February 9, 2001
Kai’s own scream woke him. From the rawness of his throat, it meant that scream wasn’t the first to manifest from his nightmare. He was soaked in sweat, his heart racing, breathing fast and shallow. Fear flared up when he didn’t immediately recognize where he was, but then he saw Renee, sitting beside him on the bed, clearly wanting to intervene but holding herself back. He’d warned her more than once he could be volatile while he was dreaming or shortly after waking, and it looked like she was obeying him.
Kai pushed himself up, still getting his bearings. He held out one hand to urge her to keep her distance, then used the other to feel his chest. The phantom pain from his dream lingered. It had seemed so real, though the more he woke up the more ridiculous he realized the whole scenario had been. “Fuck,” Kai panted, his voice almost gone. Without his hearing aids, he couldn’t even be sure if he’d made enough sound to be audible. His hand went to his neck. How long had he been screaming before he woke up? Kai swallowed. Tried to talk again, but it felt like his throat had been shredded and he quickly switched to sign. Easier anyway. Didn’t have to think as much. “I’m sorry. Bad dream,” Kai said without much emphasis, understating the horror that he could still vividly see and feel. It wasn’t fading quickly, but instead was clinging to him like rough fingers on his bare skin. He felt simultaneously like he was going to throw up and break down into ugly tears, and he wished Renee didn't have a front-row seat.
She waved to get his attention. “What year is it?”
Kai stared at her blankly for a moment, trying to keep it together, trying to focus on the present, on the smell of his sweat mixed with her roses, of the fabric of his T-shirt clinging to his back and chest, his heartbeat and breathing. “2000.” Then Kai shook his head. “2001.”
Renee seemed to visibly relax at his response. She cautiously laid a hand on his thigh. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Kai’s cheek twitched, but he didn’t manage a smile. “How I woke the entire apartment complex with my screaming, you mean?” Kai shoved his hair off his face. It was sweaty and tangled and obnoxious, and he couldn’t wipe away the grisly image of Allan Ohlsen, scraped up and bloody, pale and angry, bone saw in one hand, looming over him.
“Diane sleeps like the dead,” Renee signed. She smiled, laid her hand on his leg and looked at him in that gorgeous way she had, open and pure and without any of the hidden malice and ulterior motivations most people had. The look that said he could trust her, that she loved him. But that she also wouldn’t pressure him. God damn she was beautiful and perfect and so much better than he deserved.
“Allan Ohlsen,” Kai fingerspelled slowly and clearly, his fingers moving through the letters almost on their own. He’d spelled that name so often to himself he’d always remember it, even with his shit memory. He wanted to make sure he would never forget. And yet he had Wednesday, hadn’t he? Come so fucking close to taking his own life like the ungrateful asshole that he was.
Renee was confused. Maybe she hadn’t caught the name, or maybe she was just wondering who the fuck Allan Ohlsen was.
“My donor,” Kai said in his worn-out voice. He couldn’t really meet her eyes when he said it.
Renee either couldn’t hear him because his voice was so bad or she wasn’t sure what he meant, because she shook her head, her brows furrowed.
Kai drew his thumb down his chest, his sign for his transplant. “The person who gave me his lungs,” Kai clarified, using simple signs to make it easier for her to grasp.
Renee’s eyes widened in realization, but it was fleeting. “I don’t understand,” she signed, but she mouthed, “What?,” confused.
Most transplant patients never knew who their donors were. But Kai had needed to know, so he’d researched it as soon as he was healthy enough. Scanned the newspapers for the day of his transplant from every nearby county and town, then put the pieces together. It was important for him to never forget who died so he wouldn’t. Allan Ohlsen, special forces in the army on leave, was 25 when he died in a motorcycle accident. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and was diagnosed brain dead when he arrived at the hospital. Within only a couple hours, Kai was prepped for surgery and part of Allan became part of him.
“Allan Ohlsen was a huge man. Bigger and taller than me. That’s why I got his lungs.”
Renee shook her head, still confused, probably wondering what the fuck he was talking about.
Explaining seemed like too much effort. When someone was matched for a lung transplant, the committee went by more than just blood type and all that, but also chest size. It was one reason Martin was totally fucked, even if Kai hadn’t told the kid that. A Mexican living in an area where most people’s ancestry was Scandinavian, Russian, German, English, or Native American would make it hard enough for Martin to find a match. Then add in the fact that he was tiny, still technically a child, and usually the committee wouldn’t match someone under 18 with an adult donor. It was one reason, Jon had explained, that Kai was lucky he didn’t need to go on the list until he was older.
Kai got Allan’s lungs because he was a size match. Not because he deserved them. “I dream about my donor sometimes. He yells at me, reminding me that someone much better should have gotten his lungs instead of me.” Kai didn’t even care if Renee understood. He wanted to scream and tear up the room and at the same time hug himself and sob until he couldn’t breathe.
Kai didn’t realize he was gasping for air until Renee laid her hand on his chest and wordlessly encouraged him to take deep breaths.
It took what felt like forever before Kai could breathe again, collapsing back against the headboard, feeling exhausted. When he opened his eyes, Renee was sitting beside him, her legs curled up, holding his hand, just waiting. There was no judgment in her eyes, only the hint of worry overlapping what Kai had come to realize meant love. Real love, not Nikki’s obsession or Becca’s pity. But the kind of love that meant as crazy as he could be she would stay with him. The realization shocked him, because part of him couldn’t believe it, but Renee was still here, wasn’t she? Even after screaming his head off from nightmares, she hadn’t fled.
Nevertheless, he could still feel that ripping sensation inside him, his emotions battling each other, and if he didn’t put all his effort into controlling them, they’d burst out into tears or rage or both.
Renee squeezed his hand, and although she didn’t say or sign anything, her face pleaded with him to talk to her.
Kai didn’t like to talk about his nightmares with Renee because most of them involved the past he wasn’t ready to tell her about. But he owed her. His nightmare was complicated as fuck, though. Or at least it felt that way.
He’d started having nightmares about his donor demanding his lungs back as far back as Kai could remember after his transplant. Even before his donor had a name or face, even before Kai’s brain could process English decently enough. Kai had tried to console himself with the thought that his donor was an ex-con or had no family, even if he knew he was lying to himself. People didn’t generally decide to allow their body to be carved up post-mortem and divied out, piece by piece, to strangers because they were assholes. The dreams had been one of the driving forces for Kai to seek out his donor’s identity. Of course he had to get a fucking war hero with a huge family.
Renee pulled his arm gently. She seemed worried. How long had he been lost in his own head?
Kai realized he was trembling, and far too close to crying for comfort. If only he could cut, then he could focus, stop being such a self-pitying piece of crap. . . .
Another tug. “Talk to me,” Renee urged.
Kai took a difficult breath. How did he explain that the pain of the dream felt like the pain at the peak after his transplant before the metal ties that held his sternum together had been removed? When his nerves had healed, but not enough, so they were like a chorus of pissed off children throwing a tantrum? When, despite the drugs that suppressed his immune system, his body decided it didn’t fucking like having metal in it and it was going to attack those ties with force and vigor until he was ready to tear his chest open with his bare hands to remove them himself, even if they’d told him initially they wouldn’t need to be taken out?
Or how did he tell her that in this version of the dream, three beefy orderlies tackled him and held him down while Allan went to work? How that may have been the cause of his screams just as much as the sound of the bone saw or the horrendous, realistic pain?
Renee was waving for his attention.
It was taking every ounce of Kai’s willpower to keep from sobbing. “I’m fine,” Kai said with his best fake smile, knowing he wasn’t being fair to Renee but he just, he just needed to escape. She had to have something sharp in her bathroom he could use. He could make the excuse that he needed to pee, so she wouldn’t even get suspicious. So he hadn’t even gone a day without breaking the fucking contract, was that any fucking surprise? He was as fucking failure. Always had been, always would be, and it was only a matter of time before Renee realized it.
Kai’s eyes filled and started to spill over and he shook his head, regulating his breathing, trying to stop them. He’d told himself he wouldn’t cry in front of Renee again. That he’d do anything and everything he could to prevent it, but the more he tried to stop, the faster the tears came, and soon those sobs he’d barely been holding back broke through. He covered his face as if that would somehow shield her from the truth of his shame, but she gently pulled his hand away and cradled his cheek, then guided him slowly down so she could hug him.
Renee didn’t understand why he was such a nutcase, but she didn’t seem to care. She loved him. He tried to latch onto that, focused on it, and on some mindfulness. He wasn’t his feelings. He didn’t need to control them. Sometimes tears were necessary. Renee loved him. Renee loved him. Renee loved him.
After several embarrassing minutes, the sobs subsided. Kai’s stomach ached and his head was congested and he needed to cough even more than ever, but he actually felt a little better. He’d ended up with his head in Renee’s lap like he had the other night, and she was gently guiding her fingers through his hair, massaging his scalp and his temples, her touch so light and soothing. He didn’t know what time it was, but he really hoped he could go back to sleep as he suddenly felt very, very tired, but it wasn’t the bad tired that came with his depression but rather like the fatigue after a good workout.
Renee loved him. It was OK to tell her.
“I dream my donor takes his lungs back,” Kai signed as clearly and as Englishy as he could without getting up, hoping she’d understand despite the strange angle with him in her lap and her looking down at him. The English also helped him from seeing the dream come to life again.
“Takes his lungs back?” Renee said out loud as if she were processing what he’d signed, her face confused. Maybe he’d been too English.
Kai took a steadying breath. Coughed a few times but forced himself to stop. If he took a break to cough himself he would never tell her, and Renee deserved a few answers after how understanding and patient she’d been with him these past few days. “He cuts my chest open and takes them,” Kai said in ASL this time, showing someone using a knife (for Renee’s sake and simplicity) slicing down his chest, then forcibly cracking it open with both his hands, then tearing each lung out. He left out the image of Allan laughing at Kai as he screamed, or the words he shouted while he did it that somehow Kai could understand over the sound of the saw and the screaming, berating Kai for never deserving his lungs in the first place, and worse.
Kai suddenly felt nauseous. But he also didn’t want to leave Renee’s lap, because it felt safe. God, he was a fucking grown man who’d lived through a lot of shit in his life and survived it and yet he wanted to hide forever from his problems in his fucking girlfriend’s lap. No wonder Allan wanted his lungs back.
“Why does he take them?” Renee asked, then smoothed his hair in a way that would make Kai purr if she kept it up, even if his mood was shit. That comforting warm feeling she gave him filling his body and relieving some of the anxious tension.
Kai hesitated, because he wasn’t sure if he said it in sign she’d understand. He cleared his throat. Hoped his voice was strong enough for her to hear him. “I don’t deserve them.”
Renee’s frown was deeply etched, but her eyes were soft and held that expression that Kai had learned meant pure love and was reserved only for him. She didn’t try to argue with him or chastise him. She didn’t even agree with him. Instead she said, “You’re feeling . . .” she hesitated, then added in English, clearly not sure how to sign it, “guilty.”
Kai showed her how, using his index finger on his chest near his opposite shoulder, tapping a couple times. “That sign means the feeling. This sign,” Kai said, showing her one that was almost identical except it used the full “G” handshape and only tapped once, “is the legal word.”
Renee smiled fondly. “You will make such an amazing teacher someday.” She picked up his hand and kissed it, and it made Kai want to stay like this forever. Or at least somehow harness this feeling. Renee believed in him; if only he could use that as fuel to help him more consistently believe in himself. “You’re feeling guilty because you spent time with Martin yesterday. You feel he deserves the transplant more than you. But you can’t think like that. I know part of it is the depression and you can’t help it, but having suicidal thoughts doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to live.”
Kai appreciated the sentiment, but he’d learned over the past few months that no amount of logic could change how he felt about something. He didn’t think he’d ever stop believing that someone better than him should have gotten Allan’s lungs. Kai was suddenly exhausted, although he felt a little better. Talking with Renee had taken away most of his mood hangover from his nightmare. “Let’s go back to sleep for a while. I’m tired, and I think if I held you I might not have another bad dream.”
Renee smiled at him, and then she lay down, scootching closer to him once he was also on his side again, her head against his chest and one arm draped over his waist.
Kai bent so his nose rested on top of her head and he inhaled, the sweet scent of her shampoo overlaid with the rose of her skin. He pulled her a little closer, marveling at how well her small form fit against his larger one. As much as he worried about losing her, he was realizing more every day how what he felt for her was not like anything he’d ever experienced before. Not what he’d had with Nikki, and definitely not his feelings for Becca. Renee was serenity, that “rightness” he’d sensed from almost their first meeting. It was cheesy as hell, but it did feel a little like that Shel Silverstein story, The Missing Piece, like he’d finally found the part of him he’d been missing all these years. Of course without the depressing ending, hopefully.
Kai let his eyes slide closed as he felt himself slowly drifting. He focused on positive thoughts. On how it felt to sleep beside Renee with her in his arms. How hard she was trying to improve her signing. How she believed in him, and how maybe he could get through this storm as long as he had her by his side.
Jon scanned his ID at the entrance to the Cardiac Care Unit, or CCU, where patients with serious heart issues were monitored. As he waited for the automatic doors to open, he checked his watch. Groaned. 4:33 AM. His long shift was technically over, but he wanted to see Martin and Inez one last time before he headed home. He was exhausted, but too agitated to sleep anyway.
A few nurses nodded a hello to him; Jon consulted on a lot of these cases. Less so now that he wasn’t a fellow anymore, but even though JMH was a large hospital by the region’s standards, it was still a small town within a small town and everyone knew everyone else. Most ignored him, though; shift change was at 5AM and they were busy checking logs and doing final tasks on patients before their replacements took over.
Dr. Sung, a pediatric cardiologist that worked with Jon frequently and who Jon had referred Martin to (thank God he was on call last night) was writing some notes in a chart at the nurse’s station. He was probably getting ready to head home himself. Jon had already spoken to him about Martin’s case, but he dropped by to see if there were any major changes before he checked on Martin himself.
“I’m beginning to think you live here,” Dr. Sung said.
“I’m beginning to think I do,” Jon replied with a tired but genuine smile.
“He’ll be OK,” Sung said before Jon could ask. “We caught it very early. His heart hasn’t enlarged too much. You just need to get his sats better controlled.”
Jon sighed. He nodded.
Sung closed the chart he was working on and looked at Jon hard. “Go on a vacation. A real vacation, not one where you’re taking care of your brother. I’m saying this as your friend but also as a doctor. You look like shit. How much coffee have you had today?”
Jon realized he was shaking. A combo of his fucked up blood sugar and his anxiety gone rogue, probably. He’d used up all his paid vacation and sick days when Kai got sick after Thanksgiving, but MacDonald would definitely approve some unpaid leave if Jon requested it, and Jon could afford it with the cushion of his trust fund money if he absolutely needed it. But he was pretty sure he’d go insane if he had to completely separate himself from his work. “I’m going home after this,” he finally replied.
Sung frowned, but he knew Jon well enough that he wasn’t going to change the other doctor’s mind. “I’m clocking out and I’m getting some rest, and then the wife and I are going to Aspen for the weekend,” Sung said with an expression that said, “See, you can do it too.”
Jon convinced Martin’s nurse to give him five minutes before she kicked Inez out to do her shift change routine, then slipped inside. Inez was sitting beside Martin’s bed, as she usually would, reading quietly from her bible. Jon was relieved, when he glanced over at Martin, to see the boy was asleep. Jon had ordered that so long as his sats held he be changed to a more comfortable biPAP mask that fit only over his nose instead of covering most of his face, and not only did it make it easier for Martin to fall asleep, it meant that his numbers had improved.
Jon approached the bed. Inez finally noticed him and held up a finger to her mouth in a shushing gesture, her eyes pleading. “He finally fell asleep. Please don’t wake him,” she whispered in Spanish, her words barely audible over the sound of the machine.
Jon nodded. He checked the monitor, which was a full EKG reading of Martin’s heart and not the usual simplified ones used in the rest of the hospital, and which Jon was no expert at interpreting at a glance. But Martin’s heart rate had become slower and more regular, and that was important. Moreso, when Jon checked the biPAP monitor, he was relieved that Martin’s oxygen saturation was higher than it had been a few hours ago, and even more important, his CO2 was down. That meant Martin would be ready to breathe on his own again once he’d gotten some good rest.
Quietly, Jon slipped his stethoscope out of his pocket and put it on. Most doctors and even some nurses didn’t care if they disturbed a patient for an exam, even if it was for pre-rounds like this at five AM. But rest was so important for a patient’s recovery, and it could be almost impossible to get with all the noise of a ward, plus being poked and prodded every couple hours, so Jon always did his best to be as unintrusive as possible. But he needed to listen to Martin’s lungs to see if the diuretic they had him on had done its job and cleared the fluid. No way Jon would approve Martin’s discharge if his lungs weren’t clear, no matter how much the boy had hoped to go home in a few hours.
Martin had his gown on backwards, and it was opened partially to leave room for all the EKG leads affixed to his chest in various spots, but also to make it easier for a nurse to listen to his heart and lungs. It also meant that if he coded, staff wouldn’t lose precious seconds cutting or tearing his gown away so they could use the defib paddles. Jon was pleased to see that Martin had put on a little weight, his ribs less visible and his stomach filling out. As long as Jon had known him, he’d been underweight, and that was a sign that despite everything he was fairly healthy.
Jon listened quickly to each lobe, tapping gently on Martin’s side so that he could hear liquid more readily if there was any. Fortunately, the boy didn’t wake. He had to be exhausted. People who never had breathing problems really couldn’t appreciate how much work could go into taking in and releasing air. Even with supplementary oxygen, Martin had to use more muscles to breathe than a healthy person did, and it was tiring. Throw in a night like tonight, and it was even worse.
Jon finished, relieved that Martin’s lungs sounded clear. Or at least as clear as his ever got. He carefully pulled the covers up a little more, tucked his stethoscope back in his pocket, and waved for Inez to follow him. She protested at first, but he whispered in Spanish, “Shift change.” Inez had stayed with Martin many nights in ICU, so she knew the routine. Unless a child was under ten and conscious, even parents had to leave the room during the nurse’s shift change so they could work unhindered.
Inez checked her watch, seeming shocked at the time, then nodded, closed her bible, and followed Jon toward one of the consultation rooms.
Once they were in the privacy of the room, Inez embraced Jon in a tight squeeze. Jon was very physically affectionate with those he felt protective of, like Vicky or Kai, but with anyone else he’d always felt very uncomfortable being touched, especially if he didn’t initiate it. He used touch in his work, of course, but that was different. Even though Jon was used to Inez and her occasional hugs when words seemed to fail her, it always made him stiffen in reflex and wish that she would let go immediately. Right now was worse bc he probably had sweat through his white coat and she might be able to feel him shaking, and the last thing Inez needed right now was to think her son’s doctor was nervous.
Fortunately, if she did, she didn’t let on. Instead, she ended the hug, smiled up at him with gratitude, and took a seat. He joined her.
The room was small with only two loveseats, a fake plant and a few horrid pictures to try to make it more cheery. Jon hated the way the hospital had decorated its consultation rooms, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it. He was getting distracted. Inez was looking at him expectantly. What was he going to tell her?
Jon resisted the urge to push his fingers through his hair and straightened his posture. “I spoke to Dr. Sung. The cardiologist who saw Martin?”
Inez seemed to relax more by the fact that Jon immediately began in Spanish. She nodded. “He said he wanted to do more tests on Martin but wanted him to do them later, when he’s more rested, and feeling better.”
Earlier, Sung had mentioned something about wanting to do a sleep study and maybe a stress test to get a better picture of how well Martin’s lungs and heart were doing at night and also when he was stressed, but that those could wait. A sleep study would give Jon a better idea of whether or not Martin’s oxygen levels were dropping too much at night, which would definitely put his heart at risk.
“Dr. Taylor? Are you OK?”
No, no he wasn’t. But he smiled anyway. “Tired. It’s been a long shift, but I wanted to talk to you before I went home.”
Inez didn’t seem fully convinced, but she nodded. “How long does Martin have?” Inez asked, twisting her hands together. Dammit, she thought Martin was going to drop dead tomorrow.
Jon did his best to reassure her. “Dr. Sung says that he’s in the very early stages of heart failure. The biggest issue right now is that his lungs aren’t providing enough oxygen to his body, so his heart has to work very hard to try to send as much blood as it can to compensate.”
“Even with the oxygen in his nose?”
Jon took a deep breath. He felt like his brain was spaghetti and he couldn’t untangle the threads. “I want him to check his PO2 obsessively and keep a record. If he wakes up at night, I want him to take it and write it down. After a week, if he’s doing OK, I want to see him in the clinic so we can go over those numbers and decide what to do.”
Inez seemed upset.
Jon did his best to smile. “It may be as simple as increasing the flow rate he’s on right now. How much oxygen he’s getting from the machine or the tank. But it’s possible he may need to use a biPAP machine at home at night. That would give his muscles a chance to rest, prevent him from stopping breathing, even if it’s only for a few seconds, and also keep the oxygen levels in his blood more stable. That would protect his heart.”
“Will he have to get that hole in his neck? Martin told me Kai had something like that, and then he had to stay in the hospital until his transplant. I don’t want that for Martin if we can help it.” Inez seemed scared.
“Martin probably will need a tracheostomy,” Jon said, using the English word partially because his brain couldn’t find the Spanish equivalent and partially so that Inez would be familiar with the term if another doctor used it, or if Kai did. “But not yet. We have some more options now than we did when Kai was sick. For example, we can do a transtracheal oxygen where we make a tiny hole in Martin’s neck and then a catheter inserts into it, held by a chain, and that way the oxygen goes directly down into his lungs instead of losing a lot of it in his mouth. We can use a lower flow rate because he’ll be getting more oxygen into his blood. We’ll see how things go over the next week and talk about it more if the time comes.”
But Inez didn’t relax. “Will he never have a chance for a transplant?”
Jon let out a long breath. He could feel his energy seeping out of him and was wondering if he should just crash on the couch in his office like he had during his fellowship more than once. “That’s the really good news. Dr. Sung gets along with the transplant committee much better than I do. He golfs with the head of the committee in the summer and plays racquetball with him year round. He said since Martin will need a heart and lungs now, that he may be able to convince the committee to reconsider him for the transplant list!”
It took a minute for what Jon was saying to sink in, and then Inez’s eyes lit up and she popped up from her chair a little, clapping her hands. “So Martin hasn’t lost his chance for a transplant, and he may get on the list sooner?”
Jon nodded. “There’s no guarantees: the committee may still decide that Martin is ineligible because of his FS, but hopefully with Sung’s help and proof that Kai is still doing well nearly two years later will help.”
Inez started crying, and Jon wasn’t sure if they were happy or sad tears. “You said the wait for a heart and lungs is very long.”
“It can be. But it’s impossible to say. So far, all things considered Martin has been very lucky, and he’s in fairly good health. Let’s focus on doing everything we can to keep him that way right now, and I’ll keep on Dr. Sung to make sure Martin gets another chance to be put on the list. But please don’t say anything to Martin yet. I don’t want to get his hopes up.” Jon checked his watch. “Shift change should be over. You should go back to him, especially if they woke him up. I won’t be there later today, but I’ve left orders that as long as Martin’s lungs are clear and his blood gasses are good, he can go home once the cardiologist clears him. But he needs to rest this weekend. Nothing too strenuous or exciting.”
Inez looked like she wanted to hug Jon again, but maybe she’d sensed that would irritate him so she resisted. “Thank you. Thank you so much. Before we came here, the doctors told me that Martin wouldn’t even see his teenage years. I never thought my little boy would become a man, but here we are. He’ll be sixteen in a little more than a month.” Inez wiped at her tears with one of the supplies of tissues scattered around the room. “And tell your brother thank you, too. Kai’s visits have helped Martin more than I can put into words. He’s lifted his spirits, and I don’t worry as much about him when I’m at work.”
And of course, Kai would probably be going into the hospital soon, right when Martin needed him most. But Inez definitely didn’t need to know that. “I’ll tell him. Tell Martin hello for me and I’ll see you both in a week.”
Kai woke a few hours later gradually, naturally, instead of being ripped from sleep because of a nightmare. He still lay on his side, one arm bent above his head and the other draped over Renee, who hadn’t moved much from her position beside him. He smiled, feeling that contentedness and serenity he could barely recognize they were so foreign in his life, yet with Renee it was happening more and more. He didn’t think he could describe in words or even signs what waking up with Renee curled up in his arms felt like, especially after the rocky past few days. She’d promised him she would stand beside him, that she wasn’t afraid, and even after his horrible nightmare she’d still stayed with him. Was this what Jon felt like every morning he got to wake up with Vicky? Is this what Kai had kept his brother from for so long?
Sleeping with a woman had always been the after effect of sex for Kai; with Nikki, toward the end, being one exception. But sleeping with Nikki had never felt anything like this moment right here, and Kai hoped Renee wouldn’t wake up right away just so he could cherish it a few minutes longer.
Renee was curled into a ball, her head tucked against his chest, her arms folded up and pressed against him, her knees near his thighs. Her hair curled and frizzed in a chaotic arch, and her long dark lashes rested on her cheeks. When he hugged her a little tighter, her mouth etched up into a smile, but she was still asleep because she otherwise didn’t stir. It made Kai’s heart flutter in his chest to know she loved this as much as he did, and he dared to hope that if he could get his PTSD symptoms stabilized, if he could make it so he wouldn’t have to worry so much about hurting her or himself, that maybe in the not too distant future they could have this every morning. It seemed almost too presumptuous to think, and it frightened him that maybe just imagining it happening would doom him somehow, like he would jinx himself if he tried to picture the two of them having some kind of normal life a few months from now. But Kai couldn’t help smiling to himself as he held her and daydreamed about waking up together every day, of fixing Renee breakfast and lunch and dinner. Even if Kai found eating almost impossible most days, it gave him satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment when he saw other people--especially Renee--enjoying his food.
Kai pictured Renee’s signing improving to the point of which she was totally fluent and they never had to speak to each other in English again if they didn’t want to. Of nights curled up together on the couch, reading or studying or just watching TV. Of happiness in the little everyday moments.
But even this fantasy couldn’t last, his poisonous brain already trying to tear it to shreds, to remind him that it was sheer luck that he hadn’t gone apeshit the past two nights and hurt Renee, that he was a coward who probably wouldn’t be able to hold on long enough for any of those dreams to become a reality. Or worse, Renee finally learning the last of his secrets would be too much no matter what she’d assured him. It was impossible to love someone who hated themselves so much, after all. Hadn’t Becca told him that once in a moment of anger?
Renee stretched, her body sliding along Kai’s morning wood that he’d been pointedly ignoring. As much as he wanted sex with Renee, he wasn’t ready for the embarrassment of not being able to finish, and his head was such a mess he knew it would be better if they didn’t even go there yet anyway. He had enough that could ruin the fragile thing he and Renee had without bringing sex and both their baggage into the equation.
But Renee didn’t miss it. Her eyebrows rose and she rubbed him a little more purposefully, grinning.
He let out a low groan and it took all his willpower to resist grabbing her roughly and forcing her to grind against him. It scared him, the vision of himself in his head, the pure primal need to come outweighing his concern for her, and he suddenly pushed away from her, half sitting up, suddenly panting, his heart racing in the beginning of panic. No, not after two good nights together could he ruin everything now. But that was what he did, right? He was a destroyer. God, he knew nothing good could have come from his daydream earlier.
Renee was talking to him, trying to get his attention, but he couldn’t make sense of her words and he was too busy focusing on calming himself down, of thinking any thought he could to get his hardon to go away and the lust that came with it to subside. Maybe Renee wasn’t scared of him, but he was.
“I can’t,” Kai managed to say. “It’s a bad idea.”
But Renee wasn’t hurt or mad, she was soothing and understanding as always. “You were willing to go as slow as I needed. I can do the same. It’s OK.”
“I’m not sure . . .” Kai took a few more grounding breaths. “. . . I can control myself. I don’t want to hurt you.” Shame crept up and Kai had to look away. His heart wouldn’t slow down, and he was terrified that if he’d let himself go any farther they might have had a repeat of Wednesday night, complete with the oppressive dark feeling that followed his momentary uncontrolled lust. Dizziness swarmed Kai. He coughed a few times and then let himself fall back, staring blankly up at the ceiling.
Renee smoothed his shoulder to encourage him, then laid a hand on his chest to help him calm his breathing. “It’s OK not to be OK, remember?”
Kai forced a small smile at that. “I should get that tattooed somewhere.” Kai’s voice was still rough, but it was a little better, though he still needed to cough. He didn’t want to, though. He wanted to capture and hold onto the few happy moments they’d had together in bed when he wasn’t freaking out or having nightmares, and starting his morning routine would mean the day had begun and his fleeting happiness and calm were gone.
They didn’t say anything for a long moment. Renee sat beside his shoulders, smoothing his hair and smiling down at him, occasionally reaching up to try to wrangle her hair, laughing, and then giving up on it. It made Kai’s heart ache to see her like that, the way few people did, a way that felt was his and only his.
“Let’s skip school today. Hang out.”
Renee frowned. “Play hooky?” Kai read off her lips, her face suggesting she wasn’t 100% sure of what he’d signed.
Kai nodded. “I’ll make you breakfast and we can watch a movie or nap together or go somewhere.”
Renee’s face clouded and Kai knew she was going to say no even if she didn’t sign or say anything.
Kai wondered if he should talk to Dr. Miller about how physical his emotions seemed in the past couple months in particular. Like they weren’t just something that happened in his head, but instead were like living creatures that crawled and creeped and sat on his body. For instance, now disappointment was a cool tingle moving down from his shoulders through his arms and into his chest. Kai nodded, knowing he wasn’t hiding his emotions. “I just hate how it feels like we only ever really see each other at school. I have so much stuff to do for my health and then there’s ASL class and Martin and Dr. Miller. . . . And you work so much.” Kai tried to smile because if he didn’t he was afraid he was going to cry, as angry with himself about that as he got. “It’s like if I’m not about to kill myself, we don’t have any free time together.”
Renee’s face fell. “Don’t joke about that. That’s not funny.”
Kai actually hadn’t meant it as a joke, and then the terrifying thought hit him. What if, unconsciously, these suicidal thoughts had been so bad because he wanted to be with her so much and he didn’t think he could be otherwise? Like, he knew she’d drop everything and stay with him and he wanted to be with her so much that his fucked up brain did this manipulative shit just to keep her around? The feelings were real, or at least he wasn’t consciously making them up, but . . . could it be true? Dr. Looney had explained about borderline personality disorder, how people were so afraid to be alone that they’d do almost anything to keep people close to them. It made Kai think of all the times he’d freaked out and made Jon or David (and now) Renee stay with him. He got so lost in his head most of the time that it hadn’t ever occurred to him there could be a pattern here. What if Becca was right and he was a needy, clingy, manipulative asshole? School was important to Renee and he wanted her to skip just because he wasn’t ready to face his day. How fucked up was that?
“Talk to me. What’s wrong? What year is it?”
Kai stared at her, suddenly cold, goosebumps springing up along his skin. He needed to go, to take an icy shower to drive away the bubbling self loathing and shame that was prickling his skin. Anything to keep away the voice in the back of his mind that was telling him to give up on his contract and cut again.
“You’re here in my room. You’re safe,” Renee was saying, although it was clear she was worried and a little scared.
Fuck the shower. Today felt like a day to pull the covers over his head and stay in bed until someone forcibly dragged him out of it. He hadn’t had one like that in a couple weeks.
“You’re meeting your psych interpreters today. Remember? You were so excited?”
Kai took a difficult breath. He really had to cough himself soon. Or at least sit up. But he didn’t move except to sign, “Do you think I’m manipulative?”
Renee’s eyebrows went up in surprise since it was the first thing he’d said in a long time, but then they went down in confusion and she indicated she didn’t understand with a shake of her head and a finger flicked up near her temple.
Kai sighed and it turned to coughs. He felt a glob of gunk in the back of his mouth but he ignored it and swallowed it. He had to know her answer. “Manipulative. Am I?”
Renee frowned and shook her head, sliding her fingers into his hair a few times as if to calm him. It worked. “Jude was manipulative,” she said in English, perhaps not confident she could replicate the way he’d signed it. “He’d make me feel bad about myself if I didn’t do what he wanted, even if it was something I didn’t want to do.” Her signing was very Englishy, but he appreciated her making the effort.
Kai wasn’t entirely convinced that meant he was off the hook. “I think switching meds has really fucked me up,” Kai admitted honestly. And he suddenly felt like crying again. Fuck. He took a huge breath to try to get himself under control.
She nodded. “I think so too. I think you need to talk to Dr. Miller about it some more.” Renee smiled at him, encouraging. “How about we get up, get dressed, and go to your appointment. Then we can have breakfast together after. Skip history class. But then go to school after that.”
Kai couldn’t help smiling at how responsible and organized Renee was. Giving him a taste of the day off he wanted but still making sure he saw Dr. Miller and made it to his psych class to meet his interpreters. “OK,” he said at last.
Kai was glad he’d let Renee convince him to see Dr. Miller and not skip. After hearing about how uncontrolled his symptoms felt over the past week, especially the last couple days, she’d decided she thought it would be safe for Kai to condense his cross-tapering schedule from two weeks to one. It meant dropping the doses of the Celexa faster and increasing the Zoloft so that hopefully by Sunday he’d be on the full strength of the new antidepressant. She warned Kai it was possible he’d need a higher dose of the Zoloft than they’d originally planned, but she wanted him to try to stay on that initial dose for at least a week first before they tried increasing it. Though Dr. Miller promised Kai they would work together and do what was best for him, and that he could call her any time if he had concerns about how his medication was making him feel.
She’d also reassured him that she didn’t think he was manipulative, or that he had a personality disorder. She did think he had complex PTSD, which was the most severe form and caused something she called emotional dysregulation, which was a fancy way of explaining his moodiness and how out of control his feelings felt. It was also probably why he reacted so strongly to the simplest of things sometimes, why he could have what he called “mood hangovers” that lasted for hours after a nightmare or a bad interaction with someone. Dr. Miller had even suggested his self-harming behaviors, including his eating problems might stem from this as a way for him to reassert control when he felt like everything was spiraling. Kai had to admit it made sense. The negative emotions were so powerful sometimes he just had to stop them somehow. But Dr. Miller reassured him there was another kind of therapy they could try to help him deal with all of that, to supplement the medication. He just had to hang on.
Story of his life, right?
Renee and Kai were sitting together in the diner, Kai in his chair because he didn’t have the energy to walk today. The restaurant was busy, full of the usual regulars and the occasional truck driver pausing for a cup of coffee and some eggs before hitting the road again. But Kai and Renee had a four-top to themselves in the back, near the kitchen, although Kai honestly wished he were anywhere else than here. As reassuring as Dr. Miller was, it didn’t change the fact that he felt . . . He couldn’t even describe it. It was like a giant hand had a hold of his stomach and was using it like a stress ball, but the feeling wasn’t purely physical. He wasn’t sad, per se, but he did feel like everything took more energy today than normal, and he genuinely wasn’t sure how he was going to get through the rest of the day, let alone the next hour.
Renee waved to get his attention. “You look upset. Can you give me a number? On our scale? Remember?”
The suicide scale? That sounded like a heavy metal band or something. Kai sighed. Those thoughts were always there in the back of his mind, and Kai suspected if left to his own devices today they’d push farther and farther toward the front, but the good thing about his depression sucking away his motivation was it meant he was less likely to act on any of them. “Five?” Kai shrugged.
Marge brought their food with a huge smile. Eggs and toast for Renee, and an assortment of dishes for Kai since nothing sounded good so he’d ordered everything in the hopes of finding something he could eat. Though that was the last thing he wanted to do right now, and he hated himself for ruining this time with Renee when it had been his fucking idea in the first place.
“Let me know if I can get you anything else.”
Kai forced his best fake smile, the one that looked real to everyone who didn’t know him well, and nodded. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
“Good to see you’ve got your appetite back,” Marge said with a wink. Then she disappeared back into the kitchen.
Renee immediately started making a sandwich out of her eggs and toast, and Kai curled his lip up at everything in front of him. He wasn’t quite nauseous, but it was that feeling he got all too often that told him his stomach was in no way interested in being filled.
Renee stopped what she was doing to free up her hands. “You promised. When was the last time you ate? Really ate? Not drinking a Gatorade or a few peanut butter crackers.”
Kai wanted to glare at her, but he knew she cared about him and she’d done a really good job at not harassing him about eating so far. He let out a breath. “I ate dinner at Martin’s last night.”
Renee seemed skeptical, but she nodded. “You still need to eat.”
Kai stared down at the food--eggs, pancakes, toast, oatmeal, fruit--and tried to figure out which was the least offensive in this particular moment.
Renee reached across the table and laid her hand on his. “You can do this,” she said with a look and a nod.
Kai took a huge breath. Swallowed. Picked up his fork and used it to cut off a section of pancakes. They had butter on them but no syrup because Kai was paranoid about sugar after the other day. His hand shook as he brought it to his mouth, then closed his eyes as he put it in, forcing himself to chew it. You like pancakes, he told himself. A few seconds later he swallowed, and his stomach didn’t immediately rebel, so he relaxed a fraction. God, how fucked up was he when a single bite of food felt like he’d just climbed halfway up a mountain?
Renee squeezed his hand and smiled at him. “I love you.”
Kai’s throat closed up and he felt like crying. Dammit. “I’m sorry I’m so fucked up.”
“It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to take your time.”
Kai forced himself to take a few deep breaths because he was worried he was precariously close to spinning off toward panic and he wasn’t even sure why. “It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK if it takes longer for me to do something than other people,” Kai said as if to cement the ideas in his head.
Renee nodded and smiled. “Eat what you can. We’re not in a hurry. Your psych class isn’t until eleven.”
Kai continued to focus on his breathing, on Renee’s touch, and he felt himself calming subtly. He still had that knot in his chest and stomach, but he was more relaxed. More in control.
Kai managed to eat a little bit of everything. It might have only been two or three bites, but that was still a huge accomplishment, and it did give him satisfaction to take out his little planner and write in that he ate breakfast. First time in he honestly didn’t know how long. Kai hadn’t gotten around to planning out his days, meal-wise, yet, because of how insane his mood had been, but he was hoping to spend some time this weekend to work on next week’s meal schedule. As hard as it was to make himself eat sometimes, he needed to start doing it or he was going to get really sick.
Kai and Renee were talking in the lobby of the building where Kai had his psych class. She’d insisted on walking with him even though her next class was in the architecture building several blocks away. She smiled at him, fixed his hair since the wind had made it a chaotic mess on his head--he still hadn’t found time to get it cut. “You OK?”
Kai took a breath. Shockingly, he wanted to be honest with her. He was OK right now, relatively, but he didn’t think it would last. As long as he kept himself busy, he’d be fine, but the moment he was alone? But she’d already given up enough for him. She’d missed a class Wednesday night. Two this morning. And he knew she hadn’t had a chance to do the homework she’d planned because of him, even if she hadn’t said anything. So instead, Kai said, “Yeah. Better thanks to you.”
Renee studied him closely, searching for the lie, but Kai hadn’t been entirely dishonest, so she bought it. “OK. Good luck with your interpreters. I have to work through lunch, but you can sit with me if you want. Text me if you need me. I love you.”
Kai accepted Renee’s kiss, simple and chaste and yet it somehow meant everything. He clung to her a little longer than he should have, just cherishing her smell and her closeness before finally letting her go. “Thank you for not giving up on me.”
Renee smiled that sunbeam smile of hers, the one she reserved for him. “Never.” Then she waved, adjusted her bag, and jogged off toward the exit that would leave her closest to her next class. Kai watched her go until she was out of his line of sight, and then he angled his chair toward the elevators to head to his psych classroom.
Continue to February 9, 2001 - Part II --------->