Saturday, July 15, 2000

In/Exhale - February 9, 2001 - Part III

February 9, 2001 - Part III

Kai entered through the Gomez’s garage; Kai had asked Martin to leave it open since that would be easier for him in his chair and it would keep Martin out of the cold air. It turned out Kai’s chair just fit through the door; he had to use the frame to pull himself through, but he managed. Normally he would have spent at least ten to fifteen minutes trying to clean his wheels before rolling all over the Gomez’s carpet, but he was worried about Martin. Maybe it was just Kai’s own current situation clouding his thoughts, because Martin had always seemed pretty well adjusted all things considered. But he’d seemed so desperate on the phone, Kai decided to just wipe his wheels really quickly and apologize to Inez later.
“Martin? I’m here,” Kai called out as he pushed into the living room, expecting to find the boy on the sofa there. No answer, so Kai searched out the oxygen tubing and followed that to the staircase. Martin sat about a third of the way up, hugging his legs and looking sad and lost. Kai had never seen him like this. Kai pushed as close to the bottom of the stairs as he could and called out again. “Martin?”
Martin looked up. He pulled his cannulae out of his nose temporarily, wiped it and his nose on his shirt, then put it back in, taking a few deep breaths through it. “Hey,” he said. Even from the distance Kai could see Martin’s eyes were red and his chin was trembling. “You came.”
“I said I would.” Kai gave Martin a moment, but he didn’t move. “You really going to make me come up there?”
Martin sniffled. Coughed. Then coughed a little more violently. “Can you?”
Kai sighed. “Give me a few minutes, then.” He shifted his chair so he was more perpendicular rather than face-on to the staircase, then transferred to the highest step he could comfortably manage. He guided his legs so they were stretched out, hanging down, and used his hands to help push himself so his back was to the next step up. Then he spent the next laborious few minutes pushing himself up step after step until he was seated beside Martin. “Thought I needed my exercise?” Kai joked, hoping that would help Martin open up to him since his posture was totally closed off; one of Kai’s favorites, so he recognized it for it what it was.
Martin didn’t say anything; just shrugged.
Kai leaned a little against the wall to support his back. “Just so you know, the money was your mom’s idea. She just wanted to thank me for spending time with you. She meant well. But I told her no because I don’t come here on Thursday afternoons because I expect something. I remember how lonely being sick can be.”
Martin gave Kai a look that suggested he knew that, that he’d never really doubted Kai. “How did you do it?” he asked after a long moment.
Kai’s brow knit. “Do what?”
Kai let out a long breath. Pulled at his jeans to adjust his legs a little better, planting his feet on the landing of the step a few below them. That was a question Kai asked himself a lot, although it was more of a “why” than a “how.” Why had he lived when he shouldn’t have? When better people didn’t? Kai felt the darkness inside him, like it was trying to pull, and pull, and pull and drag him in, but he forced himself to ignore it. Right now wasn’t about him. It was about Martin. “Stubbornness, I guess,” Kai said with a faint smile.
“I’m dying,” Martin said, choking on the word.
Kai rubbed Martin’s shoulder supportively for a moment. “Yeah, we knew this already. And I’m dying, too. And so is your mom.”
“Don’t,” Martin said, pulling away so he was almost molding into the bannister’s posts.
“What happened? I promise. No jokes if you don’t want them. What’s going on?”
Martin’s eyes filled and his chin trembled and he gripped his legs tighter. “My heart,” he managed to say, and Kai could barely understand him.
“Your heart?” This didn’t have to do with that girl--what was her name, Heidi?--rejecting him, did it?
It took a moment for Martin to contain himself enough to speak. “I couldn’t breathe last night. Mamí had to call an ambulance. I spent the night in the hospital. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t breathe. . . .” Martin’s eyes spilled over again and he sniffled and then gasped a little, coughing, before cleaning his cannulae one more time and blowing his nose, then sticking it back in. It took him a long time to recover, and Kai had been doing his best to keep the last thing Martin had said in his mind so he wouldn’t forget by the time the boy continued. “Dr. Taylor made me see a cardiologist. He told me my heart isn’t strong .  . .” Martin shook with the effort of trying to contain more tears.
“It’s all right. Take your time. I don’t have anywhere else to be but here,” Kai said in a gentle voice, making his face as open and understanding as he could. Because he’d had his own meltdown like this when he’d realized he needed a trache, that he really was dying for real, that even if he survived his life would never be the same. It had been in private, of course, because until now Kai almost never let anyone see him cry, but he got it. He’d known this moment was coming for Martin, he’d just hoped it would have been months or even years from now.
Martin smiled weakly, grateful. He sniffled. “He told me my heart isn’t strong enough for a transplant. He said it’s failing. That I’ll need a heart/lung transplant and the wait is almost more than two years.” Martin sniffled some more, struggled to breathe through his congested nose. “He says I’ll probably have a longer wait bc of my race and size. And I can’t even be considered for a year. He didn’t say it, and neither did Dr. Taylor, but no one believes I’ll live long enough.” Martin’s chin trembled, and more tears threatened. He bit his lip hard, clearly trying to contain them. “It’s not fair. I’m not ready. I don’t want to die.”
Shit. “No. No, it’s not fair.” God, if Kai could give Martin his own heart and these lungs he should never have gotten in the first place, he would. Martin deserved to live so much more than Kai. But even if Kai died, Martin couldn’t get his organs, not even his heart, even if they were a match, because transplantation fucked everything up with your immune system.
Martin sniffled. “I was supposed to go back to school today. I was supposed to see Heidi and ask her to the dance. Instead I was getting all these tests to tell me I’m even more fucked up than before.” Martin coughed harshly, that nasty, wet, congested cough, pulling his shirt up to his mouth and spitting into it before taking some time to recover.
Kai pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked the time. “Does Heidi go straight home from school, or does she have drama club or cheerleading or something like that?”
Martin looked at Kai oddly. “Uh, she’s on the speech and debate team. They have a competition this weekend so she’s probably going to be practicing even though it’s Friday.”
“All right. Go clean yourself up as fast as you can without passing out on me. Let’s go see her.”
“I’ll drive you to school and you can go ask her out.”
“Are you crazy?” But Martin’s mood was lifting a little.
“One thing I learned from being sick and trapped in a hospital bed for so long was that I wished I’d done so much more while I still could. It sucks about your heart. It really does. But you’re not dying tomorrow, probably, or even next week. You still want to go to that dance and kiss Heidi, don’t you?”
It took Martin a moment, but he finally nodded.
“Then why not go now? Do you have anything other than feeling sorry for yourself on your schedule for this afternoon?”
Martin finally laughed at that. Shook his head.
“OK, good. Me either.”
Martin sniffled. Coughed hard. Looked dizzy, but he recovered. “The doctors told me to rest this weekend. Nothing strenuous.”
Kai lifted a brow. “Unless you’re planning on having sex with Heidi in an empty classroom, I’m pretty sure your heart can handle asking her out. But if you’re not up to it, we can just hang out here.”
Martin shook his head. “I want to go.”
“Good. Because I was thinking about finding this Heidi and asking her out myself.”
Martin laughed again, and he smiled genuinely. “Thank you,” he said. His eyes glistened again and he hurried to wipe them. “I can’t let Mamí know how scared I am.”
Kai nodded. Hesitated. Then he said, “You’re not alone in this, OK? And no one has to pay me. I’m here for you.” Kai shook his head. “OK, enough sappiness. Get your butt upstairs and get ready so we don’t miss your girl.”
Martin’s smile grew when Kai referred to Heidi as his. He used the bannister to help pull himself to his feet. Kai noticed Martin moved less confidently than usual. He had to pause before attempting to tackle the stairs, but he flashed Kai a grateful, relieved look.
Kai returned it with an encouraging smile that hid what he was really feeling: guilt. Martin needed Kai to help him survive the next two, three, four years, however long it took for him to get on the transplant lists and get his new heart and lungs. If Kai gave up, maybe Martin would, too.
Kai frowned. Once Martin was upstairs, he lowered himself back down to his chair, one step at a time, pausing on the lowest step he needed to be on to transfer. Then he took out his wallet and a pen and pulled out his suicide contract. Beneath Art’s name, Kai wrote Martin’s. Another reminder of why he had to live.


School had just let out and the parking lot was a mob of cars and kids. Kai managed to pull up reasonably close to the front entrance, though.
“You’re not coming in?”
“You want me to?” Kai was genuinely surprised.
Apparently, Martin did, but he played it cool, shrugging a single shoulder. “Nah, but I mean, it could take a while and I didn’t think you’d want to be stuck in the cold car.”
“I have literal flashbacks about this place.”
Martin laughed. He didn’t know about Kai’s PTSD or understand how bad things had been for him back then, so he assumed Kai was joking. “You’re like, way older and cooler than any of these people anyway, so I don’t know what the big deal is. I guess I’ll call you when I’m done.”
“Keep your mask on. If you got sick because of this your mom would never forgive me.”
Martin rolled his eyes, but he put his surgical mask on, then wrapped the lower half of his face in a scarf to protect his lungs from the cold air. He gave Kai a sarcastic thumb’s up and reached for the door.
“Hey. Remember, whatever happens, what counts is that you went for it, OK?”
Martin didn’t respond, just stepped out of the car and threw his oxygen tubing over the seat, folded it down and started to pull his oxygen canister out of the back. But it was clearly not an easy task for him today, so Kai reached back and lifted it onto the seat, which made it easier for Martin to negotiate it out the rest of the way. Martin gave Kai a wave in thanks and then headed inside.
Kai sighed heavily and pulled forward into the nearest open handicapped spot. Dammit. Guess he would go inside and wait for Martin after all. Even if he’d sworn to himself he’d never return to this hellhole again if he could help it.


It took Martin an embarrassing long time to make it to the room where the speech and debate team was practicing. He wasn’t sure if it was fallout from last night, his brain freaking out over his new diagnosis, or overdoing it yesterday, but he was really tired, and every step took ten times the energy it should have. The trip was made worse by the fact that he passed more than one of his so-called friends in the halls and they pretended like they hadn’t seen him. No, “hey, Martin, it’s good to see you” since he hadn’t been to school in more than a week. He had almost convinced himself to turn around and go back when Heidi saw him. She was standing outside the classroom where the team was practicing and smiled, waving him over.
“Hey, Martin. I didn’t see you around today. Guess you’re feeling a little better?”
She was so pretty. Not in a popular girl kind of way with all the makeup and the styled hair or anything, but just naturally radiant.
Martin shrugged, suddenly nervous. She was one of the few people who was always nice to him, even after he’d started showing up to school with the surgical mask and the oxygen tank. She always asked how he was feeling, but it never felt like that obnoxious, “just to be polite” thing that most people did but like she genuinely cared. Maybe he was projecting, but he remembered Kai’s advice--either she liked him or she didn’t, and he just had to act confident. “Can we talk?”
Heidi smiled. “I’m actually about to go in,” she said, gesturing with a small stack of notecards. “I have this monologue I’m doing and we’re practicing like it’s the actual competition. But I’m done after that. You can come in and watch, if you want.”
Martin smiled hugely, and he didn’t even have to fake it, though he remembered how Kai had suggested it so she could see the smile in his eyes and hear it in his voice even if the mask obscured it otherwise. “Yeah. That’d be nice.” And sitting for awhile, giving himself a chance to catch his breath before they talked for real would be nice, too.


Heidi was amazing. Martin had always thought speech and debate was exactly that, just dry speeches or debates on topics he didn’t care about partially because he wouldn’t live long enough for any of it to matter to him--politics and government and things like that. But apparently there was something called forensics which had nothing to do with criminals like Martin would have suspected but was actually a form of performance art. And Heidi was entered in a competition for solo dramatic monologue. Her piece was from some play Martin had never heard of, but she clearly had talent, even with Martin’s bias. Her piece was about a young girl who was locked away by her parents for her protection, since they were religious quacks apparently who thought the world would contaminate her. Most of the actual dialogue was about the girl expressing her desire to finally break free and live on her terms.
It hit Martin surprisingly hard, and he’d never been much for anything remotely literary, unlike Kai. Even if his and the girl in the monologue’s stories were totally different, having this disease had always been its own kind of prison, with days or weeks or even months of confinement in the hospital or at home, having to wear this stupid mask whenever he went anywhere, knowing from Kai that even if he got a transplant his life would never be normal.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve stared out that window, and it’s always been just a window before. Some wood and glass. But today . . . today it looks different,” Heidi said in character, acting like she was studying a window in front of her. Then she mimed opening it and leaning on the sill, peering out of it and down. “No such thing as freedom without sacrifice, escape without risk, right?” She stepped back from the window, paced for a while like she was deep in thought. Then she acted like she had made up her mind, pretended like she was climbing out the window and sitting on the sill, doing this with a desk, her legs hanging down. “They say the worst thing is the fall, the endless fall where you’re technically going somewhere but really going nowhere. But I don’t think that’s true. Whatever happens, you know eventually you’ll hit the ground.” Then she looked back over her shoulder for a long moment, sighed. Stared straight ahead, smiled almost victoriously, and pushed off the desk like she was jumping out the window, falling to the ground in a ball, and the scene was over.
The other team members clapped, and their advisor gave her a few tips but otherwise seemed to think she had a good shot at a medal tomorrow and told her she was free to go home and get some rest if she wanted. Martin watched Heidi gather up her things. In every way she was graceful, and she’d told Martin once she used to take dance before she realized she just wasn’t talented enough and decided to focus on other things, like forensics, instead.
“You were amazing,” Martin said, and he felt himself blush and was glad the mask hid it.
She grinned. “Thanks. Let’s talk outside so we don’t bother the rest of the team.”


They went into an open classroom nearby, and Martin was grateful for the chance to sit again. He wasn’t sure if she’d done it on purpose or not; she seemed a little winded after her performance, and it had been surprisingly physical.
“So does she kill herself at the end?” Martin asked once they were both settled. He made sure his oxygen tank was behind him so she wasn’t staring at it the whole time. Of course she knew it was there, but maybe “out of sight, out of mind” would help. He really wanted to take his mask off, but he knew it could make him really sick, even if it was only for a few moments. Kai had drilled that into his head, explained how he’d gotten lax and how he’d nearly died a few months ago, how he was still recovering and paying the price from it. And that was post-transplant. Now, even if Martin survived, it could put a serious strain on his heart and lungs and cut his time in half. So he left the mask on.
“The play actually ends there. It’s up to you to decide what happens. It’s never made clear if her window is high enough to make the fall survivable. I mean, you assume that it’s pretty high because she hasn’t done it before, but it’s really all a metaphor. It stands for a lot of things, but when I was researching the piece I found out that the author had had cancer as a teenager, and reading some of her interviews about her past it really felt like the piece was more about freedom and not so much life and death. Like she felt like her illness had trapped her and robbed her of an important part of her life, and it also took away her control because when you’re a kid it’s your parents who get to make all your decisions. So I think it’s really, in the end, about her finally getting some control over her life, even if it means her death is the result. You know?” Heidi suddenly blushed and tucked her hair behind her ear. “Uh, maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but you kinda inspired me to pick this piece. I mean, don’t take it the wrong way or anything. I just mean, it has to be hard. And stuff.” She turned beet red again.
Martin’s stomach was doing flips, and it was hard to breathe and he knew it wasn’t because of his bad heart or lungs. He made Heidi nervous? She actually thought about him? He almost couldn’t find his voice. “That’s . . . cool. Yeah, I can definitely relate.” Don’t talk about your illness, dipshit. Martin cleared his throat. “So, anyway, uh, I wanted to ask you before but since I haven’t seen you . . .” Because I’ve been too sick to come to school, Martin thought but he left that part out. “Are you going to the dance?”
Heidi’s head popped up, and she fiddled with her hair, combing her fingers through it a few times before pulling it into a loose bun. Her light brown hair fell over her face anyway, and Martin really wanted to kiss her. He was painfully hard and grateful the desk blocked her view of his crotch.
He shifted uncomfortably in his chair, then remembered Kai’s advice about projecting confidence, straightened his back and relaxed his shoulders. “‘Cause I was planning on going and I thought it could be fun if we went together. You know, if you’re not going with anyone else.” Martin cringed and wish he had left that last part out. He held his breath while he waited for her to answer.
“Uh, yeah, that’d be fun,” she said.
“Really?” Martin blurted out, shocked. Then he quickly recovered, cleared his throat. “I mean, uh, awesome. Let’s exchange numbers and I’ll call you later about when I’ll pick you up and stuff like that? In case I don’t see you around.” In case I can’t go back to school any time soon, Martin thought, but he was proud of himself for handling this situation as well as he was.
She laughed, took a pen from her bag and one of her notecards and wrote her number on it, handing it over.
Martin wanted to cradle it to his chest, inhale its scent like it was a love letter, he felt so giddy. Heidi had said yes. She’d given him her number, and she seemed to actually like him. He forced himself to take a few deep breaths through his nose. He wanted to stay talking with Heidi forever, but Kai was waiting. “I should probably go.”
“Oh,” she said, and did she sound disappointed? “Is your mom waiting?”
“Uh, actually my friend. He’s kinda like my big brother.”
“Oh. Cool. Well, which way are you heading? I can walk with you.”
Martin’s heart was beating fast and fluttery. The doctor had warned him it would do that from time to time and as long as it didn’t go on too long or it didn’t affect his breathing or make him too faint, that it was safe to ignore it. “I walk pretty slow,” Martin reluctantly admitted. He’d rather be upfront than be embarrassed later, or worse, have her get irritated with him and change her mind about going to the dance.
“That’s OK. I wasn’t expecting to finish so early. Maybe by the time we get to your friend, my mom’ll be here.”
Martin smiled hugely. Walking the whole way back to the front office with Heidi? Martin was beginning to wonder if this was some sort of low-oxygen hallucination.


Kai had wanted to stay in the car, like he’d originally planned, but eventually Martin was gone long enough he decided to wait near the front office. Just being back in his old high school made him viscerally uncomfortable. He couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t have a flashback, which only added to his nervousness, and he wished desperately that he had that thumbtack bracelet he’d worn when he’d first gotten out of the hospital. Just a little pain he could squeeze out to help keep him grounded in the present.
The place still smelled the same, like faded industrial cleaner and teen sweat, mixed with fear and desperation. Still looked like he remembered. Sub the date on the banner above his head from “Congrats 2001 Seniors” to the mid-nineties and Kai could be a petrified fifteen-year-old again, not so different from Martin. Although Martin was far more together than Kai had ever been. Even with all the shit that he was going through right now, he was a nicer, funnier, more confident kid than Kai had been at that age. Fuck, maybe even than Kai was now. He still was mostly smoke and mirrors.
Kai pushed toward the front office. It hadn’t changed, either. Still made up of windowed walls that always reminded him of some of the hospital rooms he’d spent far too much of his life in, although the glass was covered with posters and notices of various sorts, including one that boldly announced, ALL VISITORS MUST SIGN IN. Fuck that. He wasn’t visiting. Just waiting for Martin. He knew he’d done the right thing, helping the kid out, but honestly Kai really needed to not be alone in his head for any stretch of time.
The office door opened and Kai was sure it was going to be one of the bitchy secretaries chewing him out for violating their sign-in rule, but instead it was a hot woman about his age dressed business casual, her curly blonde hair arranged neatly around her face. She’d blossomed a bit, was definitely older, but there was no mistake. Kai’s mouth went dry.
The woman turned at the sound of her name, but it took her a moment before she looked down and saw Kai in his wheelchair. Her face shifted through several emotions, and then she finally exclaimed, “Holy crap. Kai? Kai Fox?”
Kai nodded, nervousness creeping up his spine. He literally hadn’t spoken a word to her since he was just shy of sixteen. And he hadn’t seen her since graduation. “Teach you here?” Kai grimaced at his ASL word order. Tried again. “You teach here?” It still wasn’t great English, but he hadn’t flubbed the pronunciation, so that was something.
She seemed surprised that he’d spoken at all, and he really didn’t like the way she was looking at him, like she was attempting to see into his head and read his thoughts. “No. I’m on the alumni committee. Joined when I moved back to town to reconnect. I was just finalizing a few details for our five-year reunion.” She paused. “You don’t teach here, do you?” The way she said it, it was clear the idea horrified her.
Kai felt precariously close to throwing up, that shame that always clung to him making him nauseous. He shook his head. Thought carefully before speaking so he wouldn’t make another mistake. “I’m still in school.”
She seemed surprised, but she left it at that with a nod. “Speaking of college, I don’t go by Diane anymore. Everyone calls me Madeline. It’s my middle name. Diane sounds like such an old lady.” And Madeline didn’t? Madeline nee Diane’s discomfort was beginning to leak through. “I want you to know there’s no hard feelings. I know now everything was probably pretty confusing for you. It was wrong of me to pressure you into something you weren’t ready for,” she said, and Kai wasn’t sure he’d understood her words.
Kai shook his head with a look of confusion.
She frowned in a superficially apologetic way and leaned down a little, almost like she were talking to a child. “I know I’m as much to blame for what happened as you are,” she said, exaggerating her articulation as if that would help him understand her better. “Your body was ready but your mind wasn’t,” she continued, gesturing toward her crotch and then her temple. “I didn’t understand that then, but I do now.”
Kai’s anxiety and nausea didn’t subside, but his anger threatened to push through it all; he would have sworn his eyes were lit by the fire of his indignation. He wanted to tell her he wasn’t retarded, that he’d never been, but he couldn’t find the English words fast enough. A glimmer of memory of the day they’d had sex struggled to surface in Kai’s mind and he fought it, digging his fingers into his opposite arm. He’d thought sex was about control and pain; it was a right of passage to fuck her even if he hadn’t understood why she’d wanted him to. “You told everyone I raped you,” Kai said in a low voice, speaking slowly to make sure he got his English right.
Madeline looked wrecked. “That was my brother. I never said that. It was just a rumor. No one really believed it.”
“Because no one believed I was physically able to do it. Only reason I didn’t get suspended. Or worse.” Spring of their sophomore year, Kai had been on a particularly high dose of Mexitil, and he could barely walk. The principal, who’d been forced to investigate the rumor, believed Kai was more than capable of sex, but doubted he had the coordination and strength to overpower Madeline/Diane, who at that time had six inches and twenty-five pounds on him. Madeline/Diane’s reputation for being particularly nondiscriminatory in her “extracurricular activities” had also helped pull Kai’s ass out of the fire. Kai grit his teeth. “It was always a game to you. I was a curiosity, and then you were too embarrassed by the fact that we’d fucked--”
Madeline cringed.
“--that you had to come up with some story to explain it all away.” Kai’s anger was weakening, tears burning, itching to push through, and he fought them with every ounce of will he had. “I’m glad you’ve found peace with what happened, but you have no fucking clue who I am or what I’ve been through, so go fuck yourself. Madeline.”


Kai swerved to a stop not far from Martin and Heidi. “Hey, Martin. You ready to go?” Kai seemed a little too eager to leave, pissed, even, and Martin wondered if it had anything to do with the hot blonde he’d been talking to a few minutes before.
“Uh, yeah. Do you think we could give Heidi a ride home, though? She finished early and her mom can’t get here till like, five.”
Kai gave Heidi a once over. Then he smiled and his entire demeanor seemed to transform. It reminded Martin a little of yesterday afternoon when they’d been roleplaying and Kai had slipped in and out of character almost seamlessly. “Oh, hi. Martin’s told me a lot about you. I’m Kai.” Kai wiped his hand on his jeans and then offered it to her, taking hers in a gentle shake. Damn, Kai’s hands were huge. It made Heidi seem even more delicate by comparison.
Heidi blushed. Shit. Of course she found Kai hot. Every woman did, apparently. He was beating them off. Even with the wheelchair he was still fit and blond and had that smile and those blue eyes. How could someone like Martin ever hope to compete?
“I don’t mind giving you a ride, but why don’t you call your parents first and double check it’s OK? You can use my phone.” Kai pulled his phone from behind his legs, as if by magic. There was a cord wrapped around it, like for headphones, but it strangely had a jack on the end where Martin would have suspected the earbuds to be. Kai got rid of the cord, dropping it into his lap, and offered her the phone.
“Thanks,” she said and walked off a few feet to make the call.
“I take it it went well,” Kai said as soon as Heidi was out of earshot.
Martin couldn’t help beaming. “I think she likes me. Like, not just because I’m sick.”
“That’s great,” Kai said, but he seemed distracted.
“Uh, so who was the hot chick?”
“The blonde standing by the front office, talking on her cell?”
Kai pretended like he had to look. “Oh, no one. She’s no one. Should we go?”
Martin narrowed his eyes. Kai was being cagey. “Who is she?”
Kai sighed. Lowered his voice. “She’s someone I knew in high school.”
Kai sighed heavier. “Someone I knew,” he said with more emphasis. “Like, for the first time.”
“Oh. Oooh.” That smoking hot blonde was the girl Kai’d lost his virginity to? Damn. Martin liked Heidi and he’d love to have sex with her (not that he expected it to happen), but damn.
“Conversation over,” Kai growled. “Keep asking me about it and I don’t care if you’re dying. I’ll leave your ass here over the weekend.” Kai seemed pissed and yet there was another emotion veiled over it Martin couldn’t pry out. He remembered Kai hadn’t spoken well of his first experience and had refused to go into detail about it no matter how much Martin pestered him. It made him curious what had happened that Kai was so desperate to forget.
A moment later, Heidi wandered back. “My mom says it’s fine.”
Kai seemed surprised. “Really? Your mom is cool with some older guy she doesn’t know taking you home?”
Heidi shrugged. “I told her you were Martin’s brother, and she’s just happy she doesn’t have to bother with me.” Heidi said it nonchalantly enough, but Martin didn’t miss the suggestion that Heidi felt like her mom found her to be an irritation.
“All right, let’s go then. You two can sit in the back together.”


The drive to Heidi’s house was awkward and tense. Kai was clearly in a bad mood, and Martin wasn’t sure if he was irritated about his run-in with his first or just becoming a chauffeur, or something else. Whatever it was, he said almost nothing while they drove, only asking Martin a few times to confirm Heidi’s address. It was weird, but he seemed to ignore Heidi completely.
It was amazing sitting in the backseat with Heidi all the same, though. “I wish I could go tomorrow to your competition and see you perform.”
Heidi blushed. “It’s pretty boring. It’s mostly just waiting around, then you perform for a few minutes, then more waiting.”
“It wouldn’t be boring if you were there.”
Heidi’s blush deepened, but she smiled. They sat in silence a minute, and then she asked, “Are you going to be at school on Monday?”
The momentary happiness Heidi had brought him popped like a balloon, and he remembered why he’d missed school today in the first place. “I don’t know.”
“It sucks that you’re sick.”
“Yeah.” Heidi took a deep breath and smiled. “You know, when the weather’s better I ride my bike to school a lot. So I could maybe come by and visit you some days if I don’t have a club meeting or anything.”
“Really? Your mom wouldn’t mind?”
“She probably wouldn’t even notice,” Heidi said with a shrug, but she wouldn’t make eye contact. “I guess it was probably cool at first, being able to stay home whenever you want, but it gets old fast, huh?”
Martin was surprised by her insight. “Yeah. My mom works so much. She has to, you know? Since I’m . . .” Martin’s eyes darted to the oxygen tank on the floor between them. “So it’s just me alone all day, every day. Except on Thursdays when Kai visits me.” Martin suddenly wished he’d kept his mouth shut. “And . . . I probably sound really pathetic right now.”
Heidi shook her head. “I don’t think so.” She smiled and reached for Martin’s hand hesitantly, as if half of her weren’t sure if he’d want to touch her and half wasn’t sure he was allowed.
Martin beamed beneath his mask and slipped his hand into hers. He’d never even held hands with a girl before, not like this.
“Is it OK if I call you after my competition tomorrow?”
“Yeah.” Martin barely noticed Kai had parked in a driveway.
“Is this it?”
“Yep,” Heidi called. She pulled her hand from Martin’s so she could get her things together. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow?”
Martin’s heart was fluttering rapidly and he felt floaty. His smile was enormous beneath the mask, and he couldn’t find any words, so he just nodded dumbly and waved, pulling his scarf up over his face to protect himself from the blast of cold wind that hit him as Heidi opened the door and stepped out.


“So . . . are you OK? Do you need me to stay?” Kai asked, barely masking the fact that he clearly did not want to stay. Martin had moved into the front seat after dropping Heidi off, and he and Kai were now sitting in the car in Martin’s garage, the door open and the engine still running.
“You’ve got your own life, right?” Martin had meant it as a joke, but it came off more bitter than he’d intended and he immediately hated himself. Kai had come when he’d needed him, no questions asked, and then had done him this huge favor with Heidi. That was above and beyond the call of duty.
Kai frowned. He looked . . . almost like he had a really bad headache or something, but he tried to make his face more neutral, even less readable than before. “I can stay if you need me to. I’m just supposed to be somewhere in about an hour.” It didn’t seem like Kai wanted to go wherever he was supposed to, either.
Martin shifted in his seat. Hesitated a moment. It was possible Kai might bite his head off, like he nearly had when Martin had tried to ask about the blonde. But Martin wanted to believe that he and Kai were friends. And friendship was a two-way street, right? Or at least it was supposed to be. If Kai could be there for Martin when he needed him, then Martin needed to do the same for Kai. “Are you OK?”
Kai gave Martin a strange look, and for a minute, Martin was sure the older man was pissed. But then Kai laughed. He laughed loud and for an uncomfortable amount of time. Finally, he wiped his eyes and took a few steadying breaths, trying to stop the few stray chuckles that rumbled out. “You have no idea, kid,” he finally said, and Martin had no clue what that meant.
Martin wasn’t sure what to say, so he cleared his throat and said, “Uh, thanks. For today. And for all the Thursday afternoons, and putting up with my stupid questions. I know I can be a pain.”
Kai cracked what looked like a genuine smile. “Hey, it’s nice to be the big brother for once.” He let out a long breath. “Look, if you wanted, I could spend more time over here. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my days off, so as long as you’re cool with letting me study and do homework, I don’t see why I couldn’t do it here just as well as anywhere else.”
“Really?” Martin felt ridiculous for how excited that made him. It would make a long week at home pass so much quicker if he had some company.
Kai shrugged. “I either get distracted or fall asleep if I try to study at the library or Lost Apple. Maybe I’d get more schoolwork done. It’d be a win/win.”
“That’d be awesome.”
Then Kai’s face grew sad and pensive suddenly. It was eerily like a cloud passing over the sun on an otherwise bright afternoon. “Look, Martin . . .” Kai took a deep breath. “It’s possible I may have to go into the hospital for a little while soon.”
“What? Did something happen?” Martin sudden felt petty and selfish and so very much a little kid Kai was humoring.
“I’m fine,” Kai said in that way adults did to kids, reassuring and hollow. “I have my big lung tests coming up to see how I’m doing post-transplant and depending on how that goes they may have to adjust my meds, and . . .” Kai paused for a long moment. “I may not be able to be around too many people for a little while.” Kai forced a smile. “But that may not happen. I just wanted to give you a heads up if I can’t come over for a week or so in the near future. I didn’t . . . I don’t want you to think I’m blowing you off.”
“Oh.” Was that why Kai had been distracted all afternoon? “That’s OK. I understand.”
Kai blew out a large breath and dropped his eyes for a moment. “I’m not the most positive person. But the truth is that believing you’ll make it is more than halfway to surviving. Every single day my brother told me that ‘today could be the day’ I’d get my transplant. I’ll admit that at the time, I thought he was high. It seemed so unlikely it would ever happen. But looking back, his faith in me was what got me through it. So no matter what happens, even if I can’t . . . even if I’m not around to cheer you on, promise me you won’t forget that I believe you can make it. You’re a thousand times stronger than me, so if I survived, you definitely can.”
Martin wasn’t sure how to interpret Kai’s little speech. It almost sounded like he thought he wasn’t going to outlive Martin, which was crazy. Even post-transplant Martin knew that there were risks, including infection and rejection, but Kai had lived almost two years since his surgery. He’d survived that bad infection a few months ago. Was he just worried about what his upcoming test results would say? Martin nodded, realizing he’d probably waited too long to acknowledge what Kai had said. “I know I’m just a kid, but . . . you can talk to me if you need to, you know. Like you said, there aren’t too many people who know what we’re going through, right?”
Kai smiled and chuckled a little. “I’ll keep that in mind. Why don’t you get inside before you get too cold. I’ll see you later. And congrats on the Heidi thing. Keep it up. She’s totally into you. Never know what could happen.”


It was almost time for the ASL class to start and Kai was still a no-show. Renee was trying not to panic, but he wasn’t answering his phone or returning any texts and considering the past couple days. . . .
Renee hung up after calling him for the twentieth time. She knew she should probably call Jon, but Kai had been so adamant about not worrying his brother.
David jogged up, looking concerned. “Kai’s still not answering?
Renee shook her head.
OK. Maybe he fell asleep,” David said, and Renee couldn’t help feeling this strange deja-vu from last Friday. Last Friday when Kai had admitted he came close to suicide. “We’ll go to the apartment and check on him.
Renee took a huge breath. Surveyed the room. Megan was finishing setting up, obviously irritated Kai had left her hanging, and a few families were beginning to filter in. “
No. No. I’ll go. Megan’s going to need your help. I’ll text you as soon as I know anything.
It was clear from the look on David’s face that he didn’t want to let her go alone, but he finally nodded. He pulled his keys out of his pocket and separated one from the rest, offering it to her. “The key to Kai’s apartment.” David didn’t say anything more, just gave her a look that told her not to wait if he didn’t answer, or at least that’s how she interpreted the serious, intense expression. He closed her hand around the key and gave her one last reassuring smile before he headed off to help his fiancee.



  1. What a suspense! How can I wait for next week? You've written it really clever and ended it just in the right moment to really make me go crazy.

    I hope your trip will be a good one and you will get some satisfying results. Take care!

  2. Superb chapter! Safe travels, too!

  3. Hoping things get sorted for you!

    Gahhhh, suspense! ��