November 18, 2000
Jon sat on the floor, a pile of colored blocks in front of him, Kai sitting on the other side of the pile, watching Jon intently with those bright blue eyes.
Jon picked up one of the blocks, showing it to Kai with one hand while he signed with the other. “COLOR?”
Kai smiled his toddler grin and waved his little hand in the air. “BLUE!”
Jon smiled, nodded. “GOOD.” Kai reached out for the block, so Jon offered it to him.
Kai waved the blue block in the air, tapped his chin with his bent middle finger. “FAVORITE.”
Jon’s smile broadened as he selected another from the group. “COLOR RED?” Jon asked, trying to remember what he’d read, about raising your eyebrows to signal a yes/no question.
Kai shook his head, the blue block still in one hand. “YELLOW,” he signed, pointing.
“Yes. That’s right.” Jon pushed the pile to the side to clear some floor space, then laid out an assortment of blocks on the floor. “GREEN. WHICH?”
Kai studied the blocks for a moment before picking the correct one, then looking up for Jon’s approval, bursting into a huge grin when he realized he was right.
“Come here,” Jon signed, opening his arms.
Kai could walk, kind of, with braces and a walker, but that was new to him. Instead, Kai still preferred to crawl on his belly, using his arms to shimmy along the floor like a soldier, since he could do so surprisingly quickly. Once he got closer, Jon scooped him up, holding him in his lap and giving him a big hug, planting a kiss on the top of his brother’s head. Kai hugged Jon too before pulling back so he could sign.
Suddenly, the rumble of the garage sounded, and Kai started patting Jon’s shoulder impatiently, beaming. “Daddy! Daddy’s home!”
Jon laughed, cradled Kai closer, and pushed his way to his feet, still carrying his brother. Despite the fact that Kai’s health had been dramatically better the past year, he was still tiny, in only the tenth percentile for his age, looking more like an overgrown baby than a three-year-old. Jon shifted Kai in his arms so his brother could see better when their father entered, Kai practically vibrating with excitement when Bryan walked in the door, looking exhausted.
But Bryan brightened upon seeing his sons, smiling and signing enthusiastically to Kai, “MY FAVORITE BOY. WHO?”
Kai pointed to himself, waving his arms for Bryan to take him, and Jon knew if Kai could have, he’d be squealing. Bryan accepted Kai, gave Jon a firm pat on the shoulder and a nod, before hugging Kai tight and kissing him.
“TODAY YOU LEARN WHAT?” Bryan asked Kai, single-handedly. Bryan only knew a little sign language, but he seemed to master more of it every day, doing his best to talk to Kai in it as much as possible.
“COLOR PRACTICE. All correct,” Kai signed proudly with a firm nod.
“Dad,” Jon said, using his voice for the first time in awhile.
Bryan kissed Kai again and shifted him onto his side, doing his best to pay attention to Jon, too.
“He knows all his colors, the alphabet, basic shapes and animals. He’s smart, Dad. I’ve been reading about CP, and I don’t think--” Jon was interrupted by Ann, his mother, bursting suddenly into the room.
“You said you were working late tonight!”
Jon watched his father contain his sigh, cradle Kai against him, who had laid his head on his father’s shoulder and looked ready for a nap. “Boss said I’ve been doing too much overtime, so he sent me home. Figured I could spend some time with my family.” Bryan rocked Kai in his arms, twisting at the hip back and forth, back and forth. Kai looked especially small in their father’s embrace, since Bryan was such a large man, and Jon wondered if he’d ever be that big. He was tall for his age, almost the tallest in his class, but definitely scrawny, though Bryan promised Jon that would change when he got older.
“You mean spend time with your sons.”
This time, Bryan did sigh. “Last time I checked, my sons were my family.”
Ann groaned in annoyed frustration, stomped away, and a moment later, Kai jumped when the master bedroom door slammed shut loudly.
“Dad, I don’t think they have Kai’s diagnosis right. I don’t think he even has cerebral palsy--”
“Later, Jon.” It was always “later.” “OK? I’m sorry.” He handed Kai back, who resisted the transfer initially, clinging to his father’s shirt. “Shh. Kai, it’s OK. Jon will take care of you. I’ll be right back.” He kissed Kai again, who finally released his grip, accepting Jon’s embrace.
“Talk to mom at least, please?” Jon begged.
Bryan nodded, squeezed Jon’s shoulder again, and disappeared into his bedroom.
Jon carried Kai to the kitchen. “HUNGRY?”
Kai shook his head. Kai was never hungry.
Jon sighed and helped Kai into his highchair, which they still used because he was so small, and started prepping something that maybe Kai would swallow and keep down. He was sitting in front of Kai a few minutes later, trying to convince Kai to eat a few bites of mashed chicken and applesauce, when their parents fighting became loud enough to leak through the thin walls.
“This is different, Bryan!”
“How? We talked about sending Kai to that home in Council Bluffs, but that was before we thought he’d ever breathe on his own.”
“He’s too much for me to handle. You’re not here all day. You don’t have to deal with him.”
“Forgive me for working my ass off! All I ask is for you to take care of my children and my house, and you can’t even do that! Jon is 11, goes to school full time, and he does more around here than you.”
“That’s not fair. That’s not fair! You’re invalidating me and you know the doctor said--”
“So you only listen to the doctor when it works in your favor.”
“I’m just saying consider it. This place--County House--it’s close. We could visit him--”
“No. No fucking way.”
“He’s not going to get better. He’s never going to walk on his own. He’s never going to talk. He might even need to go back on the breathing machine. He’s going to need someone to take care of him for the rest of his life.”
Jon wasn’t sure how much English Kai understood, but Jon knew, despite common assumptions--and his current diagnosis, diplegic spastic cerebral palsy with mental retardation--Kai wasn’t stupid. He had to know, even if he couldn’t fully comprehend everything their parents were saying, that they were fighting about him. After all, Ann and Bryan fought constantly, and Kai was a recurring topic.
“Mommy Daddy fight,” Kai said, frowning deeply.
“I know. Three more bites, then I’ll read you a story.”
Kai smiled and scooped some food into his mouth, getting most of it on his face.
Despite the fact that their parents were still fighting, Jon laughed. “You need to get it in your mouth,” Jon said aloud, then opened his mouth and pointed inside. “Remember to swallow,” Jon added, gesturing on his throat and doing an exaggerated swallow. Kai had needed therapy to learn how to eat and swallow; one doctor said it was because of his CP, another, because he’d been on a respirator and feeding tube for so long during his first two years.
“He’s my son, Ann! I’m not sending him anywhere!”
Jon heard a crash that made Kai jump and begin to cry. Sounded like Ann was throwing things. Again. He sighed, gave up on feeding Kai any more, and pulled him out of the highchair. “Shh, shh,” Jon cooed, cradling Kai close, hoping he could calm him before his tears turned to wheezes.
“Oh, but you would send me away?”
“If you’re going to act like a crazy bitch--”
Another crash, this time louder, and Kai trembled in Jon’s arms, crying more intensely, his breath beginning to skip and jerk, so Jon maneuvered toward their shared bedroom so he could get a nebulizer treatment ready, speaking softly and encouragingly to Kai the whole time.
“It’s OK, Kai. You’re safe. I’ll keep you safe. Always.”
Jon’s eyes shot open in the dark, breathing heavily, struggling to get his bearings. He pushed himself up, finally recognizing Vicky’s sleeping form beside him as the remnants of his dream faded into reality. He was in Vicky’s bed. He’d spent the night.
The clock indicated it was just after two. Jon sighed, shoved his hand through his hair. Glancing at Vicky one last time, knowing he wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore, he silently pushed himself out of bed and slipped into the main room, heading for the kitchen. Maybe a cup of tea would settle his mind.
Jon paced restlessly, though, as he waited for the water to boil. Jon hadn’t dreamed about Kai as a child, or their parents, in years, but ever since Vicky had broken the news of her pregnancy, the dreams had hit him nearly every time he closed his eyes.
Passionate, hateful fights between his parents he’d forced himself to forget until now. Thank God Kai had no recollection of them. How ironic that he’d ended up at County House anyway.
Vicky slowly crept into the living room. She could see Jon, sitting on the couch, his head back, either asleep or staring at the ceiling. She hoped, as she drew closer, he had fallen asleep again, but she knew better. Jon rarely managed more than a few hours’ rest at once, but in the past couple weeks, things had been worse. At first, he’d insisted it was merely that his body clock was messed up from his erratic work schedule, but finally he’d admitted the truth.
She laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. His eyes opened, but he’d been awake. She could tell by how alert he was. “The dreams again?”
Jon swallowed, nodded.
Vicky sunk down onto the couch beside him, offering her arms. He settled into them with a weary sigh. “You’re not like your mom,” Vicky assured him. “If that’s what you’re worried about. If anyone, you’re more like your father.”
Jon cradled her arms around him. “What if . . . what if our baby isn’t healthy?” Jon’s voice was a whisper, barely audible. “The inheritance of FS and MLS is unknown, and I don’t know enough of my family’s history--”
Vicky shushed him with a kiss on his crown. “You’ll love our child no matter what. I know that. For his sake, we’ll just have to hope he’s healthy. That’s all we can do. There’s no use worrying about possibilities that may not even come to pass. You’ll drive yourself insane.” She kissed his temple, the shell of his ear. I love you, she thought, but she kept the words to herself. It wasn’t the right time. Still, she felt joy that Jon sank into her embrace, cherishing her comfort, accepting her support.
He laughed hollowly. “You know, I’ve talked with you more about my parents than I have with Kai?” Jon sighed. “I just . . . he doesn’t remember them. At all. His only memories are those that I’ve shared with him. I don’t want him to have another burden. Our father loved him, but our mother . . .”
Jon trembled, and she wasn’t sure if it was from cold or a remnant of his dream.
“Let’s go back to bed,” Vicky said, kissing his temple again. “I’ll see what I can do about helping you fall back asleep,” she whispered, voice hot in his ear.
Renee woke before her alarm. The bedside light was still on, and she could hear a faint, wheezy snore from beside her. Turning in the bed, she saw Kai, sprawled on his side, his legs tangled awkwardly in the sheets, apparently deep asleep. She watched him for a few minutes, his blond lashes fluttering subtly, his skin so pale and smooth over the muscles of his shoulder. How could he not see how handsome he was? How sexy? Even the scars only enhanced his beauty, she thought.
He shifted, just slightly, but it was enough to send a lock of hair from the top of his head across his face, and she wasn’t able to resist the urge to nudge it away, the tips of her fingers just barely grazing his forehead. He murmured, almost a hum, and she heard his breathing change, then, with a slow kind of blink, his eyes opened. For a fraction of a second, he was confused, but when recognition hit, a sleepy, contented smile lifted his cheeks.
“Morning,” he echoed. His voice was scratchy. He blinked lazily. “Time?”
“Early still,” Renee said, tracing a finger over the arch of his shoulder.
He shivered. “God, Re,” he said, his voice a breathy whisper.
She smiled, satisfied at the effect she was having on him, dragging her finger down his arm, onto his ribs, toward his waist.
He sighed, a small, satisfied sound. His eyes struggled to trace her path before giving up and lifting to hers, deep blue in the dim light. He signed something, awkwardly, with one hand, and she wasn’t sure if she would have understood it even if his signing had been textbook, his posture perfect.
He let out a faint laugh, coughed, recovered, then looked back at her with that same lovestruck expression she never would have believed would be a look a real person could give another. “You make it all worth it.”
She shook her head, eyebrows furrowed.
Kai shifted enough to trace his own finger on her skin, bring up delightful gooseflesh; she could spend all day, all week, all year lying in bed with him if he’d touch her and look at her like this. “Do you know the song ‘God Bless The Broken Road’?”
Renee arched her shoulders as he dragged his finger along her neck, but managed a head shake. “I thought you were Deaf.”
Kai chuckled. “Jon bought me a CD player, and music, when. . . .” He cleared his throat. “I listened to a lot of music when I was waiting for my transplant. I hadn’t had much exposure to it before that.”
Kai pulled her closer to him, and she let him; they wrapped their arms around each other, warm bodies, bare skin pressed to bare skin. She felt his arousal between them, but he didn’t push her toward sex; he simply cradled her, secure, as if she were the most precious thing he had ever held.
“You’re not going to make me sing, are you?” He chuckled, coughed again, and planted a kiss on the top of her head.
“And if I asked you to, would you?”
She felt his warm breath on her scalp, like he was savoring her scent. “I’d do anything for you, Re.”
Despite what they’d done the night before, Renee hadn’t been quite ready for sharing the shower. True to his character, Kai hadn’t pushed her, and after using the bathroom quickly, had yielded it to her on the promise of coffee and breakfast when she finished. It seemed so unfair, she thought, as she pulled on her traveling clothes--layers so she wouldn’t melt when she arrived in the much more temperate climate of New Orleans in a few hours--that right when everything between them seemed to have reached this pinnacle of perfection, she had to leave. Seven days--an entire week--without Kai seemed like an eternity.
When she emerged, the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee and eggs hit her nose. Kai was at the stove, his chair angled so he could see the pan he was cooking in.
“Coffee’s ready,” he said without looking away from the food, “and eggs’ll be done soon. Could you grab some plates? I didn’t put my braces on.”
Renee kissed his temple, then squeezed around him for plates.
“Oh, and I hope scrambled is OK? I can’t eat undercooked eggs. But I can make others for you, if you want?”
“If you cook, I eat,” Renee said, handing him the plates and then moving to pour herself some coffee. “You’ll see I’m not a picky eater.”
A few minutes later, they were seated at the table, and Renee noticed with warm surprise that Kai ate his entire portion of eggs easily, instead of his usual forced manner. “So, tell me about that song--the broken road one.”
Kai flushed, red from collar to crown.
“What happened to ‘as you wish’?” she teased.
“OK,” he said reluctantly, shyly. “Just. Don’t laugh.” Kai dipped his head, and he sang, his voice scratchy and low, not much tune to it, “‘I think of the years I’ve spent just passing through/I’d like to have them back again, and give them all to you./But you just smile and take my hand/you’ve been there and you understand/it’s all part of a grander plan that is coming true.” Kai lifted his eyes just enough to meet hers, though he was still flushed, and his hands trembled suddenly as he continued, “But every long lost dream has led me to where you are/others who broke my heart, they were like northern stars/pointing me on my way into your loving arms/This much I know is true/God bless the broken road/that led me straight to you.”
“Kai . . .” It was the only word she could manage.
He lowered his head again, pushed some hair out of his face. “It’s stupid; I should never have brought it up. And I can’t sing.”
Renee rose quickly, crossed to him, and pressed her lips to his in a passionate kiss. She caught him off guard, and he tried to pull away initially, but finally, he dove into it, holding her face, pouring himself into the kiss in a way that made her ache for him. She climbed into his lap, and soon he was smoothing his hands over every part of her, the two of them suddenly desperate for each other.
“Do I need to sing more often?” he said with a lascivious glint in his eyes.
Renee hummed happily, rubbing Kai’s crotch with her palm. “We have time to go back to bed.”
“Hmm,” Kai said, kissing Renee’s neck. “I’m not sure if we do. I’ve got a better idea.” Kai pushed everything on the table to the side, then lifted Renee onto its surface.
“What--what are you doing?” Renee said with a giggle.
He grinned, started to undo the button and zipper on her pants.
“Do you trust me?”
After last night, after this morning, when he could have taken her and he didn’t? “Yes.”
Kai lifted her with one arm, used the other to pull her panties and jeans down. His breathing had increased, and he licked his lips. “Stop still applies, just say it whenever you need to.” Then he pushed her back, gently but firmly, and guided her closer, her ankles on his shoulders. She could feel his breath, deliciously warm on her bare thighs. “But I don’t think you’ll want me to.”
Without warning, she suddenly felt his mouth, hot and wet in a place she never, ever imagined a mouth would be. And then what had to be his tongue began to move, and Kai was so right. She never wanted him to stop.
She got lost in the sensation, not even entirely sure what he was doing, but loving every minute of it. When she finally climaxed with another loud scream--she’d never screamed during sex before--she lay there, trembling and boneless, her eyelids fighting to close.
Kai chuckled, kissed each thigh before helping her ease her panties and jeans back up. “I’ve been dreaming of tasting you for weeks,” Kai said, licking his lips.
She felt a little dizzy as she sat on the table, looking down at him, one hand helping to prop her up while the other massaged his crotch. His eyes were hungry, but it didn’t frighten her, because there was a softness to him, too. No man--especially Jude--had treated her the way Kai did--with love, with reverence. She sighed softly, still blissful from orgasm. “What can I do for you?” She laughed and clapped her hand over her mouth. “Oh God, I’ll never be able to say that at Lost Apple without thinking dirty thoughts.”
She heard more than saw Kai unbutton and unzip his jeans and pull himself out, long and hard just as she’d remembered from the night before, the tip seeping. “It won’t take much,” he said, “if you touch me.”
She hopped off the table, stood beside him, reached out and fingered the tip, spreading the stickiness over it, sliding his foreskin out of the way. He moaned, and she could see how badly he wanted to stroke himself, his hands gripping his thighs, but he was holding back, hoping she would finish him instead. He watched her as she teased him, a finger gliding over his slit, the subtlest whine a plea for more.
“Can you thrust?” she asked, her heart beginning to race.
He looked at her, confused.
“If I . . .” She licked her lips, glanced downward. “You won’t force me?”
Kai finally seemed to get her meaning. “I would love to feel your mouth on me. If you’re comfortable with that. I won’t hurt you.” He was breathing heavily, holding himself with one hand, squeezing occasionally with just his thumb, more precome beading at the tip. The hunger was still there, but so was his sincerity. She was shocked by how much she wanted to do this, to kiss him there just as he had kissed her, and it felt especially naughty since he was sitting in his chair, fully dressed. If she did this, she’d probably never be able to look at him in his wheelchair without blushing.
“Re. If you don’t want to do this, you don’t have to. I’ll be OK. Really.”
Without another word, she snagged a chair, pulled it close, and sat, perched on the edge. She planted her hands on his thighs and leaned in. He smelled musky, salty, so deliciously male, but it’d been a long time since she’d done this, longer since she’d wanted to, so she stuck her tongue out tentatively, licking his slit.
He groaned and she felt him shudder, then gasp when she took just his head in, her tongue exploring the shape of it, teasing around his foreskin, feeling how soft the skin was, how it gave gently when she sucked. So different than the shaft, hard and firm in her hand as she held it in place. In the back of her mind, a voice screamed that any moment he’d grab her hair, tangling and pulling and pushing her onto him until he filled her throat, stealing her breath and making her gag and panic, but he didn’t touch her.
He tried to form words as she gained confidence and took more of him into her mouth, feeling him grow against her tongue, the crown bumping against her palate, but all that escaped his lips were grunts and groans and hisses, each signaling when she did something he liked in particular. When she swirled her tongue around the head, once, twice, sucking with a medium amount of pressure, she finally felt his hand on her shoulder. Pressing her away urgently.
“Re . . . I’m gonna . . .”
She popped off just in time, feeling his warmth explode over her chin, barely able to catch it with her hands.
“Re, shit--” Kai could barely speak, wrapping his hand over the head of his dick as his body continued to jerk, the final edge of his orgasm.
She was laughing, wiping her face, hoping she wouldn’t have a Monica Lewinksy moment and need to change her shirt.
Kai’s stomach jerked once more, and then he went still. His legs didn’t spasm this time, like they had the night before. His head lolled back, his dick softening, leaving a trail of white from tip to the puddle in his hand. “Thank you,” he managed.
Renee smiled, grabbing some napkins for each of them. “I liked that,” Renee said, surprised.
Kai chuckled as he cleaned his hand, tucked himself back in. “I’ll never say no to that,” he said with a grin. Then he seemed to spot the time on the microwave across the room. Sighing heavily, he added. “Go wash up. We need to head out in a few minutes.”
She leaned forward and met him in a short kiss, which he deepened, a hand cradling her face. He licked her lips, as if savoring her taste before leaning back, and she tried to memorize the look in his eyes in that moment so that she wouldn’t forget it over the next week.
Renee had her feet folded up on the seat, bobbing and dancing to the Christmas mix tape she’d begged Kai to let her play as he drove her to the airport. When “Christmas Don’t Be Late” came on, she squealed and turned it up, singing along.
Kai raised a single eyebrow. “What the hell is that?”
He cleared his throat, a wordless indication that her answer wasn’t what he was looking for.
“It’s The Chipmunks!”
He glanced at her, sideways, for a long moment.
She sighed, turned the volume down. “The Chipmunks,” she said again, with emphasis, as if that was all the explanation needed, but when Kai only sighed, she was forced to elaborate. “It was this show about these anthropomorphic chipmunks who sang. Alvin, Theodore, and . . . Simon. And Alvin was always getting into trouble, so their adoptive father, who was a human man, was always yelling, ‘ALVIN!’”
Kai nodded slowly, his face showing how odd he found the whole concept.
“I guess when you try to explain it, it does sound a little insane.”
“Well, I already know you’re insane; you like me.”
Renee’s eyebrows dipped. “Kai--”
Kai shrugged, looked over just for an instant, flashing a smile. His body language said that was a joke, but Renee knew it wasn’t. Not really.
“I guess you didn’t watch many cartoons growing up?”
Kai shook his head. “Not really. David only liked the ones that had a lot of slapstick, you know, stuff you didn’t need to hear to understand? And my English wasn’t good enough to interpret something like that when I was that young. Not that we had control over the TV anyway.”
For several minutes, Renee watched the patchy, snow-covered farms pass by the window. “Are you going to County House for Thanksgiving?”
She could almost feel the tension in the car ratchet up, and when she turned her head, she saw Kai gripped the wheel more stiffly.
“Sorry. Never mind. Stupid question.” She started to reach for the volume knob, to turn the music back up, but he reached over for only a second to stop her before letting his right hand return to the hand controls.
Kai let out a long sigh, nibbled his lip; she realized it was a habit he did when he was thinking, but not just about anything. No, he only bit his lip like that when he was working through some of his inner demons. Right now, she knew he was debating about whether he was going to be honest with her, or tell a shade of the truth, enough to satisfy her for now, or deflect her and artfully change the subject. It amazed her how well she could read him already.
Finally, he replied, “Thanksgiving has always been a difficult holiday for me.” She watched his fingers shift on the steering wheel, another habit of his. His hands and fingers were often restless, as if they were so used to being used for conversation that when they weren’t, they still felt the need to move. But there was a difference between his natural fidgeting and the anxious way he’d pick at his shirt or drum on his pushrims or squeeze the steering wheel. “In some ways, worse than Christmas,” Kai added with a long sigh.
Renee wanted to reach over and squeeze his hand, but she couldn’t, not while he was driving, so she watched him instead, waiting for him to elaborate, more of the same bland scenery flying past, white with patches of yellowish grass pushing through. An old barn, falling in on itself. A lone, lonely looking cow, its red and white coat thick to keep out winter’s chill.
Kai inhaled sharply through his nose, bit his lip again. Squeezed the steering wheel. “The last Thanksgiving before my parents died . . . I got very sick. I was in the hospital a long time. The past four years, once I reunited with Jon. . . . I spent every single one either in the hospital, or recovering from being in the hospital.” He winced, but it was more an expression of sadness than pain. He bit his lower lip hard. Renee could hardly believe he was being so forthcoming. “And the years in between, at County House? Thanksgiving always reminded me of everything I didn’t have. Didn’t think I’d ever have.”
Renee opened her mouth, but what would she say? What could she possibly say to that?
Kai’s eyes were fixed firmly on the road ahead of them. “I could go back to County House any other day of the year, but not on Thanksgiving. Never on Thanksgiving.”
The Calhoun County Municipal Airport was laughably small: a building just large enough to contain two check-in counters, a single security lane, and a tiny waiting area. The baggage claim was no more than a modified garage door, the attendants on one side, handing your bag through it as you waited on the other. The gate led straight onto the tarmac, where you walked a few feet up to the small Embraer jet that would take you to Chicago and then onto your final destination.
Only one airline flew into the airport, only a couple times a day, and only between Jonesville and Chicago. If you wanted to go anywhere else, you could charter a private plane, or drive two-and-a-half hours to Omaha, the nearest major airport.
But with the university, and the hospital, and the small amount of oil in the county, the tiny airport kept busy enough.
Kai pulled into one of the handicapped spots, put the car in park, and undid his seatbelt. After his stupid revelation about Thanksgiving, things had been quiet, but strained for the rest of the drive. He felt like he should say something, maybe make a joke, tell her he hadn’t been serious, but Renee knew him well enough at this point that no matter how convincing he might be to anyone else, she’d see right through him.
Renee spoke before he could think of what to say. “I didn’t know,” she said in a low voice, reaching up to cradle his cheek. “I could cancel my flight. Stay here. I don’t mind.”
Kai couldn’t hide his surprise. “Re. You can’t do that.”
He smiled, took her hands in his. “You do have a family to go home to,” Kai explained, his stomach doing a strange knotting thing that felt like part of the start of an anxiety attack, but he knew it wasn’t. Well, at least he didn’t think it was. He couldn’t believe Renee was willing to change her plans--not see her grandmother, whom Kai knew Renee missed terribly--just for him. The only person who had ever changed their life around for Kai was Jon.
Renee nodded, but she’d withdrawn into herself, a habit Kai recognized eerily well. “Jude’ll be there, too.”
Kai sighed, squeezed her hand tight, but not too tight, remembering how small and delicate her hands were. “Go home. See your family. But if he hurts you in any way . . .” Kai’s eyes flashed anger he struggled to control. “Call me. Call me, and I will get my crippled ass on a plane, fly down there and kick his ass.”
Renee laughed, and it warmed Kai’s heart, turning his stomach’s knot into butterflies.
“Remember I told you I broke a guy’s nose with my crutches once? That was with shitty, cheap ones. Now I have good, stronger, solid sticks that could probably do a lot more damage before they break.” Kai smiled faintly, teased a curl by her cheek. “You’ll be OK. I’ll . . .” He cursed himself inwardly for the hesitation. “. . . be OK.” He pulled her close, kissed her, cherishing the taste of her lipgloss, covering the subtle natural sweetness of her lips, her tongue that still tasted faintly of coffee. He leaned his forehead against hers, sighed softly. “Do you need help with your bag?”
She shook against him, clearly not wanting to go just as much as he wanted to keep her there. “No. No point in you going through all the trouble, especially since that airport is so claustrophobic. I only have a carry-on.” She pulled back, reached into her bag and took out the sheet of photos from the night before, bent them in half, and carefully tore at the seam. “Here. Two for you and two for me,” she said with a smile, offering him one half.
Kai stared at the pictures. In the first, they were kissing, Renee perched on his lap, and he could see the sweet smile on each of their faces that brought one to his own, now. In the second, they were laughing, Kai gripping Renee’s waist as she leaned away as if he were tickling her, her head just barely in frame, her curls blurring on the edges. Kai was looking at her instead of the camera, eyes bright, shoulders relaxed. It was strange to see himself like this. Other than school photos (which of course, there was no one to ever order any), Kai hadn’t seen many photographs of himself. He looked . . . so happy.
“Thanks, Re,” Kai said, tucking the photos into his dash. “You should go.”
She sighed, leaned forward for another quick kiss that hit the side of his mouth. “I’ll call you.” She pushed the car door open and the cold shocked them both. “And I’ll bring you beignet mix!”
Kai laughed, waving as she skipped toward the terminal, twisting in his seat to watch until she disappeared inside. A crushing weight hit him next--for the past few weeks, they’d seen each other almost every single day. He would never admit it to anyone, but going an entire week without her seemed ridiculously daunting.
He sighed, re-securing his seatbelt and staring at the photos. How had Renee wormed her way into his heart so quickly? And, as wonderful as things were between them right now, what was going to happen once she realized the guy who offered to beat the shit out of her ex--and he would--was frequently paralyzed by anxiety attacks?
With the holiday coming up and all the long night shifts he’d been working over the past month, Jon had decided to take the day off. No clinic visits, nothing. It felt strange at first, but when Kai suggested Jon join him at the pool--it was Kai’s first time since before his injury--Jon accepted. He wasn’t much of a swimmer, but it’d be good to spend some time with Kai. Jon felt like he’d hardly seen his brother lately, between his work schedule and Kai spending an increasing amount of time with Renee.
The Y was closed today, so Kai had taken them to the JU athletic complex, which was “so much better, anyway,” Kai explained. Kai had his duffle in his lap, the strap over his head, making Jon feel a little awkward as he followed Kai into the foyer. It was early, and the Saturday of a week-long holiday break, so it was pretty empty. Ahead, Jon could see a bored-looking girl reading a book lazily in a single booth, the others all silent and empty. Kai stopped Jon and spun around, looking up.
“OK, so, technically this is for students only, so, here’s what we’re going to do.” Kai pulled the strap off and offered it to his brother. “Take this. Then push me toward the desk.”
Jon accepted the bag, which was a lot heavier than it looked, gaping at Kai. “Push you?”
“Yes. Just a few feet. Play along, all right?”
“Kai . . .”
“Disability makes most people uncomfortable. The more disabled you seem, the more uncomfortable normals are. David and I used to do stuff like this all the time. Mostly just to fuck with people.” Kai grinned.
Kai laughed, dipped his head back so he could see Jon’s face better as he spun around. “I bet you’ve never even returned a library book late, have you?” He shook his head. “Push.”
Jon obeyed. It felt wrong to touch the back of Kai’s chair when Kai was perfectly healthy, even on his brother’s command. Because of the low back, Jon had to bend forward, giving him a chance to whisper in his ear. “Is this why I never do anything with you?”
Kai just shrugged, saying nothing as they drew closer.
The girl didn’t look up from her book as they approached. “ID,” she said mechanically.
“My bag,” Kai said in a thick accent that Jon hadn’t heard Kai use in years, not since they’d first reconnected, when Kai still had to concentrate on articulating his words, especially the final consonants.
This made the girl drop her book, gape at Kai. Jon wished he could see his brother’s face, but the girl then looked at him, at the strap of the bag across his chest, obviously expectant. Jon stepped away from Kai so he wouldn’t whack him with the bag as he shifted it, finding Kai’s student ID in the side pocket and handing it over. The woman looked at it, then up at Jon, waiting.
Jon turned to Kai, since obviously his brother had a plan. “Uh, I don’t have one?”
“This facility is for students only. I can’t let you in without an ID,” she said in monotone, obviously reciting something she’d memorized out of a manual of guidelines somewhere. But she never stopped staring at Kai.
“He help me,” Kai said in that same accent. “He you need allow in.” In addition to the inarticulate pronunciation, Kai was letting his words blur together, so that last sentence sounded more like, “Heeyunee louin.” It didn’t help that Kai was throwing in his odd ASL grammar now, too, which had frustrated Jon to no end when they’d first reconnected, especially since Kai had been perfectly capable of proper English.
The girl blinked at Kai, then glanced up at Jon, clearly not understanding what the hell Kai was saying. For a moment, the girl seemed to be inwardly debating about whether she should press harder for clarification or just end her obvious discomfort and violate protocol by letting them both in.
“All right,” she said, swiping Kai’s card and then entering something in the computer to bypass the system, “but if you’re going to accompany him regularly, you need to get your own card. Come back after the holiday and talk to the manager," she said, directing everything to Jon instead of Kai, handing Kai’s card back to Jon. “I’ll buzz the side open so you can push him through.”
“Thank you,” Kai said, waiting for Jon to push him again.
Jon resisted shaking his head, and did so, pushing Kai until they were through and out of the sight of the desk girl.
“Stop, stop,” Kai said in his regular voice.
Jon immediately let go, standing to his full height, walking around so he could see Kai better. “You are impossible.”
Kai shrugged, held up his hand for his bag. “It worked, didn’t it?”
Jon offloaded the bag with some relief. Kai was right; he really needed to get in better shape. It’d be good for his circulation, and considering he’d already lived as a diabetic for over twenty years, that might not be a bad idea. “I just can’t believe the way she stared at you.”
Kai grinned. “That accent never fails. I was mocked relentlessly for years because of it. I might as well use it to my advantage when I can. Why do you think I pulled it on you when you first showed up four years ago?”
Jon followed as Kai pushed toward the locker rooms. “You were faking that?”
Kai laughed. “Faking is such a harsh word. No, back then it still took a lot of conscious effort to speak articulately. All I had to do was be lazy, and the accent came naturally. At the time, I wasn’t sure yet if you were worth the effort.”
Kai disappeared into the locker room before Jon could question him about that. Jon remembered the initial bitterness and hostility he’d faced, confronting Kai for the first time after more than a decade apart, but he never really imagined Kai had seen things that way. More proof that Jon really didn’t know what those lost years of Kai’s life had been like.
Continue to November 18, 2000 - Part II ----------->