May 19, 1994
Kai stretched out his legs and reclined in the chair. He was in one of the "quiet" rooms at County House they used for therapy or private meetings, his current social worker smiling placidly at him from her seat opposite him. Kai hated this room. It smelled like fake flowers that was strong enough to make him wheeze but just weak enough he didn't actually have an attack, so he spent the whole time extra uncomfortable. It was decorated to look like some frumpy grandmother's parlor, but it was so purposeful, and the furniture so clearly ordered out of a health services catalog that it reminded Kai even more of what County House really was--a glorified nursing home.
His current social worker was named Martha. Or was that the last one? Kai honestly wasn't sure and he didn't care. He was only here because the Warden had decided Kai needed to talk to someone about David aging out, and social workers were cheaper and easier to find than psychologists or psychiatrists. So every week for the past three months, starting a few weeks before David left, Kai had been forced to sit in this stuffy, uncomfortable room across from Martha for an hour.
Because the Warden could make him be there, but she couldn't make Kai talk.
Didn't stop Martha from trying, though. "Your nutritionist tells me you've lost weight again, Kai. A boy your age should be putting on weight, not losing it. Have you been eating?"
Kai crossed his arms tightly across his chest and scowled at her. She knew the answer, obviously, since she'd either talked to Molly, the nurse turned dietician who'd been treating him since he went on the Mexitil, or she'd read his medical files. Kai hated that he seemingly had no privacy as a ward of the state, and the Warden, as his de-facto guardian, could grant anyone and everyone access to his medical records she wanted, if she decided it was in his "best interest."
Martha made her face look sympathetic. "I know you're sad that David is gone, but you knew this day would come. Not taking care of yourself won't change anything."
Hard to take care of yourself when you don't care. When no one cares. Kai felt tears prickling in his sinuses. He'd cried himself to sleep more nights than not since David left, hating himself for it but unable to stop. Even when David had been here, Kai had often felt alone, but now that he was gone. . . . Kai went through the motions of his life, but what was the point? He failed to see one. Even all these people--doctors and social workers and nurses and so forth--they didn't really care about him. They were only doing their jobs. He was just another file for them to get through before they could clock out and go home to the people in their lives who really mattered to them.
It was getting harder to hold back his tears, and Kai just wanted to go to his room so he could curl up under his bed and cry until he couldn't cry anymore. He missed being mute, when he could scream and scream and no one would hear him. Kai pressed his hands into his eyes hard to keep the tears at bay. He was not going to cry in front of Martha, or anyone else, for that matter. Tears were a sign of weakness, but more than that, they showed what he was feeling, and he was damned if he was going to let anyone know how much he was fucking hurting inside. Because if they knew, that gave them power over him. Power they could use against him.
Kai took a deep breath, buried his pain, and wiped any sign of it from his face, hiding it behind a mask of disdain, folding his arms on his chest and going back to studying Martha as if she were a total waste of his time. Hopefully she hadn't read anything into his momentary lapse of control.
"It's all right to be upset, Kai. You lost a friend. But you can make new friends. There are others children here at County House. And what about school?"
Kai struggled not to show any sign of how much her mention of school affected him. He hated that fucking place. He spoke horribly, and everyone, including the teachers, tortured him because of it. County House wasn't much of a sanctuary, but high school had made it one. Nothing felt better than coming home to his room every day. And weekends were even better. Even if his room was empty now.
Dammit. Close your eyes, Kai. Don't think of how alone you are. You're stronger than this bitch. She's trying to wear you down. Get you to admit how sad you are so she can send you away. Deep breaths. Hold onto the anger. Kai opened his eyes, flashing his irritation. Focused on the English, not caring about his accent, which was thick and nasally, sounding very much like a Deaf person's speech even after nearly two years of speech therapy since he still hadn't quite gotten the trick of coordinating his vocal chords and tongue and lips in the perfect way to make his words sound right. "Homework. I have a lot. I need go write, write, write, read, read, read, etc. Fish. Now we fish? I go can?" Kai couldn’t help signing while he spoke, and he forgot that in English, you say “finish,” not "fish," but he wasn’t at school, and he doubted Martha would correct him on his grammar or pronunciation.
Kai almost never spoke to anyone at County House, so it took Martha a moment to recover, surprised. Then she had to decipher Kai's ASL grammar English. She took a breath. "Meeting with me is just as important as your school work. We still have forty-five minutes."
Kai sighed, making it exaggerated, and sunk down further into his seat. He leaned his head to one side and broke eye contact. Something that was rude enough he'd have gotten a slap if Martha had been Deaf, but since she was hearing, it didn't nearly have the effect Kai had hoped.
"It was nice to hear you talk, by the way," Martha said, thankfully changing the subject from school. "Have you been talking more now that David is gone?" As if David had been Kai's reason for not talking all these years.
Fuck you, Kai thought, flashing both his middle fingers at her. That was one sign she was sure to know.
To Martha's credit, she didn't even blink. Probably was used to getting the finger from kids and adults. "I know you don't like me. I know you don't want to be here. But I think you could benefit from these sessions if you'd talk to me."
Kai laughed. He'd meant it to be a brief, sarcastic scoff, but then he just started laughing at how ridiculous this whole situation was, and soon he couldn't stop himself. Especially since he realized he hadn't laughed, not really, since David left, which made the sadness swell so powerfully Kai knew he had to keep laughing or he'd burst into tears.
Kai had managed to hold it together and not talk for the rest of the session, though not before getting a lecture about how Martha was going to have to recommend he see a psychiatrist about his eating disorder and depression if he didn't start talking to her and gaining weight soon. Immediately after, Kai stumbled to the boy's community bathroom and threw up in the sink.
He spent several minutes rinsing his mouth and face, avoiding his reflection. He hated looking at himself. Always had, but more so since he'd started going through puberty and that, combined with the side effects of the Mexitil, had stripped away the softness of his boyhood and left nothing but awkward angles marred by steroid-fueled pimples. He looked like an unfinished marionette, his hands and feet and knees far too large for his frail body, his bones too prominent. His eyes too big and blue. And his hair was becoming more and more blond, the golden highlights shifting toward the dominant color, even in his eyebrows, eyelashes, and body hair. Fitting. Sometimes he felt like a puppet. Totally out of control of his own life, his own body. Kai watched the water drip off his chin in the mirror and wondered how long it would take him to bleed out if he slit his wrists tonight. Or if he managed to cut his femoral artery. He knew a little bit about anatomy. He'd had IV's in his thigh in the femoral vein dozens of times. And he'd read books about how fast someone could bleed out from the artery there. Could he do it before someone found him? How much would it hurt? Was it too deep to reach with the small blades he had hidden in the walls and floor of his room?
Would anyone care when he was gone? Or would they just be irritated by the extra paperwork his death would mean?
"Hey, Kai!" Kai recognized the overly eager young male voice. It had a slight impediment to it, like the letters wouldn't slide out as easily as they did for most people. Kai commiserated, even if he didn't have CP like Frankie, the owner of the voice.
Kai used the grab bars on the side of the sink to help him shift his weight to face Frankie. To stop looking at himself. The boy was about ten, round-faced and chubby, with chaotic dark hair and bright, curious green eyes. He leaned heavily on his crutches, potentially a pair Kai may have used himself once upon a time, although Kai had a notorious habit of breaking his. Frankie had diplegic spastic CP, and had showed up teary-eyed at CH about a year before, immediately latching onto Kai because he'd been the only other kid with forearm crutches at the time. Since David left, Frankie had become like a bad case of poison ivy he couldn't get rid of, especially relating to how Kai's muscles spasmed too and how Kai also struggled with words, even if they were for different reasons.
Kai gave Frankie a look that said he didn't want to be bothered, and the kid had better get to the point, quick, or leave him alone.
Frankie didn't seem fazed. He shifted his weight and pulled an arm out of one crutch, leaning it against the wall. Frankie didn't use braces like Kai did, and so his balance was always precarious without his crutches. The kid reached into his pocket and took out a small container. "I hope it's not too melted." Frankie struggled a bit with the "s," "m," and the "l" sounds, but unlike Kai, he never seemed to get self conscious about his speech.
"Ice cream?" Kai asked, hating how the "R" sounded more like an "L." No matter how much he practiced, he still hadn't been able to master that yet.
Frankie nodded, immediately slipping his arm back in its crutch once Kai had taken the gift. "Well, it's frozen yogurt, really, but, yeah."
Kai smiled, pulled the little tab cover off and started licking up the artificial, watery sweet vanilla concoction that was only a little melty. They rarely got these. Usually the Warden only gave them to kids who had sore throats or who had been really good and deserved a treat. Kai was never good, so he never got a treat. But the cold felt nice on his raw throat, which had gotten like that from so much throwing up and crying over the past few weeks, and the sweetness was yummy.
"Cook misses you. She says you never come around now that David is gone."
Kai paused, his tongue stretching to get every last bit of frozen goodness out of the carton. David had loved hanging out in the kitchen, even though they technically weren't allowed back there. He'd developed a kind of friendship with the cooking staff, even with the language barrier, but then David could make friends with anyone. It had been a way to pass the lonely hours, especially in the summer, and Kai had enjoyed watching them prepare the daily meals, especially since the main cook, whom Kai and David (and apparently everyone else, even in English) simply called "Cook," would spoil the two boys. She'd make bacon for David and sweets for Kai, treats they normally never had. The memories made a fresh pang of loneliness sweep over Kai, and he gave up on his ice cream, even though there were still a few melted drops left.
Kai latched onto the anger again to keep his sadness away and tossed the empty container across the room, dunking it into the trash. If things had been different, he could have been a basketball player. Yeah. Right. Even if he wasn't sick or crippled, he was like two feet tall. And scrawny as hell.
"I'm going to my room," Kai announced in harsh, angry signs--MY ROOM I GO--not caring if Frankie understood him or not. He grabbed his own crutches, leaned on the other side of the sink, slipped them on, and rushed out of the bathroom as fast as his gimpy legs could carry him.
Kai wasn't sure how long he hid under his bed, alternately crying, wheezing, and sleeping. Hours. He heard his door open at one point, which always made him flinch and curl up a little tighter. Tried to keep his breathing from being so noisy, even though he couldn't help it. It was always dusty under the bed, no matter how much Kai tried to keep it clean.
Kai ignored him.
“Ms. Evans says if you don’t come to dinner you’ll get in trouble.” Frankie never called the Warden “Warden.” Only by her name.
Kai shifted under the bed so he could just barely see the tips of Frankie’s crutches and Frankie’s scuffed and ratty sneakers. Since Frankie didn’t wear orthotics like Kai, he didn’t wear special shoes. “Don’t care,” Kai said, and he tried not to let it bother him how horrible his English sounded.
Kai saw Frankie shift his weight. A moment later, the mattress above Kai creaked. Kai saw the backs of Frankie’s legs and feet, and his crutches. Then, after a moment, the kid lowered himself to the floor, awkwardly stretching himself out, trying to peer under to see Kai.
Kai didn’t like that, and he pushed against the floor to try to get farther away, more into the dark. Even though he knew under the bed wasn’t really a “hiding” spot, it was the closest to privacy he could get in County House. Normally, kids were never alone.Rooms were shared, the bathrooms were community, the common room was, and meals were eaten in the shared cafeteria-style dining hall. And orderlies were everywhere. Now that David was gone, Kai had more time to himself, but it wasn’t the kind of privacy he wanted.
Kai was used to retreating under his bed, a habit he’d picked up from before he’d gone to his aunt’s but that he especially relished afterward. He felt safe there. Protected. And the little niche in the floor and the molding of the wall in the back corner were where he kept his most secret things. Like the small knife he still held in one hand that he’d been debating about using when Frankie came in.
"I know you're sad now that David is gone," Frankie said. Even through the shadows, Kai could see the sweet innocence of Frankie's face. Kai had already been jaded by Frankie's age, and he hadn't even been taken in by his aunt yet. "I can be your new friend. If you want." Frankie waited a moment, as if to give Kai a chance to say something. Then he sighed and pulled something out of his pocket. Slid it under the bed. "It got squished. Sorry."
Kai took it. He could see it was a sandwich. He sniffed it cautiously. Peanut butter and jelly.
"Cook made it for you before she went home for the night. David told me it was your favorite. He told me to look out for you after he left. He told me you got sad sometimes. He said you might get very very sad after he left." PB&J wasn't Kai's favorite, but it was something he could eat most of the time.
"You talk to David how?" Kai asked in his ASL grammar English.
"We wrote notes back and forth. He was funny. I know why you miss him. But I'll be your friend now, OK? I have to go. I don't want us to both get in trouble." Frankie started to push away from the floor, as if to get up, but paused. "Try not to be sad. I know it's hard, but it's not like David went to heaven. You'll see him again." Frankie flashed a grin, revealing a few missing teeth, the kind of confidence that only came with innocence.
But Kai put the knife down. "Try I will," Kai said. "Try I will."
Continue to January 26, 2001 - Part I ------->