Sunday, July 16, 2000

In/Exhale - February 8, 2001 - Part I

February 8, 2001 - Part I

Renee woke with a gasp, her pulse thundering in her ears. The room was bright, and it wasn’t hers, and it took her a minute to figure out where she was. Jon’s room. That’s right. She’d stayed with Kai. Kai!
Renee immediately shifted in the bed, letting out a huge whooshing breath of relief when she saw him, curled up beside her almost exactly as he had been when the drugs had finally pulled him off to sleep. He had his mouth on his forearm, sucking on it even though he was wearing long sleeves. She’d observed Kai doing that kind of thing more than once, but had dismissed it. Didn’t everyone have some strange habit they did in their sleep? After all, she often pulled her fingers through her hair, Diane had informed her, which explained why it was always super frizzy on one side and not the other.
Renee still had that feeling of dread and sadness from her dream, and she stretched out to touch him, smooth his hair, feel that he was real, that he was alive, that he was OK. Her hand trembled a little, but Kai was deep asleep and didn’t flinch.
Renee was still coming down from the anxiety of her nightmare when urgent footsteps behind her made her jump.
Jon. Looking tired, terrified, and worried all at once. He barely acknowledged her and rushed to Kai’s side of the bed. He lay one hand on Kai’s head and the other on his shoulder. “How long has he been in this position?”
Renee was still a little groggy with sleep, still recovering from her dream. She looked Kai over, then Jon, blinked a few times. Kai lay on his right side, his legs partially bent, his back slightly curved, his head bowed and hanging off the pillow. The fox was tucked in one of his arms, and his fingers were curled in the sheets, as if he were holding on. “Since he got in bed?” Renee tried to do the math, but her sleep-drenched brain wouldn’t compute. “Since nine-ish?”
Jon sighed, irritated, and threw the covers off his brother. He picked up Kai’s legs and tried to straighten them, but they resisted, so Jon didn’t force them. He gently pulled Kai’s arm out of his mouth and folded his arms across his chest. Then Jon carefully lifted Kai and shifted him onto his back, then onto his left side, readjusting Kai’s head and legs and arms, finding an extra pillow and slipping it between his knees, then a folded up blanket under one arm. Finally, he tucked the stuffed fox into Kai’s arms and draped the sheet and quilts back over his brother, smoothing Kai’s hair fondly. Kai never stirred. The sleeping pills really worked.
“It’s not good for him to lie in one position for too long, especially since he’s lost so much weight,” Jon said, still irritated, though she wondered if he was really just tired.
Renee didn’t understand, but she nodded.
Jon sighed again, more heavily. For a moment, it looked like maybe he was going to explain, but then he must have decided it was too much trouble. “Why are you here?” It came off almost accusatory, but as he soon stepped out of his shoes and started undoing his tie, she realized he was weary. Worried. This obviously wasn’t normal, and he loved his brother.
“He had a rough day. He was upset, and I didn’t want to leave him alone. I didn’t mean to fall asleep.” Renee gestured to her textbook, which was still open beside her.
Jon’s eyes narrowed. “How rough?”
Renee pushed her hair out of her face. The front part was curlier than the rest and especially since she pulled her fingers through it while she slept, it was always crazy and frizzy when she woke. “Rough enough we both decided it’d be better for me to spend the night.”
Jon frowned and stared at Kai for a long time, looking sad and worried. Finally, he smoothed a hand over Kai’s side. “He’s OK,” Jon said, but not like it was a question. Almost like he was reassuring himself. Jon let out a breath and slid his tie off. He looked ready to collapse.
Renee reached over and smoothed Kai’s hair. Kai let out a deep sigh, but otherwise didn’t stir. “I brought him home and he took his meds and fell asleep not long after.”
Jon nodded absently, tossing his tie on the dresser. A hand went to his hair. He seemed lost and exhausted.
“I’m stuck here because I drove Kai home in his car, but if you want your bed back, I can go sleep in his room.”
For a moment, Jon reminded her so much of Kai, the way he stared at her vacantly, almost as if he wasn’t seeing her. But then he shook his head. “No, it’s fine. It’ll take me a few hours before I can sleep anyway.” Jon paused. She didn’t believe him. He seriously looked like he could fall asleep standing up right now. “Besides, if Kai was bad enough you didn’t want to leave him, if he wakes up and you’re gone . . .” Jon looked at her apologetically, like he didn’t mean to make her feel guilty, but he was right. Renee knew it. Jon grabbed some clothes out of a drawer and disappeared into his bathroom.
Kai finally started to stir in his sleep. He stretched out, like he was searching for something. Her, maybe? But his back was to her now, since Jon had moved him, and all he found was air. He whimpered, a small, scared sound, and his breathing quickened.
“Kai?” she asked, then realized without his hearing aids, even if he was awake he wouldn’t respond. Kai had warned her never to touch him when he was sleeping, especially drugged, but she couldn’t ignore what sounded like a horrible nightmare. Maybe a reliving of the psych ward he was so afraid of. She didn’t like the idea of him thinking he was alone, even if it was a dream, so she lightly touched his shoulder.
He flinched and let out a startled cry, but it seemed like a reflex.
Renee pushed past it and smoothed his arm.
Kai’s breath hitched, and if she hadn’t known better it was almost like he was poised, waiting to see what she would do next.
“It’s OK,” Renee soothed even if he couldn’t hear her, especially asleep. “You’re OK. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere.” She shifted, stretching out so she was lying beside him. She felt so tiny aligned with his long body, but she used one arm to prop up her head while the other smoothed over his side and stomach, pressed up against him to give him as much contact as she could.
His breathing began to level out and calm, and he quieted again.
A moment later, Jon stepped out, wearing clothes that seemed much more Kai than him, sweatpants and an old T-shirt. “You calmed him,” Jon said, almost in awe. He stepped forward and laid a hand fondly on Kai’s head for a moment. “As the drug wears off, his nightmares start hitting him hard.” Jon looked pained. “You should be careful with him. He can be unpredictable when he’s waking up.”
Renee nodded, but she didn’t move. She wanted to believe her touch and presence was reassuring to Kai even when he wasn’t awake.
“I wish you could have known him before our parents died.” Jon laughed. “But you’re what, three years younger than him? So even if you had, you wouldn’t remember.” Jon sighed softly. “He was such a sweet, happy, vivacious kid. Stubborn, too, which I’m sure is so hard for you to believe.” Jon cracked a faint smile. “When I first met him again, I was shocked by how much he’d changed. How sad he was. How bitter. Closed off. It felt like a total 180. But I see it. Sometimes. The happy, sweet kid he is underneath all the bad and the walls he’s built to protect himself. I just wish there was more I could do for him. To help him.”
Renee nodded, slid her hand down along Kai’s side and rubbed his stomach. It didn’t feel as firm as it had in the past. Like he’d lost muscle. It made her worry about him, about how little he seemed to eat, but she dismissed it for now, especially when he shifted and laid his hand on top of hers. She checked, and he seemed asleep, but he was clearly responding to her, and if he was still having nightmares, it wasn’t obvious.
“I think I know what you mean. Kai has this happy, silly side. I love seeing him with children. He’s so comfortable with them. He just knows how to talk to them or what to do with them. I’m lost even with a regular kid, but he connects with these kids that I’d feel awkward around because of their disability or communication problems, and they respond to him. And I don’t think it’s just because he was like them. I think Kai would be like that even if . . . you know.” He was “normal”? Renee didn’t even like to think the word, let alone say it. Kai was normal. Maybe his normal wasn’t someone else’s normal, but other than taking away his pain, she didn’t want him any other way. “I saw a little of that Kai this evening, but he was just . . . even though he was happy, there was something off about him. And then it all just fell apart so fast.”
Jon was sitting on the edge of his dresser, his arms crossed on his chest, looking pensive. “Off how?” Jon asked.
“I don’t know. All day long he was battling breakdowns.” Renee cringed, feeling like she was betraying Kai’s trust somehow. “I think he’s more upset about his hearing loss than even he admitted to me. He’s trying to deal with it on top of everything, but Kai has this . . . ridiculous belief that he has to act fine even when he isn’t. That not being OK is a character flaw or something.”
“As OK as Kai is with himself on one level, he’s always hated being different. Even when he was little.”
Renee nodded. Remembered how hard Kai had tried to hide his disability, then his other health issues from her when they’d first met. How convinced he was, even now, that he couldn’t be loved. “Then this evening, he was . . . I don’t know. It was weird. He was hyper, talking too fast. He wanted me to skip class. Kai knows how important school is to me. That wasn’t like him. And later, when he found out I’d missed my class because of him, he automatically jumped to the conclusion that I would fail out and it was his fault.” Renee shook her head. “It’s like one minute he’s fine, then he’s a mess, then he’s hyper, then he’s a mess again, then it’s like he didn’t even remember what happened.”
Jon had stood up and started pacing a little. He asked her pointed questions about Kai’s behavior, wanting more specifics, more details, almost like Kai was his patient and he was trying to get a good history on him.
“Is something really wrong with him? Should I be worried?” Renee hugged him protectively, kissing his shoulder.
Jon stopped pacing. He hesitated, as if he were considering whether or not to say anything. Finally, he said, “I’m not a psychiatrist. But I think it might help Kai if you went with him to his appointment with Dr. Miller today. Explain what you told me so she knows what Kai’s mood was like yesterday. It’s possible Kai might not be fully aware of how he was acting, let alone remember it.”
Renee didn’t understand, but she said, “Of course. Anything to help Kai.”
Jon nodded, forced a weak smile. Dry washed his face. He checked the time. “You should try to get some more sleep. Kai probably won’t wake up for a couple more hours.” Jon started to head out of the room, but then he stopped and turned back around. His face in that moment reminded her so much of Kai’s, so filled with a blend of emotions it was difficult to extract exactly what he was feeling in that moment. And it made Renee realize Jon was so much younger than he seemed, than he acted. Only a few years older than her own older brother, JP. “Thank you for being there for him tonight,” Jon said, and he had to clear his throat, his voice full of seemingly unexpected emotion.
Renee hesitated a moment. Kai whimpered and squeezed her arm tighter against him, shivered a little. She kissed his shoulder. “I love him. I know he doesn’t believe it because of how other people have treated him in the past, but I’m not going anywhere.”


Kai emerged slowly from sleep. His heart was beating fast, but it wasn’t the fluttery, panicky, slam-against-his-chest pounding he was used to waking up to. And his mood hangover was different, too. He usually woke up, even after taking the sleeping pills, feeling either anxious or ashamed or disgusted with himself or depressed or some other combination of negative emotions. Instead, he felt . . . he wasn’t even entirely sure. He knew he’d been having nightmares, could remember them in only the vaguest sense, feelings, mostly. Fear. Deep sadness. Penetrating loneliness. But at the same time, it was like . . . like there’d been a presence with him through all of it. Like just when he thought he was at his worst in the dream, someone had been there to reassure him he wasn’t alone after all. Like a guardian angel, if Kai actually believed in anything like that.
He wasn’t sure what to make of how he was feeling right now, his early morning confusion magnified by the drug and his strange dream experience. For one, he was in Jon’s bed and not his own, but he’d sort that out later. Kai pushed against the mattress to roll onto his back, every muscle in his body protesting loudly. He was totally locked up. Had he forgotten to stretch last night before bed? His mind was murky, not unusual for the morning, but it seemed worse somehow. Kai struggled to push up, to get into a sitting position, his legs refusing to straighten and his back tight from his butt to his shoulders. Dammit, he couldn’t afford to be this locked up today. He had a full schedule.
Kai pulled the pillow from between his legs and slid it under them, supporting his knees. He didn’t remember putting it there, but it was a habit, so it was possible he’d done it totally unconsciously. He also didn’t remember switching sides during the night, but especially with the sleeping pill, he didn’t always need to wake up fully to shift. It was unconscious for him to move, even to use his hands on his legs.
Kai felt weird. It was like . . . like he was anxious, and yet at the same time, felt this weight on top of him. He couldn’t articulate it. It was like half of him wanted to race out of bed, head for the pool and swim a few thousand meters, and the other wished he’d just lie back and sleep the rest of the day. Kai turned his head and finally saw her. Renee. She was asleep on her side, facing him, her limbs sprawled and her hair frizzy and spreading everywhere around her head. She smelled so good, and he wasn’t sure how he hadn’t immediately noticed her rose scent when he’d first woken up.
If Renee was here, if he was waking up in Jon’s bed and not his own . . . that meant last night hadn’t been a dream. Fuck. Kai had had a full-out, psych-ward worthy meltdown last night. The kind only Jon and David (and Vicky, sort of, albeit accidentally) had been witness to. Shit, Kai thought as he stared at Renee’s sleeping form. He struggled to remember exactly what had happened, the specifics of what he’d said. It was a blur, like his memories were swirling around him and if he were fast enough, he could pluck them out of the air, but he was sluggish and groggy and confused.
Flashes of last night went off in that swirl. He remembered being full of energy. Overwhelmed by lust. Fear. He’d nearly hurt Renee, hadn’t he? And then . . . darkness. Shame and anger. The urge to end his life. Kai took a few breaths. His heart was still beating uncomfortably fast. He felt wired and yet exhausted. And frustrated he couldn’t remember more clearly. Had he begged Renee to stay with him? Had he cried? He probably had. He remembered crying into her arms after the ASL club. Kai groaned. Crying--whether he had an excuse of fucked up brain chemistry or not--was not sexy. Jon would never cry in front of Vicky, and Megan would never see David shed a tear. Heck, Kai had never seen it either, for that matter.
Becca left him not long after he went on the waiting list for a transplant, when he got sick enough he had to get a trache, and she admitted part of why she’d stayed with him as long as she had was she felt sorry for him. Was that what Renee would say too? That she’d confused pity with love and Kai was just too fucking much to deal with? Dammit, he felt like breaking down, and he covered his face and held his breath and bit his cheek as a way to desperately keep himself from losing it. How fucking pathetic was he?
Renee touched his leg, and he hated how he flinched and his heart rate soared even higher.
Kai swallowed, focused on his breathing, dropped his hands and tried to smile at her. “Hey.” He wondered if his voice sounded as rough as it felt.
Renee frowned and laid her hand on his thigh, slowly, keeping eye contact, giving him a chance to tell her he didn’t want to be touched. “Hey.”
God, he hated this feeling, like he wasn’t getting enough air. Not quite a full panic attack, but definitely his body’s fight or flight system going off the deepend. If only telling it there wasn’t a lion after him would work. Or the fact that he couldn’t outrun one even if there was.
Renee just smoothed his leg in a supportive, reassuring way. “We don’t need to talk about last night if you don’t want to. But we can if you do.
Kai smiled faintly--but genuinely this time--appreciative she was making the effort to sign to him. Also, that she wasn’t pressuring him either. She didn’t look at him the way Becca sometimes had, like he was interesting, something amusing because he was so freakish, and Kai had been too naive and blinded by lust to see it for what it was. Renee seemed to genuinely love him, as hard as that was for him to believe. “Right about now you’re realizing one of the reasons I kept my distance for so many weeks.” Kai’s smile turned pained. His stomach churned and twisted on itself. He couldn’t stop feeling like the bandaid was about to be torn off, that Renee was going to say she cared about him but maybe being friends would be easier. God, why was he so tired if he just woke up?
Renee sat up and looked at him in a way Kai couldn’t interpret. It seemed like sadness and pity, but he couldn’t be sure, as bizarre as that was.
“Look, if you want a refund for your trip on the crazy train, I get it. It’s not too late,” Kai said even though it was the absolute last thing he wanted. The only good thing about Renee finally deciding enough was enough was he could stop constantly worrying about losing her. Kai felt his throat close up and he struggled to keep up a mask of neutrality, like he really was giving her the power to decide. So what if he’d told her yesterday he didn’t think he could get through all of this without her? If yesterday was any indication--fuck, if the past couple weeks were--he probably couldn’t get through it anyway.
Renee laid a hand on his arm to get him to look her way. Her face had shifted. It was softer, full of love, incredibly kissable. Kai wanted to pull her close, press his lips to hers and savor her taste and smell, two senses he tried not to take for granted anymore. “I love you. No limits. I mean it,” Renee said, obviously struggling in ASL but sticking to it for his sake. “I know you worry I will change my mind and leave. But my love is permanent,” she said with a small smile. That was one of the signs she’d learned yesterday, and she was evidently proud she’d used it. Fuck, she was so adorable, so loveable in that moment it almost made all of Kai’s shame and fear float away.
Kai took a few deep breaths since he finally felt like the giant hand that was crushing his chest had eased up a little. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he wasn’t even sure what for. For last night? For his mental illness? For being him?
Renee got up on her knees since Kai’s torso was so much longer than hers, and kissed him on the cheek before sitting back to sign again. “Don’t apologize for last night. I’m glad I was there. I’m glad you felt comfortable talking to me. About how you were feeling. About the hospital.
Shit. Kai vaguely remembered sobbing about isolation, telling Renee about the disastrous group therapy session. About trying to garotte himself. And the shame came surging back, slapping him in the chest like a powerful wave.
Renee smoothed his arm, and that comforting, “safe” feeling from his dream filled him like a warmth shooting through his body. Was she the presence he’d felt in his dream? She smiled in a reassuring way, and he laid his hand over hers, just holding it there for a moment, savoring her touch. Jon’s giant digital clock announced it was still early, and Kai was actually pretty desperate for more sleep.
His back was begging for him to lie down, so he did. Shifted to his side, facing her, with some difficulty. But once he got himself in a good position, he sighed with relief, and he felt his back relax a little.
Renee followed his cue and mirrored his position. “I must look awful,” she said with a laugh.
“You’re beautiful.” And he meant it. He loved her hair, whether it was perfectly styled or wild and frizzy. He hoped she never dreamed of straightening it.
She stared at him a long moment, then signed, “The bad thoughts . . . like in the hospital. Or last night. Does that happen often?” It was clear Renee had to think carefully before she signed, and even then her signing was halting and hesitant, but he honestly wasn’t sure he could deal with pure English right now, even if he’d put his hearing aids in, so he was grateful.
Kai sighed. He hesitated, not sure how honest he should be. His instinct was to lie, or at least mask the truth, but what was the point of that now? The reality was he had those selfish suicidal thoughts far more often than anyone, even Dr. Miller, realized. But if he’d learned anything from the psych ward, nothing short of totally restraining him and drugging him into unconsciousness could keep him from trying if he was desperate enough. So what was the use in talking about it? “Last Friday, before the ASL class, I got very close to trying,” he signed a little more Englishy than he normally would, partially for her benefit and partially because he was worried if he signed cutting she’d ask about it, maybe even pull his shirt or sleeve up and see his scars. And he wasn’t ready for the rejection, the disgust on her face, when she saw those.
Renee’s eyes widened and she looked like she was about to cry.
Kai felt like a schmuck, nausea swirling in his gut. He shouldn’t have told her.
“That’s--that’s why you were late to the class?”
“Why I was late?” Kai asked in confirmation. He should have put his hearing aids on before he’d laid back down, and it would be too much trouble to turn so he could get them.
Renee nodded, repeated herself in crude sign language.
Kai sighed. He traced a pattern in the sheets between them. He didn’t want to talk about this. He wanted to close his eyes and sleep and wake up and have a fresh start. But that wasn’t possible, and Dr. Miller was right. If he expected Renee to stay on his crazy train, he had to be honest with her. Kai felt a prickle in his sinuses and took a few breaths to try to control the impending tears. “I came so close,” Kai said, the words wanting to stick in his throat, and he had to swallow.
Renee laid her hand on his, the one that kept desperately drawing shapes in the bedclothes as a way to distract himself from the weight of the conversation. When he finally stilled, she linked her fingers in his, pulled their shared grip close, and kissed his knuckles. Without letting go, with her other hand, she asked, “Why did you stop?
Kai took a difficult breath. He shivered. Shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess I realized how selfish I was acting.” Kai’s signing was single-handed and lazy, partially because of their position. He didn’t want to let go of Renee’s hand.
Renee shook her head, and it was clear she hadn’t understood. Maybe she didn’t know the sign for “selfish.”
Kai sighed. How did he explain to her without telling her about his cutting? About how sometimes he hated himself so much he wanted to slash away until there was nothing left, and others he just needed to feel something to fill up that enormous emptiness. “I forced myself to go to class. Pretend I was fine.” Kai’s cheeks twitched in a failed attempt at a smile. “It’s what I do.”
Renee looked heartbroken, which made Kai’s own heart feel like it was physically being crushed. What bad karma had Renee earned in her last life to fall in love with him?
I was worried about you. David, too. I think . . . I think he knew why you were late.
David hadn’t said anything, of course, but Kai had suspected David knew. There wasn’t much Kai could hide from his best friend. “I’m sorry,” Kai said on a sigh. Even though he hadn’t acted on any of his impulses since the hospital, he still felt like a disappointment to everyone.
Renee released his hand and smoothed his arm instead, and Kai felt that comforting warmth flow through him. He closed his eyes and focused on that, focused on the fact that Renee wasn’t like everyone else, that if she said she loved him and wouldn’t leave him, she meant it. And yet he could already feel the heartbreak of losing her, could see the hurt and disgust in her eyes when she finally realized what he’d been doing to his body, and tears slid down over his nose. Everyone thought he was so strong, that he could survive anything--Jon and Martin especially--but the truth was it was all smoke and mirrors. He knew it was selfish and weak, and he hated himself for it, but he honestly wasn’t sure he could survive if Renee decided she hated him.
Renee smoothed his tears away with her thumb, then guided her hand into his hair, massaging his temple the way he liked. When he risked opening his eyes, she was smiling at him, that warm, loving expression that he didn’t deserve. Certainly no one before her had ever looked at Kai that way. Not Becca, not Nikki. Her mouth moved, and he was pretty sure she said, “It’s OK.”
Kai pulled her close and just held her against his chest, breathing in her hair and grounding himself with her scent and the warmth of her body. People left, but sometimes they came back--like Jon and David--and sometimes they stayed--like Art. Dr. Miller had urged him to remember that. He stopped fighting the tears and let them fall. They were quiet, unlike the painful sobs that usually seized him. A slow leak rather than the angry torrent he was used to. As much as Kai worried about losing her, losing this, Renee made Kai feel safe in a way no one else ever had.
After several minutes and nearly falling asleep again, Kai sniffled and pushed Renee gently away from him. He wasn’t sure what to say, so he didn’t. Just stared at her, feeling tired and drained and wondering if he had any dignity left.
But Renee continued looking at him like the only thing that mattered was him. Not school, not work, nothing. Like she was wordlessly assuring him that she’d lie here beside him all day, all week, all year if that was what he needed. And God, he loved her so much for it he wanted to tell her. But he was afraid of what would happen if he did. He really was a coward.
Finally, she took a breath. Gazed at him with a sincere, serious expression. “How often do you have bad thoughts?
“Suicide, you mean,” he said in a low voice.
Renee nodded solemnly.
Kai reached over and linked his fingers in hers again. It felt like he was standing on a ledge, and he had to decide right now whether he was going to take that leap and trust her, be honest, or duck the question somehow. His heart was racing again, and he may have squeezed her hand a little too hard.
We don’t need to talk about this if you don’t want to.
Of course he didn’t want to. Kai never wanted to talk about anything, because the more he revealed of what was really going on inside his head, the more he had to strip away his protective layers. Not even David knew how often, through the years, Kai had thought about suicide. Sometimes more concretely than others, but so much of his life had felt so devoid of hope, of a future, it had been hard not to let his thoughts wander into dark places. So what the fuck was wrong with him now? He had Renee, he had Jon and David. He even had Art and Steve. He had the ASL class. He had school and his dream of becoming a teacher. And yet . . .
Kai focused on his breathing, on the way Renee’s thumb gently smoothed over his hand. “I think about it a lot. Every day at least once, if I’m honest,” he said without lifting his eyes from their grip. Kai started to tremble and he willed himself to be still, but it was futile. “Really bad at least once a week.” He was so exhausted. He felt like he was born fighting and he’d never stopped, and maybe he was just getting tired.
Kai braced himself for reproach; he was getting deep enough into these dark thoughts that even Dr. Miller hadn’t ventured this far. She’d tried, but he always closed up, scared of what she’d think of him, of what might happen to him, if he was even more honest with her than he already was. And yet now Renee knew. He was afraid to look up, afraid of what he might see when he finally met Renee’s eyes again. He knew how selfish he was, he knew he should be more grateful. And yet last night, if he’d been alone . . . ?
Renee tugged on his hand to get him to look up. “I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but remember you can’t control your thoughts. Only your actions. Don’t hate yourself because of bad thoughts, OK?
Kai nodded, but it was going to take a lot more than Renee asking him to for his self hatred to go away.
“Can you do something for me?”
Kai nodded.
“Let’s make a scale.”
“A scale?” Kai asked, not sure he’d read her lips right.
Renee nodded. “You know how when you’re in pain, the doctor will ask you to rate it on a scale of one to ten?”
It took Kai a bit to get what she was saying, and she finally had to take her hand back and supplement her English with signs, but finally, he nodded. Yeah, Kai knew all about pain scales. Pointless, in his mind, because his scale was totally different than most people’s. His five was most people’s eight, at least, and he almost never dropped below three. Normally, he could mostly ignore his pain if he was anywhere below six. It was when it got above there that things increased exponentially, and he almost never “got” to ten, because to him ten meant he was either unconscious or in too much pain for language.
What if we invented a . . . scale,” Renee said the last word in English because she clearly wasn’t sure how to sign it.
Kai showed her how he would, his hand perpendicular and waving back and forth in a horizontal line to indicate this scale’s range.
That. For your bad thoughts. Your . . .
Kai showed her the generic sign for suicide, fingers in the shape of a gun pointed to his head, his thumb the trigger. It wasn’t a sign Kai used normally for himself because he knew nothing about guns and would probably fuck himself up more than actually doing the job if he somehow got his hands on one and tried, but she needed to know it.
Renee was reluctant to repeat the sign, but she did. “Your suicidal thoughts. Zero means none and ten means . . .” A feeding tube wrapped around his throat, rapidly choking the life out of him?
Kai felt so disgusted with himself every time he thought of it. Why couldn’t that be something his fucked up memory hadn’t recorded? “What’s the point?”
I know your bad thoughts are hard for you to talk about. I’m happy you felt comfortable with me that you could. But if we have a scale, I can ask how you’re feeling, and you can just say a number. Or if your thoughts get bad, you can just call or text me and say you’re a nine or ten or whatever. You don’t need to explain. I will come for you.
Kai felt his eyes filling and blinked rapidly to clear them. Was this what love was? Real love? Dropping everything in your life for the other person, no questions asked, without judging? Kai knew he would do that for Renee. If she needed him, even if it meant going into a potentially triggering situation, he would suck it up for her. The idea of her hurting or being hurt was physically painful to him, and partly why he’d gone off the deepend last night. “Even if you’re in class or at work?
Renee nodded. “Be honest. On this scale. What was last night?
A few stray tears leaked out against Kai’s will. He hesitated a breath, then said, “Ten. Nine, because you were there with me.
Renee crumbled, and she reached across, pulling him into a tight hug.
Kai fought the tears that wanted to come, holding his breath and cherishing Renee’s touch, focusing on that. Most people would have decided he was way too crazy, too unstable, too everything and headed for the hills, but not Renee.
She pulled back, wiped his cheeks with her thumb, never breaking eye contact. “Is there another hospital, different than JMH, you could go if you need to?”
Again, it took Kai a few repeats before he got what she was saying. “Yes. Jon found a place in Omaha. He’s taking me Saturday to see it. Because I won’t agree to go anywhere I haven’t seen first. Not again.”
Renee nodded. “Promise me you will find a hospital, even if it isn’t that one, where you can be safe if you need it. Because I worry you need it but you’re letting your fear keep you from getting help.” Renee could have signed that in a nasty or condescending way, but it clearly came from a place of pure love and concern that Kai couldn’t be mad. After all, she’d believed him last night and hadn’t called Jon or taken him to the ER even though she clearly thought he’d needed it. And if he was completely honest with himself, he had.
What about school?
School isn’t going anywhere.
But now that Kai finally knew what he wanted, losing a week, a month, however long in the hospital could mean he’d lose another semester. And even if it didn’t make sense, that felt like failure, like he was giving up, like he’d never finish.
Renee seemed to read his thoughts, because she cradled his face. Stared deep into his eyes. “You’re not a failure. You’re not a coward. You will finish school.” She hesitated. “But you need to be alive to graduate.
Kai couldn’t fight it anymore. “I’m so pathetic,” he said in a sob.
Renee shook her head. “You’re sick. You need time to get better. That’s OK. Remember? It’s OK not to be OK?
Kai nodded, even though he knew it would take a long time for him to really internalize that. He stretched for her, relieved she understood what he wanted, curling up against his chest, her arms wrapped tight around him. He just held her close. Needed to know she was there, that he hadn’t ruined everything between them, that no matter what she would love him. Even if he had to go back into the hospital. That wasn’t failure. No failures in recovery, right? That’s what Dr. Miller always told him. And Renee had assured him more than once that they could do anything as long as they did it together.


Kai had offered to make Renee breakfast, but she’d insisted she was fine with cold cereal. He hadn’t missed the look she’d given him when he’d bypassed any breakfast himself with the exception of a few bottles of Gatorade. He had to be well hydrated for the body composition test he would be failing in a few hours.
The last thing Kai had wanted was to strap his braces on and pull himself to his feet, but sitting in his wheelchair all day was not the way to get his tight muscles to loosen up, and he’d been using his chair way too much lately. Standing at the kitchen counter--he wanted to use his weight to help stretch his back and butt and legs--drinking the Gatorade slowly so he wouldn’t throw it back up while Renee sat at the table eating her cereal, he felt the darkness creeping over him. As nice as it had felt with her beside him in bed, the dark, poisonous thoughts never left. Would she really still love him when she learned the full truth about him? Not just about his past, but what he was doing to his body now? Starving himself, throwing up, all the cutting--although he had managed not to make any fresh wounds since last Friday. When she realized he really was weak, a coward, pathetic.
Tell me what you’re thinking right now. For real,” Renee said.
Kai sighed. “Just thinking about my day. Several anniversary appointments,” Kai explained, clarifying by using his sign for transplant, a thumb drawn down on his chest.
Renee gave him a look that said she wasn’t buying it for a moment. She rose with her cereal bowl in hand until she was standing beside him. She set the bowl in the sink and laid a hand on his arm. “Whatever your head is telling you about yourself, reframe it. Imagine how you would feel if it were me.”
Kai frowned. She had so much faith in him, faith he didn’t deserve, but he took a breath, nodded, closed his eyes and tried to do what she’d suggested. How would he feel if he found out Renee self harmed in any way? Would he be disgusted? Would he hate her or think she was pathetic? Of course not. He’d probably do a Jon and blame himself, thinking it was his fault she felt bad enough she had to do that. He’d want to help her and support her in any way he could, and be sad that she’d kept it from him so long. Instead of making him feel better, it made the queasiness in his stomach grow. She’d be so hurt when she finally found out, knowing he’d lied, that he’d kept so much from her. And hadn’t he nearly lost her more than once already because he was too chickenshit to be completely honest with her?
Renee touched him gently, and he hated how he flinched. How close to breaking down he was. Again. “It’s OK. Dr. Miller will help you.”
Kai sucked in a breath. “I’m in this weird transition period between my old antidepressant and the new one, and I think that’s partly why I’m so . . .” At least Kai hoped that was what it was.
“There’s nothing you could tell me about yourself, your past, that would make me love you less,” Renee said once he was looking at her again, seeing her lips working with the hearing aids to help him make sense of her words.
Kai shook his head. “You keep telling me that, and I want to believe it. I do. But I can’t. And I know that makes it seem like I don’t trust you, and that’s not true, not . . .” Kai sighed, frustrated he couldn’t explain without telling her more. “I know I’m not being fair to you.”
It’s OK. Last night, you let me comfort you. You told me private things,” Renee said, clearly struggling in sign language. “I know telling me things is difficult. Don’t shut me out, come to me when you need me and we’ll be OK. You’ll tell me when you’re ready. Like last night.
Kai smiled faintly, blinked to clear his eyes. She was right, as always. If Dr. Miller had asked him at his session Wednesday morning if he would confess to Renee why he was so afraid of the hospital, he would have laughed. He’d thought he wouldn’t ever talk about it. He’d even avoided it with Dr. Miller as much as possible. But it had been so natural last night, and Renee had been so comforting and understanding, refusing to leave him. Exactly what he needed. He felt his eyes getting teary again and squeezed them shut. Then he cleared the counter and nudged his head to indicate he was going to put her there.
She laughed, but nodded and let him pick her up--he ignored his back’s protests--and sit her on the counter in front of him.
“I can’t bend down today. And I need to kiss you.”
Renee smiled, reached for his cheek and guided him closer. The kiss was sweet and short and reassuring. When he pulled back, Renee left her hand resting on his chest, near his heart. “I want to go in with you to Dr. Miller’s office,” Renee said. “I should be there to help her understand what happened last night. It’s important.”
Kai sighed. Held her hand on his heart and nodded. Took a breath. Will you still love me if I can’t get better? Kai thought, afraid to sign it, afraid of her answer. If I need brain medicine forever? Kai was beginning to wonder more and more if he was like his mother. If not bipolar, then something like it, some wiring in his head that was broken from the start, and his fucked up life had only made it worse. If his symptoms could be controlled, but would never go away completely, if he’d always need something to keep his depression and anxiety in check. If he’d never stop fighting for his life.



  1. What an amazing chapter!

  2. I am so happy for Kai that he has Renee on his side now. They are an amazing couple.
    I've really missed your story. Thanks so much for continuing it!

  3. I know Renee will be supportive at Dr. Miller's office. I hope Kai can trust her enough.

  4. I want to know Kai's darkest secret. Will we hear about it this season?

    1. Yes. There's a huge chapter in a few "days" of the story where he and Jon go to visit the new hospital and a lot of things unfold for everyone in the story.