February 2, 2001
Kai had fallen asleep on the couch, his psych book in his lap, at about three in the morning, and Jon never came home. Kai only managed a few hours before strings of vicious nightmares ripped him awake, sweaty, panicky, and exhausted. Worse, despite his attempt at burning the midnight oil, he’d only managed to read and retain a few pages’ worth of material, and he hadn’t even gotten to history. He was so fucking kidding himself with school.
Still, Kai had dragged his tired body into his chair and gone through his morning routine--taking his medicine, recording his vitals, staring despondently at all the blank spaces in the planner he was supposed to be using to track his daily caloric intake. Showering, brushing his teeth, treating any of his cutting wounds that needed it. He was so tired--and part of it was lingering depression, Kai could recognize it for what it was now--that what normally would have taken him an hour took double, and he wouldn’t have time for breakfast, not that he cared, anyway. Kai’s hearing hadn’t come back since it’d gone out yesterday while he was swimming. Nearly twenty-four hours, and Kai was pretty sure that meant it would be permanent. And it fucking sucked.
Kai had just rolled out of his room, intent on packing up his school things and heading out the door when he saw Jon, sitting at the kitchen table, fully dressed for work, just waiting for him. For some reason, Jon must have come home while Kai was getting ready. Kai glided to a stop. “I thought you were with Vicky.”
Jon nodded. “I was, but I thought you might want this,” Jon said, holding out a small pill case. “Your meds for the rest of today, plus tomorrow morning. And an extra Xanax, as usual.”
Kai hadn’t even thought about how he’d get his daily doses, since his medications were all locked in the safe. Proof of how out of it he was. Kai accepted the box, glancing at it. From what he could see, all the pills he needed were there, but he’d go through them later. For now, he laid it in his lap to free up both hands. “Thanks. I have to leave for school. And I have the ASL class tonight, so I’ll be late, not that you care,” Kai signed coolly, remembering how he’d swum alone yesterday, remembering how Jon could baby him but not hang out with him, and fresh anger surged to the surface Kai struggled to clamp down on. Kai started to push past Jon, but Jon stuck out an arm to stop him, then a leg when Kai tried to roll around him. Kai cast his brother a fierce glare, but he folded his arms on his chest, waiting.
“This morning I saw a message I must have missed yesterday. From Dr. Miller. She said you never showed up for your session.”
“Good to see you’re really working on that whole ‘not parenting’ me thing.” Kai pushed toward the door, grabbing a sweatshirt and tugging it on. He saw Jon trying to get his attention, but he ignored him.
Finally, Jon yanked on Kai’s shoulder to get him to forcibly look his way.
“Don’t touch me,” Kai spat, glaring up at Jon.
“We need to talk about this. Missing a session is serious. Where were you yesterday morning?”
“I was swimming. Like we were supposed to. Remember? Did me a hell of a lot better dealing with my anger than sitting in Dr. Miller’s office.”
Jon had the decency to look wounded. “That’s not fair, Kai. I told you I was sorry. Not going to therapy isn’t a way to get back at me.”
“For fucksake, Jon, this isn’t about you!” Kai shouted, even though it sort of was. “Aren’t we supposed to be working on our independence from each other? So when your baby is born, we’ll be ready? You promised me. Promised, that you would swim with me yesterday, and you broke that promise. Guess you’re already getting a head start on the whole ‘independence’ thing,” Kai said, using a mocking version of the sign for “relationship,” which was made up of the middle fingers and thumbs of each hand forming rings that linked together, pulling them forcefully apart to make his point. Kai snorted, disgusted with himself for giving that much away. Growing up, he’d learned he couldn’t depend on anyone, because the moment he did, the moment he let himself rely on anyone other than himself, that’s when he got hurt.
Jon just stared at Kai, looking guilty, clearly not sure what else to say.
“I’m going to the disability office today. See if I can get in a dorm. I can’t do this anymore.”
Jon looked like Kai had just struck him. He took a step back, and his knees seemed a little weak. “You’re not going to find an accessible dorm mid-year. I told you you could stay here. I’ll keep the apartment--”
Kai’s eyes flashed. “I can’t. I’m sick of this fucking place.” Of the memories of panic attacks and flashbacks. Not to mention every day he spent in this apartment without Jon he’d remember how alone he was. Remembered that feeling that had swept over him before Thanksgiving, when he’d come home to find Jon had gone, taken everything, even his diabetes supplies. No way Kai could go through that every day. Even if Jon cared more about his work and his new family than Kai. And wasn’t he supposed to? Kai had to live his own life, and getting his own place would be a good start.
Jon nodded. “At least call Dr. Miller and apologize. Maybe reschedule--”
“How? I can’t fucking hear. Or did you forget that, too?”
Jon sighed. Kai couldn’t hear it, but he could see the movement of his brother’s chest and shoulders. Jon pushed his fingers through his hair. “That’s why you didn’t go, isn’t it?”
Kai felt his emotions threatening to swirl out of his control, and he took a few deep breaths to still them. Fuck Dr. Miller and her affirmations. Real or not, right to express them or not, it was still better to keep them buried. Kai pulled on his coat, zipping it up violently, slipping on his gloves. If he was going to be independent, he needed to prove it. Not just to Jon, but to himself. “I’m going to be late,” Kai said by way of a goodbye, and abruptly pushed toward the front door.
Renee was surprised that when she strode into her history class--early as usual--Kai was already there, his wheelchair parked in the front beside one of the accessible desks, his legs off the footrest and stretched out in front of him. He was reclined a little, his head tipped back, his hands gripping his jeans. Meditating, or something like that, maybe. Something Kai had explained he had learned to do--well, mastering meditation took years, but he’d been taught some basic techniques--to calm himself when his anxiety or emotions were getting out of his control.
She tiptoed lightly around him, not wanting to disturb him, settling into her own desk beside him as quietly as possible. She’d meant to finish the reading for today, but instead she found herself watching him. The subtle gold of his stubble--he hadn’t shaved this morning, apparently--the way his throat muscles moved as he breathed and swallowed. The light flutter of his lashes. How he’d pull his bottom lip between his teeth every so often, then seem to catch himself and release it, skin peeling. It made her want to kiss him. Despite whatever he was trying to do, she could see the tension in his shoulders and arms, how his hands gripped the fabric of his pants too tightly. How his breath came faster than it should have, especially if he was supposed to be in a calm state of mind--or at least trying to get there.
She shifted in her seat, wanting to touch him but knowing she couldn’t, not when he was like this, and not wanting to startle him. But her arm bumped her book, and unbalanced and went toppling off the edge of the desktop, landing with a loud thud on the floor.
Kai’s eyes suddenly popped open, and he nearly fell out of his wheelchair, scanning the room in clear panic until he saw Renee and forced himself to calm down, using his hands to adjust his body and settle back properly into the seat of his chair. “I didn’t hear you,” Kai said, panting, obviously trying to will himself to breathe slower but his body not wanting to let him.
“It’s OK. You’ll be OK,” Renee signed, reading sadness and not just fear in Kai’s wide eyes. He hadn’t heard her. So his hearing was still out. And maybe he hadn’t smelled her since he’d been trying to meditate. She held out a hand, offering to place it on his chest to help bring him down from the panic.
He nodded tightly, still trying to control his breathing.
Renee coaxed Kai to exhale, then inhale. To hold the breath. Then let it go, all with her hand. Slowly, he calmed, his own hand moving to lie on top of hers. She could still feel his heart beating faster than it should, but she saw him begin to relax, and soon he was taking slower, deeper breaths on his own.
“Turns out driving when I’m already anxious just makes me worse,” Kai admitted in a low voice. “Thanks.”
Renee slid her hand up his chest and cupped his cheek. When he didn’t push her away or flinch, she leaned in and stole a kiss. He hummed and opened his mouth, letting her tongue in when he usually was the one who took charge. It was nice, and she could feel him relaxing further. After a moment, she pulled back. “I love you,” she whispered, figuring he probably couldn’t hear her anyway, and would have to rely on reading her lips.
He smiled. He didn’t say it back. He never did. But he coiled one of her curls around his finger and sighed softly. “Thank you,” he said again, this time in sign.
Renee picked up her book and settled back into her seat, studying Kai again. He transferred out of his chair and into the other desk, but even though his anxiety seemed to have ebbed, he still seemed off. She waited until he was settled, then she waved to get his attention. “Are you OK?”
She saw Kai’s hand go to his chest, like he was about to say he was fine, but then he stopped. “Jon and I are fighting. I’m angry with him, and angry at myself for being angry. I’m fine.” He smiled to show his sincerity, but she knew it was fake. Well, not entirely fake, but a smile he was putting on for show.
But Renee decided to let it go. “You still going tonight? To the class?”
Kai nodded. “You?”
“Of course. I wanted to learn to sign for you anyway, but especially now . . .” She touched his ear, then grazed her fingertips into his hair near his temple.
Kai smiled, but he looked sad. “I haven’t told anyone yet. And my hearing loss is something I need to tell David myself. Understand?” Kai had actually told her something before his best friend? That had to be a record. It made a rush of happiness fill her, even if the circumstances shouldn’t have warranted the feeling.
Renee nodded, brushing her thumb of her closed fist down along her lips, the sign for “secret.” Then she decided he could probably use a distraction, and they still had some time before class started, so she opened her book again. “Want me to teach you what you missed Wednesday?”
This time, Kai smiled genuinely. Her smile. “You don’t have to catch me up every time I miss class,” he signed, and she hadn’t realized you could sign “catch up” like that, so literally, looking like one fist coming up from behind the other. She made a mental note. “I shouldn’t even be in this class.”
Not again. Renee sighed through her nose. Touched his cheek before pulling back to sign, “It’s not like you decided to just skip class. You were in the hospital. Sick. Come on. We still have ten minutes to study, and I can practice my ASL, too.” Renee smiled, flipped a few pages in her book. “OK. The English Civil War. Ready?”
Steve walked into psych just as Kai was pulling off his sweatshirt. Beneath it, he was wearing a long-sleeved white T-shirt that seemed to hug his body, the back smeared with dark red, looking a lot like blood, though obviously fake. She sank into her chair beside his wheelchair; he wasn’t walking today. Did that have anything to do with that mega workout at the pool yesterday? Kai twisted to see her, and she saw the front of his shirt was equally bloody around the midsection. Above it, in a simple font, it said, I’m fine.
“Where do you get these shirts?”
Kai glanced down at his Tee as if he’d forgotten what he was wearing, then shrugged. “My best friend. It’s a hobby of his.”
“Does he ever sell them? Take requests? Cause this one right here is hilarious. Even better than the one you were wearing Monday.”
Kai put his hands beside his thighs and straightened his arms, pushing his body up, shifting his weight. She’d seen her cousin do a similar movement, if not nearly as elegant or as effortless. “Well, my brother likes to joke that I could be bleeding out from a shotgun wound to the gut and still say I’m fine, so . . .” Kai indicated the shirt.
“I’m also pretty sure it’s against the school dress code.”
Kai seemed to stare at her lips a little more intensely than normal, as if he hadn’t quite caught what she said. But before she could repeat herself, he replied, obviously unfazed, “If anyone complains, I’ll put my sweatshirt back on.”
Steve chuckled. “That’s why I like you.”
Kai smiled, but it seemed like something he did because it was expected and not that he was really amused or pleased. He leaned on the table, his elbow resting on it, his fingers in his hair, his head tilted toward her so he could still see her lips. “You convince your aunt to bring your cousin tonight?”
“She’s in that ‘I’ll think about it’ stage, which, as you know, usually means no.”
Kai’s face darkened for a moment, but he nodded.
“Shit. You’re an orphan. Damn. Sorry.” She covered her mouth, then remembered Kai wouldn’t be able to understand her and dropped it. “Anyway, the point is, I don’t know if they’ll be there tonight, but I will. I can start learning, and I have time to sway my aunt.” Steve sighed. Tapped her fingers on the desk, wondering if she should say what she wanted to say next. The movement of her fingers distracted Kai, and his eyes flew to them before he forced them back to her face. “OK, so, about what you said yesterday.” She took a breath. “I talked to my cousin when I went over there to convince my aunt one last time. You know. About what he wants.”
Kai looked surprised, but he nodded for her to continue.
“I’ve told him about you. I hope that’s OK? He really wants to go to this class. He wants to learn to sign and meet other kids like him. He really wants to meet you.”
Kai got a strange look on his face, one that was so many shades of emotion she couldn’t possibly interpret it. He pushed away from the table, just a little, and shoved his hand through his hair. He didn’t say anything, though.
“I don’t think he ever really thought he could do or be anything other than what he is, you know? I mean, like, he likes to learn, but he hates school. He couldn’t really see a difference. If he comes tonight, maybe you can talk to him? I’ll interpret if you need it.”
Kai studied her face for a long moment. She remembered how angry he’d gotten yesterday when he’d accused her of being no better than her aunt, but his face shifted again, more emotions she couldn’t read, and he nodded. “I’ll probably be OK. But yes. I’ll talk to him if you’d like. I’m not much of a role model for anyone, but I’ll talk to him.”
That made Steve blink, especially considering how sad Kai sounded when he said that. If it weren’t for her cousin, she never would have thought twice about how difficult it must have been for Kai to go to the mainstream high school, to come here to college, especially as an orphan. Had he had a good foster family to support him? Something about him screamed aloneness, sadness, and she suspected that Kai was self-reliant largely because he’d needed to be.
Then Kai flashed her a smile, the kind of smile that he could probably use to charm anyone into giving him whatever he wanted, but she saw the lingering sadness in his eyes that grin couldn’t mask. “Fill me in on what I missed Wednesday?”
Steve knew it was his way of changing the subject, but she decided to go with it. “Sure. Let me just get my notes.”
Kai’s low mood stalked him throughout psych class and his entire way to the cafeteria. It didn’t help that Renee was late meeting him, and the longer he waited, the more the place filled up, fueling his anxiety, which only made his self-directed anger worse. Even though he hadn’t eaten breakfast, the last thing Kai’s irritated stomach wanted was to be filled. Right now, all he wanted was to swim until he couldn’t pull himself out of the pool, then go home and sleep forever. But Dr. Miller insisted that Kai force himself to be active and involved, something he had ignored until very recently, part of why he’d made himself go to the bowling social even after his panic attack. It was especially important for Kai to find healthy, social activities when he was feeling depressed, she’d warned him more than once. Staying in bed was not a way to feel better; it would only exacerbate his anxiety and depression.
Even so, every person who passed within a few feet of him magnified his anxiety, which made his nausea grow, which made the little voice in his head that screamed for him to get out of there louder and louder. The irony of being in his chair meant that he was capable of carrying his lunch on his own, yet he was convinced if Renee didn’t show soon he’d have to leave. He couldn’t stay here. Not with all these people.
Deep breaths, Kai, he told himself. Don’t think about how you can’t hear the way you should, how that freaks you out. Fuck. Don’t think about it. Just breathe. Blue. Think of blue. And breathing. Kai’s breaths were already coming faster, though. He dropped his hands to his rims, about to head away from the far-too-crowded area around the entrance to the cafeteria, when he saw Renee. It took her a bit to navigate through the crowd, but she spotted him, too, smiling and waving.
Kai resisted putting his hand on his stomach. He felt like hurling, but he did his best to hide his unease from Renee, offering his best smile, one that had never failed him before.
Renee frowned, though, looking him over. “You’re as white as a ghost. I can go buy us both lunch, and you can wait for me over there,” Renee said, pointing to the far end of the student center, where the crowds weren’t as thick. “We can find somewhere quiet to eat.”
Kai swallowed. He didn’t want to eat. He didn’t want to be here. What was he doing? How could he have possibly thought that he was ready for school? He took a few breaths and shook his head as he remembered this morning. No. No, he had to do this. The more he made himself, the better it would get, right? That was the theory. Exposure therapy. It was supposed to work for phobias, anyway. Force yourself to face your fears and your fears would disappear, or so he’d been told by more than one shrink while he was in the nuthouse. Yeah, right.
“Are you OK? Are you . . . seeing . . . something? A memory?” Renee’s signing was slow, hesitant, jerky, like she was struggling to say what she’d wanted in ASL instead of English.
“I’m fine,” Kai said, even though he wasn’t, but he didn’t want Renee babying him even less than he wanted Jon to. “I’ll pass on lunch, but I’ll sit with you.”
It took a moment for Renee to work out what he’d said, but then her face transformed in surprise, and maybe disappointment? “You must eat.”
Kai snapped, forgetting for a moment she was a beginner, signs flying off his hands in his irritation. “I’m sick of Jon and you and David and everyone else telling me what I ‘must’ do! ‘Kai, you have to eat.’ ‘Kai, you have to shower.’ ‘Kai, you have to go out.’” Kai did mocking impressions of different people telling him these things. “I can take care of myself!” The truth was Kai didn’t really think he could; if he could, he wouldn’t be making a scene right now, would he? But that little part of his brain was hiding behind his rage.
Renee took a few steps back, but to her credit, she didn’t seem afraid. Just lost. “Slow down! I don’t understand you.”
Kai was so, so angry, even though he knew the crowd had probably zeroed on him, it was all he could do not to scream at Renee. Fuck. Dr. Miller had warned him that it was normal for someone with PTSD to struggle regulating their emotions, especially the extremes--hence the crying and the anger--but it only reminded him of how out of control he really was. “Forget it. Forget all of it. I need to go.”
Renee was practically in tears now. “I don’t understand. Please.”
That took some of the wind from Kai’s sails. He made himself take some deep breaths. Slow. Even. Kai forced himself to sign slowly. “You should go eat without me. I’m a mess.”
Renee still seemed upset. “Did I do something wrong?”
Kai sighed heavily. Not really, Kai thought. “Just don’t tell me what to do or not do, OK? I know you want to help, but I can’t handle that right now.” Deep breath. Making himself sign slowly cooled some of his anger, since his emotions enhanced his signing, and his signing fueled his emotions.
Renee’s eyes were still glossy, but she nodded. “Sit with me while I eat? Please?”
Before he could respond, Kai caught some movement in his peripheral vision. The crowd had dissipated, perhaps realizing the entertainment had ended. (Hearing people gawked at signing, especially when things got emotional.) One skinny kid with spiky hair stood, waving, trying to get Kai and Renee’s attention.
“What the fuck do you want? Show’s over.” Kai signed, figuring the guy wouldn’t understand him, but he’d catch the middle finger at least, which said loud and clear, “Mind your own business.”
To Kai’s surprise, the kid blinked, but then his eyebrows dipped in confusion, and he signed back. “What show?” He even looked around a little, as if he were expecting to find this “show” that Kai was referring to. Deafies did tend to be pretty literal. “I saw you two signing and came over to invite you to sit with us.”
Kai’s eyebrows dipped before he forced them back to neutral. He glanced over at Renee, who looked even more lost watching an unfamiliar signer, especially since the kid had an accent--he obviously wasn’t from around here. “Excuse me?”
The kid pointed across the cafeteria. “The Deafie table. All the Deaf and hard of hearing students sit there every day at lunch.” The kid looked clueless as to Kai’s hostility. Did he not see Renee and him fighting just now? But a closer study made Kai believe the kid was probably naturally oblivious. He was dressed in a black T-shirt with a rock band from the late 70s, the sleeves cut off, jeans that were tighter than any man who ever hoped to have children should ever wear, and his head was shaved, with his remaining hair spiked into a pseudo mohawk that made his hearing aids particularly visible. He looked like someone who’d seen a poster somewhere of what “punk” looked like, and then tried desperately to imitate it. Like a kid playing dress up.
Kai felt drained, and he wanted even more than ever to sleep, to catch up on what he hadn’t gotten the night before. But he was supposed to be social, right? To avoid his habit of withdrawing. Kai sighed heavily. Rolled his eyes. “Fine.”
Renee seemed surprised by Kai’s response. “Really?”
Why the fuck not. The Deaf Community was his family, after all, right? And Renee definitely needed the practice. “Go get food. I’ll wait for you at the table. The Deaf table.”
Renee smiled, a shade of her excited grin. “See you soon,” she said, and he could tell by the look in her eyes that despite his outburst, she was probably going to buy him something to eat.
Spending lunch at the Deaf table had lifted Kai’s mood a little. Spikey, whose English name Kai had forgotten almost immediately as the kid fingerspelled it, had introduced both he and Renee to the group, explaining simply that Kai had gone to JSD and then the hearing high school, and that Renee was his hearing girlfriend before pointing to each person around the table in turn and having them give their own curt hello. It was shockingly brief as far as Deafies went, but Kai realized many of them had grown up in the hearing world and were only now learning to sign; Kai was one of the few who’d experienced a Deaf education.
Even so, it was nice, and Kai was able to get lost in the signed conversations, shocked at how many questions the others asked him about signing and Deaf culture, and he even managed to eat a little of the fruit and cheese Renee had bought for him in the hopes he’d at least put something in his stomach. In fact, their lunch hour had flown by, and before he knew it, Kai was saying goodbye to Renee outside the cafeteria.
“You look like you feel better. Happier?”
Kai nodded. “I’m sorry I got angry before,” Kai said, choosing his signs carefully now that his mind was clearer. He’d noticed Renee hadn’t seemed to be following most of the conversations during lunch, but to her credit, she’d watched attentively and only asked him about a couple of signs afterward.
Renee smiled, visibly relieved. “Good. See you tonight? My place? Six?”
Kai nodded. Tilted his head up and pursed his lips, asking for a kiss.
Renee’s smile softened, and she nodded before leaning in to meet him. The kiss didn’t last, but it made Kai relax further. “I love you,” Renee signed. “I have to go. See you later.”
Kai watched her leave, wondering if she really could put up with him, knowing she deserved better. No, don’t think like that. It’s not productive, Kai thought, echoing verbiage Dr. Miller had used more than once. Renee loved him, really loved him, and that was what he needed to focus on. That, and doing what he needed to do for himself to get better. Kai bundled up, then pushed toward the exit. He had to hurry if he was going to try to meet with his counselor before his next class.
The Disabilities Services Office was located in the Student Services building toward the front of the JU campus, which was obnoxious because it meant finding a handicapped parking spot was always tricky. Kai could have simply wheeled the distance, even in the cold, since the university did a pretty good job of keeping the sidewalks cleared and salted, but honestly, he was sore and stiff from his workout yesterday and didn’t feel like making the trek.
Fortunately, he’d pulled in just as someone was leaving--he didn’t know the person, but he’d seen the van before. JU had a decent-sized student population, but even so, there were only a few students with disabilities permanent enough to merit the trouble of getting plates and not just placards, so Kai knew most of the regulars by their vehicles. Once he’d parked, he took a few minutes to do some breathing exercises to get his anxiety under control. This week had really been his first stab at driving since November, and he hated how doing so could twist his autonomic nervous system into overdrive, even if he didn’t consciously feel anxious.
Luckily, despite it being just after lunch, the building wasn’t terribly crowded, and when he arrived at the disability office, it was quiet. Well, quiet was relative with his hearing the way it was, but the space was fairly empty. Despite its title, the Disabilities Services Office actually had several different spaces. It had a small computer lab, with all of the PCs fitted with various software and other tools that made them accessible to anyone, unlike those found around the rest of the campus, and it was also a lesser used, quieter space, so many of the students with both physical and learning disabilities would come here to work or study. Adjacent to that space were a few small rooms that could be used to meet with a tutor, take a test, or a dozen other purposes. Then there was the waiting area for the counselors, where students could meet with someone who could not only help them get their accommodation forms, but also served as adjunct academic advisors and assisted students with various other disability-related needs from applying for benefits or grants to renting equipment, and everything in between. In other words, it really was a one-stop-shop for every student on campus with any kind of disability. The offices and study rooms were painted in warm, welcoming colors, and the furniture was all designed and placed to make this area the most accessible on campus.
Yet coming here always made Kai uncomfortable, and he wasn’t even sure why. Dr. Miller would probably love to delve into that. Could it be it reminded him of County House, being around so many others with varied disabilities, even if the atmosphere was completely different? Or was it the fact that ultimately, Kai hated asking for help? That he didn’t like drawing attention to himself? Kai was pretty sure his shrink could come up with an entire list, and maybe they’d all be at least partially true. For now, he had to focus on why he’d come and try not to throw up, because he very much felt like doing that now. So much for the breathing exercises in the car.
The girl working the reception desk was a soft-spoken upperclassman and a CODA named Tanya; Kai didn’t really know her, but they’d talked a little every time he’d come in, especially once he’d learned she knew sign. She greeted him with a smile and a wave hello when she saw him wheel in and approach.
She said something, her lips barely moving as she talked, her voice so high and quiet that Kai couldn’t even hear it.
He shook his head. Popped up a finger. “I don’t understand. Sign please?”
Her eyebrows furrowed. “I thought you were hearing?”
“It’s complicated. Is Zach working today?” Kai’s eyes scanned the room as his heart thundered in his chest, and he had to catch himself--breaking eye contact like that was terribly rude, and he desperately wanted to hide how anxious he was from Tanya. He focused on taking slow, deep breaths through his nose.
Tanya looked at him with concern in her face, perhaps reading Kai’s unease despite his best efforts. “Zach is at lunch, but . . .” She checked the time on her computer. “He should be back in a few minutes if you want to wait. Or I could make you an appointment and you can come back later.”
Kai felt his eyes wanting to scan the room again, even though they were alone, mostly. There was man of about 30 in a large electric wheelchair waiting in the reception area, probably for another counselor to see him, and through the glass walls, Kai could see a few students working in the lab, but even so, that unsettling feeling hovered in the center of his chest, in his stomach, and Kai knew that he had to be very, very careful or he was potentially going to have a panic attack.
Kai saw Tanya waving to get his attention, looking worried, even more so than before. Kai normally hid his discomfort so well, charming her with one of his foolproof smiles, but today it was all Kai could do not to flee the room in completely illogical terror. He swallowed. “I’ll wait.”
Tanya nodded and tapped the keys, maybe adding his name into the schedule. “Fox like the animal, right?” she confirmed.
Kai nodded, then did a quick 180 and beelined for the most secluded part of the waiting room, his hands on his knees, struggling to breathe. He knew that he could breathe fine, but telling his body that was a totally different story. No matter how hard his chest worked, he couldn’t seem to get enough air, breathing faster and faster. He clenched his eyes tightly shut and focused on blue. Focused on only breathing, tried to ignore how his thoughts were trying to spin away from him or how his limbs were going numb or how the guy in the electric wheelchair was staring at him. Don’t open your eyes. Everyone is staring at you, laughing at you, too, probably, but you can’t hear them because you’re a fucking loser, the voice in Kai’s head screamed at him, and dammit, he couldn’t breathe!
Someone’s hand was on him, and Kai’s panic ratcheted up 500%. His eyes flew open and he tried to jerk away from whoever it was, but he saw Zach’s face. Everything about it was reassuring and calming, and he was signing to Kai, but it took a moment for Kai’s adrenaline-soaked brain to pry out any sense from his hands.
“Breathe. You’re safe. It’s OK.”
Kai nodded to signal he was trying, taking deep, effortful breaths as he slowly felt the anxiety fade into a dull roar in his gut. He breathed in and out a few more times before forcing himself to look around the room, convinced of his utter humiliation, but he was alone with Zach. Maybe the guy in the electric wheelchair had left before the worst of Kai’s panic attack? Maybe Tanya hadn’t seen him either?
Kai sank forward onto his knees, his head bent, still coming down from the attack, still catching his breath. He felt sweat slide down his spine. Once he’d gotten himself as under control as it seemed it was possible nowadays, he pulled off his coat, pulling his sweatshirt up and using it to wipe the sweat off his face.
Zach didn’t sign anything else, but he used his face to double-check that Kai was OK. Then he pointed to where Kai could hang his coat if he wanted to, and gestured for Kai to follow him back to his office.
Kai drained the bottle of water Zach had offered him, doubly grateful Zach had noticed Kai flinch when he tried to shut his office door, leaving it open. They’d be signing, anyway, and honestly at this point Kai didn’t care about privacy. He’d already had a very public panic attack.
“Feeling better?” Zach asked delicately. He was a tall, gangly man in his early 40s with Nordic features--skin paler than Kai’s and platinum blond hair he kept short, making his hearing aids more prominent, but he obviously didn’t care about that. Kai had been fortunate enough to get Zach his first time he’d come in for help, since the man was hard of hearing and had experienced a mixed Deaf and mainstream education, the reverse of Kai’s--his parents were both hearing and had insisted he learn to speak and read lips, fitting him with hearing aids as young as they possibly could. Zach had confessed how he’d learned, and he could hear a little, even with the shitty hearing aids they’d had when he was a kid, but he’d never really fit in with the other kids at the public school. He’d often been left out of jokes and conversations, and had been funneled into Special Ed because of his hearing issues and not because of his intellect. Finally, when he was twelve, he convinced his parents to let him try a residential school, and Zach had finished out his schooling at JSD, struggling to learn to sign at first, but quickly being welcomed into the fold.
He’d been working at JU for about five years now, and mostly dealt with the Deaf and hard of hearing students, since he was the only full-time staff member who was a fluent signer. He also knew the basics of Kai’s health issues, since he’d worked with Kai to get his accommodations, including extra time for tests and the opportunity to take them by himself, away from the pressure of everyone watching him. But he’d never seen Kai panic like he had only minutes earlier. Kai tried to staunch the wave of shame that overwhelmed him, tried to fight it, but he was so drained.
“Has this week been difficult?” Zach asked when Kai didn’t respond to his initial question.
Kai nodded. Considered telling Zach about his hearing loss, but then thought better of it. After Kai saw the ENT and audiologist next week, after he knew for certain how bad things were, then he could come back and see Zach again. That wasn’t why he’d come today, after all.
“I got the letter from your psychiatrist,” Zach said, pulling open a filing drawer and flicking through folders until he found Kai’s. He took a moment to examine its contents before looking back at Kai. “She says your anxiety is better, but you’ve still been having frequent panic attacks.”
No shit, Kai wanted to say. He wished he could just dissolve, melt into the carpet or the wall and disappear. “Everyone saw me. Saw what happened.”
Zach shut the folder and tossed it aside, leaning forward a little. “No one saw. Tanya heard you struggling to breathe. She thought you were having an asthma attack. But I came in and I knew what was happening, and that’s when I went up to you. But no one saw. OK? There weren’t any other students waiting by the time it happened.”
Kai knew that should make him feel better, but that wave of hopelessness that hit him from time to time washed over him. How could he make his big case for independence when he couldn’t even go a single day without having a panic attack?
Kai watched Zach take a deep breath. “Let’s talk business. Redirect your mind. OK? So I haven’t gotten a new letter from your neurologist. The last one is from December.”
Kai nodded. “I see him next week.”
Zach grabbed the folder again, flipping through pages. “To see if the decline in your memory and concentration was permanent or if it would improve with time?” Kai’s brain, already unstable from his breakdown and the stay in the psych ward, had been fried by his fever and illness, and when he’d last seen his neurologist--not Gates, but the man who’d helped him with his cognitive issues after his transplant--he’d shown some decline from his last exam six months earlier. But both he and Dr. Miller had assured Kai that depression and anxiety, not to mention PTSD, could all affect cognition, so it was a “wait and see” approach.
“Yes. I have a lot of trouble concentrating. My memory has been OK.”
Zach nibbled his lip as he studied the paperwork. “I have your forms ready, but if you think we need to adjust something, I can work with you.”
Kai shoved a hand through his hair. “Can you give me a new life?” He frowned. “I don’t know what else you could do for me. I’ve barely survived this week. You’d think smaller classes would be better, but they stress me out more.” Kai sighed. His anxiety had subsided nearly completely, leaving behind only emptiness. He didn’t even care about the dorm situation anymore. Nothing seemed to matter. He knew these were dangerous feelings, the kind that should prompt him to call Dr. Miller and see if he could find a way to make up his missed session, but how could he call her if he couldn’t use his phone? He supposed he could use a TTY with a relay operator, but only if it was just to make an appointment. He couldn’t bring himself to actually try to talk to her like that, so removed, with who knew who being privy to all his private business on the other end.
Zach’s waving brought him back. “You’re distracted easily?”
Kai swallowed. Hesitated. “I get lost in my own head.”
Zach nodded, completely nonjudgmental. He actually had worked as a counselor--as in, baby shrink--for awhile before landing this job, which had made Kai wary of trusting him too much at first, but their shared Deaf connection and the fact that Zach was actually a really awesome guy who had helped Kai a lot had forced some of Kai’s shields down. “But the flashbacks haven’t been too bad lately?” Zach pointed to the papers in his lap, as if referring to Dr. Miller’s letter.
Kai shrugged. “Still have them sometimes, but mostly I can stop them before they happen, or when they do, I don’t lose myself completely. I’m very careful.” Of course, he had had a blackout flashback only a few days ago, hadn’t he? And another, a couple days before that. Not to mention his freak out Wednesday at Vicky's. Kai shoved his hand through his hair again, realized he was trembling, and dropped it. “If I hurt anyone . . .” Kai immediately stopped signing, realizing that he was revealing too much. “Maybe I don’t belong here. Maybe I wasn’t ready. To come back.”
Zach studied Kai with a sympathetic eye. “That’s something you need to discuss with your doctor. But we’ve had students with PTSD and all kinds of anxiety disorders make it here and successfully graduate. If this is what you want, you can do it. That’s why I’m here. To help you as best as I can.”
Kai searched for the bottle of water he’d emptied earlier, as if he’d somehow find it filled again.
As if reading Kai’s mind, Zach offered him another from the mini fridge tucked into one corner of his office.
“But what can you do?” Kai signed after he’d drained the second bottle. “I either have to learn to deal with the smaller classes or drop them. My psych teacher is OK. But my writing teacher is a total bitch. She thinks I’m a freeloader because . . .” Kai hesitated. He didn’t want to mention his hearing issues, but he could bring up his issues with English. “I got so stressed I lost my English during the last class. I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t understand anything she was saying.”
Zach’s face shifted to what could have been pity, but he’d struggled in the hearing world enough that he could commiserate, at least on a certain level. He held up a finger, then flipped through Kai’s file until he found Kai’s schedule. “Pelto.” He shook his head, rolling his eyes. “We’ve had issues with her before. But she’s apparently a pretty successful writer, so the university likes to give her a finger wagging and look the other way. I could see if there’s another Intro to Creative Writing class I could switch you into.” Zach swiveled in his chair and started tapping away. “Nothing on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. . . . I might have to pull some strings, but I could get you into this class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings,” Zach said, pointing to his computer monitor.
“I actually have to get to her class in a few minutes. Can I think about it? I need to see you again next week anyway.”
Zach studied Kai again for a long moment, but he finally nodded. He shuffled some more paperwork in Kai’s folder and handed him some paperclipped documents. “A copy of your accommodation forms for all three of your teachers. If we need to update them later, once we hear from your neurologist again, then we will. Did you need anything else?”
Kai thought about dropping the whole thing. In fact, even though he’d missed class Wednesday and was already on Pelto’s shit list, he was seriously tempted to just go home and take a nap before he had to be at JSD for that class tonight. “I want to move into the dorms.”
Zach nodded, and reached into another drawer for some other papers. “OK. Good that you came to me now. Get you on the waiting list for the fall before the new freshmen have even been accepted--”
Kai shook his head urgently, holding up his hands and pointing at himself with two fingers in a “V” to get Zach to stop and pay attention to him. “Not fall. As soon as possible. I need a new place to live.”
Zach sank back into his chair. “There are only a few accessible dorm rooms. We’re always petitioning the university to remodel to add more, or even to build a fully accessible dorm building, but they always claim there aren’t enough students with disabilities who live on campus to merit the expense. Of course, more disabled students would come here and live here if they had the option, but . . .” Zach sighed, looked at Kai with a sincere expression. “I can help you apply for housing assistance, if that’s the problem--”
“No. My brother’s girlfriend is pregnant, and he’s moving out to live with her.”
“Students are always looking for roommates. You could check the Deaf community--”
“No,” Kai said out loud, frustrated that Zach wouldn’t listen to him. “I can’t . . . I can’t live there. Not on my own. Not even with a roommate. On campus, even if I had a single room, I wouldn’t be alone. Do you understand?”
Zach knew a little about Kai’s issues because of his job, Kai’s phobias being one of the things they’d needed to deal with for his accommodations this semester--closed doors, the dark--but he had no way of really understanding about Kai’s paranoia of isolation, of abandonment, the one fear that Kai didn’t believe he could ever overcome, no matter how much therapy he did. He could get used to closed doors again. To the dark. But to the threat of dying all alone and no one caring? How did you ever get over that?
“I can put you on the list, but the soonest I could get you anything would be this summer, and even that is a longshot.”
“I’ll take a regular room.”
Zach’s shoulders fell, and he looked Kai up and down, shaking his head. “I’ve been through this with other students in the past. Your wheelchair will not fit through the doors. The bathrooms aren’t accessible at all.”
“I’ll manage,” Kai signed, giving Zach a determined glare.
“Stubborn,” Zach said, but he smiled faintly. Maybe he was happy to see Kai determined instead of acting so hopeless. “You need to be a student here to live in the dorms, though, so if you’re thinking of dropping out this semester--”
“Find me a room, and then I’ll worry about that.”
Zach shook his head and sighed. “I’ll start the paperwork, then.”
Continue to February 2, 2001 - Part II ------->