June 26, 1996
Jon was surprised to find Kai standing outside County House, leaning sideways against the front doors in the meager shade cast by the building, his arms freed from their crutches, which stood beside him, carefully positioned so they wouldn’t fall. Kai’s eyes were closed, and Jon could see his shoulders and chest working, one hand on an inhaler he apparently wore around his neck. It made Jon frown reflexively, but Kai seemed to have agreed to Jon’s offer of a place to stay as a last resort and the promise of a wheelchair of his own and not out of any real desire to rekindle their relationship or make up for more than a decade apart. Kai was an angry, bitter teenager, a stranger, and Jon had to remember his brother wasn’t the sweet, innocent kid of Jon’s memory, but a man who had probably lived a much harder life than Jon could imagine.
Kai wore a faded black T-shirt and worn jeans with holes so large at the sides of the knees Jon could see the metal of Kai’s braces beneath, the obvious culprit for said gashes. The pants and shirt looked a couple sizes too big for Kai’s narrow, thin frame. An equally ratty backpack clung to Kai’s back, looking suspiciously empty, and when Jon cast his eyes down, he noticed Kai’s shoes. They were in about as bad shape as the rest of Kai’s outfit, beat-up leather laceups with metal fixed to each heel leading up into Kai’s pants, likely attached to his braces. Jon could see the top edge of each showed the outline of Kai’s toes, suggesting Kai had outgrown them long enough to deform the leather.
Clothes shopping for Kai would definitely have to be another thing to add to his list. Along with a trip to the orthotist. Kai’s feet would become deformed--if they weren’t already--if they didn’t do something about his shoes soon.
“Good morning,” Jon ventured as he drew closer.
Kai opened his eyes, nodded, and adjusted his weight so he wasn’t leaning against the wall, tucking the inhaler under his shirt.
“Where’s your stuff?” Jon asked reflexively.
Kai blinked at him, and for a moment, Jon wondered if maybe Kai hadn’t understood him. Instead, Kai sighed, replied in his odd ASL-grammar English, his pronunciation a little thick and nasally, but clear enough, “I have stuff none. I am lucky. Why? The Warden allow me keep my braces,” he hesitated a moment, concentrating, before adding in more correct English, “and a pair of crutches.” Evidently, Kai was fluent in English, but it didn’t come easily to him.
Jon nodded, not sure what to say to that. He remembered his time in foster care before he’d been adopted, how he’d moved from home to home, sometimes after only a few weeks, leaving with nothing but the clothes on his back and the single photograph he’d managed to hold onto after their parents died. Even though Kai had lived here for twelve years, Jon had to remind himself that Kai hadn’t the luxury of personal possessions. Apparently, as insane as it was, the woman who ran the place--Jon remembered her name was Evans--could have kicked Kai out without even his mobility aids. No wonder the prospect of his own wheelchair had made Kai’s eyes sparkle.
“All right. Well, Happy Birthday,” Jon said, but his words lost their punch at the dead look in his brother’s eyes. Jon certainly had his work cut out for him, it seemed. Did he really want to work with teenagers? Jon cleared his throat, stretched a hand out to take Kai’s crutches for him; apparently, with his braces--which Jon realized Kai hadn't been wearing the other day since he’d been barefoot--Kai didn’t need them. Kai’s glare was scathing, and he took them in hand himself.
“Don’t need you help me,” Kai said firmly.
Jon contained his sigh. Kai apparently wasn’t a big fan of being assisted--or prepositions. “All right. Let’s get in the car and decide what you want to do first.”
Kai had opted for his birthday present first, so Jon had driven to the store across the street from the hospital, giving up on any attempts to make conversation with Kai once their destination had been established.
As they made the short drive--County House was only minutes away from JMH, after all--Jon couldn’t help casting the occasional surreptitious glance his brother’s way. Kai had his forehead leaned against the window, staring out vacantly at the scenery, silent except for his ragged breathing. Apparently, despite how it pained Jon’s ears to hear it, that was normal for Kai.
They finally pulled into the parking lot of the store, which advertised rentals and sales of mobility equipment like walkers and wheelchairs, a poster of a smiling old woman with a walker dominating the front window.
Kai looked uncertain, staring straight ahead now, pulling at the loose strings of his knees.
“This is my birthday present to you, OK?” Jon said, speaking slowly and evenly the way he would to a nervous patient. “It’ll be yours. So you can get whatever you want.”
Kai turned his head and studied Jon for a moment, his face blank. Jon wasn’t certain what was going through his brother’s head, but finally, Kai brought a hand to his mouth, drawing his flat hand out and down. Jon remembered that sign. Thank you, Kai had said.
Inside, the store featured a few expensive electric scooters, obviously targeting the geriatric demographic, a wall of walkers of various styles and features, and some basic folding wheelchairs, including several light-weight models, again, intended for the elderly population. Toward the back were a few of the bulkier folding models not too dissimilar to the ones used at JMH, looking like clumsy, ancient hulks of metal beside the few smaller, sleeker solid-frame chairs on display.
Kai immediately gravitated toward those, his walk surprisingly good, though he clearly was stronger on his right than his left, relying on that side to help pull his left leg forward with each step. Jon watched Kai for a moment until the salesperson approached Jon, drawing his attention away from his brother.
“Can I help you?”
“Uh, yeah. I’d like to order a lightweight wheelchair for my brother,” Jon said, nodding his head toward Kai, who was playing around with one of the floor models, even though it was clearly too small for him, his long legs sticking out.
“Of course. We have a couple basic models, and then a few more that allow more customization. I can pull a few catalogs, too if you want.” The salesperson, whose name was Clyde, according to his nametag, ducked around the counter and started searching through the shelves.
Jon noticed the crutches hung on the wall near the register, mostly the temporary axillary kind, though they did have a couple pairs of adjustable forearm ones not too dissimilar to the kind Kai had. A sign beside them announced, We do custom orders!
Jon pointed. “What does that mean?”
Clyde heaved a stack of catalogs with names like Colours and TiLite and followed Jon’s finger. “For customers who use Lofstrands regularly, we can measure and order them to size, so they don’t have the noise of pins. Plus the custom ones are sturdier, less likely to break, and last longer. More expensive, of course, but the handgrips and the cuffs can be customized, too. Also, we can get them in different colors, especially in the pediatric sizes.”
Jon nodded, opened his mouth to ask another question when there was a loud crash from the back of the store. Jon turned his head but all he saw was Kai’s akimbo legs and feet and a spinning wheel.
Clyde had gone a little pale and rushed to the back, so Jon joined him.
Kai had apparently tipped over, dumped partially out of the wheelchair, perhaps not used to the lighter, more nimble chair, or perhaps because his center of gravity was off due to the chair not fitting him properly. Whatever had happened, he was struggling to get back up, fighting with the lock on one of his knees and the chair itself, which kept wanting to tip every time he tried to get back into it.
By now, Jon had learned to keep his distance, but the salesperson didn’t know any better, and swooped in. “This model is a little tippy,” he said to Kai, locking the wheels. “Makes it easier to maneuver, but it’s not for everyone, and it takes some adjustment.” Clyde held the chair steady, which enabled Kai to finally transfer back into it from the floor. “Is this your first wheelchair?”
Jon noticed Kai acted like he didn’t even hear Clyde, and Jon wasn’t sure if Kai was angry or embarrassed by the spill, or that Clyde had helped him, or what. Kai pushed to the other floor model light-weight chairs, testing the “tippiness” of all of them, continuing to ignore Clyde, who was regaling the features of each.
Clyde looked confused and began talking to Jon instead, occasionally glancing at Kai as if to include him, though Kai was engaged in trying each model out, transferring in and out of them before finally taking off around the store in the third one.
“CP?” Clyde asked once it was just the two of them, casually observing Kai wheeling around the store. This model fit him a little better, though he still looked even more gangly in it that usual.
Jon hesitated in replying. Clyde was likely asking so he could better recommend options for them, but MLS was a very rare disease; even if Clyde had spent years working in the business, he might not be familiar with it. “He has a form of muscular dystrophy with CP-like features, including occasional high muscle tone and spasms. He’s never had a wheelchair of his own before. But he’d like one, for around the house or when he’s tired.” In the back of his mind, Jon wondered if Kai would be annoyed with Jon for speaking for him like this, but Kai had had plenty of opportunity to talk to Clyde himself and hadn’t seemed particularly interested.
Clyde nodded. “How old is he?”
Clyde gestured for Jon to follow him back to the counter, where he flipped through one of the catalogs. “Means he’s probably still growing.” He flipped some more. “Do you know what features are most important to him? Weight, maneuverability, customization. . . ? Do you have a budget?”
Jon sighed. He normally considered himself a very patient man, but Kai’s juvenile behavior was testing his limits. “Kai,” Jon called several times. Kai ignored him, testing out the turning radius of the current model he was in and grinning, then growling and shaking his fingers when he’d accidentally catch them between the spokes or the rim. Jon stomped his foot in frustration, and that finally made Kai look up. Jon rolled his eyes, waved Kai over.
Kai wove his way toward Jon, occasionally hitting a display with his knees or wheels. When he reached Jon, he pointed to the chair he was in and then lifted his hands, palm up, pulling them towards himself. Jon knew he recognized the sign, but it didn’t hit him till Kai grew more frustrated and repeated it again. Was Kai shy about talking to people he didn’t know? But then, Jon was basically a stranger, and Kai had spoken to him. Usually with bitter reluctance, but still.
“You want that one?”
By now, Clyde was pretty sure Kai was either deaf or dumb in the archaic sense of the word, and had decided to direct 100% of his attention to Jon. “That’s the brand I was going to recommend--if it’s in your budget, XCalibre--but I was going to suggest a different model. We don’t have a floor model, but it’ll have a similar feel as that one.” Clyde pointed to a page in one of the catalogs. “The Ranger. It’s a good first wheelchair. Light, nimble, and adjustable, so as he gets more familiar with it he can tweak it a bit, and it’ll give him some room to grow. Plus, you can go anti-tip with it.” Clyde indicated the anti-tip accessory.
Jon showed Kai the catalog. “What do you think?”
Kai yanked it out of Jon’s hand, laying it in his lap, studying the picture of the chair and accessories. Kai’s fingers slid over the glossy paper. He frowned, then pointed to the one he was still sitting in, then pulled out from his chest with his middle finger and thumb. Another sign Jon remembered. After Kai had repeated it insistently a few times, it clicked. Kai had said, “I like this one.”
Jon sighed, looked back at Clyde. “What’s the difference between this one and the one he’s in now?”
“That’s the Elite. I recommend that for more experienced wheelchair users. Plus, the Ranger is a lot cheaper, because it’s less customizable. And if he’s new to this, he won’t really know what he wants yet. I’d go with the Ranger, and in a few years, he can upgrade if he wants.”
Kai seemed to be engrossed in the catalog, but he looked up at Jon and signed what Jon was pretty sure was OK followed by rubbing his fist on his chest in apology. Then he pointed to the catalog, his fist going rapidly through letters too fast for Jon to distinguish, then held his hand over his mouth, wiggling his fingers, his eyebrows furrowed.
Jon had no idea what that meant, and he desperately wanted to ask Kai to just speak English, but it was Kai’s birthday, a major shift was happening in his life, and as silly as it was, Jon just wanted to make Kai happy, to see his brother smile.
Kai sighed as he seemed to remember Jon's lack of ASL proficiency, closing the catalog. He took a breath, and spoke slowly, focusing on his articulation and grammar. “Ranger is good. What colors?”
Clyde blinked; apparently he’d figured Kai didn’t speak. He reached under the counter for a ring of paint chips. “The Ranger doesn’t come in too many color options, but you can pick from these,” he indicated the first six.
Kai pushed closer, snagging the ring and studying each one carefully before finally selecting a blue not dark enough to be navy but not light enough to be cobalt. A dark royal blue, perhaps. “No no tip,” Kai said. “I will learn.” Then he used the counter to pull himself back to standing again. Now that he was on his feet, so close to Jon, it made Jon realize more than ever this wasn’t the little kindergartener he’d been separated from all those years ago. Kai was only a few inches shorter, with years still left to grow.
“OK, we’ll get you measured. These don’t take too long, so hopefully it’ll come in within the month,” Clyde said with a smile, perhaps relieved Kai was finally cooperating.
“Happy Birthday,” Jon said, patting Kai on the back.
Kai looked at him, and for a second Jon worried Kai would cast one of his soul-melting glares Jon’s way, but instead, he flashed his own hint of a smile.
An hour or so later, they were back in Jon’s car. Kai’s chair had been ordered, along with a pair of new crutches--at Jon’s insistence--and Kai’s mood had lightened.
“You were really rude to that salesperson,” Jon said as he gave the car’s AC a chance to kick in. As cold and miserable as winter could be, Jon had forgotten how hot and, well, miserable, the summers in Jonesville were, too.
Kai looked at Jon, blinked, evidently confused. “I don’t like English.”
“Well, it’s what we have to work with, and I know you’re capable of speaking it well. It’s rude to ignore someone when they’re talking to you.”
“Is this your price?”
Jon’s eyebrows dipped. Was Kai mistranslating from ASL into English?
“For the chair, for a place to stay. You get to lecture me.” Kai’s voice was flat, as was his expression, making it impossible to tell whether he was angry, being sassy, or serious.
Jon sighed. “I was just making you aware of the situation. Accepting help from someone isn’t a bad thing.”
“I accepted your help,” Kai said with a few blinks, continuing his monotone and expressionless countenance.
Jon shook his head. He still loved his brother, even if he no longer knew him, and he didn’t regret having a second chance with him. He just never imagined Kai would have changed so much. Jon didn’t feel like he’d changed so significantly in the past twelve years. But then it hit Jon: presumably, Kai had continued to attend the Jonesville School for the Deaf while they were separated, and Jon remembered some of what he’d learned in the classes for friends and family they’d taken when Kai had first enrolled in the preschool program. Deafness wasn’t a disability, it was a culture, with its own norms and rules apart from the hearing world. The teacher had explained many Deaf people resented hearing people for not appreciating this, for being forced to learn another language when the hearing world didn’t care about the language of the Deaf--ASL.
“You hate hearing people, don’t you,” Jon said suddenly, as it hit him. It wasn’t a question.
“I am hearing,” Kai said, with the first hint of emotion in his voice: disgust.
“You are,” Jon said. “But you’re culturally Deaf, aren’t you. Even if you were forced to learn to speak English, you resent it, and you’re angry at the world for it.”
Kai breathed in and out several times before finally replying, “Being forced to speak is only a fraction of why I am angry at the world.” Kai spoke in perfect English, too perfect to sound natural. “Thank you for the wheelchair, etc. I am grateful. But I will not change. I can’t promise to not be angry. I can’t promise we will ever be friends.”
Jon nodded and finally pulled out of the parking lot. “You can’t promise to forgive me. I get it.”
Jon parked in front of the Jonesville Diner. His blood sugar was low, so he’d decided to make a pitstop before they went shopping for clothes and maybe dropped by Kai’s orthotist to order him some new shoes.
“Are you sure this is what you want? We really can go anywhere.”
Kai seemed constantly surprised that Jon was doing all this for him, that he cared what Kai wanted, and he kept asking, albeit in different ways, what Jon expected in return, what his “price” was. “David said the waitresses were pretty here,” Kai said, struggling with the word “waitresses” and not explaining who David was. A friend? “I like sweets,” Kai said.
If Jon got a nickle for every time he stifled a sigh with Kai since picking him up earlier that morning. . . . “You always did. But you’ll need to eat something of substance, too. Even on your birthday, you can’t just eat dessert.” That made Jon smile despite himself. As a child, Jon had often fought to get Kai to eat more than a couple bites of meat or vegetables, but put anything sweet in front of him, and he’d devoured it.
Kai looked at Jon for a moment, his expression strange and unreadable before finally nodding.
The diner was busy, even though it was early for lunch and late for breakfast, the smell of grease and burnt coffee permeating the air. Jon noticed Kai seemed quieter than usual--if that were possible, his eyes darting around the room nervously. Still, he held his shoulders and head up, doing his best to consciously hide his anxiety.
As Jon scanned the room, he observed Kai’s friend had been right; with the exception of an older woman who looked like a manager despite her uniform, all the waitresses were young and fairly attractive.
One of the women led them to a table and took their drinks; Jon ordered coffee and Kai opted for milk, pointing to it on the back of the menu instead of speaking.
“So, you can order whatever you want,” Jon said, watching how Kai’s fingers fiddled with the plastic edges of the large menu, as if he were trying to peel the layers apart.
Kai shrugged. “Not hungry.”
Jon couldn’t stifle his sigh this time. He remembered being eighteen. He may not have weighed much more than Kai, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t constantly ravenous. Even if Kai had eaten something before Jon picked him up, that would have been hours ago.
“What about if I order you something, and then, after, you can get any dessert you want.”
Kai shrugged and closed his menu, dragging his fingernails over the laminate, staring at the backing. Was he mad because Jon had called him out for his behavior at the mobility store? Or was Kai always like this now? Withdrawn and sad. Jon remembered Vicky saying she’d never seen him smile.
The waitress returned, and Jon hastily ordered himself a chef salad and Kai the Jonesville burger--a bacon cheeseburger with fries. What eighteen-year-old boy didn’t like that? The waitress smiled at them both before disappearing, and Jon noticed Kai’s eyes had drifted toward one of the other servers, a tall, thin girl not much older than Kai with medium-brown curls piled high on her head and a smile that could ensnare any man.
Kai knew she wasn’t smiling at him, but he was good at pretending. She was beautiful, one of the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and he wondered what her hair would look like loose. How long was it? It was impossible to tell the way she had it pulled up. He hoped it was long. He’d had a thing for curly hair ever since his (unrequited) middle school crush on Erika Wasserman.
Kai knew his brother was watching him, but he pretended not to notice. It seemed Jon alternated between several roles. The first, and most familiar, was speaking slowly and patronizingly, as if Kai wasn’t capable of understanding him otherwise. The second, and another Kai was used to, was treating Kai like an unusual captured stray animal that had to be carefully observed out of scientific curiosity and uncertainty as to how he would behave next. Lastly, and the role that made Kai most uncomfortable because it was so foreign, was this awkward parental thing Jon slipped into from time to time. Was it because he was older? Because he was a doctor and used to ordering people around? Kai didn’t hate authority nearly as badly as David had, but he had no love for being told what to do, especially in English.
Still, despite Kai’s best attempts to push Jon, his brother had been remarkably patient and calm the entire time, and other than a few sighs, hadn’t yet lost his temper. Kai still couldn’t figure out what Jon wanted though, and that terrified him, even if he wouldn’t let Jon see that. The last twelve years had taught him no one gave anything for nothing; there was always a price: sometimes a steep one. His last venture with a Taylor relative hadn’t exactly been all rainbows and kittens, either.
“So, what kind of things do you like to do?” Jon’s voice pulled Kai away from his thoughts and the attractive curly-haired waitress.
Kai blinked at Jon, deciding it wouldn’t hurt to reply. “Read.”
Jon’s eyebrows furrowed. Kai realized how much they looked alike; it was a little eerie. If he got to be that old, would he look just like Jon? Well, except for the ridiculous haircut. Kai would never shave his head. “You like to read, but you hate English.”
Kai shrugged, searched for something to keep his fingers occupied, finally settling for tying the straw wrapper in increasingly more intricate knots until the paper broke. “Just because I hate to speak doesn’t mean I can’t like to read,” Kai said in proper English, since his more lazy hybrid ASL English apparently annoyed Jon. Normally, Kai wouldn’t care, but for some reason, especially after that incredible wheelchair Jon had let him order, Kai figured it was the least he could do.
Jon didn’t seem to know what to say to this, drinking his coffee.
Kai drummed his fingers on the tabletop, then pressed his hands into the seat of the chair to adjust his weight. “You’re really a doctor. A real doctor?”
Jon rubbed his hand over the top of his head. “As opposed to a fake doctor?”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-five. I’ll be twenty-six in August.” Jon looked a little hurt that Kai didn’t know this. Honestly, Kai wouldn’t even have remembered his own birthday if it weren’t for always being sick and David, who never, ever forgot. Until this year. Kai pushed the thought from his mind.
“Pulmonology,” Kai said slowly. He still had trouble with “L’s” and “R’s” sometimes, especially in longer words and when sandwiched between vowels.
Before either brother could say anything else, their waitress returned with their food. Jon had ordered Kai an enormous hamburger, dripping with cheese and bacon. David would be in heaven. Bacon wasn’t something they ever had at County House, but David had managed to blackmail one of the cooks to make some for him from time to time, under The Warden’s nose--though as strongly as bacon smelled, Kai wasn’t sure how that could be possible.
Kai’s aunt had loved bacon, and made Kai cook it for her, which was probably one of the reasons he threw up so much. Some days he was fine, but others, he just couldn’t stand the smell of it. Apparently, today was one of those days.
Jon sat, staring at Kai’s empty chair for a few seconds, processing. Once their food had arrived, Kai had turned a little pale and then suddenly stood--using the table to help himself to his feet, and done the closest thing to a run he could manage toward the restrooms.
Maybe the bacon cheeseburger wasn’t the best ordering decision. Jon debated about following Kai, but the faint headache and lightheadedness told him he really needed to eat, and Kai had made it abundantly clear he could take care of himself. Still, as Jon ate, he kept his eyes focused on the small hallway that lead to the restrooms; if Kai didn’t reappear in a timely manner, he’d go check on him anyway.
After about five minutes, Kai emerged, looking a little wobbly even at this distance, a hand on the wall. The pretty curly-haired waitress went over to talk to him, but all Jon could make out was a few nods and head shakes before Kai smiled shyly and slowly returned to their table.
“I’m fine,” Kai said immediately. But he sat, staring at his food instead of eating it, sipping his milk and looking pale and tired.
Jon frowned, but didn’t push him, signaling for the waitress. “Do you like chocolate? You’re not allergic, right?”
Kai tilted his head, shook it. “I like it. But I shouldn’t eat it.”
Jon’s eyebrows furrowed at Kai’s cryptic response. “What about peanut butter? You’re not allergic?”
Kai shook his head.
Deciding not to make any assumptions, Jon asked, “And you like it?”
Stifling yet another sigh, Jon signaled the waitress and ordered Kai a peanut butter milkshake. If Kai wasn’t going to eat the burger, or even the fries, perhaps that would be better than nothing.
“Kai, if you’re not feeling well, we can go back to the hotel--”
“I’m fine,” Kai repeated, offering a smile Jon could tell was not only forced but fake, eating a few of the fries, as if to placate him.
Jon shook his head and went back to his salad. “I thought this would be easy,” he muttered to himself.
Kai laughed. He was breaking fries in half, not actually eating them, just playing with his food. “You adopted the wrong puppy if you wanted easy,” he said, evidently referencing his licensing joke from the other day.
Their waitress returned with Kai’s milkshake, delivered in a tall, old-fashioned glass, topped with whipped cream and a cherry.
Kai’s eyes lit up as he brought it closer, eating the cherry first.
Jon sighed, but he smiled. “Happy Birthday.”
“Oh, is it your birthday?” the waitress squealed.
Kai blushed a brilliant red.
“His eighteenth,” Jon announced.
Their waitress signaled to the others, shouting, “We have a birthday here!” And soon they’d all gathered around.
Kai was mortified, though when the curly-haired waitress joined the group--Becca, her nametag said--he tried to hide it, going for disaffected, leaning back in his chair like this kind of thing happened to him all the time.
The waitresses--and even some of the patrons--joined in the happy birthday song. When they’d finished, Kai was actually smiling.
“Happy Birthday,” their waitress said once everyone had filtered back to their stations. “What’s your favorite kind of pie?”
“Everything,” Kai said.
She laughed, a low rolling chuckle. “I’ll surprise you, then,” she said with a wink.
Kai had devoured his milkshake and pie, and even managed to eat a few bites of his burger (without the bacon--Jon made a mental note that Kai apparently didn’t like it). They’d detoured to Kai’s orthotist to order some new shoes, and then they’d headed to the mall. Jon decided to keep things simple: get Kai a few pairs of jeans and some T-shirts and then maybe they could do some apartment hunting.
They walked into JCPenney together, heading toward the men’s department. “Do you know your size?” Jon said, sorting through the stacks of jeans.
Jon looked at him. Kai was a little shorter and thinner than he was, so he supposed he could make a guess. “I’d say, 28 or 29 waist. . . . Does that sound right?”
Kai shrugged. “I would wear whatever would fit my braces. And a belt,” Kai said.
Jon shook his head, snagged a few different sizes for both the waist and leg and dragged Kai to the dressing room.
“Taking my pants off isn’t easy,” Kai said as soon as they hit the room. Kai pointed to his shoes, as if that would explain everything.
Jon took a deep breath. Kai’s shoes were attached to his braces, which meant he couldn’t easily remove them, or his pants, for that matter. Which, after their visit to the orthotist, Jon should have realized. “Fine. You won’t try them on then. Maybe I can see your size at least. Is this weird?”
Jon motioned for Kai to lift his shirt up, and as soon as he did, Jon realized any awkwardness between them would be avoided: Kai’s jeans were at least a size or two too big, barely held up by an equally large belt he’d looped back. The oversized clothes had hidden how horrifyingly gaunt Kai was, his hipbones prominent and the edge of his ribs, peeking beneath his raised shirt, clearly visible. No wonder. Even with dessert, Kai had hardly eaten any lunch, and Jon doubted his appetite had been much better at County House.
“All right, forget it. I’ll just buy a few different sizes and styles and you can see what works for you when we get to the hotel, I guess. Let’s go pick out some shirts and we can get out of here.”
Jon and Kai exited the mall, the acrid odor of cigarette smoke hitting Jon’s nose: a group of kids about his brother’s age were gathered around, smoking and talking. Jon immediately glanced over at Kai, who was holding his breath and doing his best to hurry.
But Jon didn’t have a handicapped placard, and hadn’t been able to find a parking space close. Kai was trying to act cool, but Jon could see his chest jerking, and soon he was coughing. Jon would have offered to get the car and pick Kai up so he didn’t have to walk, but honestly, he didn’t want to leave Kai alone and it was probably better not to leave Kai near the smokers anyway.
Kai coughed harder, beginning to wheeze, leaning against one of the parked cars, fishing out his inhaler and taking a few quick puffs. His eyes were shut, and he leaned forward as best he could without losing his balance, his breathing harsh, loud, painful sounding.
Jon hated not being able to do much, so he got close to Kai, offering him his support and his hand. Kai accepted, to Jon’s surprise, still working hard for each breath, though the medicine was evidently working. Over the next few minutes, Kai’s wheeze lessened, and his breathing slowed, though the attack had clearly taken a lot out of him.
Jon said nothing, just being there for Kai, giving time for the albuterol to continue working, and for Kai to recover. Several more minutes passed, and though Kai was clearly wiped out, he pushed away from the car, releasing Jon’s hand, and beginning to walk--slowly--back to Jon’s sedan.
Jon walked silently beside Kai, matching his pace, not wanting Kai to feel rushed, carefully listening and watching for any signs of further distress. Jon was relieved the space on the passenger’s side of his vehicle was empty, so he didn’t need to back out for Kai to get in. As soon as the doors were unlocked, Kai sunk in gratefully, using the door and its frame to help ease himself into the seat before pulling his legs in one by one. He leaned back, his eyes falling closed, his breathing a little more labored than it had been earlier in the day, but he seemed to be OK.
Jon needed to get Kai a nebulizer, too, he realized, since he didn’t have one of his own now that he no longer lived at County House. “Let’s get you home so you can rest a while,” Jon offered.
Kai didn’t open his eyes. “I don’t have a home anymore,” he said in pieces, his voice low and breathy.
Jon was grateful he’d rented a traditional folding wheelchair for Kai to use until his came in, because Kai had fallen asleep not long after Jon pulled out of the parking lot, and though he roused when Jon shook him, was clearly too exhausted from the long day and the attack--his legs jittering with spasms--to walk. As underweight as Kai was, Jon wasn’t strong enough to carry him, either, so he helped Kai transfer. Kai initially tried to push himself, but was too short of breath and had to give up, gasping, after only a few feet. Though he clearly wasn’t thrilled by the prospect, he had no choice but to let Jon push him the rest of the way to their room. Concerned for Kai, Jon left everything else in the car, figuring he could get the rest of their purchases later.
Because of his strange situation, transferring programs, Jon had originally opted for a temporary subletting situation, living in a resident’s apartment who was away doing a rural rotation for a couple months. With Kai in the picture, though, Jon had switched to a hotel room with an accessible bathroom and two double beds so Kai would be more comfortable. Jon hoped they’d find a two-bedroom apartment that would work for both of them soon, though.
Kai transferred to one of the beds by himself, but he soon lay back, his eyelids heavy.
Jon wasn’t sure if he should offer to help Kai undress or not. “Let me know if you need anything,” Jon said instead, hoping that was neutral enough.
“I’m sorry,” Kai said, his voice breathy.
“It’s fine,” Jon said, wanting to smooth Kai’s hair, but not sure Kai would welcome the touch. “Get some rest. Do . . . you want me to help you take your braces off?”
Kai put one hand, folded, fingers touching his chest near his shoulder, then let it sag. Perhaps the sign for “tired”? Because his arm fell shortly after, and soon he was asleep.
Kai woke slowly. His chest, neck, and back hurt, and he felt tired, like he had been for weeks, ever since he’d started hoarding his meds in preparation for “kicking out” day, but he was breathing easier as he pushed himself into a sitting position. As he did so, he realized at some point, while he was sleeping, Jon had taken off Kai’s pants, braces, socks, and shoes, shifting him under the blankets in just his underwear. Kai glanced over, seeing his braces and crutches propped up against the wall on one side of the bed, the rented wheelchair on the other, within easy reach, his jeans folded neatly in the seat. Kai sat for a moment, waking up, processing. It disturbed him, on one level, that Jon had managed to strip him of his pants and braces without Kai waking up. Doing so wasn’t a quick or easy task, especially since, presumably, Jon wasn’t nearly as familiar with the process as Kai was. Either you had to try to work the jeans off over the bulky braces beneath, then undo the numerous straps before finally freeing his feet from his shoes, or you had to leave the jeans on, working to undo the straps by feel until Kai could shimmy out of the whole mess at once. Both were time consuming, and both were awkward, and Kai wondered, if he hadn’t woken throughout that ordeal, what else could he have possibly slept through?
Nervously, Kai slipped a hand under the waistband of his underwear, cupping his package as if to reassure himself it was still there, as silly as the idea was. Even tired and nervous and still unsure as to what Jon wanted with him, the subtle touch had him half hard in seconds. But a few strictly non-sexy thoughts--including Jon with his hands on him in the dressing room only hours earlier--and things took care of themselves. He should never have allowed himself to fall asleep while Jon was still awake.
Jon was awfully hands on, especially for a hearie, and Kai worried if that was perhaps Jon’s price. After all, he was buying Kai stuff, and he’d wanted Kai to strip at the mall, and evidently had done exactly that while Kai was asleep. He shivered, staring at the door of the bedroom that led to the rest of the suite. Jon was a doctor, and doctors were generally hands-on by nature, and Jon hadn’t really done anything to raise any of Kai’s red flags except for the very fact that he hadn’t raised any red flags. If Jon was some kind of perv, he’d had plenty of opportunities--in the car, in the dressing room--but Jon had seemingly been nothing but concerned and eager to make Kai happy, as ridiculous as that was. Kai threw the blanket off, grabbed his jeans and used his hands to pull them on each leg. Sleeping in his braces was uncomfortable, and Kai had vague memories of Jon taking care of him when they were young, before their parents died. Maybe Jon had genuinely wanted to help. To make Kai more comfortable. If Jon had meant Kai harm, would he have left his jeans and wheelchair nearby? Or his crutches and braces, for that matter? Would he have bothered to get a hotel room with a bathroom that Kai wouldn’t have any trouble using? If Jon really wanted to take advantage of him, like Aunt Julia had, it would have been easy to bring Kai somewhere relatively inaccessible, to keep his mobility aids out of reach, to try to trap him. . . .
But Jon had ordered Kai a wheelchair all his own. New crutches that would fit him properly and wouldn’t perpetually announce his presence with the clang of rattling pins. He’d rented this room, and this wheelchair, Kai thought gratefully as he transferred into it. Kai wouldn’t let his guard down yet, but maybe it was possible Jon was just trying to be--as foreign as that was--nice. Maybe . . . things would be OK. Good, even.
Jon was sitting at the desk in the suite, taking notes on apartment complexes for them to check out the following day when Kai finally woke. He rolled out of the bedroom in his rented chair, dressed again, though his feet were bare. Jon had taken a calculated risk once he was certain Kai was sound asleep and removed his pants, braces, and shoes. Kai had been right; it wasn’t easy to do, but the too-large pants certainly made the job easier. Jon had been a little surprised Kai didn’t wake the entire time, but also a little relieved. Kai needed the rest.
Jon had discovered his oversights in their earlier clothing run once he’d gotten Kai’s pants off: Kai apparently had only been allowed to keep two pairs of underwear--the ratty pair of tighty-whiteys that fit only slightly better than the rest of his clothing--and one extra, folded in his bag, and no socks except the single pair of brace socks he’d been wearing under his orthotics. Kai could probably also use a pair of shoes he could wear that weren’t attached to his braces.
“Feeling better?” Jon couldn’t gauge Kai’s mood, which he was beginning to suspect would be a common experience.
Kai still looked a little tired, but he seemed to be breathing easier, relatively, and his cheeks had more color. He nodded, pushed a little closer. “You took off my braces,” he said, speaking slowly as if he were having to think before each word to make sure his grammar was right.
“I figured you’d be more comfortable.”
Kai stared at Jon for a long time, an uncomfortable, penetrating stare, one Jon had noticed Kai giving him throughout the day, as if he were constantly searching for Jon’s hidden motivations.
“I’m sorry if I overstepped,” Jon added in apology.
Kai took in a harsh breath and only nodded; whether that was an indication that Kai didn’t mind or what, Jon wasn’t sure.
Kai wasn’t angry, surprisingly, and Jon would take what he could get. Maybe it was a sign he was making some headway with his brother after all. “You hungry? We can go somewhere, or I can order room service or delivery.”
Kai’s head tilted, almost like a bird or dog. “Room service?”
“Yeah, food made here in the hotel and they bring it to your room?”
Kai rolled his eyes. “I grew up sheltered, not under a rock. I know what room service is, even if I’ve never stayed in a hotel before.”
There was the sass Jon was expecting, but he realized this time that Kai was smiling faintly. Jon reached over for the room service menu and offered it to his brother. “Take a look and see if there’s anything there that sounds good. If not, you can call down to the front desk and ask if they have any menus for places that deliver to the hotel.
Kai laid the menu in his lap and pushed to the couch, transferring easily, though it took him a moment to recover his breath, making Jon frown reflexively.
“I’m sorry about earlier. I was trying to do too much in one day.”
Kai shrugged as he flipped through the binder. At first, Jon didn’t think Kai was going to say anything, but he finally looked up at Jon, his eyes unreadable, but not intentionally so; the emotions there were just too complex for Jon to parse out, especially from across the room. “I was heading toward an attack all day. The cigarette smoke just triggered it sooner rather than later.”
Jon nodded. “I hope you don’t mind, but I talked to Dr. Johnsen while you were asleep and I’m going to pick up a nebulizer and your prescriptions tomorrow. You’ll be OK until then, right?”
Kai nodded. “I have my inhalers and a few of my pills. I’d been hoarding them for a while, since I wasn’t sure how things would go once I turned eighteen,” Kai admitted.
Jon frowned, but let Kai’s comment slide, seemingly unnoticed. “I also found a few apartment complexes that sound promising. Made some phone calls. Weren’t too many two-bedrooms with accessible bathrooms, but I found a couple, plus a few more that the landlord said could be modified easily.”
Kai nodded, looked up at Jon for a moment. “I keep expecting to wake up,” he said. Jon noticed Kai had been trying harder, since about midway through the day, to speak properly for Jon’s sake.
Kai’s brows furrowed for a minute, perhaps confused by the idiom, before continuing, “None of this feels real.”
Jon could understand on a certain level; he’d felt similarly at first, after their parents died, and later, when he first moved in with his adoptive father. “Do you usually dream about having asthma attacks?”
Jon had meant it as a kind of joke, but Kai responded anyway. “Oh, yeah, all the time.” He abandoned the open binder in his lap a moment, locking his hands and stretching them high above his head, rolling his neck and shoulders. “But I usually wake up gasping, and I’m still here, with you, so either this is a particularly unusual dream. . . . Maybe I’m in a coma? . . . Or it really is real.”
Kai spoke so matter-of-factly, it made Jon’s chest hurt. He should have been there all those years for his brother. How selfish he’d been, focusing on school and his fear of learning that Kai really was dead . . . of wanting a life of his own without needing to worry about anyone else . . . instead of looking for Kai at his first opportunity.
Kai shrugged, returned to examining the menu. “They say you don’t dream when you’re unconscious, especially drugged, but it’s not true. It’s not common, but it’s happened to me before.”
Jon studied Kai, but said nothing. Dr. Johnsen, despite Jon’s pleas, wouldn’t violate Kai’s privacy even for a general survey of what Kai’s health over the past twelve years had been--though Johnsen had only been Kai’s physician for five years or so.
“Meatloaf tonight,” Kai said as he continued to flip through the menu.
"Is that what you want?" Jon checked his watch. It was almost six, and he was going to need to eat something soon. If Kai couldn’t make up his mind, Jon would have to eat a little something out of the vending machine, as much as he hated junk food.
“At County House,” Kai said, looking up. “They love meatloaf because it’s cheap and everyone--even the kids on feeding tubes, if they blend it up enough--can eat it.” Kai drew a hand out from his mouth, thumb inward, jerking down, his face one of disgust, then he held his left hand in front of him, made a box shape in the air with his hands, then pinched the skin between his thumb and index finger. Kai seemed to remember himself, and clarified, “I fucking hate meatloaf.”
Jon rose and crossed the room, taking a seat in one of the chairs near the sofa. Kai’s face twitched at the proximity, but he didn’t say anything, and Jon figured it was as close to an invitation as he’d get. “There has to be a food you like though. Pizza?”
Kai shrugged, shut the menu and tossed it aside, began working his fingers into his neck.
“Hamburger? Fries? Well, we ruled those out already today. Spaghetti? You used to love that when you were little. Well, as much as you loved anything that wasn’t sugary,” Jon conceded.
Kai sighed. “Spaghetti is OK,” he said, saying the word slowly, as if he were worried he’d flub the pronunciation. “But it’s a ‘bad one.’”
Jon’s eyebrows dipped.
Jon really wanted to push, but his few hours with his brother had taught him that pushing Kai was like harassing a growling dog. It didn’t make the situation better, and if you were really unlucky, you’d get attacked.
Kai looked at Jon hard for a long while before apparently deciding to explain. “My stomach doesn’t always like to be filled. I couldn’t eat the bacon today. Why? The smell,” Kai said, looking at Jon earnestly, as if hoping that would cover it. “Growing up, I needed to learn foods that didn’t taste bad a second time.” Kai chose his words slowly and carefully, as if he were thinking in ASL and translating as he spoke.
Was Kai suggesting he had chronic nausea and vomiting? He’d always had a sensitive stomach as a child, and he’d never been a big eater, but this was serious. That could certainly help to explain how underweight he was.
“No, I don’t have an eating disorder,” Kai said defensively, as if he thought that was how Jon’s mind was turning. “Food and I just . . . don’t always get along.”
Jon accepted the menu from Kai, glancing through it. “How about a turkey sandwich? Do you think you could manage that? And I’ll get you a slice of cheesecake. I suppose it’s more nutritious than most desserts, and it’s full of calories.”
Kai nodded, and though he feigned more nonchalance, Jon caught the hint of a relieved smile.
Kai wasn’t going to admit it, but so far, Jon seemed pretty awesome, and Kai had begun to relax around him, his earlier suspicions subsiding. After all, he’d done nothing but put up with Kai’s shit all day and buy him stuff. Not in a showy, “trying to buy my way into your favor kind of way,” either. That didn’t mean it wasn’t blatant how much Jon wanted to be friends, despite Kai’s warning. The fact that Jon was a doctor had automatically painted him in a certain light; after all, Kai had experienced dozens, if not hundreds of physicians in his life. Most of them were arrogant, didn’t listen, and thought they knew him better than he knew himself. Kai had especially hated the ones who wouldn’t wait for an interpreter, or who wouldn’t use the interpreter properly. Who treated him like a small child instead of someone capable of fully feeling pain and understanding what was going on.
Jon, on the other hand, even though he occasionally slipped into a slightly condescending tone, seemed to genuinely care about Kai, as bewildering as that was. Dinner had been one of those moments, when he hadn’t pushed Kai to explain more, simply decided maybe staying in would be best for both of them and selecting items he thought might work with Kai’s finicky stomach. Kai had forced himself to eat half the sandwich, and most of the cheesecake, and had listened attentively as Jon spoke a bit about his life and his plans for the future. Kai had even offered a few of his own questions and answers, but the truth was, as the evening wore on and grew closer to the time for him to take his medicine, his breathing became worse, increasingly difficult to hide from Jon, who was nothing if not perceptive.
Kai leaned forward, he thought, nonchalantly, his hands on his knees, which made breathing a little easier. But he still had to work hard for each breath, a faint wheeze on each exhalation, using every muscle in his upper body.
Without a word, Jon pressed Kai’s rescue inhaler into his hand. Kai greedily took several puffs, forcing himself to hold it in to give the medicine a chance to sink down. His breathing was getting worse, more panicked, and he tried to tell himself he just had to wait for the medicine to work, but his body had other ideas.
“It’s OK, Kai,” Jon said in a soothing voice, smoothing his hand over Kai’s back in a way that was both comforting and managed to relieve some of the strain on his overworked muscles. “Breathe. Come on. In. Out. In. Out.”
Kai followed Jon’s voice like a beacon leading him through the darkness as he slowly felt the medicine beginning to work, opening his bronchi and letting his breathing deepen, the tightness in his chest easing.
Jon smoothed Kai’s shoulder before pulling away, as if realizing he was overstepping.
“FINE,” Kai signed, whether to indicate he didn’t mind or he was OK, even he wasn’t sure.
“Let’s get you in bed.”
Kai nodded, but he didn’t move immediately. “Thank you,” he said, his voice a little hoarse.
Jon shrugged it off, pulling the rented wheelchair closer.
Kai put a hand on Jon’s arm to draw his attention. “No. Thank you,” he said again, putting more force into his voice. It made him cough, wince; his chest was sore. “For everything.” He smiled faintly. “I was wrong, earlier. I want to try to be friends.”
Continue to November 24, 2000 - Part I -------->