February 8, 2001 - Part IV
Neither Art nor Kai said anything during the short trip from the cemetery to the diner. They sat at a table away from most of the other patrons, and it wasn’t long before a waitress Kai didn’t know took their orders, the first words either of them had spoken in probably fifteen minutes.
“Coffee and whatever pie is the special,” Art ordered.
“Hot milk,” Kai said, staring past the waitress toward the counter in the back that displayed their pies in glass cases. God, he wanted pie so badly. Especially apple or chocolate silk or sweet potato. But after the Oreo incident yesterday, he wasn’t so sure if sugar was a good idea. He sighed heavily. “Just the milk, I guess.”
Art seemed shocked. “Actually, give me two slices of pie. I’m hungrier than I thought.”
The waitress smiled and dashed off, but Kai saw right through him. He didn’t comment on it.
Silence fell again, the waitress returning with Kai’s milk and Art’s coffee, and they each busied themselves adding sugar to their mugs. Finally, Kai asked, “How did you know? Did Renee tell you?” He couldn’t help the edge in his voice.
Art just smiled in that grandfatherly way of his. “She didn’t have to.” He took a sip of his coffee. “I’ve known you since you were this high,” Art said, gesturing off to the side, indicating a level not much higher than the tabletop. He lowered his voice, and with the background noise, Kai had to rely on reading his lips to be sure of what he was saying. “I’ve seen you go through one depression after another. This one seems worse, though.” Art hesitated. His eyes bored into Kai’s. “Much worse.”
Kai took in a surprised breath. “Is that why you told me about your son?”
Art nodded. “Do you remember what I told you when I gave you that copy of Count of Monte Cristo?”
Kai sighed. “That you’d feed me and let me sleep in the breakroom if it’d keep me off the street.” Kai didn’t like remembering that time in his life, his last few weeks at County House, before Jon came for him. The only other time he had actually made detailed plans to take his life. He shivered, acted like he was cold and purposefully drank some of his hot milk as if he was trying to warm up.
But Art knew him too well. “It’s still true.”
Kai forced a smile. “I think I’ve got the food and shelter thing covered, thanks to Jon, but I appreciate it.”
Art rolled his eyes and shook his head, still smiling. “Kai, you know I mean I’m here for you. I may seem like an old man who should have retired ten years ago, but I was always around when you were growing up, and that hasn’t changed.”
Kai smiled faintly, and this time it was genuine. It was true. Art had always dropped by County House to bring Kai books. And he’d sometimes sit with Kai for hours when he was in the hospital, reading to him. “Do you remember when you gave me my dictionary?”
Art nodded. “You were just a kid. Seven or eight at the most. Cathy called me because she was worried about you and wondered if I could drop by.”
“Cathy?” Kai asked, his brows shooting up.
“Cathy Evans. She and I were sweethearts in high school, before I met Martha. We always stayed friends. Not long after you were brought to County House, she came by the store. We had coffee. She told me about this scared, sad little boy who liked to read who might appreciate a visit from time to time. Martha had only been gone a few years, and Cathy knew I was lonely.”
Kai could hardly breathe. “So you and the Warden . . . ?”
Art laughed. “You still call her that? You know, she always had a soft spot for you, even if she’d never admit it. How do you think I always knew when your depression was bad? When you were in the hospital?”
Kai blinked. “I . . . I’d never thought about it. You always just seemed to appear when I needed someone. Like when you gave me that dictionary.” Kai traced a crack in the tabletop with his nail. “I was eight. David and I had run away because I was convinced my parents were still alive, that they didn’t want me because I was . . .” Kai let out a long breath. “We made it all the way to my old house and some strange lady answered. David wanted to run so the cops couldn’t take us back, but I didn’t care. When that stranger answered the door, that’s when I knew it was real. That my parents were really gone. My brother and my sister, too. That I was alone.”
The waitress arrived with their slices of pie, smiled overly long at Kai in a flirtatious way, very pointedly asking him if he needed anything else, then left when it was clear Kai wasn’t interested.
Art pushed one of the plates toward Kai. “Eat. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I did need to start feeding you myself.”
Kai smiled and picked up his fork to mash up his pie--the special was apparently an apple caramel walnut. After realizing he was alone, that his family really was gone, Kai had crawled under his bed and stayed there for days, sobbing, refusing to go to school. Even David couldn’t coax him out. And then Art had showed up, seemingly out of the blue. Told Kai he didn’t have to go to school. And he’d brought him books and pie and a gift: a dictionary so Kai could learn English better, and so he could help David, too. “You lent me Tom Jones and Huckleberry Finn, and we had clandestine pie and read together and you promised if I agreed to behave and go to school like I was supposed to that you’d always come visit me and bring me new books to read.” Kai grit his teeth and found himself getting emotional. “Sometimes your visits were all I had,” Kai admitted in a quiet voice.
Art raised his coffee mug. “They kept me going, too. You’re the closest thing I have to a grandson.” He sighed and set his coffee down without drinking any. “I just wish Robert could have talked to me. Maybe if he had, he wouldn’t have . . .” Art swallowed. “What I’m trying to say is that you don’t have to be alone. Remember, Edmond Dantes had help getting out of that prison. If it weren’t for the old man, he never would have escaped.”
Kai sat in his car in Martin’s driveway, emotionally and physically exhausted. It was only early afternoon and it already felt like he’d lived a whole week and not just part of a day. He felt better, though, emotionally. Glad Renee had been with him last night and not full of regret that he’d lost his chance to die. It felt like such a selfish thought, especially after visiting the cemetery with Art. Even in death Robert felt like he didn’t deserve to be with his family, and Kai could completely understand that, even if Art didn’t.
Kai stretched for the glove compartment and grabbed a pen, then pulled his wallet out of his pocket and unfolded the contract from this morning. He felt that strange, wobbling sensation in his chest, the one that meant his anxiety and mood were battling with each other to express themselves physically. But he ignored it. In the space where he’d written Jon and Renee and Dr. Miller’s names, along with their numbers as people to call if he felt dangerously suicidal, he wrote in Art’s name and the number for the store along with his personal one. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever actually call Art, but maybe, if he was bad enough, seeing the old man’s name would remind Kai what taking his life would do to those he loved and claimed to care about. It was so hard for him to see that truth when the darkness took over, so maybe seeing Art’s name would remind Kai of that bitter cold cemetery, of the barren tree over a lonely grave. Kai didn’t want to be Robert.
He took a huge breath, folded the paper away, and got ready to head inside. A couple hours with Martin as company, some video games and a funny movie was just what Kai needed right now.
“Martin? It’s me. Kai,” Kai called as he entered. Martin had left the garage open for Kai so he wouldn’t need to answer the door. Considering how bitterly cold it was today, Kai was glad they’d done that.
Kai heard Martin calling out from somewhere, but it was too far for him to understand what he’d said exactly. But the smell of food told Kai that Martin was probably in the kitchen, so he removed his outerwear, hung it up and then crutched to find the kid.
Although Martin was skinny, when his breathing was good, he had the appetite of a normal fifteen-year-old boy, and he’d amazed Kai by how much junk he could pack away. The very thought turned Kai’s stomach. The only time he’d ever been able to eat like that was when he was on drugs that made him hungry all the time, like ones he’d taken after his transplant to help him eat and put on weight. Kai so rarely actually felt hunger--yes, another thing fucked up about him--that it always surprised him when he did. Probably one reason the Oreo incident happened, not that Kai wanted to think about that.
“Hey,” Martin said a little awkwardly when he noticed Kai’s form in the doorway. He had a bag of corn chips in one hand, like he was about to open them.
“Hey.” Kai held his breath. He’d managed to pull himself together last week, but it didn’t change the fact that Martin had seen him sick, that Kai had thrown up in front of the kid. Or the fact that he’d revealed his fears about his transplant and the time before and after.
Martin didn’t say anything right away, but then he held up the chips. “I’m making nachos. Want some?” Then he cringed. “Uh, unless you’re not up to it.” It seemed his way of asking if Kai was OK without asking. Being sick his whole life, Kai used to get pretty irritated with people asking him how he was feeling. It was usually a hollow question. Illness made people uncomfortable. So maybe Martin felt the same way.
Kai smiled faintly. Appreciated the effort. “I’m OK. All that junk food’ll give you cancer or something. What is that ‘cheese’ even made out of?” Kai asked, gesturing with a crutch toward the jar of cheese sauce and a can of chili that stood on the counter.
Martin relaxed visibly. He opened the bag and dumped them on a plate. “Good thing I’m already dying.” He flashed a grin. Martin’s color was better today, and he was breathing more easily. He took a breath through his nose and got a little more serious. “I didn’t think you were coming.”
Kai was late, partially because of Art’s detour. “I thought about it,” Kai said. “Not because of you, though.” Kai let out a breath. Shifted his weight. “But I’m looking forward to Ghostbusters. I heard there’s a giant marshmallow man or something?”
Martin choked on a laugh. “You’re pathetic.”
Kai was working on a comeback when the doorbell rang. Kai actually smiled, because he could hear it thanks to his hearing aids.
Martin was busy prepping his nasty snack--the smell alone made Kai’s stomach turn--when he looked over at Kai pointedly. “Get it?”
Kai rolled his eyes. “Sure. Send the cripple to answer the door.”
Martin cackled, exaggerating his laugh like he was a supervillain. “You are here to serve me, oh blond one!” And that’s when Kai knew they were OK.
Kai shook his head, wondering who could possibly be at the door on a Thursday afternoon. Maybe one of Martin’s friends, dropping off some school work? Kai decided he didn’t really care as he made the trek, planting one crutch and shifting his weight so he wouldn’t need to worry about his balance as he dropped his other arm out of its crutch and pulled the door open.
A blast of icy air hit Kai, but he barely noticed.
Standing on the porch, shivering, was a boy about Martin’s age, leaning on forearm crutches. He looked startingly familiar, even if he was a few years older now, and the chubbiness of boyhood was fading into the harsher angles of adolescence and manhood. The huge eyes and the speckle of freckles across his nose were the same.
“Frankie?” Kai said at the same time the boy said, “Kai?”
They both stared at each other in disbelief until a violent shiver shook Frankie’s body and he had to compensate on his crutches to keep from losing his balance. Kai blinked again, still in shock, before stepping aside to let Frankie in.
Once the door was closed, the staring match resumed until Frankie finally leaned his head back to better see Kai’s face, and said, “You’re not dead,” in genuine surprise. Frankie had always had a slight speech impediment, almost like he had to chew the words to get them out, but Kai had never thought much of it partially because Kai always felt Frankie spoke so much better than he did. Something about how his hearing aids worked, or just the fact that he needed them, or maybe just the years apart, made Kai notice Frankie’s speech more than ever, even as subtle as the impediment was.
“Neither are you,” Kai replied, equally shocked.
Frankie’s eyebrows went up, but then he seemed to take Kai in from head to toe. “You’re huge.”
“I grew.” Kai never thought about his size much, but he was taller than most, and his shoulders and chest were broader than Jon’s. Even as thin as he was now, there weren’t too many people bigger than he was. “So did you.”
Frankie looked every bit the nerdy teen Kai always suspected he’d become someday. He’d gotten leaner, but the awkwardness of a chubby little kid with a round face had been replaced by that of a teen who hadn’t fully grown into his body, his hands and feet a little too big. He still had that crazy dark hair that curled a little on the ends and for which he was probably teased for by the other guys and envied by the girls. They studied each other for a few more minutes before Frankie’s curiosity apparently won out. “Why did you think I was dead?”
Kai shrugged a single shoulder. “I went back to County House a few months ago and you weren’t there and the Warden wouldn’t tell me what happened to you. I came to my own conclusions.”
“Still a cynic,” Frankie said as he carefully slipped off his gloves and coat, one arm at a time so he never was without the support of his crutches for long. Unlike Kai, Frankie didn’t wear full-leg braces and had more balance issues, relying on his crutches to help keep him upright. “I was adopted.”
“Really. Remember that program? It was just starting your last year or so at County House. To get more of us in the foster system and out of group homes?”
Kai scowled. “You were all enthusiastic about it.”
“And you tried to talk me out of it.”
Kai offered another shrug, the barest hint of movement in his shoulders.
“Well, not long after you aged out I got into it. It took a few placements, but finally I found a good home. After about a year, they decided to adopt me.” He smiled, a stupidly happy expression that reminded Kai of the Frankie he’d left behind four years ago.
“Well, uh, congrats,” Kai said, not at all convincingly.
Frankie’s face soured. “You don’t believe me.”
Kai sighed, halfway rolled his eyes, lifted one hand from its crutch in a kind of, “eh” gesture, but said nothing.
The smile was back. “Wow, other than getting huge, you haven’t changed at all.” Frankie shifted his weight and lifted one of his crutches. “They’re good people, Kai. They bought me these. Aren’t they great?”
Kai took a moment to admire them. They did seem good--expensive, high quality, solid, custom sticks with comfortable hand grips and stabilizing rubber tips that Kai was actually curious about ordering for himself. Unlike Kai’s, which were the standard chrome, Frankie’s were blue, a shade similar, but slightly brighter than that of Kai’s wheelchair. Though Kai was still skeptical, he had to admit that was pretty powerful evidence in Frankie’s favor.
Seeing the doubt still in Kai’s features, Frankie said, “Come on. I’ll call my mom and you can talk to her yourself.”
Hearing Frankie talk about his “mom” threw Kai, and it took him awhile to follow Frankie into the kitchen.
The microwave was running and Martin stood nearby, munching on corn chips. The smell of the cheese-like product, chili, and salsa filled the room. He smiled when they entered. “Hey, Frankie.” Then he must have noticed Kai’s scowl, because he chuckled. “Kai not happy with the reunion?”
Kai rolled his eyes and leaned against the counter, slipping out of his crutches and folding his arms tightly on his chest. “So you knew we knew each other.” Kai’s eyes narrowed to slits.
Martin laughed gleefully but said nothing.
“Hey, Martin, mind if I use your phone?”
“Nope,” Martin said as the microwave beeped. He used a towel to pull out the hot plate, immediately digging in. “Have some,” he said with his mouth full so that his words were barely intelligible, but Kai’s hearing aids and context helped him figure it out.
Kai glanced over at the mess of chips and cheese and chili. Even though Kai had told himself he was going to make more of an effort to eat junk food to help put on weight, his stomach turned. “I’m a vegetarian, remember?”
Martin was completely nonplussed. “Scrape the meat off?”
Kai sighed. Frankie was talking on the phone, apparently assuring his mother that he’d gotten inside safely, and that Martin and Kai and he were going to watch a movie but that he’d still get his homework done. He also took a moment to refresh his mother’s memory on who Kai was, which made Kai pause. Frankie had told his adoptive parents about him?
After a few minutes, Frankie waved the phone toward Kai, one hand gripping the counter. “She wants to talk to you.”
Kai turned on his hardest, most scathing scowl and shook his head.
Frankie sighed, pleading with his eyes for Kai to stop being stubborn and take the phone, as if to say, You wanted proof; here’s your proof.
Kai stretched out a long arm and snagged the cordless handset with a loud sigh, placing it to his ear. The handsfree kit for his cell that forced the sound directly through his hearing aid’s processor worked really well, but Kai wasn’t sure how the mic would work if he had the handset right up against it. “Hello?”
“Kyle? Frankie’s friend from the group home?” The sound was a little echoey, and he had some feedback, but he managed, and he could understand her, which was better than without the hearing aid. She sounded much younger than Kai would have expected.
Kai grit his teeth. “Kai.”
The woman repeated Kai’s name several times, as if trying it out on her tongue. “That’s right. Kai. Short for Malakai, right?”
Kai was about to correct her--probably a little more forcefully than necessary--but what did he really know about where his name had come from? Considering the biblical names Jon, Joseph, and Sara, maybe Kai really was intended to be short for something, and not Hawaiian or Japanese or whatever he’d always assumed it was.
“Oh, I thought I lost you. You know how these cellular telephones are. But where are my manners? I’m Maggie Hoffmann, Frankie’s mom. He’s told us a lot about you. Said you’ve been helping that friend of his who’s sick.” Kai found himself struggling to follow Maggie, especially since Martin and Frankie were nearby, talking to each other excitedly at a frantic pace about some video game that was coming out soon, and it not only pushed the limit of his hearing aids but also his concentration.
“. . . So anyway, it’d be lovely if you’d come over for dinner sometime.”
That snapped Kai back to the phone conversation. “Uh . . . what?”
“Any time you like. How about Sunday? Frankie’ll give you our address. My husband and I really look forward to meeting you. Oh! I have to go. Nice chatting with you!”
Before Kai could even begin to process what she’d said, the line went to dialtone.
Laughing at Kai’s baffled expression, Frankie quipped, “She invited you to dinner, didn’t she? She does that to everyone.” His face shifted, looking chastened, though he quickly tried to hide it in a smile. “If you don’t want to go, it’s no biggie. I’m sure you’re busy anyway.”
Martin glanced over at Kai, evidently seeing Kai’s face shift minutely when he saw how badly Frankie apparently wanted Kai to come to dinner and started giggling, speaking around a mouthful of nachos. “Make sure you tell your mom he’s a vegetarian,” he said, drawing out the last word in a mocking, snotty way.
“I’m not a vegetarian because I’m a snob,” Kai defended.
Martin laughed. “Oh, that’s right. you don’t eat meat so your legs don’t go all--” Martin teasingly waved his fingers of his free hand in the air in random, jerky ways.
Frankie looked uncomfortable, his gaze darting between Kai and Martin.
But Kai just rolled his eyes. “Gee, thanks for being so sensitive.”
Martin laughed evilly. “That’s me, Mr. Sensitivity.”
Kai glared, but a hint of a playful smile peaked through to show he was actually amused. “Yeah, well, you better buck up on your sensitivity training if you’re going to pick up that girl you want. Girls are usually turned off by insensitive pricks.”
“Well, great sensei, give me your wisdom, then,” Martin replied, licking his fingers and smirking.
Kai shook his head. He’d been avoiding the topic since he honestly didn’t consider himself very knowledgeable about women at all. He felt like Renee was the first woman he’d been with who didn’t control the relationship--who didn’t control him. Where they were equals. “You led me right into that one, didn’t you.”
Martin’s smile broadened, but he forced his eyes to look innocent. “A man never reveals his secrets.”
It was nice to see Martin feeling so good they could joke like this. Understandably, his mood was often closely tied to his breathing; if his PO2 was low, he was tired and much more somber and irritable. When it was good, he was more of his old self--or at least the boy Kai assumed Martin was, since he’d really only gotten to know him in the past few weeks.
“Did you ever find the movie?” Before Kai could ask if Martin was dropping the girl advice part of the conversation, he quickly added, “And you have to spill your secrets before we watch it.”
Kai sighed. “Is that why you invited Frankie over today, so he can benefit from my supposed dating knowledge?”
Martin shrugged. He’d polished off the nachos himself and was looking around for something else to eat. He found some popcorn and threw it in the microwave.
“And how did I have time to get the movie when I’m busy being your slave? Besides, who can find anything in that insane organizational system of yours anyway?”
“The movies are arranged by genre, then by year. Ghostbusters is under comedy, after Trading Places but before Back to the Future.”
“Because alphabetizing is too pedestrian?”
Frankie had remained fairly silent, seemingly uneasy, casting what were probably supposed to be long, surreptitious glances Kai’s way, but that Kai was too attuned to miss. There was something going on there, something Kai couldn’t quite interpret. Was Martin not like this--teasing and joking--with Frankie, and it made the kid uncomfortable? Frankie had always been a strikingly serious kid, even when he was young. Had Martin’s jab at Kai’s spasms (which Frankie suffered from, too, even if the etiology was different) offended him? Frankie had never seemed thin-skinned.
Kai and Martin continued teasing each other about one thing or another--mostly Martin making fun of Kai’s limited movie knowledge--and Kai’s mood was improving. He really liked Martin. He felt a kinship with him that went beyond the fact that FS had nearly killed them both.
Then the microwave beeped and Frankie spoke up, seemingly out of nowhere. “Martin, you . . . you shouldn’t make Kai tell you about girls if . . . if he doesn’t want to,” Frankie said in a shy, quiet, hesitant voice.
Kai’s eyes darted to the boy, surprised, but he said nothing.
“I’m dying, so I can make him do whatever I want,” Martin countered, sounding almost like a small child on the playground. Martin’s occasional macabre humor unsettled Kai because it reminded him that Martin was dying, that they were only hanging out because Kai had been dying once in the same way. Of course, Kai had his own tendency toward dark, self-deprecating humor, so far be it for the pot to call the kettle black.
Kai shook his head and rolled his eyes, slipping back into his crutches. “You two can fight about it all you want; my back is killing me. I’m going to sit on the couch.”
Until a few months ago, Martin had never noticed Frankie. Well, he’d noticed him because of his crutches in the same way that everyone noticed Martin because of the oxygen tank, but he’d never really talked to him much. Martin had his own circle of friends and the weird kid with the funny walk and the stutter didn’t fit into his life. But the sicker Martin got, the more he had to miss school and be labeled as the true freak with the mask and the oxygen, the more his friends had pulled away from him. He’d tried to tell himself at first it was because he only went to school maybe half the time, that he’d needed to change his schedule, so he didn’t see them as much. That they were busy with activities he was too sick to join in on now. But it didn’t change the fact that whenever he tried to invite any of them over to play video games or watch movies the way they used to, every single one of them always had something else they had to do.
Martin couldn’t really blame them. Who wanted to hang out with the kid who could be dead in a month? Who could get exhausted walking from one room to another and often fell asleep after only a few minutes of a game or movie because he was just so tired all the time? His so-called friends had even started making excuses as to why they couldn’t bring him his homework anymore. They had wrestling practice. Or basketball. Or driving lessons. Martin’s world had suddenly become very small, and he looked forward to Thursday afternoons with Kai in a way that the older man would probably find pathetic if he knew how much.
Frankie had stepped in a few weeks ago, one of the rare days Martin made it to school, and offered to bring him his homework if he wanted it. Martin had been switched to classes that were all within easy walking distance of each other once he went on oxygen full time, and that meant he and Frankie had the same schedule now. He seemed like a nice enough kid, and when Martin had realized Frankie had known Kai, he had to invite him over.
But as Martin finished gathering his stash of snacks--breathing well always meant his appetite came raging back at full, ravenous speed--he wondered if it had been a mistake. Kai seemed irritated by Frankie’s sudden reappearance in his life, and Frankie was acting even more shy and awkward than normal, even if he did have good taste in video games.
“You OK, Frankie?”
It took a moment for Frankie to respond, almost like he’d been daydreaming. “Uh, yeah,” he said with a forced smile, adjusting his weight on his crutches. “Kai hasn’t changed at all. Well, he talks more now. I don’t think I heard him say twelve words the entire four years I knew him.”
Martin wasn’t sure what to do with that. Yeah, Kai had that pensive, broody attitude down, which coupled with his good looks probably went a long way toward his success with women, no matter what he said. But he’d never been shy with Martin. “Well, we should probably go watch the movie. I think I hear Kai snoring already.”
Martin had been joking about the snoring comment, but when he wandered into the living room, Kai did look asleep. He was sitting on one end of the couch, his legs stretched out and his body leaned back so his head rested on the top of the sofa. His eyes were closed, and with the only sound the distant hum of Martin’s oxygen concentrator, he could hear that Kai did snore, sort of. The sound was more from his lungs than his throat, a kind of rumble that wasn’t quite a wheeze but wasn’t exactly normal, either.
Martin glanced behind him to make sure Frankie didn’t trip. “Watch out for my tubing,” Martin said, using his foot to try to pull it out of the way, closer to him, since his hands were full.
“Looks like that hasn’t changed, either,” Frankie said with a laugh, nudging his head in Kai’s direction. “Kai always could fall asleep anywhere. Sometimes in the wierdest places. He’s like a cat. But you just had to listen to find him.”
Martin was actually surprised that Kai’s breathing was so noisy. He made a mental note to ask Kai about it when he got the chance, but for now, he dumped his food on one end of the couch. Was it selfish of Martin to eat so much junk in front of Kai? Was he nauseous? Or did his back really hurt the way he’d claimed? Martin realized that if Kai knew what Martin was thinking, he’d be furious or at least convinced Martin was even more of a wimp than he probably already thought. After all, Kai could take care of himself. He’d survived hell, and last week when he was puking his guts out and clearly not feeling well, he’d still kept calm and confident. Martin hoped that if he did get a chance for a transplant that he could be as strong and brave as Kai was.
“Sit wherever,” Martin said, although the way the living room was set up the best movie-watching couch was the one where he and Kai always sat. There was room for three, but it would be a tight squeeze, especially with Martin’s blankets. Although today his oxygen levels were good enough that the sweatshirts he was wearing were doing a decent enough job of keeping him warm.
Martin left Frankie to figure out where he’d sit while he set up the movie. He hadn’t watched Ghostbusters in awhile, so this would be fun. It was still hard for him to believe that Kai had never seen it. Seriously, Kai had clearly grown up under a rock. “Have you seen Ghostbusters?” Martin asked Frankie as he made sure to put the captions on. He’d begun to suspect Kai had some kind of hearing problem, because there were times it seemed like Kai was only pretending to have understood what Martin said, and others where he missed it entirely. Whatever it was, if Kai didn’t want to come right out and say anything, Martin wouldn’t ask. During a bad week when he hadn’t been able to go to school a single day because his breathing was too bad and he was just too tired and cold, Thursday afternoons were the only thing Martin had to look forward to, as pathetic as that was. He couldn’t risk pissing Kai off so that the man stopped coming. Martin hadn’t even fully realized how much these visits meant to him until it was nearly 3:30 and Kai still hadn’t shown up. Martin hadn’t felt disappointment like that, however pathetic it was, in a long, long time.
“Uh, no, I haven’t,” Frankie said.
Martin noticed Frankie had chosen the middle spot, between Kai and where Martin had piled his snacks. “You and Kai really are a matched set.” He shook his head. “Wake up, old man.”
Kai didn’t stir.
Martin reached out to nudge Kai’s leg with a foot.
“Don’t,” Frankie said. “He doesn’t like to be touched.”
Martin stared at Frankie hard for a moment. Yes, Frankie was a weird kid, but Martin was beginning to wonder if he was even stranger than he’d thought. He ignored him and kicked Kai’s shin anyway, then let out a loud ow when his toe hit something hard that wasn’t bone.
Kai woke suddenly, his hands snapping to his sides and pulling himself up abruptly. He was breathing hard, looking around for a moment like he’d been dreaming and he wasn’t fully conscious yet.
“Told you,” Frankie said. The kid looked nervous, almost sick.
“Gonna sleep the whole afternoon away?” Martin teased, ignoring Frankie.
Kai took a huge breath, shook his head like he was clearing out cobwebs, rubbed his eyes. It took him a moment, but then he responded, “So it’s OK for you to fall asleep but not me?”
“I’m dying. What’s your excuse?” Martin moved his food to the sofa table and the floor, then sunk down into his spot, his legs folded, the blanket draped over him. “Besides, I’ve seen all these movies like a zillion times. If I miss a few minutes, it’s no biggie. You’re a total movie virgin.”
Kai rolled his eyes. He shifted his weight, pressing up against the cushion like he was trying to get comfortable. He gave Frankie a strange look, and Martin wasn’t sure if it was that Kai had forgotten Frankie was here, or that he didn’t like that Frankie was sitting so close to him. Whatever it was, Kai didn’t say anything about it. “So I’m awake. Movie, go ahead.”
“Nope,” Martin said, purposefully putting the remote on the table, out of play. “My mom says I can go back to school as soon as tomorrow if my numbers are good. I need to know how to talk to that girl I was telling you about. The dance is coming up soon and someone else will ask her if I don’t.”
Kai let out a long-suffering groan. “‘Hi girl I like, I’m Martin,’” Kai said in a mocking voice. “‘Hi Martin,’” he added in a higher-pitched voice. “‘Will you go to the dance with me?’ ‘Sure!’” Kai leveled a look at Martin. “See, nothing to it,” Kai said in his normal voice.
“Funny.” Martin picked up the bowl of popcorn from the floor and dug in, offering some to Frankie and Kai.
Frankie shook his head and mumbled something about spoiling his dinner.
“You shouldn’t share food like that,” Kai said, suddenly very serious. “Especially finger food. That’s a great way to get sick.”
Martin had only been on the immune suppressing drugs for a few months; Kai had for a year and a half. Martin stared down at the bowl, feeling stupid. “Uh, well, I could pour some into a cup or something if you want some. Then we’re not really sharing.”
“I’m just saying, be careful. Getting sick when your immune system is suppressed can kill you. It sucks.” Kai said it like he knew what he was talking about, but as usual, he didn’t elaborate without prompting.
Frankie had pulled one of the sofa pillows into his lap and was cradling it there like he wanted to disappear.
“Movie?” Kai asked. He seemed particularly impatient for the movie today. Usually Kai was pretty laid back and didn’t really care what they did or talked about.
“First give me something, please, man.”
Kai sighed heavily. “Just be yourself. If there’s anything I’ve learned about women, it’s honesty is probably the best policy.”
“So, what, I just go up to her and say, “Hey, I’m Martin and I’m dying. Want to go to the dance with me?”
Kai burst out laughing. “Uh, maybe a little too honest. Some girls might appreciate your dark humor out of the gun but others not so much. My current girlfriend would scold me if I said something like that.” Kai seemed like the type of guy who didn’t take orders from anyone, so the idea of his girlfriend chastising him was incredibly amusing.
“OK . . .” Martin coughed a few times, but he didn’t get trapped in a fit or have trouble breathing, proof he was having a good day. “So what do I say?”
Kai clearly wasn’t in the mood for Martin’s questions today. Something was bothering him that he was trying to hide, and Martin wondered if that was why he was late. After all, he’d admitted he’d thought about not coming today, right? “Just talk to her. Casually mention the dance and ask if she’s going, but not like you’re asking her out, just like you’re making conversation. Then, if she says she was planning on it, you can drop in an invite. Almost like you weren’t even planning on going, but she shouldn’t go on her own, should she? That way if she says no, you can save face and act like you were just talking, and you’ll come off as confident even if you’re nervous.”
Martin tried to process this. “I’m not sure I get it.”
Kai sighed loudly. Shifted his body on the couch so he was facing Frankie a little more. “Frankie, you be this girl Martin likes. Uh, what’s her name?”
Kai raised a single brow at that but didn’t comment. “OK. Frankie, you’re Heidi and I’m Martin. We’re in school talking before class.”
“Uh . . .” Frankie looked like this was the last thing in the world he wanted to do, and he hugged the pillow a little tighter.
“Good. OK.” Kai took a breath and his face and posture changed. “Hey, Heidi,” Kai said in his mocking imitation of Martin’s voice.
“Uh, hi,” Frankie said, and he blushed fiercely. He couldn’t seem to make eye contact with Kai, like Kai intimidated him.
Kai smiled. It was a smile like Martin had never seen Kai make and that made Martin immediately envious. It was brilliant and charming and disarming and sexy, somehow all those things at once, like a movie star smile. No wonder women loved Kai if he smiled at them like that. “Did I miss anything major this week?”
“Uh, not really. Hans Grier put super glue on Mr. Jenkel’s chair and they had to send the whole class to the cafeteria while the situation was taken care of. Grier was suspended.”
Kai gave Frankie a look like he was wondering if that had really happened, but he quickly cleared it off his face and got back into character. He laughed and leaned on the sofa, supporting his head, looking incredibly casual and sexy in a way Martin hoped he could mimic. “Cool. So are they still having that dance?” Kai kept his eyes fixed on Frankie’s even though Frankie didn’t want to return the gaze. In this situation it was hilarious, but Martin took a mental note for when he talked to Heidi for real.
Kai’s smile expanded. “Cool. You going?”
“Uh, I don’t know,” Frankie said, and he blushed deeper. Then he turned to Martin. “Can we stop this?”
“No, this is going to get me laid,” Martin whispered.
Frankie’s eyes widened.
Kai leaned a little more on his hand, looking sleepy and bored. Then Frankie turned back to him and Kai instantly got back in character. It was hilarious, and Martin had to try not to laugh. “You should totally go. I mean, I am. I could pick you up and we could go together.”
“I can’t drive,” Martin pointed out.
Kai sighed and rolled his eyes and responded in his normal voice, “I doubt you’re planning on walking to the dance. You don’t have to be literal, Martin.”
Frankie looked sick. “Uh, I need to use the bathroom,” he said. He was breathing a little raggedly and his skin had a greenish hint to it. Was he going to hurl or something?
Kai frowned, but his face was concerned rather than irritated. Without saying anything, he snagged Frankie’s crutches from behind the couch and offered them to him.
Frankie accepted them gratefully and stood, heading toward the bathroom as fast as he could.
“Was he always so weird?” Martin asked once he was sure Frankie was out of earshot.
Kai smiled faintly. “Frankie is Frankie.”
“Thanks,” Martin said after a long hesitation. “For . . . you know. Showing me what to do. With Heidi.”
Kai shrugged. “Smile at her. Even if you’re wearing your mask, it’ll show in your eyes and come out in your voice. And keep eye contact. But don’t be creepy about it. Just show you’re interested and focused only on her. The important thing to realize is that men think we control relationships, but the reality is that women have us by the balls.” Kai paused. His eyebrows nudged up a bit. “Pretty literally, actually. But that doesn’t mean you can’t act like you’re the confident, in control one, because women like that.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
Kai winked and let out a casual laugh. “Because women don’t make sense.” Kai shifted his weight again, a slight grimace crossing his features as he moved, but it was there and gone briefly enough Martin could have imagined it. God, he hoped he could be as strong willed as Kai someday, to not just act like he wasn’t afraid for his mom’s sake but actually convince himself he wasn’t. “My point is that most women have already made up their mind about you before you even attempt to ask them out. So regardless of what you say or do to this Heidi, it’s likely she’ll either go out with you because she wants to, or she won’t because she doesn’t.”
“That’s depressing,” Martin said, gathering the blankets up around him as he suddenly felt cold. He coughed a few times, but he didn’t go into a coughing fit, thankfully.
Kai shrugged again. “It is what it is. But if what you say doesn’t matter, it means that you don’t need to be nervous. Just relax, be confident, and if she likes you, she’ll say yes. And if she doesn’t, then, well . . .” Kai’s features clouded for a moment, almost like he was thinking hard. “You turn sixteen when?”
“Oh, wow, so soon. Well, if it doesn’t work out with this girl, I may have another option for you as a birthday gift,” Kai said cryptically. He looked like maybe he was going to say more, but then he glanced up, over Martin’s shoulders. “Hey, Frankie. You OK? Need me to drive you home?”
Martin looked back and saw Frankie standing in the entrance to the living room from the hallway that led to the bathroom. He was staring at Kai with a strange expression, and when he realized Martin was looking, he blushed fiercely. Frankie had that rosy, porcelain complexion that only redheads and some people with black hair had, and it meant he flushed easily. But he was acting particularly weird.
“Frankie?” Kai’s eyebrows had dipped and he looked genuinely worried. “I can drop him home and then come back,” Kai whispered to Martin, as if to reassure him. It was only then that Martin realized how disappointed he must have looked at the idea that Kai would leave so soon.
Frankie swallowed. Took a wobbling step forward. Forced a smile. “I’m fine. I want to watch the movie. Sorry about that.”
Kai’s eyes narrowed, like he wasn’t convinced Frankie was OK, but then his body language shifted back into that casual, relaxed, almost bored state that seemed to be his normal, and reclined back. “OK. Well, then let’s get this movie started, finally.”
Continue to February 8, 2001 - Part V ------>