February 13, 2001 - Part III
Only a few minutes later, Kai was in the passenger’s seat of Renee’s car, heart still pounding, breathing roughly, waiting for the relief of his rescue inhaler to kick in and for the mortification to take him over. Yes, he’d managed to dodge the full flashback, the kind that would probably have meant Valentine’s Day would have been over, because he would have been gone, and David or Jon would have needed to come get him, maybe to drive him directly to Omaha. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. But it didn’t change the fact that Kai had had yet another freakout in a restaurant, and he’d let Renee see him sobbing like a child.
Renee held his hand. Worry painted her features and yet she smiled at him, supportive and encouraging. If she knew how embarrassed and ashamed he felt right now, she gave no indication of it. So much for normalcy, right?
Kai felt the medicine beginning to work, releasing the tightness in his chest, and letting him take in and release air more easily, his breathing relaxing. He reached up and turned on his hearing aids, then angled his head more toward her. “I’m sorry.”
Renee shook her head. “You have nothing to apologize for,” she signed with her free hand. “If you want to talk about what happened, we can. But if you don’t, that’s OK. I understand.”
“I ruined Valentine’s Day.”
Renee’s brows knit and she shook her head. “Why do you say that?”
Kai gave her a look that said the answer was obvious. “I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure sobbing in a parking lot isn’t high on the romance list.” Thinking about what happened made Kai shiver and want to cry all over again, and anger and despair rushed in to cover for his self loathing. Kai broke physical and eye contact, suddenly feeling nauseous and disgusting. He remembered how he still didn’t know what happened at Nikki’s the other night, and wondered again if he had any right to love Renee, if he could even accept her love when he didn’t deserve it. Kai let his head hit the window with a thud.
Renee jabbed Kai’s shoulder hard, startling him. Had he fallen asleep? Passed out? Blacked out for a few minutes?
He turned to glare and saw fierce determination on her face. It was possible she’d tried and failed to get his attention in less intrusive ways.
“Pay attention. Did you flashback?” Renee used the letters “FB,” since Kai found that less triggering.
Kai stared at her hard. Then sighed. Shook his head. “Came close. But no.”
“Did I help?”
Kai made a sound that was somewhere between a bitter laugh and a sob. A few tears leaked he hurried to wipe away with both hands. “What I did was dangerous. If I hadn’t—if I had lost myself, it would have been bad. I could have hurt you.”
“Maybe. But I did help you stay out of a flashback, didn’t I?”
Kai nodded. At least he wanted to believe that. He still remembered the peace she’d brought him from his nightmares, and Kai refused to believe it was all coincidence. Kai swallowed, debating if he should say what he couldn’t stop thinking about, and finally gave in, although he couldn’t look at her. “It wasn’t just that he touched me. It was where. How. That he didn’t let go.” Kai shivered again, cradled his stomach, his nausea spiking to the point he had to shut his eyes momentarily to keep down his lunch. David spinning him around yesterday in front of Patrias had been nothing like what Kai had just experienced, even if outwardly they seemed the same. “One thing I’ve learned can help me snap out of flashbacks is finding the discrepancy between the memory and the present. All the really, really bad shit I went through as a kid I was alone. It was just me having to survive. On my own. With no one’s help. So earlier, having you, holding each other . . . it reminded me that I’m not alone anymore, and—” Kai was having a hard time containing his tears and gladly accepted her touch without flinching, cradling her arm to his body. “I think it was enough to stop the flashback from taking form around me.” Kai took a difficult breath. “I still feel so small. Helpless. Ashamed. I hate feeling like this. . . . All because some tool grabbed me.”
“In your defense, that guy was a jerk of the highest order.”
Kai laughed genuinely and his tears abated. “I love you. You always seem to know the right thing to do or say.”
Renee squeezed his arm since he was still cradling hers against his stomach. “I don’t know anything about hospitals or being sick, other than what I’ve heard from you talking about your past, but . . .” Renee took a huge breath, looked him straight in the eyes. “I’m all in. I’m not just saying this now bc of what happened a few minutes ago. I love you and I want to stand by you and help you so you never have to deal with anything alone ever again. If you’ll let me.”
Kai’s eyes filled and he bit his lip to keep them from spilling over. He brought her arm to his mouth and kissed her skin, then held it to his face a long moment. Finally he let her go, pulled one of his inner shirts out from beneath his sweater and using it to clean his face. “I keep thinking of what Becca would have said to me, seeing me crying like this on today of all days.”
“Don’t. Don’t. I think the tears are your body’s way of dealing with all those emotions from the flashback we stopped. All of those feelings had to go somewhere. I will never think less of you because you let yourself feel. What people in your past said doesn’t matter. All that matters now is you and me and getting healthy. Together. OK?”
From your lips, draw away a finger, for from here you did linger. Truth was revealed and so we start, in truth from the heart. Renee read the clue again. She stared out the windshield of her car at the building in front of them. She was parked in one of the handicapped spots facing the Jonesville physical therapy complex. “This is the right place?” Renee asked uncertainly.
“It’s where our relationship truly began, isn’t it? Where you learned the first of my many secrets.” Renee couldn’t read Kai. Even though he was signing, his affect was blunted, and he’d been distant ever since the parking lot at Nancy’s. They’d gotten a little closer because of their conversation, and yet that painful distance between them had remade itself once more.
“Why did you include this?”
Renee’s question seemed to surprise him. “I just said why. If you hadn’t walked in on my PT session, seen me trying to walk again, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Renee hesitated. “You were so angry, though.”
Kai laughed dryly. “If I’m completely honest, part of me is still furious,” Kai replied, using a sign that was a metaphor for anger, fingers flickering upright in the center of his chest to represent a fire burning within him.
Renee wasn’t expecting that. Kai had never brought it up again until now, so she’d figured he’d gotten over it. She was clearly wrong. “Why?”
Kai shook his head and popped up a finger to indicate he didn’t understand.
“Why were you so mad then? You never really explained. And why are you still mad? Why don’t you like anyone to see you in PT?”
Kai blew out a long breath. Drummed his fingers on the window. “I just don’t,” he replied curtly, but when he saw the disappointment in Renee’s face he sighed. “For you, for Jon, for David, walking, sitting, standing—all those things—are easy. You don’t have to keep in shape, you don’t have to plan, you don’t have to work hard to do any of that. Not since you were babies.
“My whole life, just getting from point A to point B could take weeks, months of hard work and pain. And being sick all the time, plus the way my muscle tone fluctuates, means I’ve often had to start all over again. I can’t take my independence for granted the way you or Jon or David can. I’m proud of the work I do in PT. Being able to manage a transfer on my own after I’ve been sick, or making it down the parallel bars with no help—that gives me a sense of accomplishment. But for every success I have, there’s a thousand failures. Times I was too weak to even slide my ass a few inches, even with a transfer board. Times I would have fallen if Troy hadn’t been there to catch me. Times I haven’t been able to sit up on my own. Times I went home after a session, lay in bed, in pain, furious and disappointed because no matter how hard I tried that day I just couldn’t do something. Sometimes, something I may have been able to do only days before. PT is about finding the strength to push through the failure. Over and over and over.” Kai’s hand was gripping the seat edge tightly, and he held himself tensely. Renee could see the anger simmering beneath the surface no matter how coolly Kai spoke. Renee knew how hard Kai worked because she’d seen him in PT that day, because she was around him all the time and observed him closely. But she realized she didn’t really understand what his life was like. Maybe she never could, no matter how much she loved him.
Renee stretched and felt Kai’s forearm, sliding down for his hand, hoping he’d release his death grip and hold hers. She smiled, praying he could see how grateful she was he was being totally open with her yet again today. Maybe this was his Valentine’s gift. She hoped it wasn’t, and that she wouldn’t have to fight neverending skirmishes to get to his heart at the center of his fortress.
“People already form opinions of me based on my mobility aids, how I talk, how I move. You’ve seen it just today. I’m never invisible, no matter how much I wish I were sometimes. And that’s me in control—or at least that’s what I tell myself,” Kai said with a self-deprecating laugh. “In PT, I’m not. I don’t like people seeing me that way.” Kai grew pensive. Shook his head somberly. “Not even you.”
That hurt, though she appreciated his honesty. “Even if I love you, no matter what?”
Kai brought their joined hands to his lips and kissed Renee’s knuckles. Kai stared at the building a long moment, considering this. “I think, someday I will be OK with you sitting in on even my hardest PT. . . . But I’m not there yet, and that’s on me, not you. Dr. Miller thinks I’m not as at peace with my disability as I try to pretend I am, and if I’m honest, she’s right. I can’t imagine myself able bodied; on one hand being disabled is who I am and I’m proud of that. But if I could be magicked into being normal?” Kai’s brows furrowed sternly. “I think I’d take that deal. Even if I had to keep the pain.”
“But we’re OK, right?”
Kai looked surprised. “I brought you here because I’m glad you walked in on me. The last few months would have been a lot harder without you.”
Renee brightened. “Really?” she asked a bit playfully since that was the sign central to the clue that had brought them here.
Kai smiled. Genuine and sweet. “I’m fucked up. But our relationship is unbreakable.” Kai signed this by using the sign for “relationship”—thumb and index of both hands formed into interlinking loops—and trying to force them apart without separating them, as if they were the links in a chain he was testing. “I’m starting to internalize that.” Then Kai beckoned her to sit in his lap. “Won’t be easy, but I want to kiss you properly.”
He was right. Renee might be small but her car was compact and as tall as Kai was, it didn’t leave her much room. But she managed, with his help, to climb into his lap, perched on his thigh, her legs tucked between his in the footwell. It was awkward and uncomfortable, but right now she didn’t care. She’d barely settled in when he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her in a way that made her toes curl and a tingle electrify her entire body until she felt like she was floating. Kai loved her. Truly loved her, and this kiss told her that more than anything.
They separated, Renee beaming, but her smile fell when she saw how troubled Kai looked. “The closer we get to tomorrow, the harder it is for me to stop the Darkness from closing in. I feel its pull in every resting second. I want to be present. I want to be happy. I’m trying. Help me.” Kai shivered violently. “Instead of going inside, can we take a detour? One last stop until the final part of the scavenger hunt.”
The barber shop was empty except for Renee and Kai. Near the door a few simple chairs were clustered around a table covered in magazines. The rest of the room was dominated by half a dozen salon chairs flanking each side, facing mirrors and shelves covered in jars of blue liquid, combs peering through like preserved specimens. In the far back of the shop was a closed door and a single hairdressing sink, plus a small counter with an ancient-looking cash register.
It was chilly in the entryway, and Renee couldn’t wait until they headed back to her place or Kai’s and got out of the cold for the rest of the day. Kai rolled past her, pushing through the aisle toward the back. He was moving better than he had earlier, and Renee hoped that meant his pain and muscle tension had eased. Renee watched from afar as Kai knocked insistently and purposefully on the door marked private.
A moment later, it opened inward and a woman emerged. She was young, tall, slim, with hair so black it had to be dyed, cut short and styled with spikes. A collection of piercings ringed her earlobes. Not at all what Renee expected. “Kai!! I’d ask you how long it’s been, but I can tell by your hair. I’m gonna need hedge pruners to get through this mess.” She reached out to pull her hand through it and Kai flinched away before he could stop himself.
Kai cleared his throat and straightened his spine, acting like it hadn’t happened. “I’m not up for transferring today. Is that a problem?”
“You know I could cut hair upside down. So how do you want it?”
Kai shrugged. Pointed to Renee. “However my girlfriend wants it, as long as it stays out of my eyes when my hands are occupied crutching or wheeling.”
The barber finally noticed Renee and catcalled, striding toward her. “Wow. What beautiful hair!” She reached for it and Renee stiffened (most people didn’t know how sensitive curly hair was) but the Barber simply palmed a handful of curls and scrunched them gently. “And natural, too! And you’re not one of those heretics who straightens it all the time.”
“You certainly have strong opinions about hair,” Renee said out loud before she could stop herself.
Kai laughed. Genuinely, and Renee could see some of his anxiety fleeing, which made her relieved for her slip of the tongue.
“This one’s a keeper,” the barber said with a wink. “Besides, can you imagine your gorgeous color with her curls? Your children will be a match from hair heaven.”
Kai rolled his eyes. “Re, this is Sandi. Sandi, my girlfriend Renee. Can we please get this over with in this decade? Otherwise I don’t mind driving across town to the salon—”
Apparently that was a four-letter word, and Sandi immediately snapped to attention. “I’m going to have to shampoo first if I’m going to do anything with that bird’s nest other than shave it all off.”
Renee had never thought much of barbers, but Sandi was definitely talented. Even though Kai stayed in his wheelchair, which meant she had to get creative to get the angles right, she did an amazing job, and fast. Renee held Kai’s hearing aids in one hand and gripped one of his with her other. He was doing his best to be stoic, to breathe, but he’d never totally shaken off the anxiety and fear sparked by Nancy’s.
Sandi smiled at how they were holding hands and asked Renee how long she wanted Kai’s hair in the back.
“I think right at his jaw?” Renee pointed. She loved Kai’s hair and wanted enough she could still pull her fingers through it while keeping it short so he could go weeks or even months before he absolutely had to cut it again.
Sandi nodded. “I agree. This length is very flattering on him.” Sandi gathered some of Kai’s hair between her fingers, snipping as she let it fall from her grip, perhaps to give it an angled look, creating a kind of “U” with his hair shorter near his ears, gradually lengthening as it went to his neck, then shortening again up to the other ear. She also trimmed it near his ear so it no longer fell over it, though she tested it out a bit, pulling a few strands to get an idea of where it would fall. “What do you think? Cut it back to expose his ear or let it naturally fall?”
Renee liked both looks, honestly, though she expected the former would look neater. “Hmm. I think shorter, but Kai might not like it if people can see his hearing aids.”
Sandi stepped back and seemed to consider this. She gestured for Renee to open her hand. Sandi studied the hearing aids and then swept Kai’s hair near his ear up again as if trying to visualize how it would look once she cut it. “If he wanted to hide them he wouldn’t have gotten them in blue. Let’s go shorter and if he hates it you can blame me.” Sandi grinned, unapologetic, and with a few quick snips, exposed Kai’s ear, creating a natural fall of hair that joined the rest of the cut seamlessly. Renee was surprised Sandi did everything with scissors and comb, never once using a razor to shave or trim. Maybe Kai didn’t like them, maybe Sandi figured cutting this way would mean less maintenance. Whatever the case, Sandi continued to prune, stopping every once in awhile to pull her fingers through Kai’s hair, fiddling with it, styling it. Occasionally snipping off a tiny amount here or there. Finally, she said, “Go ahead, feel it. See what you think.” She stepped aside, waving Renee to take her place behind Kai.
Renee kissed Kai’s hand and then obeyed. Sandi had trimmed it short in the back and on the sides but kept it longish on top. Enough to give his fine hair an illusion of body, while keeping it out of his eyes. It was a great cut, and although Renee was hardly an expert, it seemed as if Sandi’s talents were wasted here.
“Nice, right? Kai is so particular about his hair, I can’t believe he gave you (and me) the reins. He must really trust you.”
That made Renee blush and a warmth bloom in her chest.
Sandi laughed. Patted Kai’s shoulder. “We’re done.”
Kai opened his eyes and looked around. When he met Renee’s gaze, he asked without saying or signing anything if they were finished.
Renee nodded and signed it so there was no confusion.
Sandi used a brush to get some of the loose hairs off Kai’s neck and shoulders, then pulled the bib off in one fluid motion almost like a magician doing the tablecloth trick.
Kai rolled back so he could see himself better in the mirror (since the salon chairs blocked his view). Sandi noticed him struggling and offered him a hand mirror while she held another behind his head so he could see what it looked like on all sides. Kai stared hard at his image as if waiting for it to talk, tilting his head from side to side, smoothing a finger over the hair above his ears. He shook his head, almost like a wet dog might, which made Renee laugh. Next, he combed his fingers through his hair several times, totally undoing Sandi’s styling work, smoothing the much shorter strands on his now exposed neck. Then he frowned at his reflection. “It feels weird.”
Renee offered Kai his hearing aids.
He seemed reluctant to accept them but finally slipped them on and activated them. He tilted his head again, still studying himself in the mirror, fiddling with the hair above his ear, his frown deepening.
Renee worried he didn’t care for the cut.
He dipped his head forward, then tilted it back, shaking it a bit, tossing his locks about, but they were short enough around his face they stayed out of his eyes. “Guess I’ll get used to it.” He forced a smile—no, it wasn’t 100% unnatural—and thanked Sandi.
“Don’t let it go six months or more till I see you both again.”
“I’ll pay, and then let’s go home?” Kai’s eyes had a pleading quality. She could tell the long day, and especially what happened at Nancy’s, had taken a lot out of Kai, emotionally and physically. He looked “done” and desperate to be alone with Renee, maybe so he could be himself. He pulled alongside Renee and wrapped his arms around her, leaning against her as if he’d needed her support to “recharge” enough to survive the trip home.
Renee leaned in and smelled his hair, which was still damp and scented by the shampoo Sandi used. I love you, she thought, kissing his crown. You’ll never be alone ever again. I promise.
Renee and Kai had just exited the barber and were heading back to their car when a girl their age stepped out of one of the shops, brightened, and waved enthusiastically with her free hand. “Kai!!”
Kai’s face was wrapped in his scarf with only his eyes exposed—now Renee realized he wore it like that to keep from breathing the frigid air—his freshly cut hair whipping in the wind. He signed a hello and held his hand out almost as if to protect himself in case she tried to hug him. Renee was relieved that he hadn’t pushed her away physically, and in fact had literally embraced her, but she could tell that the encounter in the restaurant had shaken him up even more than he’d admitted. It made her stomach ache to imagine what he must have lived through as a child.
The girl rushed up to them, her colorful ponytails bobbing. She was wearing a long black and dark purple coat, fishnet stockings that seemed completely inappropriate for the below-freezing weather, and military boots. She clutched a plastic bag in one hand. “You left class and never came back. I was so worried. And then I saw your email. I thought you were going into the hospital. Are you OK?”
Renee’s brows furrowed. Who was this girl, and how did she know so much about Kai? Obviously, they were classmates, but Kai normally kept his cards so close to his chest.
Kai shook his head, popped up a finger to say he didn’t understand what she’d said (he had his hearing aids off because of the wind, but it was loud enough even Renee had trouble catching the girl’s words). Then he gave a signal for her to slow down. Renee was relieved he didn’t ask her to interpret. “Renee, this is my friend from psych class, Steve. Steve, my girlfriend Renee.”
Steve shook Renee’s hand enthusiastically. “Wow. You’re sooo beautiful. You two make such an awesome couple.”
Renee smiled tensely. Steve was a girl? Jealousy sparked in her belly.
Kai glanced up at her, but whether it was because he saw Renee’s unease or because he didn’t get what Steve had said wasn’t clear.
“I thought . . . hospital . . . you . . . go?” Steve signed stiffly and painfully slowly.
“Last day of freedom. Valentine’s Day,” Kai said curtly, clearly ready to get this convo over with.
“Oh. Oh,” Steve said with a smile. “I was just picking up some comic books. Actually, one of these is for you. I was worried I wouldn’t have a chance to give it to you. Bring it with you to read while you’re in the hospital.” Steve took what looked like a large paperback—not at all the more magazine-style publication Renee was expecting—and offered it to Kai. The cover had a man dressed as some kind of superhero in a red, skin-tight costume.
Renee caught the name Daredevil in large font before Kai accepted it graciously and wedged it between his legs.
“A gift,” Steve signed in her clumsy way. “You don’t have to return it. I thought it might give you some ideas for the Blue Blur. And keep you from getting bored while you’re in the hospital. That’s how Aaron got into comics.” Steve seemed to realize she was spouting out words Kai probably wasn’t understanding, and finished with, “But don’t push yourself.”
Kai nodded, though Renee saw the vacant look in his eyes that told her it was an automatic motion to get the conversation wrapped up quickly.
“Your hair looks nice. You won’t need to borrow my hair ties anymore.” Steve leaned forward and pushed her hand through Kai’s locks.
Kai stiffened and rolled backwards.
Steve seemed to realize what she’d done, blushed deep enough it showed through the redness from the cold, and glanced between the two of them apologetically. “I guess I’ll let you two go then. It was nice to meet you, Renee,” Steve signed stiffly. “Write me,” she signed to Kai, saying “Email me” on her lips, which wasn’t the correct way to sign that. “Hope you don’t have to be in the hospital too long.”
This time Kai looked to Renee, wordlessly asking her to interpret, and she did, still irritated that Kai had told this girl he couldn’t have known more than a few weeks stuff it had taken him months to reveal to Renee.
“I hope so too. Enjoy your comic books. Thank you for the gift. Tell your cousin hi for me,” Kai said with a smile that made Steve blush but that Renee knew was one of his fake, if charismatic ones. As soon as Steve was out of sight, Kai bent over, breathing hard. “I’m going to be sick.”
Renee’s heart broke. “If you want to go into one of the stores and use their bathroom, I’ll wait.”
Kai had shoved his scarf off his mouth and she could see how gray his face was despite the cold flushing his cheeks. He covered his mouth and gave her a look that said she was stupid. “None of these stores have accessible restrooms. Let’s just go home.”
Renee sat on Kai’s bed in his room at Vicky’s house, waiting while he finished in the bathroom. He hadn’t spoken or signed at all other than to direct her here, and as soon as he’d gotten his chair and assembled it, he transferred into it and beelined for the toilet. Renee had been curious about the house and the renovations in particular, but right now she was worried. She could hear Kai throwing up, and wondered if she should check on him, like this morning, or if he’d prefer his space.
Renee heard a flush, then running water, and a moment later Kai came out. He didn’t look so good, but he offered her a faint smile. “Sorry. I’ve been nauseous all day and Jon was regulating my meds so strictly after what happened Sunday so I don’t have my good anti-nausea medicine.”
Renee beckoned him close, then slid her fingers through the now-short hair at his temples. She realized Kai must be nauseous a lot and it was only today that he was beginning to let her in to yet another hidden part of his world.
“I must have really disappointed you today, huh?”
Renee frowned, confused. Then shook her head insistently. “I told you, I’m all in. I don’t want you to be sick or in pain, but I’m not some spoiled girl who will pout if you aren’t the ‘ideal’ boyfriend.” Renee wasn’t sure how to sign “ideal,” so she used perfect and a fingerspelling and hope he got what she meant. “I love you. So far my favorite part of today was cleaning the kitchen together this morning, sharing dessert at lunch, and snuggling on the couch. Oh, and holding your hand while you got your hair cut. Those are memories I’ll cherish. Perfect with a ‘K,’” Renee added, referencing his joke from that morning.
Kai smiled for real, bright and beautiful, and she saw the relief in his eyes. No matter how much she insisted that just being with him was enough, he still felt like he had some ridiculous archetype he had to live up to, and because of his disability and his health he was automatically at a disadvantage. She wished she could get him to see himself the way she did.
Renee was reluctant to potentially spoil the mood between them, but she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about their run-in outside the comic store. “Why didn’t you tell me about Steve?”
Kai blinked. His brows dipped. “I thought I did? Did I forget to?” Kai seemed genuinely confused.
Renee sighed. “I mean, you never mentioned she was a girl, for one thing.”
Kai still had a lost look. It took him a relatively long time to reply. “I guess maybe I only signed about her and didn’t specify her gender when I introduced her in the conversation. I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to deceive you.” Kai seemed extremely troubled by this. It was true that ASL pronouns, by themselves, had no gender.
“I guess I saw the name ‘Steve’ and assumed she was a guy.”
Renee was worried she was going to lose Kai; he was getting that distant look in his eyes like his mind was elsewhere. She really didn’t want him to dissociate his way out of this conversation because although she believed Kai loved her, Steve was far too familiar with him. It had taken Renee months to become as close to Kai as she was, and she didn’t like that some other girl could sweep in and burrow through his fortress so easily. Renee clapped her hands.
Kai startled, but his eyes regained focus.
“Are you here now?” Renee asked, tapping her head to emphasize she meant mentally present.
“I’m sorry. I—” Kai’s face scrunched up. “I don’t remember what we were talking about.”
Renee took a big breath and tried to rein in her jealousy and impatience. “Steve. What’s the deal with you two?”
Kai pushed his fingers through his hair. “Nothing. She’s . . .” Kai seemed to be struggling to communicate, like his brain was foggy, or he wasn’t fully present. Renee had to remember how “done” he’d looked after the barber. Slowly, Kai explained, “Steve is a friend. She makes me comfortable. But she barely knows me. She has a cousin with CP who’s deaf and she thinks we’re the same. She’s helped me a lot in psych class. I needed a way to explain why I would be gone for weeks, potentially, so I told her I was going to a hospital out of state for my legs.” Kai closed his eyes and swayed for a moment. “I think . . . my blood pressure is low. I’ll drink some Gatorade. It’ll . . . help clear my mind. Sorry.”
Renee relaxed. Kai must be oblivious to how into him Steve obviously was. “Thank you.”
“Give me a few minutes and then I have a gift for you.”
“Careful, it’s heavy,” Kai said as he offered her a large gift-wrapped box.
Renee accepted it, and even with the warning, its weight caught her off guard. “What did you give me, a boat anchor?” Renee joked, grateful Kai had suggested she sit to open it. “By the way, this room is amazing. Is the furniture custom?”
Kai nodded. “Jon helped Vicky design every detail for me.” Kai hesitated, his face so full of emotion Renee couldn’t parse each individual one out. “Even County House wasn’t this accessible. I’ve never had anything like this before.”
Renee smiled. She could tell Kai didn’t feel he deserved it. “Jon loves you, and Vicky loves you because Jon does.”
Kai laughed self consciously and rubbed the back of his head. “I’m starting to see that. Anyway, open your gift.”
Renee nodded and stripped the wrapping away, exposing a box that she had to open. Folding the tissue paper to the side, she finally revealed the book. Renee stared at it in disbelief, and extracted it with Kai’s help.
“I’ll hold it so it’s easier for you to flip through,” Kai offered.
The book featured full color photos and even complete blueprints of dozens of homes, from traditional to modern. It must have cost Kai a fortune.
“I bought it in Omaha. I know you have that huge project that’s worth such a big part of your grade, and I’ve taken so much of the time you’d use to work on it already. . . . I know this doesn’t make up for that, but I hope it helps, at least a little.” Kai seemed so uncertain, so vulnerable, she wanted to kiss him and assure him again that she wasn’t going anywhere.
Renee set the book aside, as much as she would love to spend the next few hours flipping through it. “I love it. I love you. Thank you so much.” Renee smiled huge and stood so she could give him a quick hug and peck on the cheek. “I have two gifts for you,” she signed, then presented him with the first one, a small wrapped box about the size of one for a watch, and regained her seat on the bed in front of him.
Kai stared at it and then at her, smiled shyly and tore it open. He gazed into the box for a long moment, confused, before he managed to say, “Thank you. I do use sticky notes a lot.”
Renee laughed. “Flip through it.” When Kai didn’t seem to understand, she gestured it.
Kai’s nose twitched, and he still looked uncertain, but he obeyed, prying the pad from the box and casually paging through the stack. Kai’s hands started to shake. His eyes filmed, and he paused, staring at her, looking raw. Renee wasn’t sure if he was touched or upset.
“I know you’re moving and going into the hospital for a while, but . . . I’ve been working on this for weeks. I noticed how you post notes all over your room and in your school books to help you remember.” Renee smiled, partially because she was proud that she was able to sign that in ASL, visually illustrating putting the notes up. “I also know you struggle seeing past the negativity, seeing yourself the way I see you. I thought you could use these to help you remember how amazing you are and how much I love you.” Renee had bought the sticky note cube at the campus bookstore on a whim, then decided to write on every single sheet, hundreds of affirmations. From Renee loves you to I can do this to I am a beautiful person, inside and out and dozens of others.
Kai’s chin trembled and his eyes spilled over. His shoulders shook and he opened his arms, an invitation for her to sit in his lap.
She did, embracing him, holding him, feeling him sob into her chest. Her gift must have backfired. Maybe it reminded him about how scared he was of his upcoming hospitalization.
Kai cried for a long time, and when he pulled away, his nose was running and his eyes were red and puffy. He pulled his undershirt up through the neckhole and used it to wipe his face, then took a huge breath. His eye lashes clung together with lingering tears, and Renee didn’t think she’d ever seen Kai looking like this. Not even when he’d told her about the trauma of the JMH psych ward or his suicidal thoughts. Not even after the incident at Nancy’s earlier today. Like Sandi had said, Kai was trusting her. It meant a lot that he hadn’t hidden this emotion from her, that he’d shared it with her, that he’d wanted her to help him through it.
Renee kissed his forehead. “I’m sorry my gift upset you,” she signed single handed.
Kai took another huge breath, like he couldn’t quite get enough air. Shook his head. “I’m not upset,” Kai insisted, although stray tears streaked down his cheeks. He hiccuped.
Renee brushed some of his tears away.
Kai smiled even as his chest jerked and he continued to cry. “I can’t stop.”
Renee held his face and kissed his forehead, then his cheeks. She leaned her head against his for a moment. She never would have imagined Kai would have gone to her twice in one day to comfort him while he cried. Still, she kicked herself for her gift, because no matter what Kai said, it had brought him to uncontrollable tears. “Talk to me,” Renee pleaded.
Kai took a few steadying breaths, wiping his eyes on his sleeves and inhaling sharply to try to control his leaking nose. “God, I’m nothing but attractive today, between puking and bawling my brains out.”
Kai sighed. “When I first met you, I wanted desperately to hide every single one of my flaws. Including my disability and illness. I know that was wrong and stupid but my whole life people have looked down on me or taken advantage of me because I was ‘weak.’ People have hurt me.” Kai stared into her eyes with an urgent earnestness she wasn’t sure she’d seen before. She suspected he didn’t just mean emotional pain but perhaps was alluding to the abuse he’d lived through. Maybe to his breakdown at Nancy’s, too. She didn’t miss how his words echoed his earlier explanation as to why he liked privacy during physical therapy.
Renee carded her fingers through his hair above his ears, smiling at him in a way she hoped expressed how much she loved him and appreciated his honesty.
Kai took a few difficult breaths and continued. “I didn’t want that with you. But today Dr. Miller made me think hard about whether there is anything I could tell you that would make you love me less.” Kai’s eyes filmed again and he held her tighter to him as if worried he’d lose her. “I don’t want to hide anymore because I know I don’t have to. Honestly, I don’t know why your gift made me lose it, because I love it, and I love that you thought to make it and took the time. I think it’s just. Really hard for me to accept when people go out of their way for me. Because . . .” Kai dropped his eyes and a few more tears fell before he inhaled to compose himself again. “Because I still feel like . . . like I don’t deserve . . . love.” Kai's voice trailed off. He met her eyes and she could see the panic in his, like he was regretting every syllable he’d just spoken.
But Renee smiled. Kissed him. “I’m pretty sure ‘I am deserving’ is in that stack somewhere.”
Kai laughed. Gazed at her with “her” look. “I love you so much.” Then Kai turned serious, and that deep sadness swelled to fill the gaps. “Don’t let me fuck this up, OK?”
“I love this,” Kai said, gazing over at her. They were snuggled together in his recliner in Vicky’s living room, the heated blanket Renee had given Kai as his second present draped over them. It wasn’t clear if he meant the time together, cuddling, or the blanket. “My feet and legs get so cold this time of year.”
Kai smiled sweetly and twirled one of her curls on his finger. “You really pay attention to me,” he said with awe in his voice.
“Of course I do. I love you,” Renee signed with one hand. “Is it your MLS? That makes you cold?”
Kai seemed to think a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe. My low BP probably doesn’t help.” He sighed, contented, and Renee rejoiced to see him happy.
Kai’s mention of his blood pressure reminded her of how out of it Kai had seemed earlier. “You feeling OK?”
Kai’s face clouded a moment before he pushed the shadows away and grinned—forced, not fake. “Yes. Better.” The way Kai smiled, Renee sensed he meant emotionally as well as physically. Her heart brightened. She felt like they’d grown so much closer today than they had in weeks, and even with his depression thick and his fears oppressive, he could still smile for her. A genuine expression that felt like a unique part of Kai she was able to cherish.
Perhaps Kai saw something in her face, because his brows dipped. “My blood pressure’s better,” Kai added as if to reassure her, “and I found an antiemetic patch in my bag.” Kai pointed to a space behind his ear, below his hearing aid case. “So I’ll try to eat most of my dinner and keep it down. So you can leave the worrying to Jon.” Kai’s eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief, though Renee was relieved and grateful Kai cared enough to set her mind at ease. She was still shaken up by the desperate sound of Kai’s breathing after the incident at Nancy’s, but she could ask him more about it later. Kai found Renee’s hand under the covers and linked his fingers in hers. He gazed lovingly at her and sighed again, a sound of satisfaction. “The heat feels so nice on my sore muscles. I hope they let me keep this blanket in the hospital.”
Confused, Renee asked, “Why wouldn’t they?”
Kai let out a long breath. “The cord. Harbinger is much more flexible than JMH, but they still won’t allow anything potentially dangerous. Maybe they’ll let me use it at night.” Kai’s nose twitched and he grew pensive, the sadness creeping over him again. Kai signed singlehanded, “I don’t want to go into the hospital. I’m . . . scared. Really fucking scared. I know it’s not JMH. Everything about this stay should be different, and yet . . .” Kai shivered violently, and even though Renee could feel his hand was warm, he pulled the blanket higher around them, urging her to cuddle closer.
Renee could see that rawness again, and as delighted as she was that she’d witnessed so much honesty from Kai today, she hated that he was hurting. “I promise I’ll visit every weekend. I can even skip classes some mornings if you want. You will never be alone.”
Kai smiled through his sadness and kissed her hand. “I don’t know how ‘there’ I’ll be. Risking your grades even more for me if I’m not even—” Kai took a deep breath. Stared into Renee’s eyes for a long moment. What he was going to say was difficult. Renee had come to recognize that much. “I let Dr. Miller access my files from the twelve years I was at County House. To give her a better picture of how truly fucked up I am. She says I have like, two kinds of depression at once? Part of why I’ve been having such a hard time. So she wants to add another medication to help pull me out of this low and minimize the chance I’ll—” Kai hesitated. “Take my life.” Kai squeezed Renee’s hand tight. “She is going to start me on it while I’m in the hospital, so they can safely find the right dose for me. But it causes slowed thinking, difficulty concentrating, and memory issues. Which I have problems with already because of my brain damage.” All of which Renee had experienced recently when she’d asked Kai about Steve. Renee had forgotten how bad Kai could get when he was exhausted since he compensated so well normally. “I might even dissociate more at first. You never saw me before my cognitive therapy. It’s possible when I’m on the highest doses I won’t be able to communicate. I may not understand when you talk or sign to me. I could be a zombie.”
“That would be temporary, though, right? Even if all I can do is sit next to you and do my homework while you stare at me, half asleep, we’d still be together. And one step closer to you feeling better.”
Kai smiled. It managed to be pained and besotted at the same time. “I love you so much it hurts. Physically. I don’t even know if that’s normal. Me and ‘normal’ seem to exist in different universes.”
“Sometimes my heart hurts because I love you so much,” Renee signed, using the lexicalized fingerspelling for ‘hurt’ over her heart and hoping that conveyed to Kai what she meant. “So either it’s normal or we’re both freaks. I’ve never loved anyone like I love you.”
“Same.” Kai was smiling, and he looked so beautiful with his new haircut framing his face, but the sadness never left his eyes. Maybe it was possible Kai could never totally shake the shadows away. “I’m sorry you got a bargain-basement boyfriend.”
That actually made Renee laugh, partially because she saw Kai as the exact opposite. “I think you’re more like a special, limited edition.”
Now Kai laughed. “This Valentine’s Day has definitely been ‘special,’” Kai said dryly.
Renee slipped her fingers into his hair at his temples, a delighted feeling filling her when he didn’t flinch. “You told me being with you would never be normal.”
Kai laughed again, this time less self-deprecating and more natural. “Part of me is terrified of you seeing me if my mental state is anything like it was after my transplant. The first couple months of recovery are a blur, but I do recall how frustrated, scared, and angry I was. Not being able to follow what people were saying. Having thoughts form and disappear before I could articulate them. It made me feel helpless in a way I never had before.”
“I’ve seen you forget your English,” Renee pointed out, trying to reassure him.
He shook his head. “I’ve recovered so much and I compensate so much; you have no idea. I don’t even realize it myself half the time except when I see my neuro and he purposely tries to throw me off.” Kai sighed, and Renee was immensely happy that he was being so open and honest with her again. She knew it took a lot of trust for Kai to share all of this with her, to admit he was afraid. “It’s hard to explain. . . . It’s almost like being trapped inside my head, trying to wade through this thick swamp, but never quite reaching my destination. I sink into instinct, into my childhood persona, and I hate it. I’m just panic and fear and pain and I’m worried if you see me like that . . .” Kai took a huge breath, dropped his eyes, and Renee thought he wasn’t going to continue. But then he took her hand and held it as if for strength and forced himself to look at her. “Dr. Miller says taking this new drug is temporary, just until I’m out of this depressive episode, but what if I can’t stay level without it? What if all the hard work I put into compensating so I can function was for nothing? What if—”
Renee pressed a finger to Kai’s lips to shush him, shaking her head. “You told me the neuro you have now did things for you no one else thought possible, right?”
Kai’s brows furrowed but he nodded.
“Whatever happens, we’ll deal with it together. You’ve conquered the impossible more than once. And that was without me to help and support you.”
Kai’s eyes misted, but he took a breath and steeled his emotions, smiling. A radiant smile that Renee so rarely got to see. “Today didn’t turn out at all how I’d imagined when I started planning this weeks ago, but it’s been one of the best days I’ve ever had.”
Kai and Renee stared into each others’ eyes for a long, heated moment. Kai reached for Renee, sliding his hand along her side from the level of her breasts toward her ass. When she didn’t resist, he tugged, and she shifted enough to let him guide her onto his lap. He’d barely let her settle in when he braced a hand on the nape of her neck and pulled her down into a hungry kiss.
Lately, this would be a moment Kai’s dark side would wield dangerous control, or he would be so scared of that he’d hold himself back. But for some reason, Kai wasn’t afraid right now. Not of losing himself. Not of hurting Renee. Something was different between them, Kai could sense it from the moment their lips locked and their tongues began to twist against each other in their erotic dance. He wanted her. He felt desire ignite inside him, but he wasn’t scared of its burn.
He kissed Renee, deeply, passionately, clinging to her as if to keep her from falling from the force as he fucked her mouth the way he’d mastered under Nikki’s tutelage. He barely even paused to breathe. He needed Renee. Needed to kiss her, unbridled, the way he’d been longing to for weeks. Finally, she pushed against his shoulder and they separated, panting. Kai’s vision was hazy and his head spun, his heart thundering and his dick painfully hard. A flicker of fear pierced the fog, but when Kai checked Renee again, he didn’t see terror but his own lust mirrored in the heat of her eyes, her pale skin flushed pink where it was exposed by the angle of her sweater’s neckline.
Even a few days ago, if Renee had told him to stop, Kai wasn’t sure if he could have, but he took a deep breath to try to focus his mind, bracing for it. Instead, she took his hand, slid it under the fabric of her shirt, guiding it up her back toward the clasp of her bra.
“Are you sure?” Kai asked with only his face, licking his lips.
Renee nodded. “I want you,” she said using a sign—fingers curling, pulling down from the chin along the neck—that could mean anything from passion, desire, greed, and more. Perhaps this shade of meaning she’d learned from David, but it only increased Kai’s own lust. He’d never had a woman sign to him like this, and the tiny part of Kai’s brain that wasn’t completely consumed by his cock believed that even if Renee left this at first or second base and they didn’t make it all the way home as he hoped, he’d be satisfied.
Kai unhooked her bra, and between the two of them guided it and her sweater off.
The chill air hit Renee’s exposed skin, bringing up goosebumps and making her instinctively wrap her arms around her breasts.
“Uh uh,” Kai said, shaking his head, “mine.” He grinned. Licked his lips again, and laid a hand on her arm, waiting for her to relent. “We only have to go as far as you want,” Kai managed to say, although it was difficult, because his breath had sped up and all he wanted was to tug her closer and lick every exposed patch of her skin.
Renee’s only response was to drop her arms and place her hands on his shoulders, pulling herself closer.
Kai blew gently on her nipples, making her squirm and them tighten. He could see by the movement of her chest she was breathing faster, even if he couldn’t hear it. He kissed the space between her breasts tenderly, then nuzzled there, inhaling her scent, the roses the backdrop to what he could only describe as deliciously feminine and purely “Renee.” Kai braced her back with one hand and used the other to tease a nipple with his fingertips. It felt almost like his first time, the tension snapping his belly, the electric heat in his balls, the ache in his cock begging to be touched. If it hadn’t been for Kai’s “problem,” he might have worried about going off before they’d hardly begun.
Renee hadn’t said anything, but she’d subtly started pulling on his shoulder as if to guide his mouth to her taut and teased nipple.
Kai chuckled. He used one hand to fondle her breast and angle it toward his mouth, darting his tongue out a few times with a sly smile, his eyes cast up toward her.
She was watching him, beautiful and erotic, her eyes dark, and Kai felt his dick twitch as if trying of its own will to reach her. And Kai thought in that moment he’d never wanted a woman more. Not even Nikki at her best.
Kai couldn’t decide if he wanted to ravish her mouth again or give her what she craved. She let out a sound he couldn’t distinguish except from the adorable pained expression on her face. Was she whining?
He laid a hand on the skin between her breasts, his thumb resting beneath one to support it while his other guided it toward his mouth. He sucked softly, his tongue sliding over the nipple languidly. Kai saw through his upturned eyes how Renee’s head tipped back, and when he grazed his teeth over her nipple he felt her moan through the halt in her breathing.
Not wanting to move his hand so he could feel each of her sighs of pleasure, Kai stretched his pinkie to brush against the exposed nipple of her other breast while he altered the rhythm and intensity of his sucking and tongue ministrations.
After several minutes, Renee was barely breathing, a hand on his head as if to keep him there. Still, he popped off, grinning, before forcing her mouth to his to devour it again and feel her moan in an entirely different way. As he kissed, his hand slid down along her belly to the band of her pants, teasing at her button and zipper, then inching over the fabric between her legs to the space between her thighs, rubbing her until she grunted and pulled away. She shook her head, and for a minute, Kai was disappointed.
But then Renee climbed off him and unbuttoned and unzipped her jeans, sliding them down to her feet, revealing sexy red lace bikini panties with tiny white bows along the waistband.
Kai’s mouth watered. He wanted to simply unzip his pants and stick his dick through the fly of his boxers, but he worried because the rough teeth of a zipper, bare skin, pubic hair, and friction didn’t make for a good combination. The last thing he wanted right now was to ruin their first sexual encounter in months because he’d been lazy. Kai was glad he’d taken his braces off before lunch, but now wished he’d changed into PJ bottoms when they’d arrived at Vicky’s. Kai placed one hand on the seat beside him and the other on the arm of the recliner and pushed to shift his body more toward the midline of the chair. Then he took a breath. His mind wanted to spin off into self recriminations, but he reminded himself that Renee loved him, including his different way of moving.
Renee was watching him, hugging herself due to the chill.
Kai realized he didn’t want to delay by doing this himself. “When I push up, tug my jeans down over my butt toward my knees. Leave my boxers.” Kai threw the blanket aside and undid his button and zipper.
Renee’s eyes widened, surprised he was asking for help, perhaps, or maybe because his cock was threatening to push its way out of his boxers without anyone’s assistance. But Renee smiled and nodded.
Kai planted his hands on either side of him, making sure to leave enough room between his arms and his hips so Renee would have an easier time, which meant he didn’t have to hold the position too long. “One, two, three.” Kai pushed hard, grunting, heaving his butt up above the seat several inches.
Renee didn’t dally; her tiny fingers were cold where they touched his skin, but she accomplished the task much faster than Kai could have managed without her. She nodded to help signal when she was done, lightly tickling along the inside of his knee.
Kai let out a harsh breath as he let his butt fall back to the seat. His erection had shrunk, but Renee’s touch quickly brought him back to full hardness. Kai got so lost in the sensation he’d nearly forgotten about the bandages on his thighs from this morning’s misadventures, suddenly grateful he’d left his underwear in place.
Kai reached toward Renee, slipping a fingertip through the edge of her panty’s waistband, tugging.
Renee got the hint, but she hesitated. “Here? Sex?” She glanced around the open living room, which had a direct line of sight to the hallway from which the laundry room emptied, meaning if Jon or Vicky came home, they’d catch Kai and Renee in the act.
“Jon’s working late and Vicky is never home before six.” Kai pulled his cock through the fly of his boxers, squeezing the base. Precum glistened on the tip.
Hunger grew in Renee’s eyes when she saw him, fully erect and exposed, and any remaining hesitation fled. She slipped off her panties, the aroma of aroused female wafting into Kai’s nostrils immediately and nearly making his eyes roll back in his head.
Kai beckoned her, pleaded with his eyes, extending a hand to help her back into his lap. It only took her a moment to accept. Renee settled in, her knees astride his thighs. She placed her hands on his sweater as if to urge him to remove it; she was entirely naked and Kai was barely exposed. Kai’s stomach contracted. If Renee saw his bandages and scars now, it would ruin everything. He shook his head. “Please. No.”
Renee’s eyes grew worried, but she nodded and kissed him tenderly. Without giving him much time to think—and barely breaking the kiss—Renee wrapped her hands around his cock, stroking a couple times so gently Kai’s body tensed and he worried he might shoot. But before he could come down from that high she slipped him inside her, sinking down deep.
Kai felt his stomach muscles twitch and spasm as the pleasure washed over him. Kai never fucked bare, and if he’d been thinking straight he might have stopped everything to roll on a condom, but Renee was so hot and wet and tight and he was deep enough he’d inched into a crevice that gripped the head of his cock like a key in a lock. And Kai didn’t want to give up this pleasure. He shuddered and smiled hugely. “I love you,” he breathed.
Renee smiled back. She wrapped her hands around his neck and began to move, rolling her hips.
Kai palmed her ass and aided her movement, slow at first, gradually increasing to a faster, if steady rhythm. God, Kai wanted to feel her hands on his stomach, his chest, his back, skin to skin, but he couldn’t risk it. Not now. Not today.
They rocked together, and this fuck was unlike any fuck Kai had ever had before, even with Renee. The electricity built and built in the base of his balls, making him greedy, pulling Renee down onto him and toward him with increasing fervor she was enjoying as much as he was from the way he felt her muscles contract around him.
Renee’s movements grew irregular, her lip caught between her teeth, her breasts heaving. She squeezed tight and Kai momentarily lost his breath, releasing it in a loud groan. Renee smirked, shifted her hold on him, leaning back to get just enough extra depth. Her face contorted in ecstasy as her muscles contracted in delicious rhythm that nearly carried Kai with her. Then her entire body went lax, and Kai was almost certain she would have slid off the recliner if he hadn’t been firmly holding her.
Her skin was coated in a sheen of sweat, and she struggled to catch her breath, lids half mast, a sated smile on her face. “Wow.” She laughed, then sighed. “Now your turn.”
Kai was tempted to warn her it wouldn’t happen for him, though he’d never enjoyed sex more. In the past it had always been about pain or avoiding his feelings and memories, a chase to the finish one way or another. But today had been different in so many ways.
“I love you,” Renee said, her face aglow and radiant. She leaned in, using his shoulders to pull herself closer, the movement making them both moan.
“Fuck, you feel so good.”
Renee nodded in agreement before dominating him with a kiss that seemed to send a jolt straight to the base of his spine. Kai felt the need growing, the hunger threatening, and he grabbed her ass to better control the angle and intensity of her thrusts.
He was close. He could feel the tension building, his stomach jerking as the spasms grew more powerful. A drop of sweat slid down Kai’s back, but he didn’t relent. Together they pushed Kai closer and closer, Renee squeezing him in rhythm; she was stronger than she had been back in November. Kai stretched his hand farther up Renee’s body, searching for better purchase. Drove her hard onto him again and again, losing his breath with each slap of skin. Suddenly, all the muscles in his lower body seemed to tense in unison. Kai gasped and held Renee, keeping her still and the penetration as deep as he could manage for as long as possible. The spasms caused his hips to buck once, twice. A vice of muscles taut, his back arching.
And then, with a shout, his world momentarily went white as he came, fingers digging into Renee’s soft flesh to hold her to him as he shot, aftershocks racking his body for nearly a minute.
Pleasure like Kai had never felt before washed over him: the euphoria of orgasm and the relief of finally achieving what had been out of his grasp for weeks. Kai’s arms fell, burning with pain and fatigue. His entire body felt heavy even as post-coital spasms continued.
He barely noticed his cock softening or Renee easing off him. She kissed his forehead and said something his brain couldn’t process because it was insulated by endorphins.
Smiling with pure contentment, Kai’s eyes slid closed as he said on a sigh, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”