Sunday, July 16, 2000

In/Exhale - February 7, 2001 - Part III

February 7, 2001 - Part III

The Jonesville University campus bookstore was large, bigger than Lost Apple in total space, though it obviously had more textbooks than regular reading material than Art’s store. The main floor was where you could find school supplies, school spirit items, junk food, and a small selection of CDs and music. The lower level, accessible via stairs or a hidden elevator Kai hated, was filled with row upon row of metal shelving holding the textbooks and other required reading materials for every class on campus.
Kai rolled out of the dreaded elevator--it was small and jerked in a disconcerting way--in the back of the textbook floor, taking a few breaths as he pushed down the main aisle, looking for the rows of shelves where his education class would be, since they were organized roughly by college.
Kai had been wandering for awhile when he heard someone talk nearby, a woman, her voice distorted with the new hearing aids, but after a moment he was able to figure out she probably had said, “Excuse me?”
Kai turned toward the voice and saw a tall, thin, perky girl with dyed blond hair pulled into a high ponytail, wearing khakis and a polo in the school colors. Obviously, a student who worked here. “Uh, I need help finding the books for this class,” he said, handing her the printed copy of the schedule Zach had given him earlier. “The education class,” he clarified.
“No problem,” she said, then gestured for him to follow her.
Kai was grateful for her help because the college of education books were in a totally separate area from where he’d been looking, and also because it turned out the Learning Theory class was on the top shelf. He might have been able to reach them if he really tried, but he never would have been able to see the tag from his chair to know those were the books he’d needed anyway.
The girl said something as she checked the books, and Kai couldn’t quite make sense of it.
“What? Could you face me when you talk, please?”
She gave him a fleeting strange look, but she repeated herself, and with the help of seeing her lips, Kai was able to understand her this time. “We have a few used copies left for the three books for this class. You want new or used?”
Even though Jon insisted that Kai didn’t need to worry about any of his school costs, Kai was serious about becoming as independent as possible, and he knew how expensive textbooks were. “Used, as long as they’re not falling apart on me.”
The girl chuckled faintly and actually took a few minutes to inspect each book before handing them to him. “Do you need books for another class?” she asked.
Kai checked the books himself. One was a big textbook, though not quite as large as his psych or history books, and the other two were more like novels, although they were clearly nonfiction. “What?” Kai asked to confirm what she said. Kai’d discovered that his brain was learning quickly, and the longer he talked to someone the easier it was for him to understand them. He wondered what he’d hear like in a couple weeks, once he’d fully adjusted to the frequency-lowering effects of the hearing aids.
“Do you need help with anything else?” It wasn’t the same thing she’d asked before, Kai could tell, and the way she looked at him he wondered if she thought he’d need someone to carry the books for him. But that was one reason he’d come in his chair instead of with his crutches, because it made carrying them on his own easier.
“I’m fine. Thank you.”
During the busiest days around the start of the semester, they checked out some people down here, but now that it was into the second week of class, things had slowed down, so all transactions happened at the main registers upstairs. Which meant another trip in the elevator, but it was the price of doing business.


The lines for the checkout upstairs were long, but not insane. It made that bundle of anxiety that never seemed to truly leave Kai’s stomach and chest grow a little tighter, especially how packed in everyone was, dozens of bodies dwarfing him, making escape, if he needed it, difficult. But he concentrated on his breathing, on reading and re-reading the covers of his books to focus on his excitement about this new class and what it meant rather than let the anxiety--and the panic that tagged along with it--take hold.
Kai felt someone tap his shoulder, and he reflexively stiffened. He took a breath, cleared his face, and glanced up and behind him.
Steve smiled and waved enthusiastically.
Kai let out a breath and felt a lot of his escalating nerves escape with it. He gestured for her to squeeze around so she was more beside him so he could see her better. With the noise of dozens of students chatting with each other while they waited, the cash registers, rustle of what had to be books being placed into bags, and more background noise, combined with their distance, Kai wasn’t sure how well he’d be able to understand her if he couldn’t see her lips.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
Kai pointed to his books. “I dropped a class so I could take an education one so I’m getting the books.”
“Cool,” Steve said. She held up a notebook and a candy bar. “I needed a new notebook and was too lazy to go to Walmart. And then of course, I had to get one of these. So much for my New Year’s resolution.”
As much as Kai liked sweets, he didn’t really care for candy bars. His stomach gurgled anyway. Whatever little he’d managed to eat today he’d thrown up earlier, and he hadn’t even tried to have lunch. He’d need to eat something when he got home so he wouldn’t pass out. Though the idea of swinging by Walmart and buying some cookies was incredibly appealing.
Steve said something, but Kai wasn’t paying enough attention to figure out what she’d said.
Steve laughed. “I was just saying that you were looking at me like a kid who’s mom told him he can’t keep the puppy.”
Kai tilted his head, not entirely sure what that meant.
“Do you want this?” Steve asked, as if in explanation, holding up her candy bar. “I can go run and get another one.”
Kai’s stomach gurgled again, apparently loud enough that Steve laughed. “I’d kill for some cookies,” Kai finally admitted.
“Mr. Healthy Vegetarian eats junk food? Who would have thought? I thought it was all whole grains and fruit for you.”
Normally, Kai didn’t like to be teased about food. He never had, and now it made him angry and defensive. But for some reason, when Steve teased him, he didn’t get mad. In fact, he laughed. Maybe it was because Kai knew that Steve was anything but a malicious person, and she’d already made fun of herself earlier for buying the candy bar in the first place. Maybe it was just that he always felt comfortable with Steve. Whatever it was, it felt good to laugh, and it felt good to say, “If you go grab me some cookies, I’ll pay for your candy bar.” It’d be easier for her to sneak out of the line and back again than it would be for him. He deserved a little treat after today, right? And he hadn’t freaked out after eating the pie with Jon the other day.
“Any preferences?”
Truthfully, Kai had never met a cookie he didn’t like, but without having to think, he said, “Oreos, if they have them. Chocolate chip if they don’t.”


Kai could hardly wait to eat the package of Oreos, pausing just outside the bookstore, tearing open the plastic, and shoving one, whole, in his mouth.
Steve laughed. There was something adorable and childlike about Kai in this moment, so different than the more reserved, in-control person he seemed to be the rest of the time.
Kai licked his lips. “I haven’t eaten one of these in . . . three, four months?” Then he pulled another out of the wrapping, twisted it apart, and began molesting the poor cookie with his tongue, licking off the filling.
“You have a lot more self control than I do, then,” Steve observed. The way Kai swam, maybe he was on some kind of training diet? He definitely didn’t need to lose weight. He was wiry enough.
“I’m not supposed to eat sweets,” Kai said with his mouth partially full as he chewed the cookie.
“Oh, shit, you’re not diabetic or something, are you? You’re not going to keel over on me at any moment?”
Kai’s eyebrows dipped like he hadn’t quite understood her. “SWEET D?” Kai asked, bewilderingly, shaking his hand when he signed the letter. But then he laughed when he must have seen the confused look on her face, swallowed the rest of the cookie and tried again, this time in English, “Diabetes?”
“Oh, no. Sugar makes me anxious, that’s why I’ve been avoiding it,” Kai said nonchalantly, eating another cookie. “My pancreas is probably the only part of me that actually works,” he muttered while he chewed.
Steve didn’t say anything right away. Just watched Kai chew blissfully. Just when she thought she was starting to figure him out, there was some new angle, some different side. She’d certainly never met anyone like him. She checked her watch. “Ugh, I gotta go. But you could drop by the library if you want to brainstorm for your presentation.”
Kai asked her to repeat herself since he hadn’t really been paying attention, but then he said, “I can’t tomorrow,” without any explanation. “But I would like to meet. Uh, I can’t Friday, either. Or Saturday. Maybe Sunday?” His tongue was searching out crumbs along his lips as he thought, and Steve was pretty sure Kai was one of those guys who had no clue how sexy he could be. The way he worked that tongue, she could only imagine what he must be like in bed. Steve mentally slapped herself for the thought. She wanted to be friends with Kai, no complications, and imagining him in any way less than platonic would not end well.
“We’ll figure it out. You have my info. See you, Superhero,” she said with a wave, and as she turned her back to him, she realized she had a huge, ridiculous smile on her face. Oh, crap.


Renee was exhausted and it was only halfway through the second week of class. What had she been thinking, taking such a heavy course load and working three days a week? She shifted the weight of her bag, trying to decide if she should go home or just detour to the cafeteria for a quick bite before her night class. She’d spent all of lunch consoling Kai, and though she didn’t regret it--or the fact that he’d let himself be so vulnerable with her--she was starving. A vending machine lunch was not a lunch at all. She honestly didn’t know how Kai did it, the whole barely eating thing. Well, he certainly had a shit-ton of willpower, that was for sure. Though she found herself frowning. Kai was getting thinner and thinner with each passing day, and while she hadn’t wanted to say anything to him, she wondered if she should talk to David or Jon about it.
She shook her head as she trudged toward the little lounge a few feet from her class. She had to worry about herself, and not just Kai.
Speak of the Devil and he shall appear, Renee thought.
The lounge area was empty, since the day for most students had ended already, but Kai was there, to her surprise. He had his wheelchair against the wall, but he’d turned his backpack around so it was on the seat instead of resting against the back. He lay on the floor, on his back, his legs bent at the knee and his calves resting on the seat. She realized, after a moment, that his feet were actually behind the bag, so that it was holding them in place, and he wasn’t just lying there, he was doing crunches. Apparently, this was his creative way of keeping his legs and feet from moving as he worked his upper body.
He’d stripped down to his lightest layer, a long-sleeved T-shirt that would have been skin-tight if he put on a few pounds, though it did strain around his shoulders as he moved, quick little jerks and twists, working his core. She’d watched him walk and knew how much of his abs he used to get around, especially when he wasn’t using his crutches, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t hot as fuck to watch him.
He finally glanced her way and noticed her, holding his crunch for a moment, his upper back off the ground for long enough to drop his hands to his sides and help push himself up a little more. “Hey,” he said with a huge smile. His hair was sticking to his forehead a little, and she wanted to drop to her knees and kiss him right then and there. He leaned on one arm and used the other to guide one leg off his chair, working it out from behind his bag. Then he switched arms and took care of the other leg.
“What are you doing here?” Renee asked.
“What?” Kai asked as he stretched his legs out in front of him.
Renee took a seat on the large, low padded square in the center of the lounge area, beside Kai, that served as both a table and a chair. “What are you doing here?” Renee asked again, repeating herself.
For a moment, Kai looked hurt, but then he shook his head, as if some dialog was going on in his head about what Renee meant by her question. “I wanted to see you. And I was restless, but I didn’t have time to go swim, and I was afraid if I roamed the building I’d miss you, and it’s easier for me to do crunches on my own than pushups.” Kai was talking rapidly, practically vibrating, like it was hard for him to sit still.
Are you OK?
Kai pushed up against the floor like he was adjusting his weight, but it was almost like he was bouncing in place. His face was excited in the way she’d rarely ever seen it before. “It was amazing, Re! I started my ed class today and I had an interpreter and I actually remember what the teacher said! You can ask me anything and I can tell you.” Kai barely paused for a breath. His face clouded, but only for a second. “Well, maybe not in English, but I dropped my writing class and I think this one will be a lot less stressful and the teacher seems really nice and I’m going to have an interpreter team for psych and Steve said we could meet to brainstorm for my presentation and maybe I wouldn’t even have to actually do the speaking part of it and Zach said he thinks I can do this, really do this, and I want it, Re. I really, really want to be a teacher.”
Renee took a huge breath for him. She was happy that he was excited and in a good mood, but it was like he was on speed. “You sure you’re OK? You’re talking really fast.
Kai laughed. “I ate a whole package of Oreos. I was in line at the bookstore and I realized how hungry I was, and I don’t feel hungry, like, ever, and they were there, and I haven’t eaten them in so long and they were so good. I’m not even anxious. Just restless. Do you want to go swimming with me?”
Renee was a little worried about how hyper Kai was right now, but she supposed if he’d avoided sugar for months and then had a ton of it, having a huge sugar high wouldn’t be totally unexpected. She reached over and fixed his hair, which had gotten a little wild between sweat and movement. “I have class tonight. Remember?”
Kai seemed to think for a moment. “Oh. Right. Oh.” He frowned like he was really disappointed. “Oh. OK.”
Renee sighed. Seeing Kai right now made her wonder what he’d been like as a little boy. Happy, full of energy, with no worries. Probably adorable as heck. “It’s my fingerspelling class,” Renee added, as if to remind him that she was taking that class for him.
“Oh. Oh, yeah. That’s right. I remember now. I can fingerspell to you!” Then he shot off a bunch of random words she could guess at because he mouthed them out of habit and she knew his style, the way his fingers moved, although some were too fast and sloppy for her to make out.
I can practice with you all the time. I shouldn’t miss class.
“I can do it left handed!” And Kai switched hands, doing more random words that looked like little more than a jumble of bouncing fingers as he got lazier and faster.
Renee couldn’t help laughing. She reached out and stilled his hand. Then she cupped his cheek and leaned forward, giving him a kiss. “I think you should go home before you crash.”
Kai searched her eyes for a long moment, and she wasn’t even sure if he’d understood her. It seemed like another one of those moments when he might say he loved her. Instead, he pulled her down into his lap, almost violently--so much so that it made her stiffen and her heart race and not in a good way--and then he kissed her like he was suffocating and she was his air. Ravenous. Demanding. Desperate. It was hot and yet at the same time, it scared her. And she hated that Kai could scare her. Especially when he was in such a good mood.
She tried to push against his chest, to pull away. “No, Kai. Stop,” she said as one hand slid up under her shirt. She felt panic taking hold, but he wouldn’t release her, almost like she had something he would die without. “Kai, please,” she said, fear creeping into her voice.
Kai finally seemed to snap out of it, and he pulled away, his hands dropping and going to his sides as if she’d burned him. “Re,” he said, his eyes scanning her face.
She’d scurried off his lap and sunk into one of the chairs, out of his reach, curling up and watching him warily. Was this how Kai felt when his anxiety took over? She knew that Kai would never hurt her, not intentionally, certainly not the way Jude had, but in that moment it had certainly felt like he would.
Kai sat, staring blankly at her, his eyes wide like he wasn’t entirely there, or like he didn’t know what had happened. Or maybe he didn’t know what to say.
Finally, Renee’s heart calmed and her instinctive fear subsided. She let out a long breath. “It’s OK,” she said and signed a couple times.
Kai finally brought his eyes to her. He shook his head, almost defeated. “No. No, it’s not. It’ll never be fine.” Kai clenched his teeth so hard his lip curled. “Just when I think I’ve finally figured out one part of my life, something else hits me and fucks it all up,” he signed angrily, and Renee was shocked she could understand him. “Dammit,” Kai said in English, his voice strained. Kai pulled his legs up so they were bent, then tried to gather them toward his chest, almost as if he’d forgotten he was wearing his braces and they wouldn’t allow his knees to bend more than a little less than 90 degrees. His face took on a look of frustration mixed with anger and penetrating sadness, and he leaned forward, his arms folded on top of his knees. “He should have let me die.” Kai spoke so softly, so defeated, she almost didn’t hear him and so she wasn’t sure what he meant. Was he talking about his infection? About Jon letting the doctors use the antibiotics that saved his life but took his hearing?
“Kai?” Renee carefully inched closer, finally sinking down to the ground beside him so they were facing each other but not touching, and enough that she was out of his immediate reach.
Kai noticed her careful choice of where she sat and he seemed to sink further. He looked at her, broken, and it amazed her again how rapidly his moods could change. Then he just shook his head and let his forehead fall to his knees.
Renee gave him time to lift his head, to say something else, but after several long minutes, she nudged his leg.
Kai looked up. He was shaking, almost vibrating again, and she remembered how he’d explained he was supposed to avoid sugar because of his anxiety. Did that have any impact on his current weird moods?
Talk to me. Please. Us. Together. Remember?
Kai looked around, but they were alone. There were night classes, of course, but they wouldn’t start for at least another hour. “No one’s here?” Kai asked in confirmation.
Renee gave him a nonverbal signal that she would make sure, then rose and wandered off a few feet in both directions. The only people she saw were heading away from them, probably home for the evening. Then she returned to her spot, getting a little closer. Despite how open Kai had been with her today, despite his accepting her comfort after interpreting, she suspected she couldn’t really appreciate how difficult today--or this whole semester--had been for him. Or how much he fought against the idea that he didn’t always have to be OK. That any minute weakness meant total failure.
Kai wasn’t shutting down on her--and she knew that was huge progress. He kept his head up, his eyes roughly on her, although his breathing was a little ragged and he maintained his closed posture. He didn’t say or sign anything for so long Renee was beginning to think he wouldn’t, but then he said, his voice thick and low, his eyes downcast, “Remember how I told you I . . . tried . . .” Kai swallowed. “In the hospital?”
Renee sucked in a breath. Kai meant how he’d confessed he’d attempted suicide while he’d been hospitalized in the psych unit. It terrified her that in a supposedly secure place like that, Kai had even had the opportunity to try. She nodded, smiled encouragingly. Stretched to lay a hand on his shin, but he tightened his grip and pulled his legs a little closer to his body. Shook his head. Trembled harder.
He grit his teeth again, his forehead creasing deeply, and when he looked up, his eyes shimmered. He took a difficult breath, and what he said next was broken up, like he could barely speak. “I try to tell myself that you’ll always love me, but then everything in me reminds me I can’t be loved. Not really.” Kai looked like it was taking every ounce of his will to keep himself from breaking down. He took an enormous breath, glanced over at his chair. “I should just go.”
Renee shook her head. “Tell me what you’re thinking.
Kai looked at her. Terrified. Shook his head and dropped his gaze.
“Please,” Renee said out loud because he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
“That just . . .” Kai choked on a sob, and he shook his head more intensely.
Renee laid her hand on his, and he gripped her fingers with two of his without letting go of his legs.
“I keep thinking I could have hurt you now. And that it’s inevitable that I will. That just a few more seconds . . .”
Renee squeezed his fingers. “A few more seconds?”
Kai pulled away suddenly, sniffled, wiping his nose and eyes on his sleeve. “You should leave. You must be hungry and your class starts soon.”
I would rather miss my class than leave you right now. I know you need to talk. So talk. I’m not going anywhere.
Kai wiped his nose again. He stared past her for so long she was beginning to think he was shutting down on her after all, but then he took a difficult breath and spoke. “Something . . . happened while I was in psych. I . . .” Kai shook his head as if he were trying to toss out his loose thoughts. “I was in a group therapy session Dr. Miller made me go to. . . . And it was like this . . . switch went off in my head.” Kai looked down and she saw some tears leak out. He seemed to be focusing on his breathing for a long time. Without looking up, he continued, “I threw a chair at someone. A girl. No bigger than you.”
“Did you hurt her?” Renee’s stomach had formed itself into an intricate knot, afraid of his answer.
“What?” Kai said, looking up. His eyes were rimmed with red, and she recognized the look in them, that pure terror she’d seen whenever he was convinced, like he’d said earlier, that she couldn’t really love him.
The girl. Was she hurt?
Kai started to shake his head, but then his eyebrows furrowed. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. They knocked me out and I woke up in isolation.” Kai shuddered, which turned into trembling. “I get so . . . angry with myself,” Kai said, his voice shaking almost as much as he was. “And . . .” He took a huge breath. “No one understands how much I hate feeling like I’m all alone, like I’ve been . . . forgotten.” Kai glanced up at her, tears tracing down his cheeks. “That . . . that scares me more than anything.” Kai wrapped his arms around himself and squeezed tight, trying to comfort himself, like he was desperate. He was still shivering, almost like he was sitting outside right now instead of in the warm building. “Stupid, right?” Kai said with a scoff. But it wasn’t stupid. At least not how much just talking about the idea of being alone made Kai react. She believed that Kai wasn’t consciously scared of much, no matter how his messed up brain chemistry made him react, but this was a true phobia, deep seated and irrational, and he was telling Renee about it, begging her to understand. It made her wonder what had happened to him as a kid, what kind of abuse he’d suffered, for him to feel this way. She already knew his childhood had lacked the love and affection most children--including herself--took for granted. But there was more to this.
“It’s not stupid. OK? Come here.” She shifted, stretched out her legs and beckoned him to lie down with his head in her lap.
“But . . .?”
It’s all right. I’m fine now. Come on.”
Kai guided himself down to the floor, curled up as much as his braces would allow, his head in her lap, her hands softly petting his hair. He was still shaking, so she stretched for his coat and draped it over him, even though she suspected it wasn’t from cold. “I was alone, Re. In this empty white room. I didn’t have my chair. There were no windows except one high in the door.” He was gripping her pants leg tightly with one hand. “I was trapped. Alone. I couldn’t stop thinking how I could have hurt that girl, killed her. What a horrible person I was and how I was ruining everyone’s lives and you all would be so much better if I was gone. That I deserved to be dead.” Kai was speaking faster, more like he had been earlier, though the weight of sadness in his words was totally opposite of his earlier enthusiasm. “I had a feeding tube in my nose that went down into my stomach. They should have taken it out, but they didn’t. I don’t know why. Laziness, maybe? So I pulled it out. Wrapped it around my throat . . .” Kai held his neck with one hand for a moment. God, how horrible had Kai been feeling that he’d tried to choke himself like that? It made Renee queasy to think about, but she said nothing, simply let Kai keep talking, because she knew this was what he needed. “I was so desperate to escape. I’m such a fucking coward.” Kai began to sob, and Renee knew he wouldn’t be able to hear her, so she just continued to smooth his hair and shoulder. “This orderly came in and saved me. But just a few more seconds and I’d be dead, and I’d never have hurt you or anyone else again. That’s what I was thinking about. Before.”
This explained a lot. Why Kai was so reluctant to talk about his experience as a psych patient, why he was so afraid of being readmitted. But she also remembered he’d told her he had suicidal thoughts, and she was worried about him right now. She touched him to get him to look at her. “Do I need to take you to the hospital?” she signed awkwardly bc of the angle. She hoped that wouldn’t push him away, make him angry or regret he’d been open with her.
He didn’t respond. A few tears leaked out, and he buried his head in her lap again. Finally, he said, “Probably,” in a weak voice. “But please. Please. Please don’t.”


Kai lay there for a long time, not caring when students started arriving for their night classes and gave him and Renee strange looks. What could they have been thinking? Empty wheelchair, gangly guy curled up like a little kid, his head in Renee’s small lap. It was so hard for him to explain, even to Dr. Miller, what moments like this evening felt like. What was really going on in his head.
It was almost like he had two selves who battled each other, the proverbial angel and devil, although Kai didn’t believe in either. One was his happy, positive, silly self, the person who believed that he could do things, who got excited, who laughed and smiled and loved, who let himself be comfortable and relaxed around people like Renee or Steve. The part of him that volunteered to help others even when he was afraid or anxious or unsure. The part that had fought to go back to school and not to drop out. The part that knew someday he could become a teacher and marry Renee and have a real, normal life.
But then there was the other self. The dark self, the one that tended all his negative thoughts and memories in a garden, growing and pruning them so their evil claws never truly left him. So just when it seemed like the light side was winning, the dark would open its greenhouse doors, releasing a flood of poisonous spores that threatened to suffocate him.
And he began to believe the happy self was a delusion, that nothing could exist except the negativity, and the whispers in his ear that told him to take his life became harder and harder to ignore, drowning out anything the logical self tried to tell him.
Moments like tonight.
Kai was sitting on the floor in front of Renee, and he had been for awhile, although he wasn't entirely sure when he sat up or how much time had passed. He noted absently that it was full dark outside now. That Renee was talking to him, signaling him, but it didn't feel as real as the darkness swirling around his brain like a dense fog.
Maybe The Darkness.
Finally, Renee’s waving and signing pulled him back to her a little. “NOW YEAR WHAT? NOW YEAR?” What year is it?
Kai's brain felt mired down, like his thoughts were stuck, wanting to be pulled back into ruminating, berating himself. Planning. He should never have told her what he’d been thinking. Now it'd be harder.
Renee signed some more, and Kai was beginning to wonder if maybe this was a dream. He’d fallen asleep in her lap and he was dreaming.
But then she put her wrist near his nose. The subtle smell of roses that always made him think of her, and the cogs in his brain turned, however slowly. He blinked. It felt almost like waking from a drugged sleep.
What year is it?” Renee asked again, her eyes worried.
Kai blinked again. Maybe he was dead? Did the dead dream?
Please say something,” Renee said. And she spoke the words, too, maybe.
No, Kai wasn’t dead. He hurt too much, that ache in his hips and back that never went away, the throbbing in his leg where he’d laid too long on top of the metal support of his brace, or the ball of anxiety that always churned in his stomach, or the vice around his heart that squeezed and worked for the darkness. The Darkness?
“Kai,” Renee said out loud. “You’re scaring me.”
Kai’s eyes went to hers now. He still felt disembodied, and he knew--the logical self knew--he should focus on those physical sensations to ground himself. Kai furrowed his brow, trying to think, to remember. “I’m confused,” he finally said.
Renee smiled, relieved and yet uneasy. “What year is it?
Kai looked out the window. It was completely dark, and with the bright lights of the hall he couldn’t see much. He shivered, found his layers and pulled them on mechanically. He wondered if he could convince Renee he was fine. He could go to Walmart. Get some supplies. Go to the apartment. Jon was working late. Kai would be long gone by the time Jon got home, and he’d probably be so relieved. He wouldn’t need to worry about Kai anymore. Renee either. She could meet someone handsomer and smarter and better in every way, someone healthy who didn’t scare her. Who wouldn’t hurt her. And David would be better, too. With Kai gone, he wouldn’t be tied to Jonesville. He could move somewhere more Deaf friendly. Chicago or New York or DC or LA. He’d start his own business and he and Megan would get married and have half a dozen Deaf babies and be happy.
Everyone would be so, so happy if he were just . . . gone.
Kai’s vision blurred and he reached up to touch his face and discovered he was crying. The Darkness was loud in his brain, almost like it was screaming, berating him for telling Renee anything, for crying in front of her all fucking day long, for being pathetic. Do it. Go do it. Stop being a coward, it whispered in its oily voice.
But Logic tried to speak up, shouting to be overheard, reminding him he wanted to be with Renee and become a teacher and be independent.
The battle raged, and Kai covered his ears and shook his head and trembled, wanting it to all stop, to go away, to stop thinking about a thousand possible ways he could do it.
Renee reached for him. He shirked at first but then let her touch his face. Her eyes were sympathetic. Concerned, but bewilderingly full of love. “Let me call your brother. Tell him you’re having bad thoughts. Let him come get you.” Kai could only pick out a few words between his hearing aids and his lazy lipreading and his brain filled in the rest of what he guessed she was probably saying.
I should go,” Kai signed lazily. He glanced back for his chair. Oh. He’d have to move his bag back. The crunches hadn’t helped. Well, they’d driven the demons back temporarily, but that’s what it always was, right? Just for a little while. Only one way to escape them forever. But he didn’t move. Moving seemed like a lot of effort, and he was suddenly very, very tired.
Renee shook her head. She was looking at him like he was an unpredictable animal. And wasn’t he? Pacifyingly. No sudden movements. “Let me take you home.
I can drive. I’m fine. Just tired.” But Kai’s signing was so sloppy and lazy he was sure he hadn’t convinced her. She may not even have understood. Maybe he didn’t have to go to Walmart. Did he have saran wrap at home? That would be the easiest, cleanest way to do it. And it would be a horrible way to die. Which he deserved.
It’s not safe for you to drive right now, OK? Let’s go.


It had been difficult to coax Kai back into his chair, to get him into the passenger’s seat of his car, and then driving it home was a feat, too. Even with the seat pushed up all the way, since he had that foot guard, it was tricky for her as short as she was, but her car was on the other side of campus, and she didn’t trust Kai to drive right now. He’d been a total mess earlier, and then it was almost like he wasn’t fully there. He never did answer her about what year it was, and she couldn’t be sure that he wasn’t stuck in some kind of dissociation. If she was honest with herself, she was scared. She didn’t know what to expect from Kai, or what to do for him, and she knew that she should probably take him to the hospital no matter how much he’d begged her not to. On the surface, it hadn’t seemed so bad, but the way Kai had spoken about his phobia of being abandoned, the pain and fear in his voice, how small he’d sounded. That she could relate to. And in that context, she was afraid if she did take him to the ER they’d send him right back to the place he most feared and she might lose him for real this time.
No, as terrifying as things were, it was better for her to stay with him, to get him home, call his doctor or Jon or both, or maybe text David and see what to do next.
Kai had wheeled straight for his room once they got to the apartment, and when she followed him, she saw he was already stripping off his clothes and braces. He had a new bruise all along one leg, and it took her a minute to realize it was from the support bar of his brace since he’d been lying on his side on the floor for as long as he had. It must have been so uncomfortable, and yet he hadn’t even commented on it. Kai still hadn’t said anything or signed anything else once he’d agreed to let her bring him home.
I’m going to call your brother now, OK?
Kai was shivering, but he looked lost, like he wasn’t entirely sure what to do next. He was wearing only his boxers and one long-sleeved T-shirt; his clothes, brace socks, shoes, and braces were in a heap on the mattress beside him. “No.” Kai shook his head, almost like he was trying to wake up. “No, you can’t call Jon. He has literal nightmares about me . . . you know. No. You’ll freak him out.”
You can’t stay here alone.
Kai shivered and nodded, like he knew that.
I’ll text David.
He has a job in Omaha. He’s staying with Megan’s parents for a couple days.” Kai hugged himself, rubbing his arms like he was trying to get warm. “I’m not comfortable being alone with Vicky when I’m like this,” he finally admitted after a moment.
Renee sighed. So it was either she stayed with Kai or she ignored him and called Jon anyway. “OK. Then I’ll stay.”
Kai’s face went through a wave of emotion. Then he tried a smile. One of his fake ones. “I’m fine, Re. It must have been the sugar. It screwed with my head. You have class.”
“Kai, it’s after eight. I missed my class. Come on. Show me your medicine so I can make sure you take only what you’re supposed to.”
Kai looked devastated, and any front he’d been trying to put up cracked and fell. “Shit. You’re going to fail out of school because of me.”
It’s one class. And you wanted me to skip anyway. Go swimming with you? Remember? You said you can teach me fingerspelling?
Kai’s forehead crinkled, and it was clear he didn’t remember. He was so not OK, his face taking on that lost look again.
It’s OK. Everything will be OK. You’ll take your medicine and go to sleep and I’ll stay with you.” Renee took Kai’s hand and kissed the top of it. Smiling at the confused look in his eyes and reminding herself that today had been a hard day, full of change for Kai, and she had to be supportive and help him through it because that’s what she would want if their situations were reversed.


It turned out Renee hadn’t needed to worry, because Jon only gave Kai his dosages for one day at a time, so he only had his pills for that night left. Still, she’d insisted he walk her through it all the same. And she learned which pills he took to prevent his body from attacking his lungs, which he took to control the mucus his lungs couldn’t clear well on their own now, which pills counteracted the side effects of his other pills or prevented certain kinds of infection. The vitamins and supplements he took, partially, again to counteract the effects of the antirejection pills. His three “brain pills,” as he called them in sign, his antidepressants plus his Xanax, although he said he didn’t take it at night if he was taking a sleeping pill, which he swallowed greedily. He also had a few other pills to combat nausea and muscle pain that he also said he wouldn’t take tonight, but he pointed them out to her anyway.
So many pills, and the way Kai talked about them she suspected he had more in Jon’s safe, medications he took “as needed” rather than daily, especially for his MLS and his nausea. But what really struck her was how many pills he took to balance out the side effects of his actual medications. An average of two or three extra anti-side effect pills for every dose of medication. To combat bone loss, nausea, irritated stomach, infection, electrolyte and vitamin imbalances; the list went on and on. And it made her truly appreciate how serious Kai’s transplant was. It made her wish she could wave a magic wand and make him better. Make it so the only medication he ever needed was an aspirin for a headache. But as upset as Kai had been tonight, the fact that he was trusting her with yet another hidden part of his life--he’d always been very secretive about his medication regimen in the past, speaking only in very general terms about it with the exception of the Xanax--meant he was getting more and more comfortable letting her in. And she was glad she was there for him right now. That he was letting her be there for him.
Once his meds were taken, he’d crawled under the covers in Jon’s bed--he’d insisted on his brother’s room for some reason--hugging her leg and fighting the pull of the medication, which began making him sleepy within about twenty minutes of taking it. She’d tried to get him to eat before then, but it had been fruitless. “I just need to sleep,” he’d said, and he’d seemed so desperate, she decided not to fight him. “Please don’t leave me,” he’d added, and although he signed it literally like a person taking off, she knew he meant much more than her spending the night with him. He was terrified that she would find all of this was too much trouble, that he was too “crazy” or “weird” (to use his words) and she’d realize she’d never really loved him. But she wasn’t Becca. She didn’t like seeing him in any kind of pain, hated feeling like she could do nothing for him, but nothing they’d been through since August had ever changed one single fact: she loved him. And the longer she was with him the more cemented that fact became, and the more she realized she never, ever wanted to “leave” him.
“Sleep, sweetie,” she whispered once he’d finally sunk into unconsciousness, one arm hugging his fox tight, his hand curled around her leg, his forehead pressed against her thigh. Almost as if, even in sleep, he wanted to reassure himself she wouldn’t leave him. She smoothed his hair off his face, and since he didn’t stir, she knew he was out for the night. The pills put him under for a good six to eight hours, he’d explained, which was a huge relief. She still didn’t want him to be alone in his current mindset, but at least asleep he couldn’t hurt himself. He had a little peace.
So she settled in to do her homework, and hoped that when he woke in the morning, he’d be better.



  1. I really enjoy reading the dark side of the story. It's is incredibly touching to read it and I get totally emotional while I read it... thank you so much for sharing it.

  2. I so want to give Kai a gentle hug!

  3. So glad you are back! I miss Kai.