Wednesday, July 19, 2000

In/Exhale - February 2, 2001 - Part III

February 2, 2001 - Part III

Renee was trying not to be worried, focusing on helping Megan and David set up for the class. Megan hadn’t been at all what she’d expected: tall and bubbly, very much a school teacher or cheerleader type, while David struck her as a rebel. But he was certainly head-over-heels, and Kai had told her that Megan was a civilizing influence on David. She’d helped him grow up and get his life on track. Renee found it amusing that the sarcastic, carefree man she’d heard so many stories about, and whom she’d finally met a few days ago would still cast goo-goo eyes at his fiancée when he thought Renee wasn’t looking. They’d been together years and were still very much in love. A few days ago, Renee would have thought she and Kai could be just like that, but after today, she wasn’t so sure.
David sidled up alongside her to help her with a stack of stubborn chairs, but once they’d set a few out in the hemisphere half rows that Megan had requested, he paused, tapped her shoulder, and looked at her with earnest eyes. “I thought Kai was coming with you.
Renee nodded. “He was supposed to. He said he needed to go home. But he should have arrived already.” Renee stopped before she signed she was worried, because David probably could read it in her expression.
His face closed up in his own pensive, concerned expression, and he pulled out his phone, sending Kai a quick text. “If he’s not here in five minutes, I’ll go check his apartment.” Then David forced a smile. “Kai probably just lost track of time. I’m sure he’s fine.
Renee appreciated that David was trying not to fuel her worry, but he was obviously concerned. After all, he’d been Kai’s shadow daily since Thanksgiving, staying by his bedside when he was sick and helping him with his physical and mental recovery once he got home. Plus, unlike Renee, David had known Kai for a couple decades. He probably knew Kai better than anyone. So if he was worried . . .
A familiar creak, followed by the subtle squeak of tires on a waxed floor drew her attention to the door. Kai. He still looked tired, even from this distance, but he smiled hugely when he saw her, and it didn’t seem fake, but he was so good at that, she couldn’t be sure. She abandoned her post and rushed up to him. Without asking his permission, she threw herself at him, wrapping him in a tight hug, barely keeping herself from bursting into relieved tears.
Kai hugged her back, surprised, but didn’t say anything.
He smelled strongly of soap, like he’d showered again, and she buried her nose into his neck to capture his scent. Finally, she pulled away, her hands going to his shoulders, locking her eyes on his.
He sighed softly and bent his arm so he could lay one hand on hers, still on his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Re. The truth is . . . this week has been difficult for me. And I skipped my Thursday session with Dr. Miller when I shouldn’t have. I promised to be honest with you, and I haven’t been the past couple days. But I’m going to see Dr. Miller tomorrow. OK?”
While Renee was relieved by Kai’s confession, it made her realize even more how distanced they’d been. She hadn’t realized how hard this week had been on him, not really. While he'd told her about his hearing issue and his fight with Jon, the fact that he'd skipped his session with Dr. Miller was news. Why had he if this was such a bad week? She shifted a hand up to his cheek. “I . . .” She wanted to tell him how apart from him she’d felt, today especially, but instead, she said, shifting into sign, “I worry about you. David does, too. And so does Jon, even if you’re fighting. So take care of yourself. Promise?
Kai’s eyes widened, and somehow the blue seemed to darken and deepen. He cradled his left elbow in one hand, and it was almost like he forgot to breathe for a moment. But finally, he nodded.
Then David came up and interrupted, signing some things rapidly that she couldn’t catch, and Kai burst out laughing, flashed his middle finger, and then David sent him off to consult with Megan while he helped Renee finish setting up the chairs. He seemed in a better mood than before Kai arrived, but she still caught a wariness. Maybe he sensed something more was wrong with Kai than Kai was admitting to, and wasn’t that the truth? After all, Kai hadn’t told him about his hearing issues yet.


#


Megan had arranged to hold the class in one of the larger classrooms, which had a small platform at the front where the teacher’s desk and chair rested, making it easier for everyone to see the signer. She was shuffling some papers that looked like handouts, standing at the desk, and she glanced up when she heard Kai coming. “Thought you were ducking out on us.”
It took a moment for what she’d said to click, since he couldn’t really hear her and had to guess based on how her lips moved and what she had to be saying, but when it did, Kai just smiled and shrugged.
She frowned. Said something.
“What?” Megan hadn’t been looking right at him, so he had no clue what she’d said.
She looked up from the paperwork she was collating, eyeing him quizzically. “Will you be able to get up here?”
The platform was only a few inches above the ground, but too high for him to manage as-is without anything to hold onto to help pull himself over it. So he pushed around to the side, where there were a couple low steps. If there’d been a handrail on the wall, he could definitely manage, but the steps weren’t deep enough for him to pause on one before proceeding to the next, and with nothing to hold onto it would be difficult without help. Kai could get up there on his own, though. The easiest way would be to transfer out of his wheelchair to the first step, lift his chair onto the stage, then pull himself up onto it, then transfer back. A pain in the butt, but if it meant doing it without help?
“Yeah. Give me a sec.” Kai pushed to the stairs, transferred to the first one, hefted his chair onto the platform, then used his hands to lift his body up onto the stage, his legs hanging down along the stairs. He took a breath, yanked his chair closer, set the brakes--he didn’t want it to go sliding and dump him off the platform and onto the floor--then pulled his body up into it again, adjusting his legs on the footrest, settling his butt in it properly, and letting out a breath. He brushed the grime off his hands. Damn, he hated having to do that. Sure, he could have asked David to help him, but for a couple stairs?
Megan stared at him without saying anything for a moment.
A spark of anger ignited in his belly, but he had to remember Megan had likely never been around someone like him before. She’d probably never even seen him do a transfer.
“I thought you’d need help,” she said, then blushed, as if she realized that was probably the wrong thing to say.
But Kai wasn’t offended. It was a very Deafie remark, and he could see how someone would look at him, look at stairs, and assume they were out of his reach. Didn’t mean he didn’t fucking hate them, walking or not. Kai decided it was best to move past the whole “wow, look at the guy in the wheelchair able to do shit for himself” potential disaster and get on task. “So how are we handling this?” Kai hoped if he signed she would, too, and it would avoid having his hearing issues discovered before he was ready. David would be hurt if he found out not only did Renee know, but Megan did too by the time Kai told him.
Megan didn’t seem to find it strange that Kai signed to her, and replied back in ASL, “I figure we’ll introduce ourselves, then get right to it. Talk a little about why learning sign language is important for both the family and the deaf child, and then teach the alphabet and some basic signs. School and family related, I thought was a good place to start. Then I figured we could circulate around, helping people out, answering questions, etc. I thought you maybe could focus on the kids and I could focus on the adults?
Kai nodded. “But I want to sign my intro. Will you voice for me?
Now Megan looked at Kai oddly. She probably wondered why Kai wanted to sign, especially when their audience would be largely hearing.
I’ll be less anxious if I’m signing,” Kai said, feeling a little embarrassed to admit it, but doing his best not to show it.
OK. Whatever you want. If you’re more comfortable signing, then sign. I can voice.
Kai let out a long relieved breath. His heart was pounding, but not too bad; he’d popped his extra Xanax as soon as he arrived. It meant he might need someone to drive him home, depending on how hard it hit him, but this way he hopefully could get through this without freaking out.


#


Renee took a seat beside David toward the back of the room where they could both see all the guests and have a clear shot at Megan and Kai. A lot of people had showed up. Mostly hearing parents with young children, some sporting hearing aids. Many of the kids were quite loud since they didn’t realize how noisy they were. A few Deafies showed up, too, with their kids--Megan had apparently felt it was important that the children who hadn’t been exposed to sign language have some language models their own age to interact with--and it had taken awhile to get everyone quiet and focused. Renee hadn’t realized quite how loud Deafies--especially Deaf kids--could be until now. It made her appreciate how well the moms had kept them in line for Kai’s reading back in October, not to mention how engaged Kai had kept the kids that they were so well behaved.
Kai had transferred onto the desk, sitting there with his long legs hanging down, signing casually to Megan with one hand while his other propped him up. He was smiling and laughing and seemed relaxed, and she wondered--not for the first time--if she could sign better if Kai would feel more comfortable with her. He looked so sexy up there, her heart doing a little skip in her chest.
David gave her a look and a knowing smile, then a wink before popping out of his chair to go “yell” at some of the Deaf kids who were running around the room, stirring up trouble. She couldn’t understand what he was telling them, but she could read his body language, stiff and full of authority, and it wasn’t long before the kids returned to their seats, suitably chastened.
David stomped back to his seat, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “If Megan and I ever think of having kids, slap me.
Renee laughed. It was hard for her to imagine David as a father, but at the same time, she could see it, too. That fierce loyalty and protectiveness he had for those he cared about--she could totally see him being a great dad.
David then indicated they were starting, and it looked like Megan was going to sign and talk simultaneously. Renee wondered why she hadn’t asked Kai to interpret for her, but they obviously had a gameplan, so she just sat back and watched.
Megan started, introducing herself, somehow managing to sign and talk fluidly at the same time. She kept things simple, welcoming everyone and thanking the parents and other family members for being there, caring about their children’s futures, etc., etc., and then explained who she was, how she came from a Deaf family and was an interpreter, and was engaged to a strikingly handsome Deaf man, waving to David, who stood up and bowed, the cheeky devil, before regaining his seat.
Then she turned the reins over to Kai. Kai seemed relaxed enough, though his right foot was bobbing, which would have seemed like nervousness except Renee knew it was completely involuntary. She’d expected Kai to do the same as Megan, to sign and speak, but instead, he started to sign and Megan spoke for him. It was strange, hearing Megan’s voice instead of Kai’s, but she soon got lost in his signing. Pure ASL, not the hybrid Englishy signing system he normally used with her, and it looked completely different. It was beautiful the way it flowed, the way he used his entire upper body, his face shifting. It reminded her of the day he’d signed for the kids at Lost Apple, only in some ways it was even better because this was who Kai really was. And while on one hand it was amazing to see Kai like this, it magnified even more how big the gap between them was, because as much as she loved him, the way he was signing right now she didn’t think she would understand him if it weren’t for Megan’s interpretation.
And if he lost all his hearing?
Renee had promised she’d learn to sign for him--and she would--but would he ever feel close to her with that big of a language gap? Was that why he’d been pulling away from her this week, consciously or not? Getting ready for the inevitable, when the strain of everything in his life finally got too much to keep them together?
What’s wrong?” David asked, his eyebrows dipped, his face a mask of concern. He must have seen the emotions playing over her face shift from enraptured to sad and everything in between.
Do you think you could have ever fallen in love and stayed in love with a hearing girl? Not a CODA like Megan. Someone like me. Clueless.
David’s eyes widened, and he glanced up at the stage, where Kai had finished introducing himself and was explaining how important sign language was, and what an impact it had made in his own life. “You’re not asking about me, are you?
Renee sighed. Kai had begged her not to tell David, and as far as she knew, Kai’s best friend still had no idea that Kai was potentially going deaf. Why Kai was being so secretive, she didn’t know. It would seem like David would be the first person to talk to about that kind of thing. But why did Kai keep any of his secrets? Maybe it was just habit at this point.
Kai loves you. He may not have said it, but I know. I’m his best friend. His brother. And I know him.
Renee shook her head, tears springing unbidden to her eyes. “I don’t understand him,” she said.
No one understands Kai,” David said with a chuckle. “Not even Kai.
No,” Renee said, trying again. “Right now. Signing like that. I don’t understand him. How can we last if . . .” Renee stopped before she gave anything away she wasn’t supposed to.
David seemed confused. “You’ll learn. You sign amazing for someone who’s only been doing it a few months. David signed it more ASLy, though still simple enough she understood: LEARN YOU WILL. YOU SIGN AMAZING. ESPECIALLY YOU SIGN SINCE? THREE MONTHS? FOUR MONTHS? APPROXIMATELY? AMAZING. Kai told me: none of his other girlfriends ever bothered to try. That already sets you apart.” The second part was even more ASL, more visual, showing a group of different “girlfriends” in space, then Renee on the other side, completely apart, indicating that all of them--none of them--learned to sign, unlike her. None of them tried. That made Renee different. “You understand me as long a I don’t sign too fast, right?
Sometimes,” Renee confessed honestly. When David and Kai were talking to each other in rapidfire signs, most of them single-handed or not fully formed, she quickly got lost.
You understood me now, though, right?
Renee nodded, but her shoulders were hunched, still discouraged. “You sign simpler. More English for me. So does Kai.
David sighed, perhaps growing impatient that he wasn’t getting through to her. “Do you love him?
Renee blinked at the sudden change of topic. “Of course.
David glanced toward the front of the room again. Kai had started demonstrating the alphabet--apparently Megan was letting him teach, and it warmed Renee’s heart to see him. He really seemed to have a knack for it--any trace of uncertainty she may have seen at the start had faded away. “I never imagined I would fall in love with a hearing girl. Even a CODA. Definitely not an interpreter. You should have seen me talk when I was younger,” David said with a cheeky smile, then imitated himself as a kid being snarky about dumb hearing people and how greedy interpreters were. (Renee hadn’t understood the sign for “greed” until David explained it. Apparently, it was the same sign as “passion,” which she found interesting.) “The point is, love is love. And I know it’s silly, but it’s true.” Then David lost her. He tried a few times to get her to understand the concept he was trying to convey, then finally gave up and held up a finger. He pulled a small pad of paper out of his pocket, along with a golf pencil, and he scribbled something before flashing it to her.
Renee read David’s messy handwriting. He’d drawn a picture, just a crude stick-figure sketch, as if reproducing his ASL thoughts onto the paper. On one side was Renee. The other, the world. Kai cherish you more than the world, it said, pointing to the referents of “Renee” and “the world” instead of writing them out, the way he would have if he’d signed it. Then he showed her again--almost the exact same sign he’d used for “greed” also meant “cherish,” apparently. In proper English, David had been trying to tell her that she meant more to Kai than anything.
Passion. Greed. Cherish. All the same sign.
Renee wanted to believe what David was saying. Wanted to believe that love would be enough. And a few days ago, she had. But today . . . especially after telling Diane everything, all these things about Kai’s life that he would feel so betrayed to know Renee had revealed. . . . Even if Kai’s hearing loss wasn’t permanent, when he found out . . . would he ever forgive her? Would he understand she just couldn’t do this alone?


#


Steve sat in the center of the room, toward the left, with her aunt Nattie on one side and her cousin Aaron, in his wheelchair, pulled in beside her. She’d been surprised when Kai had begun signing, having the woman--Megan--voice for him, but she soon became enraptured. His movements were so fluid, so beautiful. She’d never really seen anyone signing before, not like that, and it made her even more determined to learn, and for her cousin, too. Because of his CP, his movements probably wouldn’t be as smooth as Kai’s, but if Aaron could communicate easily like that?
Her aunt was less impressed, spending most of the time reclined in her chair, her arms and legs crossed, as if she thought this was all a waste of her time. But Aaron was fascinated. He and Steve had a crude kind of signing system they used together to supplement his difficulty with speech, but it wasn’t a full language by any means. More like a shorthand. Like Steve, he’d never seen anyone signing before, and he’d glance over at her every now and then, his eyes wide with excitement and a brightness she hadn’t seen in awhile.
She reached over and wrapped her hand around one of his and gave it a squeeze.
“So this is the guy you were telling me about? From your class?” Nattie asked with a scoff. “I don’t see the point of Aaron learning to sign. It’s a hearing world. Does this guy even speak?” Nattie said, gesturing toward the stage.
Obviously, her aunt hadn’t been paying attention to the part of the introduction where Kai had talked about how he’d grown up signing, had gone to the school for the deaf most of his life, and then had been forced into speech therapy when he was fourteen and mainstreamed, and how miserable an experience that had been. Steve loved her aunt, but she really was clueless as to how unhappy her son was right now in the regular public school. How frustrated he got with not being able to understand or be understood.
“Have you even asked Aaron what he wants?” Steve asked, skipping over Kai and jumping to the heart of the issue: why it was important to be here. Honestly, Steve had been shocked that her aunt had agreed at all.
“He’s twelve, Steve. Can you tell me that at that age you knew what was best for you?”
Steve had no retort for that, so she simply shut her mouth and watched as Kai instructed everyone on the alphabet, which Steve already knew, but she smiled and did it along with Kai, watching as Aaron did, too. He got even more excited once Kai started demonstrating some actual signs, and he learned how to say “mom” and “female cousin,” his two favorites.
But what really impressed Aaron was when Kai finished, encouraging everyone to practice and that he and Megan would circulate and help anyone who needed help and answer any questions they might have, and he heaved his body back into his wheelchair. Kai had been sitting on the desk, his wheelchair tucked behind it so that most people probably hadn’t even noticed it. But then he yanked it around, closer to him, shifted his body on the desk, using his arms, then transferred into his chair almost seamlessly.
Aaron poked Steve’s arm, then pointed, encouraging her to look.
She nodded, saying she was looking, but she could feel Aaron's excitement. He’d never seen anyone like Kai before, and he was even more impressed when he saw Kai tip his chair backwards and bump down the stairs to the floor without anyone’s help.
“By himself,” Aaron said, struggling to get the two words out, especially the second half of “himself.”
“He’s the guy I told you about,” Steve said, looking directly at Aaron. “You want to meet him?”
Aaron nodded enthusiastically, a huge grin on his face.
Steve smiled back, her cousin’s eagerness infectious. She rubbed his head playfully. “I’m going to go see if Kai can come over here so you both can meet him,” Steve said, standing up. “Try practicing with Aaron. Look how excited he is,” she added, whispering in her aunt’s ear.
Nattie looked over at her son and softened a little. She clearly still thought this was all silly, but she did love her son, even if her instinct to “do what was best” for him might have occasionally been misguided.
Steve worked her way through the chairs toward the front, and managed to snag Kai before he got sucked into a group. “Hey. So you going to be a teacher someday? You're good at it.”
Kai shrugged. Smiled.
“My aunt and cousin are here if you want to meet them?”
“Oh. You got them to come. Awesome. Sure. Lead the way.”


#


“Kai, this is my Aunt Nattie and my cousin Aaron,” Steve said proudly, introducing everyone.
Kai smiled his most charming grin and shook Nattie’s hand. “Kai Fox. Nice to meet you,” he said. “Glad you could come.”
Nattie’s eyes widened. “You talk. And so well!”
Kai was used to that, so he just smiled and nodded before turning to Aaron. “Hi! I’m Kai. You’re Aaron? Steve has told me a lot about you.” Kai spoke as clearly as he could without over articulating, supplementing his English with signs.
Aaron beamed. He was less disabled than Kai had expected. He used a manual chair, but unlike Kai’s, the seat and footrest were elevated slightly, with a support for his head and padded push handles. Did he normally get pushed around? The kid was scrawny, his limbs thin, his legs obviously severely affected and strapped in to keep them in place, his feet at slight angles from each other. He wasn’t a quad, although his left arm and hand had some visible spasticity and he couldn’t use it as easily as his right. Still, nothing that should have kept him from pushing himself, theoretically, at least from what Kai could see. Especially since he must have had enough trunk control to keep himself seated, since his upper body wasn’t strapped in the way his legs and feet were.
Aaron didn’t try to talk, but his elation was evident. He was clearly happy to be here, and excited to meet Kai.
Do you want to meet some Deaf kids your age? I’ll introduce you,” Kai said, same as before, speaking clearly so Aaron could lipread but also signing to give him exposure to that, too.
Aaron looked to his mother hopefully.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Nattie said.
Aaron looked crushed and a little embarrassed.
“Let him go. That’s part of the reason we brought him,” Steve chimed in.
Nattie cast Kai an evil look, like she didn’t trust him, but she sighed and said, “OK. You can go. Steve? Will you help him?”
Aaron dropped his hands to his rims and shook his head. “Myself,” he said, struggling to get the word out.
Kai really didn’t want to get into the middle of a fight, but the kid deserved to get off the leash a little. “We can handle it, right, Aaron?”
Aaron grinned hugely at Kai, nodding.
Nattie sighed heavily, clearly not happy with this, but she finally waved to indicate they could go.
Aaron started out--he didn’t have a strong push, especially since his left side was weaker and stiffer than his right, which didn’t seem to be affected by his CP, giving Kai a second to hang back for Steve to speak to him.
“Help him if he needs it, but only if he needs it, OK?”
Kai smiled and nodded. “I know what I’m doing,” Kai said. But Steve didn’t know Kai had lived twelve years in a home with other disabled kids, and he’d seen almost every kind of disability at least once, as long as it wasn’t too severe. Although, come to think of it, they’d never had a blind kid at CH while he’d lived there. Maybe they sent them somewhere else? But right now Kai had to stay focused. Aaron. Helping Aaron if he needed it, then introducing him to some of the Deaf kids. Right.
Aaron didn’t move quickly, but he managed OK on his own, so Kai focused on searching the crowd for the Deaf children. Megan’s plan was to have them circulate, but they were kids. Not really interested in talking to the hearing people or deaf kids who didn’t sign, so it didn’t take long for Kai to find them in one corner of the room, rough housing.
Kai was trying (and failing) to get their attention when Aaron touched his arm. Kai flinched a little, and Aaron, the poor kid, looked chastened, like he’d committed some unfathomable sin. Kai had to stifle a frown, because the kid was old enough he shouldn’t react that way. Kai immediately wanted to know more about his mother, Steve’s aunt, but then he remembered he couldn’t transplant his own history onto everyone else. Maybe Kai’s face had looked evil as a result of the unexpected touch, and Kai knew he could be frightening when he wanted to be.
Kai forced himself to take a breath, then smiled disarmingly, his face open, leaned forward a little, asking with his body language for Aaron to go ahead.
Aaron smiled back and seemed to relax a little. “Don’t . . . trans--translate. Please. I want to l-l-learn,” he said, not really speaking with a stutter in the traditional sense. It was just like his mouth and tongue wouldn’t form some of the words and he had to try more than once to get them to slide out. “L’s” and “S’s” seemed to give him particular difficulty, and Kai could commiserate there. He was tempted to say something to that effect, but decided it was probably better not to call attention to the kid’s speech impediment. If Kai were him, he’d be grateful to focus on signing, after all.
Kai nodded. “Watch my mouth,” he said in English, pointing to his lips. “I’ll mouth words to help you learn. But you can ask me about any sign you don’t know. Just show me and I’ll explain it,” Kai finished, shifting to signs supplemented with English.
Aaron grinned and nodded enthusiastically.
Kai was about to grab a nearby chair so he could use it to hit the floor in order to get the Deaf boys’ attention when he caught a blur in his peripheral vision. He looked up and saw Megan, a young boy of about eight in tow, with one of those hearing aid systems that linked to a receiver he wore around his neck to help him filter the sound. It meant the boy was probably severely, maybe even profoundly deaf, and had hearing parents who were in denial about how well he could hear with that thing. He looked really uncomfortable, as if he were shy and didn’t want to be here.
Megan positioned the kid so he could see her but also so Kai still could, and she began signing and speaking at the same time. “Justin, this is my friend Kai,” she said, fingerspelling Kai’s name and then demonstrating his namesign. “That’s kinda his nickname,” she said in pure English.
Kai smiled and waved, friendly. “This is Aaron,” Kai signed. He didn’t speak, but he did mouth the name. Kai gave the two boys a chance to check each other out. Aaron didn’t seem shy at all, and waved enthusiastically with his right hand. Justin kept darting his gaze alternately up at Megan and back into the crowd, where his parents probably were.
Kai waved to get Justin’s attention again. “Do you think you could leave your hearing aid attachment with your parents? So you can play with the other kids?” Kai used a lot of gestures to supplement his signing to make himself easier to understand.
Justin seemed surprised--whether because he’d understood Kai (maybe he hadn’t when Kai was signing on stage) or because Kai had suggested he not use his hearing aids, but he beamed, a hint of mischief in his eyes, and unplugged the device from his hearing aids, then pulled it over his head and handed it over to Megan in that way that kids tended to do, like any adult could serve as a parental surrogate if it meant they could be off playing sooner. Kai did notice he kept his over-the-ear hearing aids in place, though.
Megan seemed a little shocked, but she accepted the device. “Have fun,” she said, adding a bit of warning directed to Kai. He was David’s best friend, after all.
Kai held up one hand, all fingers but his ring standing up, his lips pursed almost like he was whistling, his eyes large and innocent-looking. The handshape was one that could mean “I hate you” or “I’m a goody-two-shoes,” depending on your facial expression.
Megan exhaled, and even though Kai couldn’t hear it, he could see it in the way her lips moved, and her hair got blown up with the air. Then she rolled her eyes, shook her head, and waved before making her way back to Justin’s parents.
Now that Kai had the able-bodied Justin, he didn’t need a chair. He indicated the kids, then pointed to the floor and gestured for Justin to stomp on it. Justin was confused at first, but he eventually understood, grinning maniacally that Kai actually wanted him to make noise.
Justin stomped his foot quite enthusiastically, and that was all it took for the boys to stop wrestling with each other and turn their heads toward Kai.
Pay attention to me,” Kai said, directing their focus. “This is Justin and this is Aaron. Justin is deaf and Aaron is hard of hearing. They both want to learn to sign. Let them join you so they can play and learn?
The boys folded their arms on their chests, looking at Aaron and Kai in particular with disdain. The one who was the leader, a stocky boy with black hair that stood up like he’d been electrocuted, signed mockingly, “We don’t play with babies and cripples.
Kai rolled his eyes. Like he’d never heard that before. “Tell you what: let’s race. Out in the hall. You and me. If I win, you let these two play with you all. If I lose, then . . .” Kai struggled to think of what prize might appeal to them.
But the leader jumped in with his own idea. “If I win, we get to spin you around and around and around until you puke.
Fine. Deal.
The leader beamed, and Kai knew he was going to totally embarrass him.


#


They wandered out into the hall. The Deaf boys on one side, cheering on their friend, and Kai and his two companions on the other. Kai set some ground rules--someone was randomly chosen to start the race, signaling them with a count of three, and they determined where the race would begin and end (just down the hall from the classroom, then taking the turn around the bend and ending a few feet away). Kai also made it clear that there was no touching allowed--not only did he not trust the little weasel to cheat by trying to jam his wheels or shove him off course--but it could be dangerous if electro-boy decided to try to stick a foot in Kai’s spokes, or something along those lines.
You touch me, I automatically win. Same goes if I touch you; you win. Got it?
The little shit was cocky, even though he couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen--certainly hadn’t hit puberty yet. He nodded with a grin and got in place.
Kai stretched his shoulders and hands and took his own place. He didn’t care if this wasn’t fair; it was important to take them down a notch. They’d be less likely to discount Aaron if they saw what Kai could do. Kai glanced over at the boys. Aaron was grinning like a fool, but Justin looked extremely nervous. Kai almost wondered if the younger boy was even more sheltered than Aaron. But Kai gave them both an encouraging, confident grin, punctuated by a thumbs up.
The “ref” they’d chosen, one of Kai’s fellow racer’s friends, waved his hands and stomped to get everyone’s attention. “Ready?” he asked both of them.
Kai nodded, and so did the leader.
OK. One. Two. Three!
Kai leaned forward and pushed hard, taking off, short, sharp pushes to propel himself down the hall as fast as he could. Static-hair had a better start, but Kai had been right when he’d suspected the kid wouldn’t have much speed, because with very little effort, Kai passed him, and although the kid tried, when they reached the bend, Kai lost him without putting up a sweat. Kai even slowed down a little to give the kid more of a chance, but he’d used up all his energy in the start, and Kai was able to casually roll into the finish--backwards--which gave him a great view of the boy huffing and puffing a few minutes behind, his face red. Though Kai suspected it was mostly from anger.
Kai’s cuts from earlier burned, and he’d probably reopened a few, but he felt great. Especially when he saw both Justin and Aaron lit up like it was Christmas morning. Kai smiled back at them. Never in his life--not even with Martin--had he felt like a role model, let alone a “hero,” but he knew, at least in that moment, to those two boys? He was. And it felt amazing.


#


“Where did he take them?” Nattie said irritably, standing up and searching the room with her gaze. “How can we trust him? You should have gone with Aaron.”
Steve sighed and rolled her eyes, getting to her feet and trying to convince her aunt to sit back down. “Aaron’s old enough now that you should give him a little slack on those apron strings.”
Nattie frowned. “He’s twelve, not twenty, Stephanie,” she said. She always used Steve’s real name, which Steve hated.
Steve sighed audibly. “Kai seems like a nice guy, and he understands what Aaron is going through. He struggled to speak, too, and he’s disabled.”
Nattie stopped searching the room to give Steve the stink eye. “Just because he crossed the street at the wrong time doesn’t mean he understands Aaron.”
Steve couldn’t believe what her aunt had just said. “He was born that way, Aunt Nattie. Just like Aaron.” Then she spotted a group of boys, including Aaron and Kai, reentering the room from the hall. Kai was signing, and everyone except one boy with black hair that stood straight up was watching him. Aaron had the hugest smile on his face Steve had ever seen. “Look at him,” she said, directing her aunt’s attention to the group. “Look at how happy he is. He’s smart, but he’s trapped in his head because you force him to use English. He could have friends. Learn to drive. He could go to college. Become independent. Have a girlfriend. Just like Kai. And someday, Aaron could get married and have kids of his own. Don’t you want that for him?”
That seemed to chip away at Nattie’s armor, especially since it looked like the Deaf boys were including Aaron in a game they were playing, Kai helping him out with his signing. “You really think this is what Aaron wants? To go to school here?”
Steve nodded. “I asked him, Aunt Nattie. He wants this more than anything.”
Nattie seemed entranced, watching the game. The group erupted into laughter, and soon everyone was high-fiving Aaron. Maybe he’d won. A fond smile had slipped onto Nattie’s face. “He really is good with Aaron. This friend of yours.”
Steve grinned, because she knew that was a sign her aunt was ready to give in. “I told you he would be.”

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6 comments:

  1. Oh, what a terrific chapter. I love seeing Kai interacting with kids, and I'm glad that people in the story are starting to acknowledge that as one of his major strengths. I hope he's able to see it, too, and use that to sustain him through school or towards a job that brings him happiness.

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  2. Aww, amazing chapter! Oh yes, overprotective parents... doing more harm than good.

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  3. Wow, what an incredible chapter. I enjoyed Kai's successes here, and I particularly loved the conversation Renee had with David.

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  4. What a beautiful chapter. I love your writing!

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  5. Such a delightful chapter. I love your descriptions of all the little linguistic quirks of ASL, and there were so many great character interactions and observations throughout.

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  6. You said in the description for this chapter that Kai puts on a mask, but he seems to be letting himself have fun too... Really great writing, as ever.

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