February 6, 2001 - Part III
It had taken a lot longer to get Kai’s hearing aids fitted and adjusted than either of them had expected, partially because it involved several adjustments and hearing tests before the audiologist was happy that Kai was hearing as best he could. Apparently, the fancy hearing aids, because of that special FLE tech, had to be calibrated very specifically so they’d adjust the frequency appropriately. Too high, and it wouldn’t properly transpose the very high frequency sounds; too low, and it wouldn’t appropriately aid Kai in amplifying the sounds closer to his hearing ability. Jon didn’t mind the wait--this was important, after all--but he was long past due for lunch. At least Kai had finally agreed to the expensive hearing aids, which weren’t flawless, and which Kai admitted made women sound strange, but he could hear them, even the sounds Feigenbaum had warned him might be out of range, so Jon would count that as a victory.
Kai was slouched in the passenger’s seat of Jon’s car, struggling not to fiddle with them. Jon could tell by how Kai’s hands would constantly go up to his ears and then withdraw.
“Are they uncomfortable? We can go back.”
“Not . . . uncomfortable. Just . . . I’m not used to them,” Kai said. But he hadn’t struggled to hear Jon, so that was something.
“You hear OK with them?”
Kai nodded, again fighting his instinct to touch them. “It’s not like before. Especially background noise. And women’s voices, at least in the test, were . . . I don’t know how to explain it. It was hard to understand what I was hearing some of the time. But apparently, there’s an adjustment period. Your voice is super crisp, though.”
“Cattle Baron OK for lunch? You can test them out in a noisy environment. Or we can go home, if you’d prefer.”
Kai’s nose twitched, and he leaned his head against the window. He seemed tired, or defeated, but that was Kai most of the time lately. Jon couldn’t entirely blame him, and wondered if he should have convinced Kai to have an afternoon session with Dr. Miller to help him process the results of his hearing test. “Whatever you want.”
Jon sighed, but he turned toward the restaurant instead of home. If they went out, Jon could guarantee Kai would actually eat something. He’d tried not to nag, because he was supposed to be doing that whole “take a step back, give Kai his independence” thing, but he was becoming increasingly concerned by how Kai still wasn’t putting on weight, even more than a month since his release from the hospital. “You OK?”
“I’m fine,” Kai replied almost immediately. Then he shifted in his seat a little so he was facing Jon rather than the window. “Really.”
Jon nodded, even though he wanted to ask if Kai had been sleeping, if he’d been eating, if he’d been throwing up, and how often. How Kai really felt about the whole hearing loss thing, but Jon bit his tongue and pulled into the Cattle Baron restaurant’s parking lot instead. They’d arrived in the midst of the lunch rush, and there weren’t any free handicapped spaces, partially because there were only two. “OK if I drop you off and you get us a table?”
Jon stifled another sigh and pulled up as close to the front door as he could. “I’ll park and meet you inside.”
Jon was acting weird, even by Jon’s standards. Part of it was probably Jon’s lingering guilt about Kai’s hearing loss. No matter how many times Kai told Jon it wasn’t his fault and he didn’t blame him, Kai knew his brother. And part of it was probably Jon worrying about how Kai was handling it all. When things got shitty and upset him, the safest thing to do was withdraw, to forge ahead and pretend like everything was fine. Of course everything wasn’t fine. Kai’s entire life would be different from here on out, but he didn’t need--didn’t want--to think about it right now. He had too much on his plate.
Like the fact that he’d agreed to move in to Vicky’s this morning. Maybe that was part of why Jon was being weird. Kai knew Jon was a worrier, but it always seemed more annoying and harmless than the crippling burden it apparently was. All those nights they’d been apart and Kai had been convinced he was alone, Jon had supposedly dropped in to check on him anyway. Which would explain the notes or his brother’s seemingly random presence. And how often had Jon needed to go check on Vicky because Kai had selfishly insisted he stay with him?
Whatever was going on, Jon had been relatively quiet during their short drive from the hospital to the restaurant, like he was holding back. But Kai couldn’t deal with that right now. He had to focus on getting through lunch, the rest of the day, first without cracking.
Kai entered the restaurant foyer, immediately assaulted by noise. Background conversations, the distant rumble of dozens of people eating and moving around, bombarding him in a cacophony of sound he couldn’t begin to understand. It wasn’t at all like before. Everything was just loud and nonsensical, and whenever a noise was high enough to trigger the FLE, the sound would get blurry and warped and disconcerting, spiking his anxiety. It didn’t help that the place was busy, at least ten people waiting to be seated.
Kai forced himself to take slow, deep breaths as he approached the hostess station, offering one of his best smiles. “Hi. Two. Is the wait long? I’d prefer a table.”
She smiled at him warmly, then her gaze caught his crutches and her smile became a little more purposeful. “Let’s see what we have.” Kai could hear her, even amidst the overly loud background noise, but because of the way these hearing aids worked, without seeing her lips, he wasn’t 100% sure he could have known what she’d said, exactly. She glanced at her seating chart, then over her shoulder at the busy dining room. “I think I might be able to get you seated within five minutes. Give me your name?”
Would Kai be able to hear her call him? Well, he supposed part of the reason they were here was to test things out anyway. “Kai. K-A-I.”
“Kai. OK. I’ll call you when something opens up.”
Kai nodded and shifted away from the podium, irritated with how people were bunched up everywhere, making his egress much more complicated. He kept bumping people with his crutches and it didn’t make his anxiety any better. He was overdue for his next Xanax, and the only reason he wasn’t freaking out more was that he’d taken that extra dose off schedule. His back was aching, and he really wanted to sit down, but there were only a few chairs, and they were all taken.
On one hand, he sort of wished someone would have given him their seat, but on the other, he was glad they didn’t, because he didn’t like special treatment. Why hadn’t he just told Jon to take him home? Jon was going to make Kai eat, too, and Kai’s stomach gurgled to tell him, “No thank you.”
Kai moved so he was as out of the way as he could be, made sure his feet and his crutches were firmly planted, and closed his eyes. Meditating had worked in the bathroom back at the ENT’s office. Hopefully, it would work again.
Jon entered the restaurant to a commotion. He could see Kai’s head above the crowd, since even in Jonesville, he and Kai were taller than average, and he could also hear his brother shouting, along with another man.
“You ran into me!”
“What the fuck is your problem? I tripped and bumped into you because you were just standing there with your eyes closed like a freak.”
“You should watch where you’re going!”
“Maybe the freak should be more careful!” Through the crowd, Jon could just make out the guy try to kick one of Kai’s crutches out of his way.
Jon saw Kai wobble a little, but he quickly regained his balance. “Get the fuck away from me!” Kai shouted, then heard what sounded like Kai’s crutches falling to the ground. Next, Jon got a clear view of the other man, who was really a kid--no more than eighteen--just before Kai shoved him so hard he fell back into the crowd.
The murmuring and shouting continued, the kid getting back to his feet as Jon forced his way through the bodies just in time to get between him and Kai. The kid lunged, and Kai did too, and he nearly lost his balance. Fortunately, a couple of the men grabbed the kid and Jon was able to reach out and stabilize Kai before he could fall. Kai seemed not to care, his eyes crazed and furious and murderous, never leaving the kid although he didn’t make another move to attack.
The kid worked partially loose and managed to reach around Jon to shove Kai. “Crazy motherfucker!”
“I told you not to fucking touch me,” Kai spat, fighting Jon’s hold, trying to throw a punch even though he wobbled and it was possible he would bring all three of them down.
The guy ducked and laughed, turning to his friends with a smirk like he was bored with this whole thing. “Whatever, freak,” the guy said, stepping away and nearly tripping over Kai’s discarded crutches, which took away some of his swagger.
Kai was breathing heavily, tracking his opponent with his eyes even if he stopped fighting Jon’s grip on him.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jon hissed.
Kai glared and shoved Jon away from him, and it was Jon’s turn to nearly trip on Kai’s crutches and fall. Kai was oblivious, stalking out of the restaurant without them, the crowd parting for him to loud murmurs.
Jon visually checked the kid over. He wasn’t hurt, at least not physically, though he did cast a dirty look Jon’s way. “I think your boyfriend’s off his meds,” he spat, and his friends laughed.
Jon ignored the kid and stooped to grab Kai’s crutches just as the manager appeared, trailed by a nervous-looking hostess.
“Both of you, out of here, now,” he ordered.
“It wasn’t him,” the hostess said. “It was his brother. And he was provoked. I saw it. He’s disabled, and this man almost knocked him over.”
The kid whom Kai had gotten into the altercation with let out an outraged sound but didn’t say anything else, signalling to the rest of his party that they were “so done with this place anyway” as they pushed out the door.
The manager still cast daggers at Jon, even if the hostess was looking at him embarrassed and apologetic.
Jon just shook his head and rushed out, hoping he’d find Kai before he could get in a real fight.
Fortunately, Kai was leaning against Jon’s car, his arms folded tightly on his chest, shivering a little in the cold.
“What the hell, Kai? If you had hurt that guy, he could have pressed charges against you.”
Kai’s look was like steel. “No way that guy was going to tell the police a cripple beat him up. Besides, I barely touched him.”
“It’s not like you to get in fights,” Jon said, offering his brother his crutches.
“And how would you know? You knew me when I was six and then when I was sick. How the fuck do you know what I’m really like?” But Jon could see that Kai’s anger was a fragile shell over something else.
Jon took a breath, remembered what Kai had told him the other day. Not to let Kai get away with his rage. “Get in the car,” Jon commanded.
It wouldn’t be easy, since Jon hadn’t parked in a handicapped space, but if Kai had managed to make it all that way without his crutches, he’d figure it out. Kai huffed, rolled his eyes, but he obeyed.
Once Jon and Kai were both settled, the engine running to get the heat started, Jon turned to Kai. “Tell me what all that was really about.”
Kai shook his head and wiped his nose on his sleeve.
Kai sniffled, and when he looked at Jon, Jon could see his eyes were glossy. “I don’t know,” Kai finally admitted. “I was meditating so I wouldn’t lose it with all those people, and he bumped me and grabbed my crutch and called me a freak and . . . I snapped.” Kai looked broken. “I’m sorry. I know you need to eat.” Kai hung his head.
“Hey. Hey,” Jon said, wanting to touch Kai but figuring it might be better if he didn’t right now. “It’s OK. We can go somewhere else.”
“What if I had hurt him, Jon?” Kai hugged himself. “What if I’m not safe?” Kai’s lip trembled. “That’s the third time in the past two weeks I freaked out. That I could have hurt someone.”
“Hey. You’re OK. Has anything like this happened before?”
Kai hesitated. Finally shook his head. “Not like this.” Then Kai sighed. “I used to get in fights a lot in high school.” Jon knew that Kai had been bullied quite severely. He knew that Kai wasn’t one to take things lying down, either, and Kai had admitted that he’d attacked Jon back in November because he’d flashed back to high school. But had Kai been the aggressor some of the time, too? Even though Kai was partially right, that Jon didn’t know his brother as well as he wished he did, it just didn’t seem like him. What happened today, even if it wasn’t a flashback in the traditional sense, definitely seemed to have been Kai reacting to a trigger.
“It’s OK. Tell me what happened.”
“I know. But give me all the details.”
Kai looked pained. “I don’t remember! My memory is shit, you know that.”
“Just take a breath and try to recall what you can.”
Kai sighed, cast Jon a look that said this was a waste of time, but he breathed deep, shut his eyes, and tried. “They didn’t have a free table, and there was no where to sit; all the seats in the waiting area were taken. So I went to the edge of the row, closest to the hostess station, so I would be as out of the way as I could be. I spread my crutches out and braced myself so I wouldn’t need to worry about my balance, and I closed my eyes so I could meditate and shut out all the people. So I wouldn’t get anxious.”
“OK. Then what happened?”
Kai’s brows furrowed although he kept his eyes shut. “I don’t . . . I’m not sure. Maybe people were squished more tightly together on the seat than they had been and the guy got really close? I don’t know. But I felt my balance waver; something shoving my crutch. I tried to shift, to adjust, starting to pick it up, and the guy screamed at me to get that ‘fucking thing out of his face’ and he grabbed it.” Kai shivered. “And it just snowballed, I guess.”
Jon frowned. Assuming Kai’s recollection was correct--and with Kai’s tendency to dissociate plus his memory problems, Jon couldn’t be sure that it was--the kid had definitely provoked Kai. Touching Kai’s crutch was like touching Kai’s body, and especially if it affected Kai’s stability on his feet? No wonder Kai had freaked out.
“I’m sorry,” Kai said, defeated. He opened his eyes but didn’t make eye contact.
“It wasn’t your fault. And you were just trying to get the guy to get away from you. You didn’t punch him or hit him with your crutches.”
Kai growled. “I may’ve, if you hadn’t stopped me.” Kai’s nose twitched several times, and his shoulders hunched.
“Maybe. But the guy probably deserved it,” Jon said. Fights in high school or not, Kai worried too much about hurting people for Jon to believe that he was actually a violent, dangerous person. He just had a scared kid trapped inside him that lashed out in fear and self defense. “You’ve talked to Dr. Miller about your anger?”
Kai nodded. “I’m switching to a new medicine. She said it might help.” Kai punctuated it with a thud as he let his head fall against the window.
“So you’re doing everything you can. Right?”
“I guess,” Kai said on a sigh, clearly not convinced.
“Do you want to try to eat somewhere else, pick something up, or just go home?”
Kai shrugged. He was shutting down. Jon had seen it happen more than once in the last couple months, and he knew there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about it.
Kai had stripped off his braces and his hearing aids and was lying curled up in a tight ball on his side in his bed, hugging his fox and staring blankly ahead.
Jon set a plate on Kai’s nightstand and perched on the edge of the mattress where Kai could see him. “I made you a grilled cheese. You need to eat.”
“Not hungry,” Kai mumbled.
Jon took a breath, planned out what he wanted to say and how he’d say it in sign, and then made an attempt. “Is the reason you’re not eating like you should because you’re worried you’ll get back to your old weight and strength and it’ll be easier for you to hurt someone?”
Kai stared at Jon, hard, and then his whole body seemed to sink, but that was his only answer.
“Talk to me. Please. Do you need me to call Dr. Miller?”
Kai sighed. “Do you think I’m dangerous? The truth.”
“Anyone can be dangerous, Kai,” Jon said, smoothing his brother’s shoulder, glad Kai didn’t flinch from the touch. “I flipped out after the transplant committee meeting. Did you know I got suspended for a week because I attacked Ben--Dr. Johnsen?”
Kai’s eyes widened, and he shifted so he was a little more on his back, making it easier for him to see Jon. “I can’t imagine you attacking anyone.”
“I have a temper, too, Kai.” Jon sighed, switched back to ASL. “I know how important being independent is to you. Just like you need me to trust you and believe in you, you need to trust and believe in yourself.”
Kai’s lids fell. “You have no idea what it feels like to have no control over your body. Your emotions. What you do. What you see. What you feel. Sometimes, I slip into a flashback, and I totally blackout. Lose chunks of time. How do I fight that, Jon? How?” Kai was trembling.
Jon shook Kai gently to get him to look at him. “You’re right. I don’t know what that’s like. But I do know you, and you’re stubborn. You’ve never let anything life has thrown you stop you from doing what you want.”
“I don’t know what I want,” Kai said, his voice heavy with despondency.
“Life. That’s what you want. You want to go to school and be with Renee and live. And you’ve come so far already. Don’t forget that, OK? I’ll do my best to give you space, but--”
“You’ll always be here for me, yeah, I know,” Kai said, but he was smiling faintly. He let out a breath and his eyes darted toward the sandwich. “I really can’t eat right now.”
Jon frowned. He didn’t want to force Kai, or be the helicopter he knew he could be, but he felt he had to say something. “You haven’t eaten anything today.”
Kai dropped his eyes. “I’m fine. I see my nutritionist on Thursday. She can yell at me for you,” Kai snapped, but there wasn’t much bite to it.
“I’m just worried. You’ve gained back some muscle, but you still weigh about what I do, and you work out more and have a larger frame than me. Plus, you’re maybe an inch taller.”
Kai looked guilty, but he didn’t say anything.
“Do you want me to call Renee to come sit with you for a little while?”
“I’m sure she’d come anyway. Art would give her a few hours off.”
Kai shook his head. He looked so dejected. And Jon wondered if maybe the news about his hearing was playing into his sour mood. Maybe even was partially to blame for the fight. Kai had been trying to suppress how upset he was about finding out the hearing loss was so severe and so permanent, it wouldn’t be surprising for it to come out unconsciously in other forms.
Jon didn’t know what else to say. He didn’t want to push Kai too hard, make his brother feel smothered, but at the same time, he wasn’t sure what to do, and he didn’t think that leaving him alone was what Kai needed right now. “Did you take your Xanax?”
Kai shook his head. He was trembling subtly, breathing a little faster than he should. “I don’t want anything that’ll make me more likely to dissociate.”
Jon nodded, again, at a loss. “Is there anything I can do?”
Kai sighed. “You’re right.” He pushed all the way onto his back, then used his hands and arms to help get himself up into a sitting position. He picked up his legs one by one and shifted them until they were perpendicular, hanging off the edge of the bed, like he was ready to transfer back into his wheelchair. “I can stay here feeling sorry for myself or I can suck it up. Thank you, Jon. Really. For everything. I’m going to go swim for awhile. It’ll clear my head and relax me without drugs.”
“Remember to bring the dry case for your hearing aids. They’re sensitive to moisture.” The dry case was a special storage case that protected the electronics of Kai’s hearing aids whenever they were exposed to high humidity or moisture and needed to dry out.
“I’ll leave them here. I won’t need them.” Kai smiled faintly, perhaps reading the lingering worry in Jon’s eyes. “I promise I’ll eat something after I swim.” Kai pulled his chair closer, lined it up. Then, with one hand on the frame and another on the mattress, pushed his body up and into the seat. “You can come with me,” Kai said as he adjusted his legs, setting his feet on the footrest. Jon didn’t miss the hope in Kai’s voice.
“Why not. I have the rest of the day off.”
Jon hopped up and rubbed his brother’s head. “Sure. I’ll go get changed.”
Kai sat on his bed, naked, his swimsuit nearby, ready to change into it, but he couldn’t seem to find the motivation to put it on. He stared down at the mess of his thighs, so marked up by fresh scabs and scars he could barely make out the ones leftover from his stay with his aunt. He glanced up and caught his reflection in his dresser mirror, just his torso, but it was enough to remind him how thin he was, his ribs even more visible than they were the last time he bothered to look. And the definition in his stomach David had teased him about only a week ago was already fading. Amazing how less than ten days without a babysitter and he’d already all but stopped eating entirely. Kai tried to remember the last time he ate. Didn’t just pretend and make it look like the bites were going in his mouth and down into his stomach. Saturday? Friday? It seemed like the only calories he kept down lately were the sports drinks he made himself chug throughout the day to keep his blood pressure from crashing and his electrolytes from completely destabilizing, both of which could land him back in the hospital.
And his entire upper body looked like he’d been assaulted by a dozen pissed off alley cats. Scabs scored his chest and stomach and arms. His arms. There was no way Kai could hide them since his suit left his arms fully exposed. Kai held them out, palms up, examining the damage. More scabs slashed their way haphazardly across his skin. Dozens. And his stomach turned. Who did this to themselves? How could Renee possibly find him attractive? Dr. Miller had assured him there were no failures when it came to recovery, but his body sure as hell looked like fucking failure, didn’t it?
Kai’s stomach contracted, and he reached for the trashcan, yanking it up to his mouth and desperately trying to throw up. He heaved a few times, his eyes watering, but nothing came up. And of course it didn’t. He hadn’t eaten in days. But he felt like he had to do this, had to get the darkness that was poisoning him out so he could go to the pool and swim and forget and not even care if his brother asked about his arms. The self hatred was consuming him, the voice that told him how revolting he was, the one he’d normally silence with a blade. But he was determined not to cut, so throwing up would have to do.
The feelings of worthlessness surged as Kai stuck his fingers down his throat until he finally gagged enough to heave up his shame.
Jon had just finished changing when he heard what sounded like Kai vomiting--violently--so he dropped everything and rushed into Kai’s room. Kai was sitting on his bed, naked, bent over a trash can, throwing up. Considering Kai had only had some water and Gatorade today, it made Jon worry.
“Kai? Hey, hey, you’re OK,” Jon said, realizing only after he spoke that Kai probably couldn’t hear him, settling down on the bed beside him. He tried to touch Kai, but Kai shoved him away.
A few seconds later, Kai spit into the trash can, sat up a little, and wiped his mouth on his arm. “Don’t touch me.” Petechiae--little red dots that represented burst blood vessels--had bloomed all around Kai’s eyes, and he looked green and dizzy, wavering a little like he was going to fall over. Kai held one hand out as if to keep Jon at a distance, and the other held the basin, so he had nothing to brace himself. “Go away. It’s just . . . just . . .” Kai brought the trash can back to his mouth, and he heaved a few times, but nothing else came up. “Just vertigo.”
Jon took a moment to take in the rest of Kai now, and his heart nearly stopped. Kai’s entire body was a rash of scabs, a maze of cuts from just above his knees all the way up to the midpoint of his chest, breaking off and picking up again around his elbows and down to his wrists. Jon knew that Kai still self harmed, but he thought that Kai had gotten better with Dr. Miller’s help. That his self destructive behavior was limited to things like snapping rubber bands and exercising too much. That the fear that kept Jon up at night was purely irrational. Jon couldn’t even find words to express the feelings that tore through him. Fear, worry, guilt, anger, disappointment, sadness, all mingled together into a festering pit in his stomach.
Kai reached for the blankets, snagging enough to partially cover himself. He said nothing else, just sat there, breathing raggedly, staring blankly, and Jon honestly couldn’t tell what was going through his brother’s head right now.
Jon’s only consolation was that none of those cuts were fresh. At least a couple days old. Jon couldn’t let any of this go, but he didn’t know what to say or do. That feeling of helplessness that seized Jon far too often lately, it seemed.
Kai finally set the trash can on the floor and wiped his face and mouth on the sheet. Then, without another word, Kai started peeling off the scabs on his arms, revealing the healing pinkish skin beneath.
“What are you doing?” Jon tried to ask, but Kai either couldn’t hear or was ignoring him.
When Kai had finished one arm, he held it out and turned it over and back a few times, like he was examining it. “Is it obvious?” he asked Jon in a dead voice.
Jon blinked. What?
Kai sighed, put his arm that still had the scabs on it beside the one that didn’t. Then looked pointedly at Jon, then down at his arms, his eyebrows raised.
Oh. So Kai still wanted to go swimming after all? And he obviously didn’t want anyone to see the evidence of his self harming behavior. Something he’d done a brilliant job of until now because Jon sure as hell had no idea Kai had gotten this bad, and Jon wanted to believe that if David knew, he would have said something.
Kai grunted in frustration. “Whatever, I’m going anyway. I need this.” It seemed like Kai was talking to himself as he grabbed his swimsuit and started slipping it on, almost as if everything were normal. But Jon knew Kai was just pretending. Just like his stoicism in the doctor’s office, more of Kai trying to put up his barriers. Jon suspected the vomiting just now had more to do with Kai’s emotional state than anything else. Kai had been off kilter since the ENT had told him his hearing loss was permanent, and the fight at the restaurant had only made things worse.
Jon touched Kai to try to get his attention, since he was bent over, threading his legs through the difficult fabric of his suit.
Kai flinched violently. “I told you not to touch me.” Kai shivered and then went back to work, like he was using the difficult task of putting on the swimsuit as a distraction.
But Jon nudged him again anyway, because he needed to talk to Kai, and he wasn’t sure Kai could hear him well enough right now, especially without looking at his lips.
“What?” Kai snapped.
Jon gave him a pointed look.
Kai sighed and went back to putting on his suit, struggling to get it up over his butt and hips, having to work on each side slowly, little by little, until it was finally at his waist. No wonder he put it on at home. “Two steps forward, one step back.” Kai indicated the scabs on his torso. “This is one reason, as of yesterday, I’m seeing Dr. Miller every morning for awhile. One reason I switched medicines. And I’m going to start going to group therapy, too.” Kai sighed and slipped his arms in, reaching back for the zipper, managing to guide it all the way up after a few adjustments, never asking for Jon’s help even though it would have made things a lot easier. The story of Kai’s life, right? Even if it was more complicated and took longer, it meant something to him if he accomplished things on his own. “I meant what I said earlier, during our session. I want--I need--to be independent, to live on my own, to support myself. But I’m not ready, yet. Promise me you’ll never judge me if I fail along the way,” Kai said, smoothing a hand over his arm. “Promise me that, and I know I can do it.”
“Of course,” Jon said. “If you promise me that you will call me or David or Renee or Dr. Miller before you ever hurt yourself like this again. Please.” Jon indicated the one scab Kai hadn’t tried to remove, a long gash in his left elbow that had probably resisted healing because of its placement. “I don’t care if we’ve been fighting. Even if I’m working, even if I’m with Vicky, if you need me, I will be there.”
Kai cradled his elbow and was silent a long time, looking down. “I’m doing better. Relatively. Sometimes, I’m almost . . . fine,” Kai said with a sad laugh. “But then it’s like I see myself, really see myself, and all I see is disgust and failure and disappointment.” Kai met Jon’s eyes, finally. “Sometimes, I feel like I have this poison swirling around inside of me, this taint that will destroy me and anything it touches, and I have to do whatever I can to stop it.”
Jon remembered what Kai had said during their session, how he was so convinced he was going to ruin Jon’s relationship with Vicky. Jon had read some books and articles on the effects of abuse, and he knew that the way Kai saw himself had everything to do with the people who had hurt him when he was a kid, who’d treated him like he was something disgusting and worthless, and it made Jon furious and sad at the same time. He remembered Thanksgiving night, how Kai had slipped into that horrible flashback and felt so disgusted with himself he wouldn’t allow Jon to touch him.
Kai rubbed his arms, nodded solemnly. “You don’t need to say anything. Let’s just go. I’ll feel better after a few hundred meters in the pool.”
Jon and Kai popped out of the water about the same time. Jon was breathing hard, but Kai wasn’t. Even if he hadn’t regained all the weight he’d lost, it hadn’t taken him much to get back in shape after his infection, so that was something, at least. Jon glanced over at his brother, a warm feeling in his stomach, part relief, part joy, to see Kai was smiling. Swimming had definitely helped his brother’s mood enormously.
“You really love swimming, don’t you?”
Kai’s smile didn’t fade, and he nodded. “Did you have fun?”
Jon rolled his eyes. “I think you and I have a different idea of what ‘fun’ is.” Jon took a deep breath as his heart rate slowly came back to normal. “Yes. I’m glad we could do this.” Jon almost apologized for missing this on Thursday, but decided they’d already made up about that and there wasn’t a need to rehash it. Kai was in a good mood, and especially after what happened earlier, Jon didn’t want to ruin it.
Kai peeled off his goggles and swim cap and dunked under the surface, pulling himself back up and shaking his hair loose, sending water flying. He was distracted, so he didn’t see the girl waving to him from the hot tub.
“Kai!” she called as she pulled herself out of the tub and approached, shaking her head as if she’d forgotten he couldn’t hear her. She was average height, or at least Jon supposed she probably was; it was hard to tell from his angle, looking up and at a distance. She was wearing a black speedo suit and her dark hair was hanging down along her back.
Jon poked Kai’s shoulder.
Kai frowned, his eyebrows raised, wordlessly wondering what Jon wanted.
Jon pointed toward the girl.
Kai spit some water out, shoved his hair out of his face and waved, beckoning the girl over.
The girl smiled, looking back and forth between the two of them. “So you do have a twin.”
Kai’s brows furrowed, and he automatically looked to Jon.
Kai’s nose twitched, and then he rolled his eyes. “Funny. Steve, this is my brother, Jon. Jon, Steve,” Kai said, signing with one hand while his other supported himself on the wall.
“You sign?” Jon asked, surprised.
“I’m learning,” Steve signed while she spoke. She sank down to the tiles, sitting Indian style, so they didn’t have to look up at her so much.
“Steve’s in my psych class, and her cousin is in the ASL class I’m helping Megan teach. He’s hard of hearing and has CP.”
Jon nodded his head slowly as he took this all in. He was surprised to see Kai so comfortable, relatively, with a girl he couldn’t have known for more than a week and a half, but maybe the swimming and the Deaf connection helped. Jon knew he’d probably never understand what it meant for Kai to meet someone who signed, especially now.
“You’re hearing?” Steve asked Jon, probably assuming since he’d interpreted for Kai earlier, even though so far their entire conversation had been in ASL.
Kai chuckled. “Like, super hearing.”
Jon splashed him.
Kai splashed back.
“Hey! Getting wet here!” Steve yelled even though she was already wet.
Kai and Jon’s splash battle got a little more violent until a whistle blew and one of the student lifeguards yelled out that they had to stop or get kicked out.
Kai clearly hadn’t heard the lifeguard, but he stopped when Jon did, laughing, his sour mood of earlier gone. Damn, Jon had been an idiot to cancel on him the other day. Kai really did need this.
“Ugh. I have to go. I have work.”
Jon poked Kai and pointed to Steve, then interpreted what she’d said.
Kai looked disappointed, but he nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
Steve nodded enthusiastically. “It was nice to meet you,” she signed stiffly to Jon, then she rose to her feet and disappeared.
Jon noticed Kai was watching her leave, and he waved to get his brother’s attention. “Do you like her?”
Kai looked shocked. “She’s a friend. Well. Maybe. I’m hoping she will be. She’s nice. Weird. You don’t like her?”
Jon shook his head. “No, that’s not what I meant. I’m glad you’re making friends at school. Want to hit the hot tub?”
Kai smiled his natural grin, the one that was genuine and spontaneous, something Jon hadn’t seen in a very long time. Then he nodded and planted his hands on the edge of the pool and pulled his body out of the water.
The hot tub was empty by the time Kai finished stretching and the two brothers sank into it. Kai was tired, but right now it was the good kind of tired like he felt after a long workout and not the fatigue that came with a low mood. And swimming always made him feel better about his body, too. Powerful and capable, and it reminded him that everything in life took hard work. When he’d first gotten back in the pool after his infection, he’d barely been able to swim the full length without getting winded. Now he was able to swim an entire morning away, if he wanted. So he reminded himself he could make progress, even if it wasn’t always immediately obvious. That included his new hearing situation. Kai would learn and adapt like he always did.
“I don’t know if I ever thanked you for improving your ASL,” Kai signed once Jon was settled in the tub and looking his way.
Jon blinked. “I should never have let it lapse.”
Kai shook his head. “Steve’s cousin is hard of hearing and has a pretty severe speech impediment, and yet his mom forced him to be oral, to go to hearing schools.”
Jon shrugged, likely not sure what Kai’s point was.
“You were the one who taught me my first signs. Who fought to get me in the deaf school.”
Jon shook his head, obviously still not sure where Kai was going with all this.
Kai pushed his wet hair off his forehead. “If you hadn’t done that, I never would have learned sign or Deaf culture. I would have been so alone when our parents died because the Warden would never have put me with David. I wouldn’t have had him growing up, or the Deaf community as a support network. And now? Now I would feel totally lost, even with hearing aids.”
Kai swallowed. Stared into the water for a moment before returning his gaze to Jon’s. “Teaching that ASL class, seeing all those kids desperate to have what I took for granted? It made me realize I never thanked you.” Kai rolled his eyes. “Dammit, I’m getting sappy as shit.”
Jon chuckled, but not unkindly. Maybe he was happy Kai was being forthcoming, especially considering everything that had happened earlier. But Kai tried not to think about it. He was feeling better, and he wanted to latch onto the small snippet of happiness he had rather than dwell on the negative. For one, Jon hadn’t judged him when he’d seen what a mess Kai had made of his body. Jon had been worried, of course, but he hadn’t looked at Kai with disgust or disappointment the way Kai had been afraid he would. Even if Kai didn’t think he could admit that out loud, that meant more perhaps than even Jon’s insistence that he really was there if Kai needed him, no matter what.
Kai sighed and leaned back, sinking down into the water a little.
For a few minutes, they didn’t talk, just enjoyed the hot water and each other’s silent company.
Then Kai finally spoke up. “Do you think I’d be a good teacher?”
Jon waited until Kai shifted so he could see his brother. “Why do you ask?”
“Do you think I could be a teacher?”
Jon didn’t respond right away. He seemed to be studying Kai, analyzing him, and he was probably remembering all the times Kai had dangerously lost control of himself, like waking up panicked in Vicky’s house or getting into that fight today. Of course Kai couldn’t be a teacher. He wasn’t safe to be around kids. What had he even been thinking, Friday, focusing on Jason and Aaron and the other children? He’d been so sleep deprived, anything could have happened.
A wave of nausea hit, and it could have been from the hot water, but Kai suspected it was shame mixed with disappointment. Jon wanted to tell him that Kai should do anything but be around kids, but he was too nice, too Jon, to say it. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Kai frowned deeply, then looked around, thinking of climbing out, of finding some hole to crawl into, but he didn’t actually move.
Jon waved until Kai looked his way. “I think you’d be a great teacher.”
Kai’s nose twitched frantically, and he nodded, though he wasn’t convinced. “I’m thinking of dropping writing and taking an intro class in the educational path. Am I stupid? With my hearing and everything?”
“You are anything but stupid,” Jon said with a look like the one he’d given Kai the other day when he’d pleaded with Kai to never ever think about his own death again. “I think dropping a class that has been adding to your stress and replacing it with an education class is a great idea.” Jon seemed thrilled. Maybe because this was the first time Kai had made any indication that he was thinking of a major, of a future, of a life. Maybe, despite his bad days, he really was making progress.
Kai smiled again, and he felt something he couldn’t describe. Jon was proud of him. Jon believed in him. And Kai had to believe in himself, too. Hadn’t that been what Jon told him earlier? Maybe Kai could get better. Could be a teacher. He hadn’t felt so . . . right as when he was working with Jason and Aaron the other day. A kind of elation and peace that was so foreign in his life. For once he didn’t have to think or focus so hard. Working with those kids had been so natural even his anxiety had subsided. “Hey, Jon?”
“Is Vicky free tonight?”
Jon tilted his head, clearly not sure where Kai was going with this. “She works till six, but as far as I know, she doesn’t have plans. I could call her.”
Kai cradled the back of his neck. “I want to make dinner. For all of us. Eat together. Like . . . like a family. I want to tell her the news, about our decision, myself. I mean, we can both tell her, but I feel like I need to say it. You know?”
Jon was speechless. Probably still couldn’t believe that Kai had actually agreed on the move--neither could Kai, frankly--and a happy laugh burst out. “I think that would mean a lot to Vicky.”
Kai smiled and he splashed Jon, laughed, and heaved himself out of the water. “Let’s go, then. You can help me decide what to make.”
Today had been a nightmare. Vicky had been swamped with work, and spent most of the day juggling phone calls to one insurance company or another, being shuffled from person to person, while she struggled to make a dent in an overwhelming amount of paperwork. Jon and his success treating FS patients meant the outpatient clinic was busier than ever, and Vicky had petitioned for an assistant, but Dr. MacDonald, as head of the section, insisted there wasn’t enough in the budget for that.
Vicky had been forced to work through lunch, and both she and baby were starving, and she was cranky and not feeling well on top of everything. The only good thing was Jon had called her a couple hours before she finally clocked out to tell her he was waiting for her and would have dinner ready. Of course, Jon was supposed to have spent the entire day with Kai, so if he had the time to cook for her at her place and wait for her to get home, it meant the two brothers must have gotten into another fight. A fight that probably had to do with her and the baby.
When she pulled into the garage, she was shocked to find not Jon’s car parked in the other bay, but Kai’s. She climbed out and entered the house, the smell of cumin and onion filling the air. “Jon?”
No answer. The lights were on in the kitchen, so she took off her coat as she walked that way, occasionally calling out for Jon, confused and a little worried that he wasn’t responding. Finally, she entered the kitchen, surprised at first because it seemed empty, although there was clearly a pot on the stove from which the smell was emanating. Then she saw him. Kai. In his wheelchair, at the wall oven, getting ready to pull something out of it.
To her surprise, he turned to face her. “Vicky. You’re home. Perfect timing. Dinner’s ready.” He then carefully pulled a tray of cornbread out of the oven with one hand while he used his other to maneuver his wheelchair toward the nearest counter to deposit it. Then he wheeled back and shut the oven.
Vicky didn’t know what to say. Kai was here. Kai was here and he’d cooked dinner? Had she stepped into a parallel universe?
Kai wheeled a little closer, his eyebrows dipping. “Are you OK? You don’t look so good.”
Vicky shook her head, as if to clear it, then tucked some hair out of her face. “Where’s Jon?”
“Emergency page. I think he might be in your room making a call.”
Vicky blinked again. She was too tired to have to figure out what was going on. “You can hear me?”
Kai laughed faintly. “With limitations. Got my hearing aids today.” Kai lifted his hair and dipped his head so she could just make out the tiny blue case resting on top of his ear. “Go see Jon. Change. I’ll have everything on the table by the time you get back.” Vicky was about to say something about how all the plates and glassware were in the top cabinets, and even with long arms she didn’t think Kai could reach, but he just smiled. “I got it. Go get comfortable.”
Now Vicky was convinced even more that she’d fallen asleep at her desk and this was some weird dream. Kai was never nasty to her, per se, but polite was probably as far as he ever went. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to find Jon. Maybe he could make some sense out of all of this.
“Increase the dose of Amphigarol and start him on an antifungal,” Jon was saying as Vicky entered the room. He was dressed more casually than she was used to seeing him, in jeans and a sweater, holding the phone to one ear while his other combed through his hair as he paced in front of her bed, his back to her. “I know the culture isn’t back yet, but we don’t have weeks to wait for it. If he’s not responding to the antibiotics yet, there’s a good chance it’s fungal. Especially if his prior medical treatment was erratic.” Jon was shaking his head, and finally he said, “Yes. All right. Fine.” Jon snapped his phone shut with a huff. He turned around and startled when he saw her. “Vic, you’re home.” His weary face transformed and he rushed up to embrace and kiss her.
“What’s going on?” she asked when they’d pulled away from each other.
“Oh, just a problem with a patient. I may have had the day off, but I’m still on call.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it. You and Kai? Dinner?”
Jon shrugged and played innocent. “You have to eat, don’t you?”
Vicky sighed. She knew Jon was being playful, but she really wasn’t in the mood for roundabout answers. She sank onto the bed and started getting undressed, and then she realized Kai was here. She couldn’t just put on her pink flannel PJs, could she?
As if reading her mind, Jon got out some cotton pants and a loose sweatshirt that still fit even with her baby bump, and that would mean she’d be comfortable but wouldn’t feel weird with Jon’s brother around.
She smiled as she accepted the change of clothes and started to slip off her work blouse.
“Let me check your blood pressure.”
“I’m fine. And I’ll be better if you’ll tell me what’s going on.”
Jon looked like he was going to be evasive again, but he sighed. “Kai has something to tell you.” He kissed her forehead. “I better go help him. I love you.”
Vicky wanted to protest, but she figured she’d find out the mystery soon enough.
This dinner was completely different from the only other one she’d shared with the two brothers, Christmas Eve. Back then, Kai had been quiet and sullen, and Jon had behaved like an overbearing parent. Now, Kai had insisted on both Jon and Vicky sitting while he served them. He was still quiet, but there was a lightness to it this time rather than the weight of a month ago.
“It’s vegetarian,” Kai said as he served Vicky some chili, “but it’s completely balanced, especially if you eat it with the corn. So you don’t have to worry,” he added with a glance down at her stomach.
Vicky hadn’t even realized she’d had her hand on her stomach, almost protectively, until then. “OK,” she said, “thanks,” because she had no idea what else to say.
Kai smiled faintly. Vicky realized it may have been one of the only times she’d seen Kai smile genuinely. “I’ve become kind of an expert. Jon wouldn’t let me feed you anything that wasn’t good for the baby.”
Jon had the decency to look embarrassed, but he did ask, “And you checked your blood pressure? It’s fine?”
Now Kai laughed as he handed her her plate and moved to serve his brother. “Good to see I’m not the only one he fusses over.”
And after that, the knot that Vicky had been feeling unraveled a little. She’d never seen this side of Kai before. Relaxed, happy, sweet. For the first time, Vicky felt like maybe she wasn’t entirely insane thinking that they could all make this work. That they could be a family. Kai’s food was delicious, and it was adorable how embarrassed he seemed to get when she gushed over it. He couldn’t take a compliment, and it was actually endearing.
“Thank you. This was nice,” Vicky said, reaching over and squeezing Jon’s hand.
Kai smiled faintly, glanced over at Jon, and took a breath. “Uh, so the reason I wanted to do this is . . .” Kai dropped his hands and rolled backwards a little, then forward, repeating this a few times, almost like he was pacing. “Jon and I talked, and we decided that the best thing for everyone is for us both to move in here.”
At first, Vicky was certain she had to have heard Kai wrong. “What?”
Jon nodded at Kai as if to say he’d handle this, turned to Vicky, took her hand and smiled warmly. “I think we can all be a family, if you’ll still have us.”
Vicky burst into tears, and Kai clearly didn’t know what to do or think, but Jon rushed up to her and wrapped her in his arms, pulling her up to her feet. He really had gotten stronger. Amazing what a couple months of working out could do. “I’m fine. I’m just happy,” Vicky sobbed, unable to stop. Damn hormones.
Jon soothed her and kissed her and hugged her. “We’ll both be moved in within a week or two. We’ll all be together. Finally. A family.”
Continue to February 7, 2001 - Part I ----->