but you’ll get better.” At this point Kai really wished he’d thought to have Renee call him at some point so he could make up an excuse to leave early. At least Frankie seemed to be nearly as uncomfortable as Kai was.
Fortunately, the oven timer sounded and Maggie sprang up. “Well, that’s dinner. Come on, everyone.”
Frankie got up immediately, but Kai lingered. “You coming?” he looked uncertain, chastened, guilty.
Kai offered him a smile. “I just need a minute.”
Frankie shook his head. “It’s been too long. I don’t remember. I don’t understand.”
Kai sighed. “Where’s your bathroom?”
Big Frank was pouring some more wine and getting ready to follow his wife, but he heard Kai’s question and answered for him. “There’s a powder right where you come in, but you can use Frankie’s if you need some more room.”
Kai stifled a frown, grabbing his own crutches and using them to help haul himself to his feet. For people who’d lived with Frankie for several years, they seemed a little . . . squeamish about disability. Perhaps it was just their strange way of being polite. Either way, it couldn’t be much longer till this was all over.
“The dining room’s right through there,” Frankie said, pointing with his crutch.
Kai nodded. “I’ll only be a sec.”
Kai’s depression was like a heavy weight on his shoulders he couldn’t shrug off. He’d opted for the powder to avoid navigating through Frankie’s museum piece of a room, and it was clearly not designed for a man of his size or disability. The pedestal sink made the darkness within him slink and crawl and claw at his mind, his heart picking up and yet he was sluggish as he did his best to ignore it, to bend enough he could splash water on his face. Apathy was gripping him so tightly his ability to care about Frankie’s feelings began to evaporate. With everyone in the dining room, it would be simple for Kai to slip out, get in his car. Drive and drive and drive until he found a snowbank big enough he could throw himself in it and hope he froze to death before anyone found him.
Kai’s stomach soured as he realized where his thoughts were going. Again. It felt like his stomach was strangling his lungs and he couldn’t breathe. Not at all like an FS attack. It wasn’t even panic. Just the realization that his brain was as thoroughly broken as the rest of him. It would never be fixed. He would struggle against it until he died from the ultimate complications of his transplant or by his own hand. It was inevitable. And suffocating.
Kai realized he was shaking, and he braced himself with one hand while he tried with his other to extract his phone and plug the adaptor cable into his hearing aid.
Renee picked up on the first ring. “You OK?”
“No,” Kai said, choking out the word and discovering his voice was trembling, too. Was he going to panic after all? He tried to regulate his breathing, but it seemed impossible. The room was spinning and Kai closed his eyes against it. “Eight,” Kai said, referencing the suicide scale Renee had devised and hoping she knew what he meant without further explanation. “At least. I think . . . I think I’m going to panic. Or pass out.” Kai collapsed down onto the toilet seat, using the wall and the sink to help him. The commode was so low and the room so cramped Kai wasn’t sure he could manage to get back to his feet again, but right now all he cared about was getting his head between his legs. Maybe it was just his blood pressure. Had he eaten anything today? He couldn’t remember.
“Kai? Kai? Talk to me. Do you need me to call an ambulance?”
What he needed to do was man the fuck up and get back out there, finish dinner and be done with this evening. Down the entire bottle of Xanax he had stolen from the safe and find a quiet place to go to sleep.
“Kai, you’re scaring me. Do you want me to come get you?”
Was that why he’d called her? He honestly wasn’t entirely sure except he was afraid of himself and Renee had this magic way of making him feel like everything was right in the world even as it was exploding and dissolving away beneath him.
“Kai? Please talk to me. Have you hurt yourself?”
Kai shook his head and then remembered she couldn’t see him. “No.” Not today, not yet, anyway. Kai sat up. Rolled his neck. “I need to get back,” Kai said with heavy reluctance.
“The only thing you need to do is take care of yourself.”
Kai nodded out of habit. He knew he should have stayed behind in Omaha. He shouldn’t be free. His demons were too powerful. But Kai owed Frankie. That kid had kept Kai alive after David left, even if Kai wouldn’t openly admit it. Kai may have been projecting, but he sensed a profound loneliness from Frankie. The desire to be accepted, whether it was by Kai, back at CH, desperately learning as much ASL as he could so that Kai would talk to him; or now, dressing like his adoptive father and trying to be the perfect son. Maybe Frankie went to bed each night wondering if his “parents” would change their minds after all. Maybe Frankie and Kai were more alike than he’d realized.
“Kai. I know you can’t help spacing out, but it’s scaring me. I think I should come get you.”
Kai let out a long breath. “I disappoint everyone I touch. I won’t do that to Frankie, too.” The crushing weight was still there, a vice on his heart, and Kai honestly wasn’t sure if he could move. Even all his pain was a fuzz in the murk of his depression.
“OK,” Renee said after a long pause. “Call me later. One hour. OK?”
“One hour,” Kai repeated, though he was almost certain he was going to forget.
Kai entered the dining room just as everyone was sitting down: Maggie and Big Frank on one side and Frankie and an empty chair on the other. Kai quickly took his seat, stowing his crutches, attempting his best friendly, genuine-looking smile. He’d decided to fully get into his role of the charming, affable, funny mentor Frankie had made him out to be.
“It all smells and looks delicious, Mrs. Hoffmann.” Good thing Kai’s hearing manners had kicked in, because if he’d been with Deafies he probably would have been brutally honest about how unappealing the meal looked. Some unidentifiable goop of cheese and vegetables. Kai’s only saving grace was his stomach had calmed. He still would rather leave than put any of that in his mouth, but he could manage enough to be polite without hurling on Mrs. Hoffmann’s impeccable table linens.
“Maggie, please,” she said, beaming. “It’s my grandmother’s recipe. Minus the meat, of course. Frankie told me you were a vegetarian.”
“Thank you for your consideration. I hope I
didn’t put you out too badly.”
“Of course not, don’t be silly.” Maggie rose and served everyone in turn, liberal helpings of the casserole and the various vegetable sides she’d prepared to go with it. Roasted carrots and cauliflower.
Kai accepted his plate with a forced smile he prayed looked natural, and was about to pick up his fork when Frankie stopped his hand. Kai’s pulse spiked at the unexpected, restrictive touch, but he forced himself to remain calm.
Frankie’s eyes darted from the fork toward Big Frank, and Kai followed the gaze, realizing the Hoffmanns prayed before they ate.
“Thank you Lord for this food and our family, especially Frankie. Thank you for bringing us together. And thank you for our guest. Watch over us all and bring us health in the coming days. Amen.”
Kai bit his lip, hoping he looked pensive instead of ready to burst into laughter at the idea of “God” bringing him health in the immediate future. His years of control enabled him to suppress his real feelings and mutter a hasty “Amen.” A few gulps of water helped. This entire dinner seemed preposterous; he half expected Maggie to jump up and start singing “Day-O” like in that Beetlejuice movie Martin had made Kai watch the other day.
Despite his intention of behaving himself, Kai couldn’t help the first question that burst out. “So why did you two decide to adopt?” Kai felt Frankie jab him under the table, but Kai ignored him. Stuffed a bite of food in his mouth and forced himself to swallow it while never letting the polite smile leave his face.
Maggie and Big Frank exchanged looks before he finally spoke. “It wasn’t part of God’s plan for us to bear our own children, but we wanted a family.” They linked hands in Kai’s view, as if to prove something.
Kai’s nose twitched, but thankfully it didn’t derail into a tic. Otherwise, Kai’s face remained placid. “And what made you decide to . . .” Kai bit back the more bitter, accusing words and tone that wanted to spring from his lips. “. . . consider someone . . . different, like Frankie?”
Frankie let out a long sigh. Apparently his denial wasn’t so thick he couldn’t see where Kai had wanted to take that question.
Big Frank’s eyes settled on Maggie for only a fraction of a second, and she nodded so slightly it was barely noticeable. But Kai’s Deaf upbringing meant he was extremely attuned to body language, even the subtlest movements, and he noticed how well Maggie and her husband seemed to communicate with one another without words. Was that what it was like with a couple, even two hearing people, who had been together a long time? Jake’s father had died before Kai met him, and Kai had no idea what the story was with Martin’s; Martin hadn’t offered, and Kai didn’t ask. So Kai didn’t have any hearing couples he could use for reference.
“Well, at first we talked to some of the agencies. Looked into getting a baby. They told us it could take years, especially if we wanted a white boy, which we preferred.”
Kai struggled to keep his eyebrows from going up, stuffing more food in his mouth and nodding as if he were very interested.
Frankie was moving his food around his plate, visibly uncomfortable with the topic.
“So then we started considering local kids, kids who were older, in the system, and we applied to be foster parents. We fostered for a few years, but we never felt like we were anything more than a waystation. A stopping point for those kids until they were shuffled off somewhere else.”
Big Frank nodded. “Maggie heard about County House and the foster program they were starting up through it. So she went over there to talk to the director--”
“And it just broke my heart,” Maggie said, barely before Frank had finished.
The words made hot anger hit Kai’s blood, a fuzzy, disconnected feeling, and he forced himself to take slow, deep breaths. He gripped his fork painfully tight, his thumb sliding along the metal, using it as a focus point for his senses to keep his rage from taking control. Kai managed a pleasant smile, although he was gritting his teeth.
“Mag started volunteering there once a week and got us into the foster program.”
“There were so many great kids there, like Frankie. And the director told us the adoption rate at County House is only 10%.”
Kai spoke before he could stop himself. “That high?”
Maggie’s face flittered through several emotions. “You weren’t adopted. Frankie told us. How long did you live at County House?”
The fuzzy, “this could actually be a panic attack about to happen” feeling hadn’t left him. “Twelve years.”
“I’m so sorry,” Maggie said. She seemed genuine, although Kai didn’t need her pity. “I can see why you were so doubtful about us.”
Kai’s eyes widened. Had he been that transparent?
“It’s all right,” she said. “God brought Frankie into our lives, and we all just knew it was part of His plan. It felt right, like he was the child we never had. As if we’d been waiting all our lives to come together as a family.” Maggie smiled so fondly, so motherly, at Frankie there was no way she could be faking it. As difficult as it was for Kai to believe, Frankie had found a home. A family.
Kai’s jealousy and feelings of inadequacy surged, but he was genuinely happy for Frankie. He was a good kid who deserved this. A normal life with family dinners and vacations. Kai knew that even if some kind-hearted couple like the Hoffmanns had adopted him, he was ruined too badly for him to ever have had anything remotely “normal,” and that was without considering his physical health. The depression pulled at Kai again. He wanted to excuse himself, find that snow drift, something. Or maybe just crawl under his bed and stay there until he was forcibly dragged out of it, like he was time after time back at County House. Kai felt the burn in his sinuses that signaled he was on the brink of tears, and he tightened his hold on his fork, tempted to stab himself with it to give himself a few more brief moments of feigned sanity before his crazy train derailed completely.
Kai grabbed his wine goblet and drained it.
“Let me top you off there,” Big Frank said, filling Kai’s glass before he could stop him.
“Thank you,” Kai said, downing half and forcing himself to stop and take a few bites of food so he wouldn’t blackout before desert. “I’m very glad Frankie found a good home.” Then he added, teasing, “He needs someone to keep him in line.” Kai lightly punched Frankie’s shoulder.
Frankie relaxed at last, smiling. Relieved, perhaps, that Kai had turned off his cynicism meter and seemed to approve.
After that, dinner turned to small talk, Big Frank going on in length about his law practice, trying to sway Kai into joining his profession, or Maggie bragging proudly about how Frankie won second place in the science fair last year and she knew he’d get first this time, or other similar parental boasts that made Frankie blush.
Months earlier, Kai had told Dr. Miller a person couldn’t miss what they’d never had, giving the example of how Kai couldn’t miss walking normally because he never had. But that had been a lie. Even after months of therapy, Kai only remembered bits and pieces of his life before County house. Yet sitting at this table with the Hoffmanns, Kai’s third “family” dinner in so many days, Kai felt an enormous pain of loss like he’d never felt before. More powerful than what he’d experienced in the living room, staring at the pictures of the kind of life he’d never had.
“Cheesecake?” The word came out suddenly, sharply, like a bright light piercing a fog.
Kai knew he shouldn’t have sweets, not after the other night, but fuck it. Cheesecake had a lot of fat and wasn’t completely devoid of nutrients. Considering how little he’d eaten of his dinner, he could use the calories.
“I told her you love sweets,” Frankie said as if he were bracing himself for disappointment since Kai had gone silent after their discussion about his adoption had concluded.
“Yes, I do. I’d love a piece. Thank you,” Kai said as politely as he could even though he was feeling sleepy from the drugs and the wine and his thoughts were desperately trying to spin off into rumination. Keeping himself grounded tonight had been much harder than he expected. He needed to talk to someone after this. Not Renee. She didn’t know what had happened to him as a kid. No one knew. Kai had told Jon a little. Was his brother working tonight? Kai struggled to remember.
“I think I have some port in my office that would go great with dessert,” Big Frank said. “I’ll be right back.”
As soon as his parents were gone, Frankie turned to Kai. “You OK?”
“Not really, kid. But I’ll survive a few more minutes,” Kai said with surprising honesty. Maybe he figured Frankie deserved it.
“It’s my fault. I was . . . I guess I wanted to show off my new life. I wanted . . . I wanted you to be proud of me. Maybe even . . . jealous. You were always so much cooler and better and together than me.”
Kai laughed. “You’re lucky, Frankie. Really, really lucky. I am jealous. I’ll never have this,” Kai said, waving his hand as if to indicate the house and all it represented. “If you really want me to help you learn to swim, I’ll take you to the pool one Saturday morning, if you’d like. You can meet my brother.”
Frankie brightened. “Oh! He’s the one who came for you. At County House. Is he like you?”
“We could almost be twins in appearance but our personalities are pretty different. You’ll probably prefer Jon over me. He’s the smartest person I’ve ever met.”
“You’re smart. You helped me read and write better. My school counselor says that even for MIT I won’t get in without a good personal statement.”
Kai seriously doubted that Frankie’s admittance into such a prestigious science school relied on a few hours years ago pouring over Shakespeare or proof-reading Frankie’s essays.
“Thanks for coming tonight. I know you didn’t want to. And thanks for being nice to my parents.”
“You really asked about me when you went back to County House?”
Kai shrugged again. “I knew you were only sixteen. You weren’t there, so I wondered what happened to you.”
“And you really thought I was dead?”
Kai drummed his fingers on the table. Even the drugs and wine weren’t enough to contain his anxiety, apparently. What was taking the Hoffmanns so long? Was Maggie baking the fucking cake? Did Big Frank fly to Europe for the wine? “I told you. I never believed this could be real.”
“I never thought you even noticed me.” Frankie gazed up at Kai almost shyly.
“How could I not notice you? All I wanted was to be left alone, and there you were. Always there.” Kai sighed. Took a deep breath, willing himself to relax. “After David aged out, I . . .” Kai cleared his throat. “It was kinda nice having you around.”
Frankie beamed. He used his hands to help shift his body so he was sitting more at an angle to better face Kai. He reached out and lightly touched Kai’s forearm. Kai immediately pulled away, but Frankie leaned closer. Laid a hand on Kai’s chest as if he were feeling the outline of his pecs.
Kai’s pulse skyrocketed. “Frankie . . .” Kai tried to back away, but without standing, he had nowhere to go.
Frankie used the table to push himself to his feet. He leaned in toward Kai and planted a kiss on Kai’s lips.
Kai felt like Neo in The Matrix when he was suddenly uploaded some huge flood of information, a surge of thoughts and memories so fast it took a second before Kai could react to the present. His hand shot out reflexively toward Frankie, shoving him away.
Frankie let out a startled sound, crashing into his chair and nearly falling to the floor even though Kai hadn’t pushed him that hard.
“What the fuck,” Kai said without inflection, almost a growl. His hands were shaking, that tingly, pre-panic attack sensation swarming his limbs. No. No. No. Kai didn’t feel like he was really sitting in the Hoffmans’ dining room. Like he was dreaming. Like he was lying in a dirty bed in the dark, crying because he hurt so, so much, so badly he could hardly stand to breathe. Kai dug his nails into one arm, gripping it as tightly as he could, prying open his cutting wounds as a way to yank himself from the pull of the past. Kai was panting, terrified and furious he was going to end up in the kind of flashback only Jon had been able to pull him out of. “What the fuck?!”
Frankie managed to pull himself up again, looking abashed. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I--”
Kai’s gaze darted quickly to the doorway, to ensure he and Frankie were still alone. He lowered his voice. “What the fuck? I’m not . . .” It was taking everything Kai had to keep himself in the present. It felt like he was an astronaut struggling not to be sucked into the vast darkness of space. “I have a girlfriend. Dammit, Frankie, what’s wrong with you? Even if I was . . .you’re sixteen!” Kai felt like an idiot. How had he never realized Frankie didn’t admire him, Frankie was in love with him.
“Sixteen is legal,” Frankie muttered, looking both embarrassed and terrified. “Please don’t tell them. My parents. Please. They can’t know about me. Please. They’ll send me back if they know.” Frankie’s eyes filled and a few tears fell that he hastily wiped away. So Kai hadn’t been totally projecting earlier; Frankie did worry his adoptive parents might change their minds.
Kai needed to get out of this house. Fast. He started glancing around, his eyes searching the room as if expecting it to dematerialize at any moment, for the light to shift to dark, for the present to fade into memory. “They seem to love you. They don’t care about your CP. Why would this matter?”
“Homosexuality isn’t part of God’s plan,” Frankie said as if reciting a quote. “This is the only real family I’ve ever had. Don’t take it away from me.”
Kai blew out a sigh. Frankie had come to County House when he was about eight, so Kai had always assumed his parents must have died, and that’s why he wound up at the group home. But Kai was apparently wrong.
“My grandma raised me. I don’t know anything about my birth parents. She wasn’t mean, but she was really old and I was a burden,” Frankie said, as if to fill the silence, his hand on his leg, which was jumping with spasms. “When she died, I ended up at County House. I’ve always wanted a real mom and dad and now I’ve ruined it.” Frankie looked like he was about to break down.
Kai felt like shit. The kiss still made Kai’s skin crawl, but Jesus he was a self-absorbed jerk, wasn’t he? Kai had known Frankie for three years while they lived at CH, and yet Kai had learned more about him in the last five minutes than he had in all that time. Kai’s nose started twitching. “I won’t tell them.” Why the fuck would he, anyway? “But I have to leave. Now. You get why?”
Frankie nodded. He looked totally broken--his shoulders hunched and his head hanging--a position Kai easily recognized as one he’d assumed before. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You came tonight, and you were being so nice, and you’d worried I was dead, and you’re so handsome, and tall, and you noticed me, and I thought, maybe . . .”
Kai felt for the kid, he did. It couldn’t be easy having to hide who you really were to keep the one thing you’d dreamed of your entire life. Fuck, wasn’t Kai doing that with Renee? But the web of anxiety in Kai’s chest was blooming, expanding, and Kai just wanted to get to his car before the panic and/or flashback took hold. He already couldn’t feel his arms from the elbows down, and considering how much he’d fucked up his wounds, that was something. Kai grabbed his crutches and slipped them on. It felt off as numb and tingly as his hands were, but he managed to push to his feet without falling over. “Walk me to the door,” Kai said in a gentle, yet commanding tone. If Frankie didn’t act normal, his parents were going to suspect something was up, especially with Kai leaving before dessert.
Frankie sighed, but gathered up his own crutches and followed Kai to the foyer.
“We can both pretend this never happened,” Kai said as he slipped on his coat, scarf, and gloves as fast as he could with numb, shaking fingers.
“But I’m going to need you not to touch me. Ever. OK?” Frankie was seriously lucky Kai hadn’t hurt him tonight. Kai wasn’t going to test his luck a second time.
Frankie bit his lip. He looked so crushed, reminding Kai of himself as a young kid.
Kai was zipping up his coat when Big Frank and Maggie found them.
“You’re leaving?” Maggie seemed disappointed, and for a moment, if Kai hadn’t known better, he would have sworn he saw a resemblance between her and Frankie.
Kai offered his best smile, then lied through it. “I’m afraid so. I just realized I left my medicine at home and I need to take it on time. Thank you so much for dinner. It was nice meeting you both.”
Big Frank offered his hand for Kai to shake. Kai didn’t want to be touched, but he bit his tongue, steeled himself, and shook heartily so as not to give anything away. “Maybe you could teach Frankie some swimming tips some time. Or give him some driving lessons. About time he learned, and he struggles with the pedals.”
“Dad,” Frankie said, turning crimson. He refused to make eye contact with Kai with his parents in the room.
“Maybe,” Kai said. “I should get going. Take care, Frankie.”
Well, that night was definitely proof that Kai’s anxiety-fueled brain’s attempt to predict the future was futile. Of all the disaster scenarios Kai had imagined would come to fruition tonight, being kissed by Frankie was definitely not one of them.