June 15-21, 1996
Jon stood in the doorway of the deceased patients records room in the basement of Jonesville Memorial Hospital, passing his hand over his closely buzzed hair, another failed attempt to cure himself of the habit of pulling his fingers through it. The room was a disaster of boxes stacked haphazardly amidst ancient filing cabinets coated with dust. An asthma attack waiting to happen, he thought, sneezing into his elbow. A second sneeze echoed his.
"Tell me what we're doing down here?" Victoria Gregory, the nurse turned office manager for the outpatient clinic and his partner in crime. She had her long hair twisted up into some kind of complex braid that made her strikingly attractive. He loved the way her locks cascaded loosely over her shoulders and onto her back, and had thought he'd miss them once they were tucked away. But the intricacy of the knots of hair seemed a fitting mirror of Victoria. If only he were older, she might actually show more than a passing interest in the awkward Doogie Howser. But he hurriedly dismissed the thought. At 25, nearly everyone was older than him anyway. The story of his life.
"I told you you didn't need to help me," Jon said, wading into the mire.
"They wouldn't buy the stolen keys story. If I'm going to potentially lose my job over this, I might as well be fully complicit."
Jon sighed. "Look for records from October 1984. Last name Taylor." He struggled with his first drawer, which had rusted shut.
"Ah, this is personal," Vicky noted, checking boxes. "Who are we looking for?"
"My brother," Jon said cooly, putting his training to work.
"And why? 1984 was a long time ago."
Not long enough, Jon thought. "Either help me, or don't."
"You going to tell me why we're both risking our careers down here in the dust and mold? Are you heir to a secret family fortune and you need proof of your brother's death in order to claim it?"
Jon ignored her, slamming his drawer shut a little more forcefully than necessary.
They spent hours combing through files, and though Vicky had been chatty at first, she'd quickly picked up on Jon's silence and left him alone. It was getting to the point where Jon was thinking of calling it quits for the day when she called out.
"I found it. I think. The label’s partially worn off; it’s either September, October, November, or December 1984.”
As Jon approached, he saw her glancing through some of the files, and he had to swallow down the swirl of emotion.
Vicky read aloud from two of the files. "Bryan J. Taylor, DOA. 09/30/84. Ann P. Taylor, time of death, 11:34 PM, 09/30/84." She looked up, and Jon's face must have answered her question. "Your parents?"
Jon nodded, put his hand out for the files. He didn't want Vicky reading them. He wasn't sure if he could, either, but he'd rather make the choice than hear more of her reciting facts about the gruesome accident that had claimed his parents' lives and changed his forever.
She offered them without argument. His father’s file was slim, but it appeared as if a significant chunk of the box had been dedicated to his mother’s. Jon let Vicky hand him the file box, which he set aside for now.
"There's no other Taylor here, and I'm pretty sure this is the only box for that month. Must have been September based on the dates of death on all these files."
“We need to find October.”
Vicky nodded and continued searching. "What happened?"
"Car accident," Jon replied simply, flashing his pen light on the labels of a stack of boxes. Nothing seemed to be in any order. It was going to take days, maybe weeks, to find Kai's file.
“Oh my God. You're that Jon Taylor.”
Jon froze temporarily, but kept scanning for the correct box.
“I was a sophomore in college. The story was all over the news and the papers. The young couple who was killed by a drunk driver, and the three children they left behind.”
Jon pulled opened an unlabeled box and sorted through it, checking dates. “I was fourteen. My brother and I were separated from our sister. He had an asthma attack, and we were forcibly separated not long after that. I need to find his file.”
Jon sighed in frustration; this box was from 1976. He decided to try another set of filing cabinets again. “Closure, all right? I just want to find his records. I don’t want to talk.”
Vicky held up her hands in surrender as she approached to help him check the opposite end of the drawer he had opened. “What was his name?”
“Joseph,” Jon said in a quiet voice. “Joseph Taylor.”
Several more hours later, and they’d come up empty. They’d finally located the box for October 1984, but Kai’s file wasn’t in it, and searching as many of the records since then hadn’t turned up any answers either. At least not on him.
Jon was sorting through a box from only five years ago, at this point wondering if Kai hadn’t died in 1984 after all, and maybe he would find him here. The last name Taylor caught his eye, and he pulled the file without reading the first name, flipping it open. His stomach fell into his feet.
Sara P. Taylor. DOB 05/12/80. DOD 07/11/91.
“Jon?” Wading through dusty records for hours had a way of dropping formalities; Ms. Gregory had quickly become “Vicky,” and Dr. Taylor, “Jon.” Jon had to admit he liked hearing his first name from Vicky’s lips.
“My sister,” Jon said in a quiet voice, scanning the file. “Complications of acute lymphocytic leukemia, apparently. Only a few years ago. I may have been able to save her life.” Jon let that hang in the air a moment, sinking down onto a stack of boxes to prevent himself from collapsing onto the floor.
“You don’t know that,” Vicky assured him, taking the file and perching beside him, a friendly hand on his arm. “You may not have been a match. She may have died anyway.”
Jon nodded vaguely as reality hit him: Kai was dead. Sara was dead.
He was alone.
His eyes began to water, but he blinked, wiping them on his sleeve. “God, this dust is killing me,” he said quickly, crossing the room and immediately diving into another stack of files, though it was hard to read labels through misted vision.
“Maybe he’s still alive,” Vicky ventured. “Or maybe he went by another name?”
Jon wiped his face again, composed himself. “Like he was adopted?”
Vicky shrugged. “He was six when your parents died. That was what, twelve years ago? It’s possible.”
Jon leaned against the cabinet; his eyes were red and itchy from all the dust and mold, and he was exhausted. He’d used up his only real day off in weeks for a search that hadn’t yielded much except to remind him how alone he really was. “If he’s not dead, and he hasn’t left Jonesville, then maybe the pulmonology records will help.”
Vicky started to back away, shaking her head. “Oh, no.”
“Please. If he’s not dead . . . if he’s alive, you have to help me find him.”
She sighed heavily. “Fine. I’ll do some discreet digging. You know this would be a lot easier if you just asked Dr. MacDonald, right?”
Jon rubbed the top of his head. “Just do me this favor, please. I don’t want anyone to know about this. I don’t want them to question why I’m enrolled in the fellowship program here.”
“Fine,” Vicky said, slamming a drawer shut and waving toward the door. “But you’re buying me dinner and drinks first.”
Vicky had suggested a little dive called The Iowan, the closest thing to a sports bar Jonesville had. They were sitting together in a back booth, Vicky sipping from a bottle of beer while Jon studied the menu.
“So you are old enough to drink, right?”
Jon glared at her. “Funny.”
She laughed. “I’m sorry.” Jon had explained he didn’t really drink alcohol when she’d insisted he join her in a bottle of beer or two. “Is it because of your parents?” Vicky asked, suddenly feeling awful for not considering the fact sooner.
Jon shook his head. “I’m diabetic. It’s easier for me to manage my blood sugar without bringing alcohol into the equation.”
“Oh,” Vicky said, not sure what else to say.
Jon laughed, folded the menu. “It isn’t catching.”
Had Jon just made a joke? She hadn’t known him long, but he was incredibly serious, seemingly all the time. He’d finished his first year of his fellowship early, transferring into Jonesville’s program but showing up before his second year officially started to meet the staff and get settled. He was both brilliant and driven, the type of guy Vicky probably would have loathed when she was in school, but now that she was a little older and wiser found shockingly attractive.
Vicky found herself smiling. A shout echoed from the group gathered at the bar; apparently the team at bat had hit a triple play. “Do you like baseball?”
Jon shrugged. “Never been into sports. My dad, though, he loved basketball. I even tried to play it, for him, but . . .” Jon shrugged. “I wasn’t much of an athlete.”
Vicky sipped her beer. “My dad and brothers . . . huge sports fans. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey, you name it. I like football well enough, but nothing nearly bordering on fanatical.”
Their waitress arrived to take their orders, and Vicky ordered another beer. It probably wasn’t a good idea to get drunk tonight, not with Jon, but she supposed she could regret it later.
Jon had gone quiet, pretending to watch one of the TVs, though she suspected he was really lost in his thoughts.
“So you became a doctor because of your brother?” she asked, the beer loosening her lips, though she immediately regretted the question. So far, they’d avoided talking about their day in the records room, and how heavily not finding any evidence of his brother had weighed on Jon.
Jon nodded, but then he shrugged. “Yes, but I knew it was what I wanted before he was born. I was always hanging out in the library, reading books about science and medicine. I wanted to know exactly how the body worked, as far back as I can remember.”
Vicky laughed. “You’re adorable.”
Jon flushed, a deep red coloring his pale skin from collarbone to crown. “I was diagnosed with type I diabetes when I was seven, not long before my brother was born, but I had had my suspicions that I had it awhile before that.”
Vicky stared at him. “You diagnosed yourself. When you were in first grade.”
Jon shrugged. “It just took a while to get my parents to believe me and get me tested. It was . . . a tough time for them,” Jon admitted. “Not an easy pregnancy,” he added hesitantly.
Vicky saw a shadow fall over Jon’s face and decided a change of subject might help. “I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer or an accountant or anything like that,” Vicky said, “and I didn’t think I was smart enough for medical school--”
“I don’t believe that.”
Vicky shrugged. “Nearly twelve years of school wasn’t really feasible for me at the time anyway,” she added quietly.
“That’s why I did it in nine,” Jon said with a grin. Despite the fact that he was probably the smartest person she knew, and the youngest person in the pulmonology department (barring a couple nurses-in-training), he was shockingly humble, comments like this coming off intended as a joke at his expense rather than a brag.
“Anyway, it didn’t take me long to realize I didn’t really like being a nurse,” Vicky laughed, finishing her beer and signalling for another. “I like my paperwork,” she added with a nod.
Jon smiled then, a full, brilliant flash of teeth that lit his gray eyes and lifted the seemingly perpetual weariness from his face. In that moment, he no longer looked tired or jaded, but very much the 25-year-old kid he was.
Vicky sighed. Asked the question she normally would have put off, because she couldn’t stand that smile and how much it made her want him. “What will you do if I can’t find him?” She didn’t need to specify who “him” was.
Jon let out a harsh breath, managing a faint smile, a pale imitation of his previous grin, when their waitress appeared with their orders, setting a plate in front of each of them and another beer for Vicky. “Look into the system, hope they don’t fight me too much. Orphanages, group homes, etc. They’ll have to have some record of him, a trail I can follow, even if he was adopted, even if he was moved to another city.” Jon slid his burger off the bun, cutting it up like a steak. “I’ll find him, what happened to him,” he said determinedly. “Hopefully before my second year officially starts.”
It was a week before Vicky pulled Jon aside one day, into her office. "There's no sign of your brother, either as a living patient or a deceased one. At least that I can find. No Joseph Taylors, J Taylors, or JK Taylors with anything close to your brother's birth date in any of our files."
Jon rubbed the top of his head, enraged that he couldn't pull his fingers through it to relieve some frustration. "He has to be there."
"If he is, it's under a different name."
Jon shook his head. "If he was adopted, and changed his name, I'll have to pray the records weren't sealed, or I'll never find Kai." Jon sighed heavily, sinking into the couch.
"What did you say?"
Jon shook his head. "I may never know what happened to my brother."
Vicky drew closer, yanking Jon's chin to make him look at her.
"Hey. What the hell?" Jon said, jerking back.
"I can't believe I didn't see it before. My God."
"What?" Jon snapped.
"Your brother did change his name," Vicky said, rushing to her desk. She grabbed a sheet of paper, a list of patients of some kind. "Right there," she said, pointing to one of the names.
"Kai Fox." Jon's voice faltered.
"How many Kais could there be who are patients here? Is he deaf?"
“You said his name was Joseph.”
“It was. His legal name. But he always went by Kai. I never mentioned it, because I didn't expect . . .” Jon looked up, his eyes surprisingly glossy. “Oh God. This means he's alive.”
Vicky nodded. “I haven’t been working this job that long, but there’s a boy. About eighteen. Deaf, I always thought, since he never spoke and Dr. Johnsen always had an interpreter for him--”
“He’s Dr. Johnsen’s patient?”
Vicky nodded again. “I don’t know how none of us saw the resemblance. I guess the age gap--the hair and eyes are different, especially with yours cut the way it is. And his disability. Different last name. None of us ever thought twice about it.”
“He was adopted, then? Is he happy?”
Vicky shrugged. “I don’t really know him. More of him. I’ve seen him in the waiting room, or heading in and out of the exam rooms. He doesn’t talk, so it wasn’t like we could have a conversation. He always looks . . .” She shook her head, as if changing her mind.
“Tell me, please.”
She sighed. “So sad. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him smile.”
Jon frowned. The Kai he remembered was always a happy child, despite everything he went through with his breathing and his MLS. “I need to find him. Page me when you have his current address.”
Kai lay in his bed, alone in his room, as he had been for nearly two years, staring up at the ceiling. His hips, back, and legs hurt, and his breathing wasn’t good today. It probably didn’t help that for the past month he’d been reserving his medications: taking only a puff instead of two from his inhalers, cutting his pills in halves and hiding the rest in one of his secret caches. He had a few dollars squirreled away, but they wouldn’t buy him more than a sandwich. Too bad none of the orderlies would play poker with him anymore. And though Ms. Evans had helped him apply for benefits, he couldn’t count on receiving anything immediately.
Ms. Evans had also offered to help Kai apply for a spot in one of the state's adult group homes, though she'd warned him he would probably fall in between the cracks: sick enough to apply because of his severe asthma, but not really disabled enough he'd get one of the limited spots. Not that he really wanted to spend the rest of his life in an institution anyway.
Kai took a few labored breaths, his eyes tracing the familiar cracks and spots in the ceiling. He'd breathe easier if he sat up, but passing out held a certain allure and escape. Art didn't have the budget for another employee, even part time, and no one else was interested in hiring a sickly, gimpy kid fresh out of high school who still struggled to be understood sometimes.
Kai’s birthday was only a week away, which meant he'd be kicked out of the only real home he'd known for the last twelve years. With no means of support and no where to go. Jake, who was starting college soon, had offered to let Kai crash at his mom’s house for the summer, but after that, Kai was on his own.
Kai had never been truly "on his own" his whole life.
Even without the practical problems, the thought alone was terrifying, and he hated that he felt that way. Kai didn’t relish becoming one of those crazy crippled guys with a shaggy beard and dreadlocks, begging for change on street corners.
A knock on his door pulled him from his thoughts, and he pushed himself up when it edged open. Frankie, a boy of about twelve with diplegic CP who'd been a resident for nearly three years. He also looked up to Kai, as ridiculous as that was.
Frankie pulled himself into Kai's room with his forearm crutches, his body swaying with each step, until he sank into the other bed. David's bed. Kai didn't like anyone sitting there, but he was too tired to manage English. Besides, it was difficult for Frankie to sign and stay upright; sitting freed up his hands.
Kai pushed himself up farther, so he could sign. "What?"
Frankie wasn't fluent by any stretch, but he'd picked up enough that Kai could converse with him simply, without speaking.
Frankie slipped out of his crutches, laying them against the bed. "There's a man here to see you."
Oh, it was Saturday? Visiting Day. Since graduation, Kai's days had begun to blur together. Not that Kai ever had many visitors. Jake had dropped in once or twice during high school, but had determined CH totally depressing (Kai couldn't argue there) and never come back, occasionally helping Kai sneak out for a day at his house instead. Art would stop by from time to time, usually with books, but it was unlikely he'd show up this early on a busy Saturday, especially so close to “kicking out day.” David had popped in about once every six weeks after aging out, but after a few months (and a promise he'd come back for Kai), he'd never returned. Kai had learned early not to take much stock in promises. From anyone. Even his "brother."
Still, a flicker of the foreign emotion hope fluttered up. Birthdays, except for one's 18th, passed unnoted at County House. But David and Kai had always celebrated each other's in their own way. David had to know Kai's 18th was in a few days. Maybe he'd kept his promise after all.
"Who?" Kai asked, thumb on his chin, index finger out, wiggling, eyebrows furrowed.
"I don't know."
Kai sighed heavily. He hadn't planned to do much but lie in bed feeling sorry for himself, so he hadn't bothered with his braces. He wouldn't now, either. Not for some stranger. Kai pushed himself to the edge of the bed, lifting his legs off the mattress. He noticed Frankie was trying to get his attention, so he looked up.
"Maybe you won the lottery."
Kai watched Frankie's clumsy finger spelling, then sighed. "You need to be 18 to play the lottery. Besides, it doesn't work that way." Kai grabbed his crutches from their spot beside his bed, leaning against the wall. "You don't know because you didn't see him, or you don't know because you don't recognize him?"
It took a moment for Frankie to understand Kai, and when he did, he said, "Oh!" Out loud, continuing in English, "I didn't get a good look."
Kai sighed, levered himself to his feet. Might as well get this over with.
Kai crutched toward the common room, his steps echoed by Frankie, who was following him like a lost puppy. The din of conversation, the occasion giggle or cackle of laughter, trickled out toward them. Kai was so sick of this place, and all these stupid kids who still believed that there was anyone out there who gave two shits about them. Kids like Frankie.
Kai lingered near the side doorway, surveying the room, searching for his visitor. His eyes found Mrs. Jimenez, whose daughter Julia had been a resident for six years now, since she apparently couldn't afford to care for her. Or at least that's what Julia believed. Next, he saw the Youngs, a religious couple who visited once a month trying to convert the kids for “protection of their eternal souls,” though Kai didn't see them lining up to adopt anyone. Last, he spied a crying young woman, standing off to the side beside a toddler in one of those stroller wheelchairs, talking to The Warden. Another surrender in the making. At least that girl would be too young to remember her parents and her siblings, if she had any. It was easier. Better that way.
Then Kai spotted George, one of JMH's two staff ASL interpreters. It was unlikely he'd dropped by to visit Kai, which meant someone had hired him, freelance, to facilitate the visit. David and Jake didn't need an interpreter, and Art had always managed well enough without one.
Then Kai saw him. The mysterious man. Tall, thin, blond hair buzzed close to his head, gray eyes searching the room. It was impossible, yet who else could this man be? The resemblance, the fact that this man had to be in his mid- to late 20s, was impossible to ignore. After twelve years, had Jon finally come for him?
Kai's shock made him misjudge his next step, and he nearly fell, an orderly rushing up to help. But Kai's glare made the man change his mind as Kai regained his balance.
He stood, watching the interpreter and the unknown man interact, his mind swirling with emotions and thoughts. It was good George was here to speak for him, because there was no way he'd manage English right now.
George led Jon to a table, gesturing for him to sit. Jon obeyed, surprised by how nervous he was, his excitement tempered with shame. Kai had lived twelve years in this horrible place? Why hadn’t Jon tried to find him sooner? Certainly Kai would wonder the same thing. Maybe Kai wouldn’t even agree to talk to him.
George sat beside Jon, but turned to face him slightly. “I’m here as a communication facilitator, OK? That means I am ethically obligated to be a neutral medium. I’m not here to give my opinions on anything, simply interpret. I’ll sit here, and he’ll sit across from us, which will make it as seamless as possible. Don’t look at me or talk to me. Just talk to him like you would anyone else and think of me as the ‘voice’ for both of you.”
Jon passed his hand over his head a few times. God, why the fuck did he cut his hair?
“Don’t say, ‘tell him’ or ‘don’t interpret that,’ because I will interpret everything you say. Do you understand?”
George spotted Kai in the crowd and waved him over.
Jon watched as Kai used his forearm crutches to maneuver his way around tables and wheelchairs and people. He seemed to walk fairly well, all things considered, but the way he relied on the sticks meant Kai’s MLS still bothered him. Jon wondered how much. God, they’d lost so many years.
Next, Jon noticed how frail Kai looked. Tall, but gangly, his skin pale; perhaps he hadn’t hit his final growth spurt yet. Jon hadn’t really hit his until a couple years earlier. And though Jon had filled out, he was still thin for his height. Kai’s hair had also lightened to a shocking golden blond, falling in a chaotic mess, framing a face that no longer had the soft lines of a boy, but the more angular features of a man, a hint of facial hair on his chin and cheeks when the light hit it just right.
One thing that hadn’t changed: Kai’s eyes, still that piercing oceanic blue that had lent him his name.
Kai stopped in front of the table, smiled at George, but ignored Jon as he used a crutch tip to pull the chair out, glaring daggers at an orderly who’d stepped forward to help. So far, Kai’s body language wasn’t a good sign that this would go well.
Kai settled in the seat, leaning his sticks on the table, honing his glare again at the same orderly when he attempted to touch them. Kai adjusted his legs with his hands and stared at Jon for a few minutes before glancing over at George and signing something: a one-handed flick of his hand on his chest, middle finger touching, then something in a circle in front of him Jon couldn’t make out as more than a blur of fingers, Kai’s facial expressions changing with each sign. George signed back, uninterpreted, a few things, then seemed to be redirecting Kai to his purpose. Kai had to know George; perhaps he was asking how he was and now George was trying to remind Kai he was here on a job.
Kai obviously seemed more interested in talking to George than to Jon. Suddenly, Jon hated even more that he’d let his sign language skills lapse and wither.
“Either one of you can start whenever you’re ready,” George both signed and spoke.
Jon had rehearsed so many things he’d wanted to say to Kai once they finally sat down together, but none of them came to him now that he was seated in front of his brother, someone he’d mourned for over ten years. “Kai, it’s Jon. Your brother.”
Kai didn’t respond immediately, but Jon did observe that Kai’s breath didn’t come easily, his neck and shoulders working harder than they should, though Kai didn’t show in his face any discomfort; it was obvious he was used to needing to breathe this way, and it made Jon frown reflexively.
“What did you expect?” Kai signed angrily, apparently in reaction to Jon’s frown; George’s voice conveyed bitterness in his tone. “A unicorn? Or perhaps the gold at the end of the rainbow?” Kai’s facial expressions showed mock joy, which again, George conveyed in his tone. Apparently sarcasm existed just as well in sign language as it did in English.
“I expected to find your death certificate,” Jon said in a quiet voice.
Kai watched George’s interpretation, his eyes narrowing, before glancing over at Jon, studying him. Finally, he signed and George interpreted, “Well, here I am, alive and kicking. Sorry to disappoint. And the kicking isn’t usually voluntary, so watch your shins.” More bitterness. Jon supposed he deserved it.
“I’m sorry,” Jon said, not sure what else to say.
Kai’s nostrils flared. “Twelve years. You didn’t think to look for me at all during that time? I would have looked for you. I tried, as best as I could, and then I gave up, because dreams are nothing but vain fantasy.”
Jon blinked, glanced at George. Did Kai just quote Shakespeare to him, in sign?
“It’s rude not to look at a Deaf person when you’re having a conversation,” George explained, signing something, though Jon suspected it wasn’t what he had said in English, perhaps simply a heads up to Kai to remind him that Jon didn’t know the “rules of engagement.”
Kai slammed his hand on the table, making Jon jump, but it also made him look back at Kai, who was obviously even more angry than before. He gestured with two fingers, pointing from Jon to his own eyes. “Look at me when you talk. It’s bad enough you don’t know sign.”
Jon repeated the sign he’d seen George use earlier when interpreting his apology. “Sorry.”
Kai snorted. “Why are you here?”
Jon blinked, stopped himself at the last second from looking at George. “To see you. Once I found out you were still alive, I came straight here.”
“No. Why, after all these years, did you try to find me now? Why are you here in Jonesville?”
“I started my fellowship in Des Moines, but heard about the dual program here at JMH so I transferred. I start my second year officially next month.”
Kai’s eyes narrowed. He seemed to be waiting for something.
“Do you have plans for after the 26th? Do they force you to leave immediately, or do they give you a few days?”
Kai blinked, and his angry facade seemed to chip and falter. “We have to leave by eight AM that morning.”
“Do you have somewhere to stay? A job?”
Kai looked away, and Jon wondered if that was rude, too, or if it simply expressed shame the way it would in a regular hearing conversation?
Kai finally looked back up at Jon. “I’m not going home with you.” It hurt to hear George’s voice as he interpreted those words. It wasn’t exactly that Jon had expected an enthusiastic reunion, Kai elated to see him, but he’d hoped for a little less distrust. “How do I even know you’re really my brother?”
That surprised Jon, and he wasn’t sure what to say. How could he “prove” who he was? He fished in his pocket, pulled out his JMH ID, offering it to Kai.
Kai studied it, glancing up from the picture at Jon like an immigration agent verifying his identity. “You’re a doctor?”
Jon nodded. “I’m working on my pulmonology fellowship.”
Kai stared at Jon, appraising him, then fingerspelled something back to George, who interpreted, “Pulmonology?”
“That’s how you found me.” He pushed the ID back across the table.
“Yes. I haven’t been here long, or I would have found you sooner.”
Kai held up his hand, which Jon easily understood as a “shut up” gesture. “What did I dress up as the Halloween before our parents died?”
Jon blinked, and couldn’t help glancing over at George before returning his gaze to Kai. “What?”
“The Halloween before our parents died, you took me trick-or-treating. What did I wear?”
Jon sighed. He remembered everything about Kai’s first six years vividly; the curse on the other side of the coin that was the blessing of an eidetic memory. It was Kai’s first and only (so far as Jon knew) opportunity to go out on Halloween, his health and walking finally good enough that their father had allowed the night out. Kai had been ecstatic, and their family had even taken a rare trip to Omaha--to the Big City--for a day to pick out a costume. Kai had selected one based on his favorite superhero at the time, The Hulk, because he was big and strong and didn’t need to talk much to get his point across. As happy as that shopping day was, the memory, and all that followed--including Kai’s month-long hospital stay later that year from pneumonia--made it bittersweet.
“The Incredible Hulk!” Jon signed, doing his best to imitate the signs and facial expressions from his memory.
Kai blinked furiously, and his chin trembled before he grit his teeth, his jaw visibly working. “Why are you here? What do you want from me?” Kai’s signing had lost its harsh, almost violent edge, and George echoed this in his softer tone.
“I know I can’t make up for the last twelve years, but maybe you can let me try? I haven’t signed a lease anywhere yet. We could get a two bedroom, and you can stay with me. Go to school or work or whatever it is you want to do. We can get to know each other again.”
Kai breathed uneasily in and out for several long moments before finally signing, “I need to think about it.” Then he looked at George. “George, can you give us five minutes?”
“You sure?” George asked, both signing and speaking, seemingly talking to both of them.
Jon wasn’t sure what Kai’s plan was, but he nodded, and George rose, letting them both know he wouldn’t be far if they needed him again.
Kai slouched now that George was gone, drumming his fingers on the table over and over and over in an annoying rhythm. “You really want what?” Kai said, with his voice, to Jon’s great amazement, even if his pronunciation was a little soft, his final consonants not as crisp as they could be, his “L’s” and “R’s” sounding similar.
Jon was so shocked he could hardly process what Kai had asked. “You can talk?!”
“Since age fourteen,” Kai said in the same accent. “I don’t like.”
Jon was dumbfounded. “So I didn’t need George?”
Kai shook his head. “I prefer sign. More easy. Don’t need think.” Kai seemed to be talking in a kind of hybrid grammar of ASL and English, from what Jon could recall of it. As if sensing the way Jon’s mind was working, Kai added, “School all year good English. Hard. Think. Think. Think. Here, vacation. Break.”
“You forget sign, but I need learn talk English.”
“I thought you were dead, Kai. Signing reminded me too much of you. I’m sorry.”
Kai waved it off, literally.
“You’ve been here the whole time?”
Kai hesitated before finally nodding. He took in a breath. “You were adopted.” Kai spoke slowly, in proper English this time, focusing on his pronunciation, the stop between the “p” and “t” of “adopted” harsh, as if he had to focus on articulating the sounds. Kai’s inflection was flat, but based on his body language of their earlier interpreted conversation, Jon suspected it wasn’t a question.
“Yes. An older man. He paid for my school so he could show me off like a trained monkey, but it got me here.”
Kai blinked, his expression unreadable. “You abandoned me.” He hesitated before the “ed” of “abandon,” as if remembering the tense marker at the last moment, his hand reflexively waving backward, the ASL indication of “past.”
“They drugged me and dragged me away.” Jon noticed Kai’s confusion; perhaps the two words sounded too similar? “I tried to stay with you, but they wouldn’t let me. When I fought them, they knocked me out. I woke up and no one would tell me what happened to you. I thought. I assumed. You had to be dead.”
Kai took this in, his blank mask fading only slightly on the edges, though it was still difficult to read. Jon wasn’t sure if he preferred the anger or this; at least with the anger, he knew what Kai was thinking.
“I didn’t look for you sooner because I was in school, nowhere near here. And . . . I was afraid. These last twelve years I held out a thread of hope that maybe you were still alive, and maybe, unconsciously, I knew that the moment I saw it in black and white, that you had . . . died. . . .”
Kai blinked, but didn’t say or sign anything.
“Sara is dead,” Jon said, shocked at how it just came out, harsh and blunt and sudden.
Kai leaned back, some of his mask slipped.
“Leukemia, five years ago.”
Kai swallowed, but said nothing.
“We’re all we have left, Kai. If you have somewhere to go when you turn eighteen, fine. I won’t stop you. But if you don’t . . .” Jon shook his head. “I wish I could take you away from this place right now. Today.”
Kai laughed, a harsh sound. Even though he’d spoken several sentences, it still felt strange for Jon to hear his brother’s laughter, which had always been silent. “I am not a puppy. You can’t pay a $10 license fee and take me home.” Jon noticed Kai was attempting to use proper English grammar and pronunciation now, though he struggled with “license.”
“Then I’ll come get you on your birthday. We’ll find an apartment that works for both of us. I’ll get you a car--”
“Drive how? I don't know,” Kai said, slipping on his grammar, though he kept his consonants abnormally sharp.
“Then you can learn.”
Kai seemed to relax, a sparkle appearing in his eyes for the first time since he’d walked into the room. He hesitated for a moment, as if trying to formulate the English in his head, before speaking. “Could I have a wheelchair? One I don’t need share?” Kai wasn’t excited by the prospect of his own room or even his own car, but the idea of having a wheelchair all to himself. Did that mean he didn’t have one here? That he had to share with the other children?
“Of course,” Jon said. “We can go and have you measured so you can get one that fits you perfect, in any color you want.”
Kai beamed then, and for an instant, Jon caught a glimpse of the child he remembered before Kai forced the smile away, replacing it with skepticism. “You want what from me?” Kai asked again. “I have money none.”
“I don't need money. Just to know you,” Jon said, hiding his exasperation at Kai’s continued lack of trust. He had no idea what Kai’s life had been like these last twelve years to make him so leery of accepting help or gifts, even from his own brother.
Kai held up his left hand with three fingers--thumb, index, and middle--outstretched, pointing to one at a time as he spoke. “I don’t breathe good. I don’t walk good. I don’t talk good--unless I try hard hard,” Kai said, the final stop on his “don’ts” particularly harsh. “You will learn sign?” Kai had to pause to make sure he added the inflection at the end, though his raised eyebrows gave away that it was a question.
“Yes,” Jon said. “I will help you find a job, if that’s what you want. I will help you get into college, if that’s what you want. I want to make up for our lost years. That’s the only thing that I want from you.” Jon sighed at Kai's continued doubt. “And you can always change your mind later. What do you say? Brothers again?” Jon finished in sign, hoping he got it right, straining his memory.
Kai’s face flickered in a brief smile, repeated Jon’s signs while nodding. “Brothers again.”