February 13, 2001 - Part IV
Jon sank into his office chair, exhausted and feeling awful, his tester in one hand. He hadn’t had a second to spare all day. Between his packed schedule in the outpatient clinic, his inpatients, covering for a sick fellow, and consults, he hadn’t had time to check his sugar as often as he should have, or eat properly, let alone find an endocrinologist and make an appointment, as he’d planned. Worse, he hadn’t even had a minute to check in with Kai, and although his brother was supposed to spend the entire day with Renee, that worry was constantly in the background, eating away at his concentration when he could least afford it. Exhaustion didn’t help, either. Almost twelve hours since his shift started and he was finally getting his first real break. Jon didn’t even want to think about his pager, in case it decided to go off like it had been almost nonstop since he’d shown up for work that morning.
Jon’s tester beeped. He didn’t even have the energy to be shocked by how high his blood sugar was. He checked his watch and did a quick calculation as he heaved himself back to his feet and crossed the room toward the fridge. Popping it open, he surveyed the bottles of insulin he had and grabbed the long-acting one, hoping it would hold him off until the end of his shift late tonight. It would mean he’d have to eat a snack at the very least soon so he wouldn’t crash. Jon sighed as he grabbed a syringe from the box he kept on top of the fridge and prepped it, then pulled out his shirt and undershirt. Jon had just pinched a patch of skin on his belly he hadn’t used yet today when an insistent buzz followed by a melodic chirp sounded from his belt.
“Oh for fuck sake,” Jon groaned. He injected himself and tossed the syringe in the sharps container on top of the fridge. Without bothering to tuck his shirts back in, he checked his pager. Emergency for Harriet’s kid, the Deaf boy that Jon had barely saved more than once and was beginning to lose hope for. Jon sighed. Muttered to himself, “Break’s over.”
Renee had just finished cleaning herself and Kai and dressing when she heard the sound of the door to the garage opening. Kai was fast asleep and had been since they’d finished a few minutes earlier. He looked so peaceful, and even if she wasn’t worried about waking him, there was no way she could get his jeans back up without his cooperation. She made sure he was tucked back into his boxers and draped the heated blanket over him, adjusting the temperature on the remote attached to the cord.
How little sleep do you get? Renee wondered sadly, kissing Kai’s temple just as she heard the sound of footsteps approaching behind her.
Renee turned to see a woman in her mid 30s who had to be Vicky. She was model-tall, probably only a few inches shorter than Kai or Jon, with incredibly long, shiny straight brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders toward her waist. She somehow managed to be both plain and beautiful. Renee held her finger to her lips. “Kai’s sleeping,” she whispered, gesturing his direction. He still had his hearing aids turned on so far as Renee knew, and she didn’t want to risk removing them. Although she suspected Kai would sleep deep for an hour or more, his body clearly desperate for rest at any opportunity.
“You must be Renee,” Vicky said in a soft voice as she drew closer. “I’m Vicky, in case that wasn’t already obvious.” She extended a hand and they shook. Then she took a few more steps toward the recliner. Gazed down at Kai with a warm smile that made a spike of jealousy form in Renee’s stomach. “So happy he’s here. And getting some rest. He and Jon fought last night and I don’t think either of them managed much sleep.” Vicky hesitated, then laid her hand on Kai’s head, smoothing his hair, looking down at him fondly.
Something about Vicky’s behavior made a visceral dislike bubble up in Renee, and she wondered if maybe Kai hadn’t been too far off by initially hating the woman. What was she playing at? Was it because Kai looked so much like his brother?
Vicky stepped back and beckoned Renee to follow her toward the kitchen, all the while braiding her long hair into a single plait. “Please tell me you’re staying for dinner? Unless you and Kai have plans?”
Renee glanced back toward Kai. “No plans, I don’t think. Though I was hoping to spend the night with him, since he’s leaving in the morning, but I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“Nonsense.” Vicky smiled, finished the braid and wound it up into a bun that surprisingly stayed in place despite its weight, though Vicky pulled a hair tie from her pocket to secure it anyway. Then she grabbed two aprons from a hook on the pantry door and tossed one to Renee while she put the other on. She moved with a frenetic, happy energy, not at all like someone who had just gotten off work and was pregnant to boot. “I told Kai that if he lives here, this home is as much his as mine or Jon’s, and his room is his domain. He doesn’t need permission to have someone visit or spend the night. He may be young, but he is an adult, after all.”
Renee wasn’t sure what to say to that, though she was relieved that Kai living here might not be too different from his sharing the apartment with Jon.
Vicky opened the fridge and peered inside. “Hmm. I didn’t realize Kai would be here tonight.” She popped her head up so she could see Renee past the still-open door. “Do you have any suggestions? I know he’s picky, and vegetarian, which complicates things.”
Vicky caught Renee off guard. She struggled to think of a single savory food that Kai liked. “He did promise to eat his dinner,” Renee said, stalling. “He was pretty nauseous today,” she added, hoping that wasn’t a betrayal of Kai’s trust.
“Hmm,” Vicky said, considering this. She muttered to herself, as if thinking out loud, naming a few dishes and dismissing them before finally saying, “Ah, I’ve got it!” Then she started taking out ingredients, handing them off to Renee, without saying what she planned to cook: milk, eggs, butter, nuts, fruit, flour, and more. Was she going to bake something?
Renee didn’t have too much to help Vicky with as she watched the taller woman measure out dry ingredients and add them to a bowl.
“I hope you two had a nice Valentine’s Day today?”
Renee smiled and a hint of a blush tipped her cheeks. “Yeah, we did. I got to see Kai’s real smile, which has been so rare lately.”
Vicky looked over at Renee with her own sweet smile; it was a very maternal expression that surprised Renee since they’d just met. Maybe she had misinterpreted Vicky’s actions toward Kai a moment ago. Renee realized that if Vicky was in her mid to late 30s and had gotten pregnant as a teen, she might actually be old enough to be Kai’s mother.
“I’m sorry you and Jon won’t be able to celebrate.” Since Jon would be taking Kai to Harbinger and likely be in Omaha for a few days.
Vicky surprised Renee yet again with a lilting laugh as she began to add milk and eggs and butter to the bowl. “Jon isn’t exactly romantic. At least not in a traditional sense.” Though Renee could see the affection in Vicky’s face as she spoke of her boyfriend. “I don’t mind. That’s part of why I fell in love with him. Every now and then, he surprises me, though.” Vicky flashed her hand, waving her fingers, and now Renee noticed the ring she was wearing on her “wedding band” finger. A simple, continuous flow of metal that was shaped into an infinity symbol.
Now Renee recalled Kai mentioning how Jon and Vicky we’re moving in together but didn’t plan to marry. She never would have pegged Jon as the kind to come up with something that sentimental.
Vicky chuckled as she started mixing the ingredients by hand. “I was surprised, too. I think the idea, and maybe the design, was Kai’s suggestion. Though the brothers are a lot more alike than they seem on the surface.”
“I don’t know Jon that well, except that he’s like a father to Kai, and he really cares about him.”
Vicky smiled fondly. She carefully extracted the whisk from the batter and set it aside. “Now we need to let that rest, so we’ll make the compote.” Vicky was making jam? What the hell was she preparing for dinner?
Vicky took out two cutting boards and some small bowls, and laid them out side by side. Then a pair of knives, offering Renee one. “We’ll wash the fruit and chop them up between us, then reduce them with some sugar.”
They worked in relative silence for awhile, the only noise the chop chop chop of knife against board. Finally, Vicky said, “I guess I really have Kai to thank for Jon.” She went on to explain, “The year Jon came back here, everyone was talking up a storm about the new fellow who was only in his early 20s but was smarter and more talented than anyone else. I figured Jon would be worse than most, haughty and condescending. But Jon wasn’t like that at all. And he showed up early, not because he wanted to brown nose or anything like that, but because he needed to find out what happened to his brother. I think I fell in love with him ‘at first sight’ because of that. Silly, right? Especially since I don’t think I’d ever loved a man before him. Crazy at my age, huh?”
Renee paused in her chopping to glance over at Vicky. Right now they felt more like sisters than anything else, and Renee could almost forget their huge age difference for awhile.
Vicky scooped her chopped fruit into a bowl. “I had some bad experiences when I was very young, younger than you, so realizing how I felt about Jon surprised me.”
Renee wondered if Vicky had been raped, or had her own kind of “Jude” experience. “I understand. I think I fell for Kai the first time I saw him smile, even if it didn’t hit me right away.”
Vicky’s face had shadowed , but now she smiled. “Come on, let’s get these cooking.”
A few minutes later, two separate pots were bubbling away under their watch, the sweet scent of cooking fruit reminding Renee of pie filling.
Vicky stirred each, using both hands in a feat of coordination Renee wasn’t sure she could mimic. “Jon isn’t exactly sociable, so I was really his only friend when Kai got sick. He had to be strong for his brother, and so I was strong for him. I wanted to confess my feelings, but I was afraid of ruining our relationship and leaving Jon without anyone.”
Renee realized that Kai’s illness had kept Vicky and Jon apart, romantically, for years, even if they otherwise may have grown closer. Perhaps that was one reason Kai had been trying lately to get along with Vicky. For Jon’s sake. Renee knew Kai felt indebted to his brother, and worshipped him (even if he might not openly admit it). “That must have been really difficult for you.”
Vicky sighed. “We do whatever it takes for the people we love, right?”
Renee couldn’t help looking over toward the living room. She could hear Kai growing restless and moaning in his sleep. Nightmares. She hated that he almost never got a break from them lately.
“Go check on him. It’s OK. These are nearly done and we have a few minutes until the batter will be ready.”
Renee thanked Vicky, realizing her first impression had been totally wrong. Vicky could be someone for Renee to admire, maybe even be the older sister figure she’d never had but always wanted.
Kai was curled up in the fetal position, breathing raggedly, shaking and whimpering. It was the sound a scared, injured child might make and not something she would ever have expected from Kai. It broke her heart.
As Renee drew closer, she saw Kai had his mouth on his wrist, which explained why the sound was muffled. The large gauze taped to his forearm didn’t escape her notice, and it worried her. How and when had he injured himself? And how bad was the wound? She realized he had been deliberately hiding it from her all day, which made her sad, but she would deal with that later. Especially when Kai pulled his knees tighter to his body with his free arm and started to tremble harder, his cries becoming more panicked. Kai sounded like he was terrified. And in pain. Severe, lingering pain.
Even though Kai and Jon had urged her never to try to wake him when he was having an obvious nightmare like this, to not touch him, Renee couldn’t stand still and leave him this way. Not if she could help. And she had confidence now she could. With her assistance, Kai had avoided a really bad flashback earlier, the kind that she had never witnessed before personally but knew Kai experienced. The kind that had caused him to commit himself the first time, back in November.
If Renee could remind Kai he wasn’t alone, she would.
She walked around him so that he would be able to see her clearly.
Kai whined, a long, drawn out sound that reached right into Renee’s chest and squeezed her heart, causing a fierce ache.
Renee took a deep breath and touched Kai’s arm, the one holding his legs, just a graze.
Kai stiffened, and he quieted for a second, but didn’t wake.
Renee took a few steps closer and wrapped an arm around him in an awkward hug, speaking into his ear. She hoped even if he couldn’t understand her, the tone and sound might at least be familiar. “You’re safe. I’m here. It’s OK to wake up.” Renee planted a single gentle kiss on his forehead. Then she held a lock of her hair in front of his nose, hoping that maybe the smell might help snap him out of his nightmare.
Renee felt Kai shift and leaned away so she could see if he’d woken, though she kept her hands on him in a way she hoped he would find comforting and not restraining. She made a point to avoid the places where the jerk at Nancy’s had grabbed him since Kai had said that had made his panic worse.
Kai’s breathing almost stopped completely, but before Renee could worry, his eyes opened. Renee knew immediately from the lost, confused look, the lack of recognition, that he was still in his nightmare, in a flashback.
Renee held her breath. “You’re safe. You don’t need to be scared,” Renee signed with one hand, smiling at him. Her heart thrummed; David and Jon had far more experience than she did dealing with Kai when he was like this, but she was here and they weren’t. Besides, hospitalization and meds wouldn’t stop his dissociations overnight. She needed to be able to help him through them.
Kai looked . . . relieved wasn’t quite the right emotion. Renee wasn’t sure if she could have expressed it in words because it was far too complex. But he relaxed subtly, his gaze became more focused, and he dropped his arm from his mouth. He held a fist tight over his belly, looking up at her as if hoping for something. Comprehension?
Renee shook her head.
Kai whimpered louder than he had while he was asleep, and his eyes spilled over. He never broke their gaze. He squeezed his fist tighter. Obviously some kind of sign, but not one Renee recognized. At least not that would make sense in this context. Kai started to pant and grimaced like he was in serious pain.
Pain. Maybe that was a sign from Kai’s childhood—what were those kinds of things called? home signs?—that meant “pain.” Maybe Kai was pleading for her help.
“Oh Kai,” Renee said softly, feeling her sinuses sting. She took a huge breath to try to keep her tears at bay. Then she used mostly gestures to explain that she was going to get in the chair with him and help take the pain away.
Kai seemed wary, but when Renee signed she wouldn’t hurt him, he nodded.
It took some doing for Renee to climb in with the recliner in the open position, but she managed, and as soon as she could she enveloped Kai in her small arms, squeezing him tight, pouring all her love into the embrace.
Kai tensed initially, but gradually relaxed into the hold, his shaking stopping, his breathing leveling out, and his crying finally silencing. After several minutes, he let out a long sigh and slipped an arm under hers to hold her hand against him, linking their fingers. He turned his head and immediately Renee could see he was “back.” “It’s 2001,” Kai replied to her unanswered question, his voice rough, his way of letting her know he was in the present. He seemed wiped out, like the nightmare and flashback had drained all his energy and he hadn’t gotten any rest from the nap. But he smiled faintly at her. Gratitude evident in his beautiful blue eyes.
Renee squeezed him, and leaned her head against his arm for a moment. She could smell him, that faint hint of soap, sweat, and his underlying scent that made her feel warm inside, love blossoming and healing the hurt her heart had felt seeing him suffering. “I love you,” she said when she looked up.
Kai pushed her away, which worried her until she realized he was shifting so he was on his back, his legs extended. He breathed heavily for a minute after moving, but smiled again, his eyes brightening, once he’d recovered. “I love you too.”
Renee bit her lip, hesitating, and then she held her hand up, tightening her fist. “Does this sign mean anything to you?”
Kai’s eyes widened, and then he dropped his gaze for a second before looking back at her again. “When I was little, Jon taught me some signs, since I couldn’t speak. I took to it and made up a lot of my own, some of which I kept using with him even after I started going to JSD and learned ASL there.” Kai sighed. “That’s my home sign for ‘hurt.’”
Renee scooted a little closer to him and gave him another quick hug. “You sounded like you were in so much pain. It’s why I woke you.”
Kai massaged the space between his eyes with his thumb. “And then I was lost, like I was a kid, and I signed that to you.”
“Some of my really bad nightmares bleed into wakefulness. I guess this was your first taste of my childhood persona.” Kai frowned. “I’m sorry you had to see me that way.”
Renee shook her head and brushed her hand over Kai’s cheek. He flinched but then leaned into her touch. “I just wanted to take away his—your—pain. Even if it wasn’t real in this moment. I don’t just want to make you happy. I want you to feel safe. I don’t ever want you to feel alone or lonely, even if I’m not able to be with you all the time.” Renee laughed self consciously. “I’m not making sense.”
Kai repeated some of what she’d said to confirm he had understood her words, then he smoothed a hand over her hair, gently enough so he wouldn’t pull on her curls and hurt her. He gazed at her with intense affection and awe, the sadness gone, even if it was only temporary. “Re—” Kai seemed about to say something important, maybe even share what the dream or flashback was about, but before he could speak, Vicky called them from the kitchen.
The smell from the kitchen was heavenly. Buttery with a hint of sweetness, but no savory notes, which perplexed Kai. His stomach gurgled loud enough he could hear it as he pulled in to the vacant spot at the table; he actually felt hungry. He was weary, like his limbs were heavier than they should be, and if he let his thoughts wander for too long the fear and sadness about what tomorrow would bring would creep in to overwhelm him. But he felt at peace, relatively. Today had been a disaster. And yet it had also been a triumph. Renee accepted him, wanted to support him, in a way no woman ever had, and she made him believe he could survive after all. Even if that feeling was fleeting because of the intense power of his depression, the fact that he could feel happy and safe at all with her was startling.
He could still faintly feel her warmth and love, the embrace that had awoken him from his waking nightmare and brought him back to himself. He wanted that again. He wanted the feeling of security every time he closed his eyes. He wanted—
“Vicky made a ton, so I hope you’ll keep that promise to eat.” What Renee said didn’t immediately click, but once she set down the platter, stacked high with pancakes, their fragrance rising up with the steam, Kai understood what she must have said.
“Pancakes?” Kai asked quizzically, although he found his mouth watering as Vicky set a pitcher of milk and another smaller one that had to be maple syrup on the table.
“It was Vicky’s idea. They have nuts in them so they’re nutritious but also hopefully something you’ll like. And of course, they’re vegetarian.”
Kai blinked, shocked.
“There’s fruit compote, too,” Vicky said as she returned with two more bowls, one with a red, sweet-smelling goop and the other with blue. “Fancy jam,” she added when it seemed as if he didn’t understand what she’d said.
Kai felt the same overpowering emotions that had hit him at Christmas when he’d unwrapped the recliner, or when he saw Renee’s sticky-note gift. But Renee brushed her hand along the side of his face, light but tender, and it was as if her love reached inside him and squashed the negativity. I am deserving, Kai thought, recalling one of the notes. “Thank you,” Kai said, knowing it wasn’t enough but not sure he could find the words.
“I really don’t mind cooking, so I’ll make you anything you want, any time. Even if it’s ‘forbidden.’ I would rather you ate something than not at all. Plus I’m pretty creative at making even fun food nutritious. Lots of picky younger siblings.” Vicky smiled at him, and it struck him in a way he couldn’t quite figure out.
Kai dismissed it for now, thanking her again as he served himself. Just a couple to start with, adding plenty of butter because he knew the fat would be good for him, followed by a conservative amount of syrup. Maybe the cake at lunch had contributed to his reaction at Nancy’s. Maybe not. But it wouldn’t do to overdo the sugar.
Renee poured him a glass of milk, and then took her seat.
It didn’t escape Kai’s notice that the women seemed to be watching him, as if waiting for his reaction to the food.
Sighing softly, Kai used his fork to cut off an edge, swiping it in some of the extra syrup before placing it in his mouth. It had become habit for Kai to hold his breath when he ate, especially the first bite; it impeded his sense of smell and made it easier for him to swallow without gagging. But Kai consciously made sure to breathe and actually taste the pancake before chewing and swallowing.
His eyes widened. “Wow. That’s . . . I think that’s the best pancakes I’ve ever eaten.” Kai took another bite, and then another, and soon he had polished off his entire initial serving. He didn’t even realize he’d eaten it all and so fast until Renee laughed.
“I’ve never seen you eat like that.”
Kai felt his cheeks pink. Then his stomach growled again, even louder than before.
Now both the women laughed, and Kai joined in, that feeling of happiness, of belonging, of . . . family sweeping over him. It was almost too much, and his laugh died suddenly.
Renee laid a hand on his arm, her eyes concerned, though she said nothing.
“I’m OK. Really.” Kai took a huge breath. Smiled for both Vicky and Renee to show he meant it, and he was grateful for the meal and the thought and love that had been put into it.
And Kai realized something as he dug into his second serving, and Vicky and Renee chatted and giggled like sisters, that he had been wrong when he’d told Renee that he would never have what Frankie had. Maybe he had never been adopted, and now that he was an adult that would never happen. But he had Jon and Vicky, David and Megan. And he had Renee. Kai had people who cared about him. Who were there to help him when he needed it, even if he didn’t always make it easy.
“Thank you,” Kai said again to both women, emotion leaking into his voice.
He did have a family, after all.
Today was one of those days Jon regretted doing his double fellowship in adult and pediatric pulmonology. His current page had summoned him to the NICU, perhaps the hardest part of Jon’s job. Too often by the time he was called in—especially for preemies—the only advice he could give was to keep the baby comfortable and let “nature take its course.” A phrase Jon loathed, partially because he could imagine Bryan being told the same thing repeatedly more than two decades ago when Kai was an infant. Despite that constant advice, Bryan had insisted on doing everything medicine could for the tiny baby, and now Kai was 22, a college student with a girlfriend and a future. Jon knew it wasn’t healthy, but especially with Vicky’s pregnancy, he’d been struggling to find the distance he needed in cases like these. To think like the logical physician and work with test results and practical outcomes instead of thinking with the heart of a brother and soon-to-be father.
“Dr. Taylor?” a female voice pierced his thoughts.
Jon shook his head to clear it. “What?” It took him a moment to remember where he was: the nurse’s station just outside the NICU, on the fourth floor of JMH. The woman who spoke was a second-year pediatric resident named Emily Campbell who Jon had never worked with before, a woman only a few years younger than him with a bob of medium brown hair and bright, intelligent-looking green eyes.
“How would you like to proceed?”
Jon blinked. Pinched his nose. Leaned with one hand on the counter of the nurses’ station, his head spinning.
Dr. Campbell frowned. “Coffee? I’m heading toward the end of an 18-hour shift myself.”
The invitation to coffee sounded to Jon like the promise of redemption to a condemned man, the pearly gates opening to the melody of an angelic choir. He’d cut back to as little as two or three cups a day, which was supposed to help his anxiety and insomnia, but Jon felt like it only made things worse. “I’d love some.”
Jon followed Dr. Campbell to the residents’ lounge, which was familiar to him from his days as a pediatric pulmonology fellow. Exhausted residents in scrubs and wrinkled white coats sat at tables, hunched over books or napping on the couches, while others downed coffee and nuked sandwiches in the few minutes they had between patients. Jon definitely didn’t miss his training days, especially because it made him think of Kai before his transplant, and Jon’s head was muddled enough without adding worry about his brother to the forefront of his consciousness.
Campbell offered him a styrofoam cup of steaming, cheap-smelling coffee. “It tastes as bad as you’d think, but it’s strong,” she remarked as she fixed herself a cup.
Jon blew on the liquid and then took a few hesitant sips. He choked. “Damn, you weren’t kidding,” he said, though he drank it anyway, as quickly as he could considering the temperature. The caffeine gave him a quick boost, but he knew it wasn’t lack of it that was making him dizzy and foggy. As soon as he finished with this patient, he’d check his sugar again, then find a fellow to bribe so he could duck out of his double-shift a few hours early.
Dr. Campbell leaned against the counter as she carefully sipped her drink. With no preamble, she launched into her presentation of their patient. “Male preemie, born 26 weeks gestation, Apgar score of 3 after a difficult delivery. Patient was treated for surfactant deficiency. When oxygen and biPAP were insufficient for perfusion, patient was intubated and has been on mechanical ventilation via endotracheal tube for twelve weeks with little sign of respiratory improvement, complicated by repeated VAPs. Despite aggressive treatment, patient is failing to thrive.”
Jon considered what Dr. Campbell was telling him. The baby had been born almost three months early and barely survived. Despite treating him aggressively for respiratory insufficiency, and being negative for cystic fibrosis, the baby was struggling even with the help of a respirator, and his situation was made even worse because of pneumonias he’d developed from being on the machine. If Jon couldn’t come up with a better treatment plan, the baby would die.
Dr. Campbell finished her coffee and tossed the cup. “Figured it was time to get you to consult. See if there’s something we’re missing, or if this is a preemie we have to come to terms with losing.”
Jon sighed, nodded, and dumped his cup. “Let me examine him and I’ll give you my prognosis.”
Jon and Emily had suited up—gloves, gown, shoe covers, hair cap and masks—and gone into the NICU together, Emily leading the way to the patient she’d called Dr. Taylor to consult on, Timothy Mikaelson. So far she had to admit that the infamous Dr. Jon Taylor was nothing like what she’d expected. For one, he didn’t approach the baby at all the way other specialists did. Carefully, he’d picked Tim up, especially mindful not to disturb any of the tubes and wires. Dr. Taylor cradled the baby in his arms, speaking softly to him as if Timothy was a normal baby, cooing at him and letting Tim wrap his tiny fingers around one of Dr. Taylor’s. Tim was still so tiny, and Dr. Taylor was a tall man with large hands, so the contrast magnified how small and fragile the baby was.
“Hey, baby,” Dr. Taylor said in a sing-song voice. “You don’t know me. My name is Dr. Taylor. Uh huh.” Dr. Taylor rocked Tim in his arms as he spoke to him. “Your doctors tell me you’re not doing so well, so I’m here to see if I can make you better. OK?”
Watching Dr. Taylor handle Timothy the way he was struck Emily. She couldn’t see the strict attending the hospital rumor mill had come to call “Taylor the Tiger.” Instead, she saw a man who wasn’t much older than she was, who had dark circles of exhaustion under his eyes, and whose wrinkled white coat suggested he cared more about his patients than his appearance. Like this, Dr. Taylor seemed less like an attending specialist and more like a fellow peds resident, someone who saw these sick infants as babies first and not just patients to be written off with hardly a second glance.
To Emily’s surprise, Dr. Taylor managed to slip his stethoscope in his ears without putting Timothy down, and was now cradling the baby in one arm while he used his other hand to listen to the infant’s small chest. Each time he shifted to a new spot, Dr. Taylor would speak to the baby, cooing, “You’re such a good boy. Uh huh. You are.” When he finished, he pulled the stethoscope out of his ears carefully, needing to switch arms so he never had to put Tim down.
NICU babies, especially ones who had been hospitalized as long as Timothy had, sadly got very little human interaction. The nurses did their best, but often they were so caught up in basic maintenance—changing IVs, suctioning, etc.—that they had to triage their affection only for the babies who had the best chance of survival. Ironically, human interaction was essential for a sick baby to thrive. Preemies like Tim thus had even more stacked against them. Dr. Taylor had to know that. Maybe that’s why he’d cuddled the tiny patient throughout his entire exam. And now Emily recalled another element to the rumor behind Dr. Taylor’s fierce nickname: he cared deeply for his patients, he fought for them, often when no one else would.
Dr. Taylor continued to rock Timothy, who seemed to have settled quite comfortably into the doctor’s arms, as he began to ask Emily a long series of questions, many of which surprised her. From what diet Tim was being fed, how he tolerated his suctioning schedule, and everything in between. Occasionally, Dr. Taylor would pause to think or talk to Timothy before beginning a new series of questions.
“So he’s been repeatedly negative for the CF salt test, but has had copious thick, sticky mucus since birth. Numerous pneumonias,” Dr. Taylor said, repeating some of the answers she’d given him. “He’s very congested right now, but I’m assuming that’s normal?”
“For him, yes,” Emily said, noticing how Timothy would always seem to find one of Dr. Taylor’s fingers and only let go when the doctor forced him to. It was heartbreaking. “He’s also been struggling with hypoxia, despite the machine,” she explained, referring to how no matter what settings they used or how high they set his oxygen percentage, the level in his blood was perpetually low, though they could find no satisfactory explanation. “That, combined with the multiple pneumonias is why my attending suspects he’s failing to thrive. But I thought maybe it could be FS?” she finally finished, a bit hesitant.
Dr. Taylor, to her surprise, didn’t seem to react; in fact, he didn’t take his focus away from the baby. With the mask obscuring his face, she couldn’t see his smile, though she heard it in his tone. “I have to go now, Timmy, but I’ll see you later, OK? You be a good boy. I know it’s hard to breathe right now, but I’ll do my best to make it better.” Dr. Taylor jerked his finger, playfully bouncing the baby’s arm. He seemed reluctant to put the baby back, but he finally did, laying the infant carefully in the bassinet, adjusting the blankets so he wouldn’t be cold, carefully shifting lines and tubes so they weren’t kinked. Dr. Taylor sighed softly, and finally looked at Emily, his features totally transformed, serious and professional. “I’m assuming you requested me to consult specifically because you suspected FS.” He didn’t say it as a question.
“Yes,” Emily said, though her confidence wavered from his stern, impenetrable gaze. Was he angry? “I’ve read some of your research and editorials, how you feel FS is vastly underdiagnosed, especially in infants.”
Something seemed off with Dr. Taylor, especially as he walked toward the exit, his gait wobbly, as if he were drunk or dizzy.
Emily hurried to follow him out the door of the sealed ward. He stood with one hand on the wall, tearing off his mask, gasping. His face had paled and sweat was visible on his brow and cheeks. Had he had a panic attack or something? That seemed completely at odds with everything she’d heard about him.
“Dr. Taylor? Are you all right?”
He offered a faint smile. “Should’ve brought my own masks. Less constricting.” He pulled the cap off his head and shoved his fingers through his hair, sucking in a few more deep breaths. Then, as if nothing had happened, he continued, although he spoke with strange pauses, as if he were having trouble connecting his thoughts. Emily wondered how many hours he’d been on shift as she could commiserate. “As you know, FS is a diagnosis of . . . of . . . exclusion.” Dr. Taylor shifted so he was leaning with his back to the wall. Though he tried to seem casual enough, Emily wondered if it was the only thing keeping him upright. “Timothy is showing several . . . several signs that point to . . . FS. I’d recommend starting him on . . . Am—Amphigarol to see if it helps . . . with his mucus, and also . . . adjust his mucus . . . clear—clearance procedures. Treat him much like you would a CF baby. And I want to consider . . .” Dr. Taylor’s eyes lost focus and he panted for a minute before struggling to continue. “Consider chang—changing . . . his antibio—” Mid-sentence, and with almost no warning, Dr. Taylor’s knees gave out and he sank down, unconscious before he hit the floor.
A piercing ring woke Renee. She lay on her side in Kai’s bed in Vicky’s house, her forehead resting against his chest. His arms were wrapped around her as if—even in sleep—he was afraid of losing her. The phone continued to ring, incredibly loud in the stillness. Even though Kai was wearing a long-sleeved T and PJ bottoms, as she shifted she could still smell him, that essence of Kai she couldn’t describe but that gave her an immediate sense of warmth and comfort from a single sniff.
Renee was reluctant to relinquish this, and breathed a sigh of relief when Kai’s phone quieted on its own. It had to be his brother, probably checking in to be sure Kai was OK. Kai was paradoxically incredibly charismatic (when he wanted to be) and a diehard introvert. His inner circle could be counted on one hand (without using ASL), and since David was Deaf and Renee was with him, that really left only one option.
Kai made a sound, like a tiny moan, and it was both adorable and worrying. He had opted not to take a sleeping pill, wanting to cherish every bit of his last night with her before his hospitalization, and because he’d worried about the drug affecting his dissociations. But it also meant he was more likely to be plagued by nightmares.
Renee snaked her arm up between them so she could reach his hair, gently tickling the space above his ears.
Kai let out a startled, pained sound, his eyes squeezing tight for a moment.
“Shh,” Renee whispered out of habit before she realized he probably couldn’t hear her. She lay her other hand on his chest above his heart, feeling how fast it was beating. “Shh. You’re safe. I’m here. You’re not alone. No one can hurt you.” Renee spoke soothingly to him, not caring if he couldn’t hear her, massaging his scalp with her fingertips.
Kai’s breath came faster, and a spasm in his leg caused him to knee her shin.
“Ouch,” Renee said even though it had startled her more than it hurt.
The phone started ringing again, painfully loud. Kai must have turned the volume up all the way, maybe so he could hear it without his hearing aids. It didn’t seem to penetrate his sleep, as he didn’t wake.
Renee kissed him, right where his trache scar peeked above the stretched-out neckhole of his shirt. She loved that scar almost as much as Kai hated it because it was a reminder of what he’d survived, and without it, they never would have met.
Renee was loathe to move, but the phone was relentless. With a heavy sigh, Renee managed to extract herself from Kai’s embrace and climb off the bed.
Kai let out a low whine.
“I’ll be right back,” Renee said to herself, she knew, but she chuckled softly. She wished she could fall asleep in Kai’s arms every night and wake up like this—minus the irritating phone call at midnight—every morning. Without the warmth of Kai’s body and the heated blanket, the room was frigid, and Renee shivered, wishing she had her robe. The lamps attached to the wall on either side of the headboard cast their glow, and Renee quickly spotted Kai’s hearing aids on top of one of the nightstands, but no sign of his phone with its incessant ring.
Renee rubbed her arms as she walked around to Kai’s side of the bed. She spied Kai’s sweater, thrown over the chaise lounge in one corner of the room, and slipped it over her head. It fit like a dress, the sleeves hanging several inches past the tips of Renee’s fingers, but it just meant she’d be warm. She brought her hands toward her nose and inhaled. It smelled like winter and Kai and still faintly of the breakfast he’d cooked her that morning.
The phone silenced again, but it was only a short reprieve before it began anew. Clearly, Jon must be worried if he was calling so many times.
Kai’s wheelchair was parked near his side of the bed, within easy reach, and she realized now the sound was localized to it. Kai was either very deep asleep, or his hearing was even worse than Renee realized if he didn’t hear the ring, with the phone so near and so loud.
Kai had explained to her once that his mobility aids weren’t things; they were extensions of his body. She’d already realized that on one level, but Kai spelling it out had made it more clear in her mind. It was one reason she treasured his trust when he let her hold his crutches or move his chair. So doing so now, without his permission, especially to dig in his book bag or the pouch that hung beneath the seat, felt like an enormous invasion of privacy. Almost like she was rooting around in Kai’s brain.
It didn’t take her too long to find the phone, and she made sure the chair was in exactly the same spot it had been before her search. Without the dampening effect of the pouch, the phone‘s ring was painful, and Renee hurried to answer. “Hello?”
“Hello,” an unfamiliar female voice said in a crisp, professional tone. “I’m calling from Jonesville Memorial Hospital. Is this Kai Fox speaking?” The woman horribly mangled the pronunciation of Kai’s first name.
Perhaps it was instinct that made Renee’s gut churn. It was almost midnight, far too late for any kind of administrative call from one of Kai’s doctors. It was possible Jon had asked someone to call in his stead, but it still left Renee uneasy.
Renee cleared her throat. She held the phone to her ear with one hand and smoothed her other over Kai’s side. “Yes. I’m here.”
“May I please speak to Kai Fox?”
“He’s asleep right now,” Renee said, her touch on Kai’s body becoming more protective as she felt tension snap into her spine. “May I ask what this is regarding?”
Without missing a beat, the unfamiliar woman said, “I’m afraid that is for his ears only, miss. Could you wake him?”
Renee glanced over at Kai, the worry spreading along her nerves until it was a dull buzz in her body. She prayed. Literally said a silent prayer, that everything was fine, that she was overreacting. “Give me a minute.” Renee set the phone on the end table, beside Kai’s hearing aids. Good he didn’t take that sleeping pill after all, Renee thought as she shook Kai with both hands.
He made a sound that was something like a moan and a groan combined, but slept on.
“This is important, Kai. Wake up,” Renee said, mostly to herself since it was unlikely he could understand her even if he was conscious. After nudging him several times to no avail, she spotted a bottle of water he’d left on the nightstand. It was cold to the touch. “I’m sorry,” Renee said as she slid the blankets out of the way and lifted Kai’s shirt. She took a breath and pressed it to his back, stretching so if he lashed out she’d hopefully be out of immediate danger, especially since he was on his side facing away from her.
Kai’s shoulders arched, and he grunted. His breathing changed. After a moment, he said, his accent thick, the “R” coming out more like an “L” with a lisp, “Re?”
Renee tapped the bed to get him to realize she was on his other side.
Kai rolled his neck, and Renee heard it click. He reached over and behind his back, gripping the edge of the mattress, and used that along with a hard push of his opposite hand to get himself more toward the center of the bed, rolling onto his back. He took a minute to shift his legs, which didn’t seem to want to cooperate. He let out a loud annoyed sigh and sank back, staring up at the ceiling blankly for so long Renee wondered if he was truly awake, or if it would be something like what had happened earlier after his nap.
“WRONG?” Kai finally asked, looking at her with sleepy eyes. His facial grammar was lax and unclear, so Renee wasn’t sure if he was asking her what was wrong or if he wanted to know if something terrible had happened, since the sign could be used either way.
Renee signaled for him to put his hearing aids on. “Phone call for you. The hospital.”
Kai’s brows knit. It seemed to take him a minute. “Shit,” he whispered. Kai pinched his nose. He struggled to find the English, his accent thick, Kai’s normally perfect articulation failing him completely. One of his hands moved in half-formed signs along with some of his words. “Cord. For phone. Chair. Pouch.”
Renee quickly found the cord he wanted, offering it to him. Kai was slipping his hearing aids on and activating them. Wincing a bit, although it could have been merely tired eyes squeezing shut for a moment. He accepted the cord with a thin smile in thanks, and Renee watched as he connected it to one of his hearing aids, plugging the other end into the jack on the phone he’d snagged from the nightstand. Kai let the phone rest on his sternum. Renee realized now that cord had to be the hands-free kit he’d explained made it easier for him to understand voices over the phone, since the signal went directly to his hearing aid.
“This is Kai Fox,” Kai said, his voice clearer and deeper, only the faintest trace of his accent remaining.
Renee asked with her eye gaze and a chin nudge if she could sit on the edge of the bed beside him, and when he accepted, she did, reaching for his hand, holding it in her lap as she watched his face for any hint of what the conversation was about, since she couldn’t hear the other end.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” Kai said. His voice gave away nothing, but he squeezed Renee’s hand a little tighter. A pause. Then Kai’s entire body seemed to freeze. He didn’t even breathe for a painfully long moment. “I’ll . . .” Kai cleared his throat. “Yes. I’ll be right there.” Kai blindly reached for the phone to end the call with his free hand, and then he let it fall. He didn’t disconnect the cord from his hearing aid. He just lay there, seemingly frozen again.
Renee held her breath this time. Said another silent prayer.
Finally, Kai turned his head toward her and spoke. Just one sentence. One sentence that Renee knew would mean everything was about to change. “Jon’s been admitted to ICU.”
-End Season 3
(Season 4 expected to begin ~late 2019)
(Season 4 expected to begin ~late 2019)