Wednesday, July 12, 2000

In/Exhale - February 12, 2001 - Part I

February 12, 2001 - Part I

Nikki stretched as she woke, then winced as the pain in her injured arm reminded her of the night before. She glanced at her clock; an hour before her alarm went off. Great. Too early and yet too late to go back to sleep. She turned her head to the other side of the bed, but it was empty. If it hadn’t been for her throbbing arm she would have suspected last night had been some deranged dream. Nikki sat up, surveying the dark room. She could just make out Kai’s braces and clothes, and yet no crutches. No Kai.
“Kai?” Nikki wrapped a warm robe around her to fight off the chill early morning air and padded over to the bathroom. Maybe Kai had just gotten up to pee.
She blinked against the bright light when she flicked the switch. The room was so clean it sparkled. She half expected the mascot for a cleaning product to pop out of the tub and give her a wink and a thumb’s up. The scent of bleach and manufactured floral scents wafted up. What the hell? No sign of Kai, but he’d obviously been busy.
Next, Nikki wandered down the short hall out to the main living area. It was dim, but the light from the kitchen illuminated her way. This, too, had been dusted and polished and scrubbed until it looked as if no one had ever lived there. “Kai?” She spied his crutches propped up against the counter and made her way toward them. Was Kai so crazy he’d somehow taken off without his clothes or his mobility aids?
A harsh squeak squeak made her look down. Kai was sprawled out on the floor, naked except for his undershirt and a pair of yellow dishwashing gloves that barely fit. It was like something straight out of a ridiculous porn and Nikki had to stifle the laugh that bubbled up. Kai had a rag in one hand and a toothbrush in the other and was meticulously scrubbing the same spots over and over.
“Kai,” Nikki said again, sinking into a crouch. “What are you doing?”
Kai seemed to notice her for the first time. He tilted his head to make eye contact, though he didn’t stop his endless cleaning. “Couldn’t sleep.”
“Clearly,” Nikki said, sitting down in front of him.
Kai glanced up but otherwise didn’t stop cleaning. He seemed irritated she’d planted herself in his path. “I have to get clean,” Kai said as if he were talking about himself and not the kitchen. Which he very well may have.
“It’s certainly cleaner than it’s ever been before. You can stop.”
Kai shook his head. “I need to do this.”
Nikki sighed softly. She laid her hands on top of his to still them.
Kai’s eyes were pained when he met hers.
Nikki swept some hair away from Kai’s forehead. Never breaking eye contact, she attempted to pry the toothbrush and rag from Kai’s hands.
He resisted at first, but finally relented.
“Sit up. Let’s talk about this.”
Kai let out a harsh breath. His nose wiggled frantically. He nodded reluctantly and planted his palms on either side of him and pushed. He winced. Panted. Walked his hands back a bit and pushed again until his upper body was roughly perpendicular to the floor. Paused to catch his breath. Nikki noticed some of the wounds on Kai’s arms were weeping. They hadn’t fully broken open, but dragging himself around definitely hadn’t helped. Kai’s undershirt clung to his chest in places where it was stained with old blood; perhaps her suspicions had been right last night and he had cuts there too that he’d now pulled open. He was going to have to disinfect everything or he would get sick. But right now, Nikki had other priorities.
She watched as Kai clumsily maneuvered himself into a full seated position, his back supported by the cabinets, which clattered with his weight. His breathing was fast and shallow, and he gave up halfway through arranging his legs. He still had the gloves on, and he was covered in grime from crawling around on the floor on his stomach. How—or why—he’d done that without putting his boxers on was beyond her. His eyes slid shut for a moment as he just breathed.
“Kai, let me help you with those gloves.”
“Huh?” Kai opened his eyes, meeting hers, though he seemed lethargic.
Nikki reached for the edge of one of the gloves and Kai pulled away with lightning speed, far faster than she would have expected.
“Don’t touch. Don’t touch. Don’t touch. Don’ttouchdon’ttouchton’ttouch.” Kai’s words slurred together into one unintelligible “super word” that he spit out so rapidly he had to gasp for breath. Or maybe he was on the edge of panic. There was certainly a wild look in his eyes.
Nikki held up her hands as if to reassure him she meant no harm.
Kai stared at her hard and then looked down at himself, then around. He seemed confused. Stoned, maybe.
“Kai, how many pills have you taken?”
Kai squinted at her. “I’m dirty,” he said, sounding almost like a little kid. His accent slipped through.
Nikki took a breath and kept her voice level. “Yeah, because you’ve been crawling around on the floor.”
Kai looked even more confused. He glanced down at his hands. Tried to pry the gloves off, but they were stuck. So he tried to use his teeth--Nikki cringed--but they still wouldn’t budge.
“Let me help.”
Kai pulled away from her when she drew close, shaking his head.
Nikki tried a few more times, but it was like they were separated by some impenetrable barrier that prevented him from understanding her. She suspected he wasn’t all there, like Friday night at the bar. She took a breath and gestured, pointing to herself, then to him, miming pulling off the gloves.
Kai stared at her, his eyes wide and frightened. He glanced around himself again as if trying to assess the situation, or maybe out of fear. Finally, reluctantly, he extended one of his hands.
Keeping eye contact with him as much as possible, Nikki hesitantly inched forward and carefully started to peel the rubber away from his wrists. It would have been easier to cut them off, but she didn’t think introducing a sharp object right now was the prudent course of action. She’d been around plenty people on drugs, had “friends”—if she could call them that—who’d had bad trips, so she behaved as if Kai had just taken one too many Xanax or something. She knew that wasn’t likely the case, but she preferred to pretend she was dealing with something familiar.
Nikki turned Kai’s arm over—once he let her—so his forearm was facing up. His skin was scored with dozens of wounds and scars, most diagonal but a few looked like they were longer, vertical, and ugly. Her eyes lingered too long on them and Kai tried to jerk out of her hold. “Shh. It’s OK.” Less junkie and more spooked stray puppy, Nikki thought. With one hand to brace, she used the other to pull with all her strength. It made pain shoot up her injured arm, but she ignored it, breathed through it, until finally, after several minutes, she pried the glove off the palm and thumb so only the fingers remained. But before she could extract them, Kai pulled loose from her grip and shook his wrist, flailing, sending the glove flying.
He wouldn’t let her help with the second, but he managed to tear it off—almost literally—and now that both his hands were exposed she saw he’d totally torn up his cuticles. Blood caked around the beds of his fingernails and some even slid down his fingers. How hard had he been scrubbing? And for how long? Kai stared at the blood with an expression Nikki couldn’t read. His breathing shifted, faster, panicked, and his eyes lost focus.
“Kai. Kai. Kai.” Nikki tried to get his attention, but he was gone.
For several long minutes, Kai hyperventilated and his hands stayed held in front of his face although they shook. Then, almost without warning, Kai dropped his hands to the floor and pushed with all his might, slamming himself against the cabinets with a loud thunk and clatter. It was almost how someone might be thrown in a car accident. Kai’s expression was a picture of surprise and shock, and then he went deathly still. His face drained to a ghostly white and his eyes rolled up into his head.
He’d knocked himself out.


The address was in one of the newer apartment complexes on the edge of town. David had no trouble spotting Kai’s car, though finding a parking spot so early in the morning was tricky. When he at last arrived at the appropriate apartment, he didn’t even knock before it opened. That sexy girl from the Walmart answered. She was dressed in a waitress uniform, her hair tucked off her face with a clip. She looked tired and worried, but she smiled when she noticed him checking out her rack, carefully plumped to show some cleavage through the top of her dress. The smile was fleeting, though.
“Thank you for coming,” David read off her lips. She didn’t say anything else, or if she did, he missed it, and waved for him to come in. She paused to give him a chance to take off his coat and stomp off some loose snow from his shoes, then beckoned him to follow her.
Based on the condition of the entryway and living room, the kitchen was a shock. Nikki wasn’t dirty, but she wasn’t tidy, and she clearly didn’t spend her free time cleaning. The kitchen was immaculate, especially by contrast, pots in the drying rack near the sink so polished they reflected the light. Kai’s handiwork, definitely. It made David’s stomach drop because Kai obsessively cleaning someone else’s apartment wasn’t a good sign.
Nikki waved for his attention, pointing to something on the other side of the island. David walked around and looked down where she was indicating and saw Kai.
Shit. David let out a harsh breath through his nose.
Kai was naked except for his undershirt, which was dirty and stained with old blood. Kai’s arms and hands were bloody, too. He was slumped on his side, his legs in odd positions partially because there wasn’t enough room for them to stretch out in the space between the cabinets and the island and partially, David suspected, due to Kai’s MLS.
Nikki snatched something from the counter and waved it at David--Kai’s boxers--and said something he didn’t catch, then seemed to remember he was deaf and gestured something David understood to mean she’d tried to put them on but Kai wouldn’t let her. It wasn’t clear to David whether that was conscious or a result of spasms, but right now David was more concerned by the fact that Kai was out cold.
Did he knock himself out?” David signed.
Nikki’s face scrunched up and she shook her head like she wasn’t sure what he’d said. She held up a hand to signal for him to wait and dashed out of the room, then rushed back, showing him a pill bottle. David spotted Kai’s name on it, then the generic he’d memorized meant Xanax. Nikki mimed popping pills, then held up two fingers, then pointed to Kai. “He may have taken more before,” she may have said.
David bit back his fury. “He took two pieces or two pills?
Nikki didn’t seem to totally understand him, so she opened the bottle and took out two whole pills and showed them to David, as if to further explain.
Shit.” David rubbed the back of his head. One thing Jon had instilled in David when Kai was sick was that too much sedating medication could backfire and worsen Kai’s dissociations. Two whole pills was a fucking lot, especially if Kai had taken more before he’d gotten to Nikki’s. He held his hand out, grateful Nikki understood and gave him the bottle. David shook it to get a sense of how full it was, then opened it and peered inside. He was relieved there were a lot more pills than he could count at a glance, but that also meant it was even harder for David to tell how much Kai may have taken. David pocketed the bottle and snatched Kai’s underwear, then crossed to Kai and sunk down into a squat. Studied him for a moment, then pointed to the freezer and gestured for something cold he could use to wake Kai up—and hopefully get him back to reality at the same time.
Fortunately, Nikki got what he was saying—she was pretty perceptive for a hearing person. Maybe because she’d known Kai for years. She offered him a towel and a bag of frozen veggies.
Kai flinched when David pressed the bag to his neck, but didn’t wake up. David had to repeat the process in several different spots before Kai’s eyes shot open, and his body stiffened, breath held. Then he blinked, and he searched the room with his gaze, beginning to hyperventilate. “Where? Where? Where? Where?” he asked David desperately with only one sign.
You’re safe. I’ll help you up. Get you dressed. Bring you home.
Home?” Kai asked, confused. His gaze snapped to Nikki and his panic escalated. He shook his head, pressed his hands to the floor to try to push himself away, but with the awkward way he was sprawled against the cabinets, he didn’t have far to go.
David contained his sigh and turned to Nikki. Gestured intensely for her to get out of the room, out of Kai’s sight.
She didn’t seem to get it at first, but finally hopped up and disappeared.
Kai was shaking, vibrating, his arm in his mouth, leaving David no doubt that Kai was in a flashback. “You can’t be here. She saw you. She’ll hurt you. She’ll hurt me,” Kai signed, his movements disjointed and difficult to follow, clearly indicated Nikki as the “she.” But David knew Kai, and it didn’t really matter what he was saying. David had to get Kai calm enough to get him dressed. That was his priority.
I’m here to take you away from her. But you have to get dressed. You have to hurry.
Kai stared at David dumbly, almost as if he didn’t understand. He looked ready to pass out again. The drugs? David wondered.
David sighed. “I’m going to help you put this on. Don’t freak out.” David got the feeling he was talking to himself, and that he might need to wrestle Kai’s clothes on him, especially since when Kai was like this, touching his legs could set him off, big time. Fortunately, Kai couldn’t willfully kick David, and David was stronger than his friend, so if it came down to it, David could get Kai dressed even if it meant pushing Kai into further panic in the process.
Nothing David hadn’t already experienced after Kai came home from the hospital, but also not something David had needed to deal with in months. And that worried him, even if he had to push that concern away to focus on taking care of Kai now and making sure he made his appointment with Dr. Miller in a few hours.


Kai hurt. A lot. More than he could remember hurting outside a major MLS attack. He was still paying for overdoing it during the Harbinger tour, and that pissed him off. It also pissed him off that no matter how many times David demanded Kai admit how many benzos he’d swallowed last night, all he could do was glare. Because Kai couldn’t remember much of anything after leaving Frankie’s house Sunday evening. Bits and pieces, like fragments of a dream just out of his reach.
But Kai had been naked, or close to it, when David had come for him, and at Nikki’s. Especially with Kai’s state lately, that could only mean one thing. And the fact that he couldn’t recall—that he couldn’t be sure—pissed him off.
They were en route to Kai’s morning appointment with Dr. Miller, and David had apparently given up probing Kai for now. Maybe because it was easier to drive without signing, or maybe because he hoped Dr. Miller could pry the truth from Kai. Whatever the case, Kai was grateful for the momentary peace. He pulled out his phone, flipped it open, found his text convo with Nikki.
Kai wasn’t terribly adept at texting to begin with, and the pain and jolting of the car didn’t help, but he managed to type, Did we fck? Kai stared at the screen for a long minute after sending, knowing if Nikki was working she wouldn’t be able to respond no matter how much he needed an answer. Kai finally pocketed his phone again, leaning his head against the window, his gaze darting left toward David, who he could see would glance Kai’s way whenever the road gave him the opportunity. Kai’s friend was angry, too, the emotion seething under his skin no matter how composed he might seem. Kai wished he could settle David’s mind, insist with confidence he hadn’t tried to kill himself, but Kai was beginning to wonder. If he had fucked Nikki last night, and out of self disgust and guilt had swallowed a handful. Maybe Nikki stopped him before he took too many. Maybe the coward in him stopped himself. Either way, the nagging feeling that he’d betrayed everyone he loved last night lingered like a festering wound in his gut.
Kai’s phone buzzed, startling him from his reverie. The icon on the outside screen informed him he had a new text message from Nikki. Eagerly, Kai flipped his phone open and navigated to her message.
Just one word in response to his inquiry: No.


Dr. Miller took one last look through her notes on Kai’s case from her study of his files over the weekend. Much to her wife’s chagrin, Dr. Miller had been unable to avoid immediately delving in. She was determined to help Kai, because he was a good kid who deserved a second chance. The life he’d been dealt wasn’t his fault. She felt confident she was narrowing in on a more specific diagnosis for him, and with that a modified treatment plan that might mean his stay at Harbinger wouldn’t be too long. But that wasn’t entirely up to her. She knew Kai wanted to get better, but he was also stubborn and had years of denial on his side. It would take his cooperation, not just his submission.
Dr. Miller opened the door to the waiting room. To her surprise, Kai was sitting in his wheelchair, dressed in sweatpants and socks--no shoes--and an enormous hoodie that seemed to engulf him. He was sitting up straight, his gaze vacant. Probably dissociating. Maybe just daydreaming, but knowing Kai, more likely lost in his head in a far less positive way. Even more surprising, David sat in the seat beside his friend, flipping through a magazine in a way that suggested he wasn’t really paying attention to it at all. Everything in his body language--from his posture, leaned to one side, away from Kai--to the tight, almost violent way he turned the pages screamed that he was angry, and at his friend. Dr. Miller had only met David a few times, and it wasn’t like they could speak to each other, but she knew that he cared about Kai and that Kai may not have made it after his first hospitalization and fever without his friend to push and support him both. If David was here, if Kai was looking like he’d slid back months over the course of only a couple days, it wasn’t good news. Today’s session would be far more difficult than Dr. Miller had envisioned before she’d strode through her office door.


Kai had needed David’s help to settle into the wing chair his brother normally favored during their sessions. He seemed drugged or in pain or both. David signed something to Kai, but Kai didn’t seem to respond. Kai had wheeled himself in slowly, but other than that it was as if his body were here but his mind wasn’t. From David’s behavior toward him, though, it didn’t seem as if he were stuck in some flashback, but rather being stubborn.
Just before David left to head back out to the waiting room, he pulled a folded-up piece of paper from his pocket and offered it to her. He met her eyes with an intense, almost demanding look that told Dr. Miller to help Kai. David was frustrated with his friend, clearly, but he was also worried.
Dr. Miller skimmed the note as she settled into her seat. She quickly realized why David was so concerned and perhaps why Kai was behaving the way he was. She glanced up at Kai.
He was sitting with almost perfect posture except his head was leaned into the corner where the wing met the chair back, his eyes half open. His legs, which Kai normally preferred to extend when he was relaxed, were still bent as they had been while he was in his wheelchair, and his feet looked tense. Kai didn’t seem comfortable at all, one arm gripping the chair arm tightly, his breathing uneven and ragged.
“Would you like some water?” Dr. Miller tucked David’s letter into the pages of her notebook and scribbled a few words to remind herself to address it before the session was over.
Kai didn’t answer. His respiration rate slowed to only a few breaths a minute. Worrisome.
“Do I need to call an ambulance, then?”
Kai’s eyes snapped open at that. She had his attention.
“Did you try to overdose last night? David says he found you at Nikki’s this morning, stoned and confused, with a stolen bottle of Xanax tablets.”
“Bottle’s full,” Kai mumbled. “Just tired.”
“Why did you take them at all, Kai? You promised to talk to someone or go to the ER if you needed. Talk to me.”
Kai’s nose twitched but he didn’t move otherwise. He just stared at her blankly, defeated.
“Did something happen while you were in Omaha? Did you not like Harbinger? Because I got a message from the director this morning asking for your records.”
“‘So may the outward shows be least themselves: the world is still deceived by ornament.’”
So Kai’s mind was clear enough to quote Shakespeare at her. “The Merchant of Venice, right?”
Kai nodded subtly.
Dr. Miller hoped he wasn’t going to talk in quotes for the rest of the session. “So you’re saying it looked nice but you’re doubtful about it?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m going anyway.” His voice was quiet. And very sad. Yet somehow Dr. Miller suspected that it had nothing—or very little—to do with Harbinger.
“Please talk to me. I can’t help if you don’t talk.”
Kai laughed, but it was short and bitter. “I ruin everything, and once something is destroyed it’s gone forever.”
Another quote? Dr. Miller didn’t recognize it if it was one. “What did you ruin?” She decided she’d play along and see if he’d open up any more.
Kai turned his head so he was looking at her straight-on. His chin trembled. Tears fell but Kai bit his lip and held the rest in. “Renee.” He swallowed audibly. “I cheated on her with Nikki.”
Dr. Miller had been against Kai initiating the relationship with Renee from the start, but had been forced to admit that Renee had been helpful in Kai’s recovery so far. But this was exactly the kind of thing she’d been afraid of. Kai had attachment and abandonment issues, a paralyzing fear of being left alone, and especially considering how impulsive he was becoming lately, it wouldn’t be unheard of for him to kill himself over something like this. She had to tread very carefully, because it might mean forcing Kai into the hospital ASAP was the only way to save him. “Tell me what happened.”
Kai stared defiantly, struggling to control his emotions, finally saying in a defeated voice so quiet Dr. Miller almost couldn’t make it out, “I can’t.”
“You know you can tell me anything, Kai. I can’t share anything with anyone without your permission.”
Kai looked down and more tears escaped, tracing along his cheek to his chin and eventually disappearing into the fabric of his sweatshirt. “I blacked out. Again.”
Kai looked up. His eyebrows furrowed and he stared at her through glossy eyes a moment before cleaning his face with his sleeve. He grimaced. “Friday night instead of going to the ASL class I took off. Went to a bar. Got drunk and picked a fight. Nikki happened to work there, supposedly, and convinced the guy to back off somehow. Took me home. Pathetic, right?” Kai shook his head. “I think I may have called her to meet there but she covered for me for some reason. I just wish I could remember.” Kai knocked his head against the wing of the chair a few times—it was cushioned so he wasn’t doing any harm—but he was clearly upset and frustrated.
“Then what happened last night?”
“I . . .” Kai blushed deeply. He fidgeted with the sleeve of his hoodie. “It doesn’t matter. I fucked things up with Renee and now if I never get out of the hospital . . .” More tears. Kai hid his face in the corner of the chair wing, chewing on the end of his sleeve.
Dr. Miller tried to get Kai’s attention a few times but failed. If Kai had started drinking, that was bad. Not only because it would actually make his mood worse, but because it was dangerous to mix benzos and alcohol. “Did you drink last night? Do you remember?”
Kai didn’t respond right away, but then he seemed to process what she’d said. “Maybe?” Kai replied, uncertain, confusion and frustration coloring his features.
Kai was becoming more reckless, taking more risks, which was in line for a suicidal man in particular. But it also meant the likelihood Kai would go from mere attempt to succeeding jumped into the danger zone. Dr. Miller was even more concerned and she understood more fully why David was so worried.
“I fucked Nikki. I betrayed Renee. I’m worthless.”
“Kai. Kai, please look at me so I know you’re understanding me.” It took several repeats before he obeyed. “Do you remember having sex with Nikki last night?”
Kai swallowed. Shook his head.
“So how do you know that’s what happened?”
No answer.
“Perhaps you were feeling suicidal so you went to her to talk, as you’d promised you would. It’s just as possible nothing happened as it is that it did, right?”
Kai made a sign on his chin, knuckles against it with his thumb and pinky extended, shaking his head. “I remember bits and pieces. I know I was in her bed naked at some point. She told me stuff . . . stuff I think I knew but didn’t know, you know?” Kai sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Kai stared hard at Dr. Miller. “Nikki is like me. Like me. Like me. Like me,” Kai said his speech speeding up, his words slurring together. “You know and I know and now Nikki knows and no one can know.” Kai hugged himself, hissed and relaxed his hold but didn’t drop his arms. He started shaking a little. “And I was on the floor in her kitchen, naked, and I . . . I don’t know why. I was upset . . .” Kai pulled his hair. Hissed and let it go. “I remember feelings, but details . . .” Kai shook his head.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Kai. But maybe a lot of that was a dream? Or the combo of alcohol and too many benzos? You know how dangerous that is. You’re lucky.”
Kai snorted.
“And Nikki, did you ask her what happened last night? Did she say you’d had sex?”
Kai bit his lip and shook his head. When he spoke, his speech was even more rapid, almost panicked. “She said we didn’t. But I don’t believe her. Maybe what actually happened doesn’t matter.” Kai cradled his forehead with the palm of one hand, looking down. He stayed like that a long time. Finally, he lifted his head and looked at her. It was almost as if he were too sad to cry. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” Kai said. His speech was somehow both too fast and too slow. Like his mind wanted to spill the words out in a torrent but his tongue was lazy. “Driving out to a pasture an hour or more out of town. Middle of nowhere. Hide my car. Stretch out in the snow and wait.”
Dr. Miller got a chill seeing how emotionless Kai was speaking. That was extremely dangerous, and yet she played along. “Wait for what?”
Kai gave her a brief incredulous look, then said, “To die.” Kai leaned back into the chair. His eyes squeezed tightly shut for a moment, and then he opened them again. “I deserve it. To die alone in the cold. Forgotten.”
Dr. Miller couldn’t stifle a frown. “Why do you deserve it?”
Kai just looked at her, his expression complex and difficult to interpret.
Dr. Miller didn’t say anything, hoping Kai would fill the silence, but Kai was inclined to quiet, so that trick didn’t usually work for him.
Kai buried his face in the chair wing again. His shoulders shook, and she suspected he was crying, even if he wasn’t making any noise. He cried for several minutes, and Dr. Miller gave Kai time. Finally, he turned back to her, his face streaked with tears; the speed of his voice varied from too fast to far too slow, like a damaged recording. “I should have gone to Renee last night, but I'm such a chickenshit. I should tell her. I haven't even had the balls to tell her I love her and I go to Nikki? Even if we didn't fuck last night, I still cheated on Renee. She deserves better. So much better than me.”
“Do you remember how we’ve talked about self-sabotage before?”
Kai sniffled loudly and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “You think that's what I'm doing? With Nikki?”
“You tell me.”
Kai growled. He hated when she used “shrink speak” on him, as he called it. Kai fidgeted. Tried to shift his weight, but it seemed to be either too painful or too much effort, and he settled for fiddling with his sleeves again. His movements were . . . Dr. Miller wasn’t exactly sure how to describe it for her notes. Both frenetic and lazy. Sort of like his speech had been during this session. Not at all how his anxiety normally came off.
Dr. Miller stifled a frown. Scribbled, mixed episode? in her notebook. If Kai was bipolar, it was possible he was of the predominantly depressive sort, and the drugs were creating a mild mania that, with his depression, meant a strange mood that was both up and down at the same time, making him restless and dangerously impulsive. More people with bipolar disorder committed suicide while in a mixed episode than any other mood state. Dr. Miller wasn't sure if that explained Kai’s recent behavior, but she owed it to Kai to explore that possibility.
“How have you been sleeping over the past few days?”
Kai glared defiantly, as if he wasn't going to reply. He rolled his shoulders. Winced.
“Same? More? Less? Give me something.”
Kai’s nose twitched. He stared at her blankly, and she wasn't sure he was even “here.”
“Kai? Kai.”
Kai’s eyes regained their focus. He leaned back into the chair and stared at her. “Both.”
“Both . . . ?”
“Am I signing and not speaking?”
“So you're sleeping both too much and too little?”
“Isn't that what I said?” Kai snapped. He fidgeted and finally pulled his sweatshirt off. Under it he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt that revealed heavily bandaged forearms. Concerning.
“Your arms. When did you do that?” Dr. Miller was careful to control her tone, not to be accusing. She wasn’t sure how well Kai heard her, but she had to be cautious. She needed to balance her investigation with the knowledge that Kai was on the precipice.
Kai’s nose twitched. He glanced down at his arms briefly and reclined, looking drained. “I wouldn’t have survived this weekend without this.”
Dr. Miller hoped maybe, depending on how long Kai’s stay was at Harbinger, he’d be able to find healthier ways of coping, that maybe he’d be able to abstain from self harm for awhile, as he had in the past. She decided to change the subject. “So I went to County House and spoke to the director, and got your records.”
“So now you know all my dark secrets and I don’t have to talk anymore,” Kai said flatly. She could see the attitude that so many mental health specialists had complained about in his records.
“Hardly. But I do have a better picture of what your life was like while you were growing up. Director Evans explained how she’d observed you’d have episodes of major depression every couple years, more or less. Does that sound right?”
Kai started to cross his arms on his chest, winced, swallowed hard, and took a moment to recover before he glared at her and rolled his eyes. “You’ve been to County House. You saw how it’s a children’s paradise.” Kai left out the implied, Do you blame me?
“She also explained how you were chronically sad. Even when you weren’t in a depressive episode, she wouldn’t have described you as ‘happy.’”
Kai rolled his eyes again. “I’m starting to feel like I’m not communicating. Am I not speaking out loud when I think I am or something?” Kai was particularly irritable today. Not unheard of for PTSD, but it was very common with hypomania. Usually the individual had no idea how snippy they were.
“So you agree with me that you were habitually sad and had periods of deeper depressions throughout your life?”
Kai gave her a cold stare that penetrated through her professional shell and made her shiver. It was a look that said he wasn’t listening to her, didn’t care what she said, and considering his state, was very dangerous. “There’s shit I went through that isn’t in those records. So do you think I had a fucking happy childhood?” He eyed his wheelchair as if he were thinking of transferring into it, but a wave of pain flashed over his features, slipping through his angry mask, and he sank back, defeated. Kai’s bad mood could be a result of his self-directed anger lashing out, his fear of losing Renee expressing itself toward Dr. Miller, or simply physical pain overwhelming him despite his best efforts to hide it from her. Or he could be hypomanic. If only there were a blood test for bipolar disorder, it would make her life so much easier.
“I’m not your enemy, Kai. I’m asking you these questions because I want to help you.”
Some of Kai’s anger and irritation peeled away. He cradled his arms on top of the pillow he’d made with the sweatshirt, looking forlorn. “I can’t be helped. It doesn’t matter.”
“Kai,” Dr. Miller said gently. “I think you may have a special kind of chronic depression called unipolar depression.”
Kai’s nose twitched. He was paying attention, though he said nothing.
“It’s called that because it has more in common with the depression experienced by people with bipolar disorder than it does other forms of depression. It’s usually more severe and can be difficult to treat. With your family and personal history, I think this fits. It could explain why you haven’t responded better to your medications.”
Kai perked up at that. “So . . . it’s not my fault I’m not better?”
Dr. Miller smiled encouragingly. “Of course not. Can I ask you something?”
Kai hesitated a moment before nodding.
“Would you describe yourself as a sad person, even when you’re not depressed?”
Kai took in a deep breath and blew it out sharply through his nose. “I’m not exactly Mr. Happy-Go-Lucky.”
“Based on what I got from my County House visit, and what we’ve talked about together over the past few months, I also think it’s possible you suffer from something called ‘dysthymia.’ It means your ‘normal’ mood is lower than what it is for most people.” Dr. Miller illustrated by drawing a picture in her notebook, with lines showing the average normal, the dysthymic normal below it, and then peaks and troughs for mania and depression. She also showed, through the picture, how someone with dysthymia already started out lower than most people, which meant their lows could dip even deeper than they would for the average person. “And this doesn’t even account for your PTSD or anxiety, OK?” Dr. Miller said once she’d explained the picture. “So you can see how, if you’re so low,” Dr. Miller said, pointing to the lowest point on the graph, “it can be hard to feel you’ll ever get back to here,” she said, indicating the dysthymic line, “let alone here,” she said, pointing to the normal euthymic mood line. “When we take into account the possibility of unipolar depression causing these lows, combined with your PTSD, you can see how deep you can get, and when you’re that low, how impossible recovery can seem. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to get better, Kai.”
Kai’s eyebrows dipped, but he looked less confused than ready to cry. “All this isn’t something I’m going to recover from, though, is it? I’m just like my mom.” A stray tear slipped out and Kai blinked rapidly to try to restrain himself.
Dr. Miller didn’t think it was necessary for her to mention that children and adolescents with dysthymia had an increased risk of hypomania, especially without a mood stabilizer as part of their medication regimen. With Kai’s family history, his chance was even higher. “Think of your mental illness as you would your physical health conditions. You can manage them, and you can have remissions, but you’re not totally cured. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a normal life, Kai. You can finish school and become a teacher, get married and have a family, if those are all things you want. You’ll have to take medication, most likely, long-term, just as you do for your MLS and your FS, but there’s no shame in that.”
More tears fell. Kai said nothing. It was a lot for him to absorb, especially with his current mood, but Kai appreciated and valued honesty, and she hoped he might be more receptive to her suggestions than if she’d hid her diagnostic suspicions from him.
“How are you feeling right now?”
Kai attempted a glare, but his heart wasn’t in it. He sniffled. “Like nothing matters.”
“Because of what I just told you?”
Kai stretched his arms out on his lap and started fiddling with the bandages. As if he needed to do something with his fingers. Kai seemed totally focused on that task. He finally shrugged. “Renee.” Even though outwardly Kai wasn’t crying, tears tinged his voice.
“What about Renee?” Dr. Miller asked, although she suspected she knew considering how big a focus last night had been throughout the session.
Kai began to break down. He returned to the oddly paced speech of earlier, both too fast and too slow. “When she leaves me because I cheated on her, nothing will matter. Especially if I can never get better. Whether I die today or in the hospital won’t matter.”
“Kai. Kai, look at me. We’ve talked about this. About finding value within yourself and not just from others.”
Kai stared at her incredulously. His face was tear-stained and his eyes were red. His nose was leaking but he didn’t seem to care. “I have value none,” Kai said, signing as he spoke, his face suggesting that was obvious. “My mother didn’t love me. My foster family hated me. No one wanted to adopt me. Why? Because I’m worthless.”
“But Renee doesn’t think so.”
Kai sobbed for a minute before he managed to contain himself. He wiped his face with his sweatshirt. “She’s magic. She’s magic and I ruined it. I ruin everything.” Kai hugged himself, even though Dr. Miller suspected the position hurt. “I can’t do this. I can’t do it without her.” Kai’s momentary calm gave way into loud, ugly tears that shook his body and left him gasping.
When Kai finally looked at her again, Dr. Miller said gently, “I don’t think you need to tell Renee you cheated on her when the only certainty was that you went to Nikki’s last night.”
Kai sniffled loudly and wiped his face with his shirt. “You told me to be honest with her.”
“Yes. But right now the important thing is preparing you for your hospital stay. Why should you upset Renee with something that might not even be the truth?”
Kai brushed away some stray tears. He didn’t seem fully convinced. “It doesn’t feel right.”
“The Kai of a few months ago wouldn’t have batted an eye over lying to Renee.”
It took Kai time to get what she had said, but when it finally seemed to click, he frowned deeply. “That Kai is gone. That Kai could handle his shit. This Kai can’t get through one fucking session without bawling his eyes out.”
“Part of the reason your emotions are so powerful now is because you spent your whole life suppressing them.”
Kai scoffed, but the fight seemed to have drained from him. His face was drawn, like his pain had swelled, or maybe his intense sadness and anger had masked it temporarily.
“I want to change gears. Something extremely important we need to discuss.” Dr. Miller shifted, crossing her legs. “I’d like you to come back this afternoon for another, short session.”
Kai stared at her blankly. His nose twitched. She couldn’t read him, even to know he was following her.
“I’m sure you understand that, with the information David gave me, and knowing you’ve blacked out twice in a weekend, that we should be talking about pushing up your hospital admission.” Dr. Miller made sure to keep her face pleasant and her voice level. She knew how sensitive Kai was about the subject, and the last thing she needed right now was for him to panic and refuse to cooperate.
But Kai nodded, slowly, sadly. “It doesn’t matter, anyway. How can I do Valentine’s Day for someone I can’t even be sure I’m not lying to?”
“Kai,” Dr. Miller said gently. “I think it’s very important that you continue with your plans with Renee, even if you do them a day early.”
Kai rolled his eyes. “Oh? So I can have my last bout of ‘normalcy’ before I’m shuffled off to the nuthouse? Every second I’m with Renee I’m going to be wracking my brain trying to remember anything about last night and hating myself for all of it—for going to Nikki, for not remembering, for anything I may have done with her, for . . .” Kai let out a scream and punched the chair arm, immediately shirking back in pain. He swallowed, steeled his expression. “Why can’t I just tell Renee I love her? Why can’t I . . . tell her everything?”
“Will you punch me too if I say, ‘what do you think’?” Dr. Miller smiled to let Kai know she was teasing him.
It was a gamble, but it paid off. Kai seemed to visibly relax. “Because I’m afraid,” he said, looking ashamed.
“Stop for a moment and dig deep. Skip the frightened, ashamed child who tries to conquer your psyche. Push him away. And think. Really think: is there anything you could tell Renee that would change how she feels about you?”
“I don’t think she’d be happy to know I cheated on her.”
“But we don’t know that. Stick to things we do.”
Kai took in a huge breath. A few tears slid out he didn’t stop. Finally, he shook his head.
“Then you need to hold onto that. Use your Valentine’s Day to talk to Renee. You don’t have to tell her everything. But stop being so afraid of losing her that you end up losing her. Does that make sense?”
Kai was crying harder now, although quietly. He nodded enthusiastically.
“Good. I want you to come back this afternoon so I can be sure you're all right—or at least as all right as you can be. And I want your brother to join you because I’d like to talk about adding another medication to your regimen, starting when you’re in the hospital. And I think it would be good for your brother to be here to help you decide.”
Kai eyed her warily. “What’s so significant about this drug I need Jon to help me decide about it?”
Dr. Miller took a deep breath. Weighed her options between putting Kai off for now and being honest with him. “It’s different from anything you’ve ever been on before, and I would prefer to begin while you’re an inpatient so I can start you off at the highest safe dose and wean down from there, which means you could feel positive effects within a week. As an outpatient, it takes much longer. We have to be more careful.”
Kai’s stare had turned into a glare. He asked her to repeat herself a few times until he was certain he’d successfully gleaned everything she’d said. “What is this drug? Couldn’t possibly be worse than what they doped me and nearly killed me with at JMH pscyh.”
Dr. Miller took a deep breath. Set her pen on top of her notebook in her lap. “Lithium.”
Kai froze. The blood drained from his face. “That’s the ‘super crazy’ drug. My mom took it. Jon told me. You said I wasn’t bipolar.” Kai’s words fell out of his mouth in a flurry, tumbling and fumbling over each other like panicked people escaping a raging fire through a narrow exit.
“Relax. Let’s take a few deep breaths.” Dr. Miller guided Kai until he’d calmed some. “I have several reasons I want to try it. Will you listen?”
Kai looked like a wounded, betrayed child, but his eyes were focused on her, and he nodded.
Dr. Miller smiled before continuing. “One: lithium may keep you alive. Patients on it are far less likely to commit suicide. You told me you didn’t want to die. Don’t focus on the negativity telling you you’ve destroyed your relationship with Renee. Focus on that ‘magic’ you spoke of instead. You want to live and be with Renee and become a teacher, don’t you?”
Kai shook, almost as if fighting his raging emotions was physically taxing. Finally, in a small voice he responded, “Yes.”
“Another reason is lithium can significantly boost mood even after only a few days. And it’s been shown to be beneficial in people with your type of depression, which is difficult to treat. It could be lithium, combined with your antidepressant, may be exactly the drug combo we need to pull you out of this deep low.” And there was an additional benefit, one Dr. Miller kept to herself: if Kai was bipolar and in a mixed episode (or revving up into a mania), the lithium would help stabilize his mood. “The important takeaway is lithium may minimize your hospital stay so we can get you better and back home sooner.”


Renee stood up to stretch. She’d arrived early to the lecture hall, and as more and more students began to file in as the start of class neared, she was beginning to think Kai wasn’t coming. She hadn’t heard anything from him since late last night when he’d finally replied to her texts and calls with a brief note to explain he’d fallen asleep but was otherwise OK. It had definitely reassured her enough to get a little sleep, but she wouldn’t truly feel better until she saw him in person, until she could wrap her arms around him and feel the steel of his shoulders and the warmth of his body. She was just about to regain her seat when the doors on the level she was on opened.
Renee saw that distinctive red hair first, and then she heard it—the subtle creak of Kai’s chair and the muted swish of tires on carpet. Kai seemed . . . drained. He hunched and pushed his chair almost as if he’d forgotten how. David held the door but as if it were less for Kai’s physical sake and more as if he were . . . hovering. A dark pit formed in Renee’s stomach. Had something happened last night? Maybe after Kai sent that text? Or maybe he hadn’t sent it at all? But then who had? David?
Renee took a few rushed steps toward them; they were still at least twenty feet away. But she stopped herself. Kai would be mortified if she fawned over him in full view of the entire three-hundred something students sitting above them in the tiered seating of the auditorium-style classroom. She gripped her hands, twisting them, hoping they could make eye contact. David did first. He gave her a long look she couldn’t interpret, like the kind he and Kai would exchange as if they were downloading each other's’ minds. He kicked Kai’s tire. Kai glanced up to glare at David, who nudged his head in Renee’s direction. That made Kai’s gaze follow until he finally met eyes with Renee.
Kai rolled to a stop just inside the entrance. For a moment that stretched until it felt like an hour, it was as if Kai and Renee were the only ones in the room. Renee couldn’t interpret the initial look Kai gave her. It was almost pleading her to read his mind. But then it shifted and morphed and Renee saw so many emotions slide through like beams of light through cracks before Kai molded them all into a controlled expression that didn’t fully hide the sadness and pain but enough he could offer her a slim, but genuine smile.
Kai pushed stiffly, but with more urgency than before, until he stopped at her feet, leaning his head back a little, smiling, even if his eyes were shadowed. He didn’t say anything.
Renee didn’t either, at first. She hesitantly brought her hand to his face, still asking wordless permission even if he’d assured her he was all right with her touching him under normal circumstances.
He gave a small nod and leaned into her hand, finally reaching for her to pull himself closer. Kai rested his head against her side, one arm around her, the other holding her hand to his neck.
Renee cherished this touch, surprised Kai was willing to do this in front of the class even if they were harder to see from here than from the door. She noticed David approach and glanced up. The moment—Kai’s touch and trust, seeing him again—all of it soured when she noticed David’s expression. It was dark. And worried.
I have an important job interview. Kai cannot be alone. Understand? I’ll be back within two hours. Can you promise you’ll stay with him until I return?
Renee swallowed and held Kai a little tighter. She nodded. Missing a class would mean nothing compared to knowing Kai was safe. “What happened?” Renee asked with one hand because Kai refused to let go of her other.
David’s jaw shifted like he was gritting his teeth. Hard. He glanced down at Kai before returning his eyes to Renee’s. “Keep him safe,” was all he signed, and then he raised his hand and waved, before heading out the door.
Renee was finally able to pull away and sink down into a seat so she and Kai were more at eye-level.
Kai seemed on the brink of tears, but he blinked and then all Renee saw was . . . she wanted to call it love, but she wasn’t sure Kai felt the same as she did. Still, right now it seemed as if she were the only thing that mattered, and it made the pit in her stomach soften a little. She leaned forward, relieved when he met her lips in a chaste kiss.
Renee had so much she wanted to ask him, but before she could even begin, Dr. Miller—their professor, not Kai’s doctor—walked in.
“Let’s get started. We’ll pick up right from where we left off.”
Kai kissed her hand before shifting, backing up and aligning his chair with her desk. He wasn’t going to transfer today. Why?
Renee cast him a questioning look and asked, low, “You OK?
Kai’s eyes widened for a moment and he started to shake his head, but then he turned it into a motion like someone might use to shrug off a hood without using their hands and smiled at her. This one charming and absolutely fake. “I’m fine.”
It angered her that he was still lying to her, but she decided to let it all go until after the lecture finished. Didn’t stop her from kicking herself for not going to his place last night to make sure he really was OK, though.
Yet somehow, a few minutes in to Professor Miller’s lecture about the renaissance, Kai reached over and took her hand. It was a simple gesture, yet he’d never done it before, not like this, not in class. And when she took his hand in hers, she felt something. She knew if she told anyone about it they’d laugh, probably even Kai, and yet, somehow, as broken as they both were, she knew as long as they were together, they could get through anything.



  1. Welcome back Chie!

  2. Outstanding story. Amazing to read again.

  3. It's like seeing my 'old friends' again! So glad you are back with us. I hope the new year brings only good things to you. I'm looking forward to reading more of Kai and Renee and the rest of your wonderful characters. Welcome back!

  4. Really enjoying that you are back here

  5. So looking forward to reading I/E again, every other week! Wish you the best for the future - a diagnosis is already a huge step.

  6. I've been waiting for you to come back for so long. Thanks to continue with the story.

    1. That makes me really happy. I feel so bad that I was away for so long...