Wednesday, July 26, 2000

In/Exhale - November 23, 2000 - Part I

November 23, 2000 - Part I


Vicky opened her eyes in the dimness of her room, and startled when she saw Jon, sitting up in bed, one leg pulled up to his chest, the other hanging off the edge of the bed, his head resting on his knee, just watching her sleep.
    
“Sorry. I didn’t want to wake you,” Jon said in a whisper.
    
“What time is it?” Vicky said as she stretched, searching for the clock.
    
“Too late for night and too early for morning,” Jon said on a sigh.
    
Vicky laid a hand on Jon’s shin. “Did you sleep at all?”
    
Jon sighed, hesitated, finally shaking his head as he exhaled. “Since Tuesday night, I can’t fall asleep, and when I do, I have nightmares and wake up. Usually it’s just not worth the effort to try to fall asleep again.”
    
Vicky reached over and turned on the bedside light, on its lowest setting, just so they could see each other better. Jon had explained what happened with the committee, with Dr. J, how Jon had been unofficially suspended for a week. His fight with Kai, which Vicky suspected was eating at Jon far more than anything else.
    
“The usual dreams?”
    
Jon sighed again. “Sometimes. Sometimes I have this one I used to have all the time the last six months.” Jon didn’t need to clarify; Vicky knew he meant the last six months before Kai’s transplant.
    
She squeezed his ankle encouragingly, saw him smile faintly. One thing Vicky had enjoyed most about the last few months was discovering how much Jon liked to be touched. A hand on his face, fingers on his wrist, a soft kiss under his chin. And how much Jon liked to touch back: lips on her neck, arms around her waist, foreheads pressed together.
    
“I wake up, and I’m sitting by an empty hospital bed, and I know, in the dream, that Kai should be there, but he’s not, and I panic. So I start searching for him. But it’s weird. Like no one else seems to notice anything’s wrong? So I’m freaking out, trying to push past people, trying to ask them what happened to my brother, and they either ignore me completely, or just look at me like I’m crazy. And I think, maybe I am crazy? But I have to keep looking, so I do, pushing past people like they’re some kind of living obstacle course, and the whole time my heart is racing and I’m sweating, just filled with this overpowering feeling of dread.”
    
Jon collapsed in on himself for a moment, before yielding to Vicky’s arms, letting her pull him down into her embrace. He curled up beside her, his head on her shoulder, sighing softly. She pressed a kiss to his head.
    
“Maybe I should call him? Make sure he’s OK?”
    
Vicky hugged him tighter against her. “I thought the whole point of this was to give you both some distance.”
    
Jon sighed, like he knew she was right.
    
“Let him stew for a few days. He’s a big boy. He can take care of himself. And he’s capable of picking up the phone, too.”
    
Jon laughed, but Vicky could tell it was a reflex and he was still worried.
    
Gently, she pressed against him, urging him onto his back. Then she climbed over him, straddling him, smiling. “Let me help you get some sleep. You’ll be too busy dodging my relatives tomorrow to think about Kai anyway.” She planted a kiss on his forehead, at the bridge of his nose, on each cheek, on his lips, on his chin, at his throat, working her way down.
    
His hands slid along her body, slipping under her nightshirt to find bare skin. “I can’t wait till you’re showing,” he said.
    
She laughed. “Secret pregnancy fetish?”
    
Jon looked both mortified and embarrassed, which made Vicky laugh harder.
    
She kissed the tip of his nose, rubbing their crotches together. Not urgently, just gentle pressure, feeling his warmth against hers.
    
Jon’s hands explored her belly, her breasts, which were slightly fuller than normal, even this early. “It just amazes me that we made a new life together. It didn’t exist before, and now it does. Isn’t that incredible?” In the dim light of the lamp, Vicky could see the glow in Jon’s eyes, an innocent, childlike joy. And she knew, despite Jon’s reservations about his brother, his perfectly sensible apprehensions about the future, he really did want to be a father with her.
    
She stilled her movements, a hand on his shoulder, staring down at him.
    
“What?” he asked, worried.
    
She smiled, leaned in to kiss him, deep, needing to taste him suddenly, make this more real, loving the way his hands reflexively sought out positions on her body to support her, keep her from falling or sliding or collapsing. “I love you,” she said in a whisper.
    
Jon froze, literally went still, and for an instant, Vicky worried she’d made a mistake, that it was too soon, even if the baby had accelerated things between them.
    
But then she saw his smile--that rare, full-faced grin that made his whole countenance lighten and his eyes brighten to a faint, beautiful blue. He laughed, as if surprised, before saying, “I love you, too.” He pulled her down into a deep, passionate kiss, then rolled her onto her back, his arms braced on either side, staring into her eyes, his hair falling down around his face. He kissed her hungrily, every bit of skin he could, before pausing to pull off his tee and toss it aside.
    
She laughed, nudged him off so she could strip, too, and as they hurriedly tore their pajamas off, Jon never took his eyes off her.
    
“Imagine if saving lives were as easy as creating them,” Jon mused, snagging Vicky to him so he could feel her naked body against his. With anyone else, it would be weird, but Jon’s philosophic way of thinking was one thing she loved about him. And talking about this meant he wasn’t dwelling on his nightmares.
    
“That’d make the world pretty crowded.” Vicky laughed when Jon teased one nipple, then the other, gently laying her on the bed before him, his hands everywhere, large palms sliding over bare skin from her breasts to her thighs. The caress made Vicky shake and shiver with pleasure and anticipation, the pressure of Jon’s erection against her leg, urgent.
    
“Mmm,” he mumbled as he hummed against her belly, kissing down her inner thigh, his breath warm and taunting on her now sensitized lips and clit.
    
“And we’d be out of a job,” she said on a sigh, stretching and trying to pull him close with her legs wrapped around his waist.
    
“We’d figure something out,” Jon said, his voice low, hoarse, as he pressed himself closer, teasing at her entrance but not yet pushing in.
    
She gripped his forearm tight. “Please,” she begged.
    
Finally, she felt the pressure and fullness as he entered her, deep, in one smooth stroke. “Yes,” she said, reaching for him, needing him to be as close to her as possible, to feel him sliding even deeper.
    
Getting her cue, Jon smiled slyly, leaned forward, thrusting hard, nipping at her neck.
    
Vicky’s hands traced their way along Jon’s back, toward his ass, pressing him closer, closer. They moved against each other, each reaching for their own climax yet working together, touching and kissing whenever their movements brought them near enough to do so.
    
Finally, it hit them both, within moments of each other, Vicky’s vision going white and sparkly, her muscles tensing before they relaxed as she felt Jon’s warmth fill her, his body jerk before they finally both went still. They collapsed beside each other, spent and sweaty, their foreheads touching as Jon managed to snag the blanket to cover them both before the chill air could make their damp bodies cold.
    
“Think you can sleep now?” Vicky asked, smoothing some of Jon’s hair off his forehead.
    
He sighed contentedly. “Yeah. For a little while, anyway.”
    
She watched his eyes drift closed, his body relax, smiling faintly that maybe he’d finally get some rest.
    
Vicky thought Jon had drifted off when he said in a sleepy voice, “You really love me?” Like he genuinely couldn’t believe she could.
    
Vicky pressed a kiss to his forehead, stretched to shut off the light. “I have for a long time, Jon. A long time.”

#

Kai threw his alarm clock across the room, grinning when its evil blare ended in a shattering of plastic. His mouth was painfully dry and nasty tasting, his head throbbed, and his stomach hurt. When he pushed himself up, his vision swam for a moment before settling. Hangovers officially sucked.
    
Kai grabbed his chair and transferred, pushing into his bathroom to take his medicine. It was telling how dehydrated he was that he didn’t need to pee. But then Kai had spent most of the last 36-hours destroying the Jack, along with a fifth of awful-tasting rum he’d also found in the back of another cabinet, passing out and throwing up as necessary, before turning back to the bottle again. It didn’t make him like alcohol any more, and he didn’t see himself making the events of the last day a habit, but at least he’d been able to ignore how empty the apartment was for a little while.
    
Right now, Kai stared at his face in the mirror as he filled a cup with water. He had deep purple circles under his eyes, which were bloodshot, his hair was standing on end every which way, and a hand on his cheek reminded him he hadn’t shaved since Tuesday morning. After rinsing his mouth and downing several glasses of tap water, Kai proceeded with his morning routine, something he’d been doing every day for long enough he didn’t need full brain power to get through it.
    
Kai had just finished taking the last of his medicine and lazily recording his vitals in his notebook when his phone vibrated on the counter, from where he’d left it some time the day before. Which was all a bit of a blur, but wasn’t that the point?
    
Kai shut his notebook with a loud thud that made him cringe, but the headache would go away with more water, he hoped. He didn’t want to take aspirin, which would further kill his stomach, and Tylenol was off the table if he didn’t want his liver to send out a little white flag of surrender. Besides, he probably could use the penance.
    
Renee’s name flashed, and he thought about letting it go to voice mail, but he’d missed her calls most of Tuesday, and ignored the rest of them, so he knew he had to answer. After all, it wasn’t Renee’s fault he was in a shitty, feeling-sorry-for-himself mood.
    
“Morning!” Renee said cheerfully.
    
Kai grunted as he shifted the phone into the nook of his neck, pinning it there as he used both hands to wheel out toward the kitchen.
    
She deflated. “I’m sorry. Did I wake you? I thought you got up at seven to take your meds every morning. . . . Shit. But maybe you go back to bed afterward. I’m sorry--”
    
Kai let himself roll to a stop, freeing up his hand to adjust the phone. “No, Re, it’s fine. I’m up.” He tried to put a smile into his voice for her sake. “I’m just . . . I’m actually not really a morning person. I just have to be.”
    
Renee laughed, and the sound made Kai brighten a little.
    
“I’m sorry I missed your calls,” Kai said, pushing with one hand a few feet, then crossing his arm over his body to push the other wheel a few feet until he was close enough to the kitchen to use the counters. “It’s been . . . a busy couple days,” Kai settled on as he pulled open the fridge and grabbed a couple bottles of Gatorade, trying not to look at the empty shelf where Jon normally kept his insulin. David wanted him to show up at ten, since everyone else was slated to arrive at noon, which didn’t give Kai too much time to get himself in presentable condition. And he really didn’t want to pass out from low blood pressure in the middle of a bunch of Deafies he didn’t know.
    
“That’s OK. I figured as much.” She hesitated a moment. “I miss you.”
    
Kai found himself smiling. “I miss you, too.” Part of him would have loved to have spent the last day and a half with her instead of exploring a bottle of whisky, but if he was honest with himself, he wasn’t sure if he could have let her see him so wrecked by a fucking fight with his brother and an empty apartment.
    
“I’ll try to call you later, but things get a little crazy around here once all the relatives arrive and the alcohol starts flowing. I’ll text you, at least.”
    
“Sounds good,” Kai said, then cringed at how bad that sounded. “I mean, I don’t know how long I’ll be at David’s anyway, so just call me when you can.”
    
He heard a sound he knew was Renee blowing him a kiss, and chuckled, his stomach warming slightly. “If it’s a Jude thing, though, just text me that and I’ll try to sneak away and call you back. OK?”
    
Renee sighed softly, her breath blowing into the phone. “At first, I regretted telling you. I’d kept it secret from so many people for so long, I thought it was a mistake, and I wondered if there were a way I could take it back.”
    
Kai completely, totally understood, but it didn’t change the fact that it hurt a little to hear it.
    
“But I’m really glad I did. I don’t have that hanging over us, and it’s nice to have someone to talk to about it. Who understands. You know?” He could hear the self consciousness in her voice, and he wished he could hug it away.
    
“Yeah.” Kai sighed, shifted the phone. “Look, Re, I . . . I know I’m not an easy person to deal with, for a lot of reasons. . . . Just.” He sighed again. “Thanks for taking a chance on me.”
    
Renee’s laugh again, warm and lilting in his ear. “I don’t see it as a chance at all, and you know that. I can’t wait till Saturday.” A sound in the background. “Ugh. I gotta go. I’m sorry. Talk to you later! Bye!”
    
Renee was gone before Kai had time to react, and again, the apartment seemed desperately quiet and empty. He chugged both Gatorades, barely pausing to breathe in between. Maybe David and Megan wouldn’t mind if he got there even earlier than planned.

#


It didn’t take Kai long to shower, shave, brush his teeth, dress, and chug another Gatorade, which still left him two hours until he was supposed to be at David’s. He decided to text his friend to see if he’d mind Kai coming over earlier and noticed several text messages, spaced apart from Tuesday afternoon until this morning. Not so many as to be obnoxious, and none of them were demanding, but they all used subtly or jokes to check in with Kai. The last one, sent only about thirty minutes earlier, asked, You dead?

   

Kai frowned, even though he suspected, if David had signed that, he’d have said it with enough levity in his eyes to hide the seriousness of the question. Kai realized the last time he’d spoken to David he’d essentially joked he was going to off himself, so . . . Dammit, maybe Jon was right: he was a self-absorbed asshole.
   
Still live. Hangover, Kai replied in ASL textspeak.
   
David responded almost immediately. Megan her mother sister here. House crazy. Now morning Megan her sister burn food. Megan MAD MAD. Now I need go Walmart why? buy new food. You me go together? Please? You save me!
   
Kai laughed reading David’s texts, able to clearly see his friend signing in his mind’s eye. He wondered if David was really so desperate to escape the family, or if it was his way of checking up on Kai personally. Perhaps a combination of both.
   
So that’s how Kai ended up parked outside David’s house at 8:30 in the morning, waiting for his friend to rush out and hop in.
   
A moment later, David kissed Megan at the door before leaping over and sliding into the passenger’s seat like a bank robber making for his getaway vehicle.
   
Kai laughed.
   
When you have in-laws, we’ll see who’s laughing.” But David was smiling.
   
OK, this might seem obvious, but I can’t sign when I’m driving.” Kai gestured to the steering wheel and the hand controls. “I need both hands. OK? I’m sorry.
   
David shrugged. “My eyes need a break, anyway. I love Megan, but her sister . . .” David waved his hands in front of him to indicate his sister-in-law-to-be’s constant, frenzied signing, puffing out his cheeks to emphasize his exasperation. Then he paused, his face got a little more serious, and he looked Kai over.
   
I’m fine,” Kai said, a hand on his chest. “Not being alone today will help me.
   
David studied Kai as if trying to see through his defensive walls, searching for any tiny hint of body language that might give away what Kai didn’t freely in his signs or facial expression, but, seeming satisfied, he wrinkled his nose, Deafie for, essentially, “I believe you.”
   
Kai forced a small, if genuine smile, shifted in his seat, and put the car in gear. David reclined his own seat and shut his eyes, and though he didn’t snore, Kai was pretty sure he slept through the short trip to the store.
    
Even though it was early, it was Thanksgiving day, and the stores were all closing at noon, including Walmart, so the parking lot was even more of a madhouse than usual. Kai took advantage of being stuck behind a lady backing out an enormous pickup she clearly wasn’t experienced driving to nudge David awake.
    
Look for a place to park. Ideally a handicapped spot.” Four eyes were better than two, and deaf eyes were like a whole extra set.
    
Kai circled the lot a few times, grunting in frustration at how many of the handicapped spots were taken by cars without plates or permits, wondering if maybe he should just drop David off.
    
He felt David tap his shoulder, and glanced over to follow where his friend was pointing. An old lady climbing into her Buick up ahead. Kai nodded a thanks and signaled, waiting for the spot.
    
Even though they weren’t able to talk, Kai found he enjoyed the silent company. It reminded him of when they were kids; David knew Kai had trouble signing if he was crutching it, so he’d often shove his hands in his pockets and not sign himself so Kai wouldn’t feel left out of a conversation. Though by second grade, David and Kai had gotten pretty good at communicating with each other without a single sign, using only body language and facial expressions. It was a useful skill they’d honed over the years.
    
The old lady was taking forever, though, and David was beginning to get restless. “Maybe I should get out and shove her in her car.
    
Kai laughed. Shook his head.
    
David pouted. Then he rolled his eyes, stuck out his tongue. His way of saying, “You spoil all the fun.”
    
Finally, grandma pulled out of the spot, and Kai snagged it before anyone else could. Once parked, David held up a hand for a high-five, and Kai laughed as his palm met David’s, as if they were twelve instead of in their twenties. It felt good. Really good. And Kai remembered what Dr. Miller had pointed out more than once, that he wasn’t alone, that he had friends and people who cared about him. People he could be comfortable with, like David.

#

David followed Kai into the grocery entrance, and Kai immediately paused and tilted his head, rolling his eyes.
    
David dipped his eyebrows.
    
Kai shrugged. Slipped off his gloves and stuffed them in the pocket of his coat. “They’re playing Christmas music already.
    
David glanced up, as if he could see the music, then shook his head, offered Kai a huge smile. “Doesn’t bother me.
    
Kai laughed and followed David, who’d snagged a cart, toward the produce department, the two of them needing to split up to maneuver through the crowds. Everyone and their grandmother seemed to be frantically snatching the last bags of cranberries and potatoes, and normally, so many people would make Kai’s anxiety flare, but right now he was just grateful he had to focus on navigating through the sea of legs and carts, not giving his mind much time to wander.
    
His stomach started to knot when he realized just how many people there were. He knew he should’ve worn a mask--he always kept a couple in his bag--but it would make signing harder, with half his face covered. And a small voice in his head was screaming gleefully about the danger, the risk he was taking. Probably the same voice that convinced him drinking an entire bottle of whisky and rum (when only a couple swallows was enough to get him drunk) was a good idea, too.
    
He finally caught up with David, who teased him a bit before going over the remaining items on the list so they could coordinate their efforts and get through the shopping as quickly and smoothly as possible.
    
Over the next few minutes, the two friends worked together, Kai grabbing stuff at his level and David sticking to items stacked higher up. Finally, they ended up in the baking aisle, David bent over his phone as he texted back and forth with his fiancee, trying to figure out the difference between light and dark brown sugar.
    
Kai was slinking along the aisle, figuring he’d snag a few of the other list items while David waited for a response on the sugar. He spotted one of the items on the list--corn bread mix--but it was on the top shelf, and even with his long arms, he couldn’t quite reach. He knew he should wait for David, but was still stretching out of sheer stubbornness when a hand went over his and snagged a box.
    
“Got it. Here you go.”
    
Kai said a reflexive “Thanks,” even though he was a little irritated. As he accepted the box, his stomach dropped, nausea swelled, and he broke out into a cold sweat. “Nikki.”
    
She smiled, tossed her hair, which was longer, super straight but cut jaggedly, and dyed pale pink with a single stripe of black on one side. Very punk, and disturbingly sexy despite her outfit: khakis with a blue polo, and a nametag. Which meant she worked here. Shit.
    
Kai was desperately trying to breathe and not let this turn into a full-blown panic attack, but it also meant finding English words was impossible.
    
“I had planned to stay away longer, but I was able to . . . work things out,” she said vaguely. “I like this town. And . . .” She brushed her bangs off her face and looked at him seductively, licking her lips. Kai wondered if they still tasted like strawberries. If her hair still smelled like tropical fruit. “I missed you.”
    
Kai’s face hardened while another part of him did, too. He hoped his anger would change that, quick. “Don’t.”
    
Nikki opened her mouth as if to say something else, when David strolled back over, ignoring Nikki for the time being, and signing to Kai, “Megan says we need to hurry up.” Then he seemed to realize Nikki wasn’t just an employee helping Kai reach the top shelf, and dipped his eyebrows, glancing over at her.
    
Kai groaned out a sigh, speaking and signing for both Nikki and David’s benefit. “Nikki, this is my friend David. David, this is Nikki. She’s . . .” Kai struggled for a way to describe what they were to each other. Ex-lovers? Former fuck buddies? She loved me but I didn’t reciprocate so she left?
    
“We fucked,” Nikki said with a brilliant smile, offering David her hand.
    
David read her lips, then looked at Kai, signing “fuck” with raised brows to confirm he’d read her correctly.
    
Kai blushed a fierce, hot red, partially from embarrassment, but mostly from anger.
    
It was answer enough for David, who laughed loudly. “Nice to meet you.” Kai initially refused to interpret, pissed, but after a prod from David, did.
    
Nikki mimicked the signs, echoing David, “Nice to meet you.
    
David decided it was time for him to go, so he pointed to the shopping list, then out toward the store, then said, “Meet you here in ten minutes?
    
Kai managed a nod. Without waiting for David’s footsteps to recede, Kai folded his arms tightly on his chest and gave Nikki his most searing glare. “What the fuck, Nikki?”
    
Nikki sighed, but then regained control. “Your friend’s hot. He’s really deaf?”
    
“No, he just likes to talk with his hands,” Kai replied sarcastically. “And he’s engaged.”
    
Nikki pouted, nodded. “What about you? You look great.”

Kai let out a harsh sound. Even after a shave and shower, he knew he looked like shit warmed over.

“Did things work out with you and . . . that other girl?”

“What the fuck business is it of yours?”
    
For a millisecond, Nikki looked hurt, but she recovered quickly. “I know you can’t understand, but I did what I thought was best.”
    
Kai sighed, put his hands on his rims, ready to back away, but Nikki stepped forward, placing her hands high up on his thighs, leaned down as if to kiss him. “Don’t,” Kai said, but his voice was weak.

So close, he could smell her--the fruity shampoo, a hint of cigarette smoke, and the raw female sex smell that always hovered around her and made his dick painfully hard against his will. His little brain was screaming at him to accept the kiss, and he almost did, tasting her breath, coffee and nicotine and bubblegum. He knew that if he asked, she’d pull him into the break room or even the bathroom and get him off in two minutes. His balls drew up in anticipation. He licked his lips unconsciously, and she was so close, his tongue just barely grazed her lips, making a shudder rush up his spine.

Fortunately, his big brain kicked in, snapping Kai back to his senses. He pressed his hand against her just enough to push her away. The momentum sent him rolling backward an inch or two, helping to increase the distance between them.
    
“Kai--”
    
“Don’t,” Kai said, more grit in his voice. “Don’t. I’m with Renee now. And even if I wasn’t, you don’t get to just leave me like that, then show back up and expect us to pick up where we left off. You know who used to jerk me around like that?”
    
Nikki’s friendliness evaporated, and now she just looked guilty. She swallowed, but said nothing.
    
“Becca,” Kai said, acid in his voice, even though he knew Nikki had no doubts about who he was talking about.
    
Before Nikki could say anything else, Kai barreled away from her, pumping his arms furiously, navigating around carts and people, making a beeline for the restroom so he could throw up the measly breakfast he’d forced himself to eat only a couple hours earlier.

#

You sure you’re OK?” David asked, crouching beside Kai just outside the restrooms. He might have been intense, but he was never pushy, not with Kai, so Kai knew he was genuinely worried. “It’s cool if you want to just blow off today. I get it. I know it’s hard for you to be around food when your stomach’s being shit.
    
Kai smiled faintly, grateful for David again, even if Nikki had sent him back off kilter. “I took some medicine. It helps with the nausea.” And for my anxiety, too, Kai thought, since he’d also popped a hydroxyzine. Honestly, he didn’t want to have to deal with people today, but that seemed a lot better than the prospect of being alone in that empty apartment.
    
David frowned, as if he didn’t quite believe Kai was fine, but he left it at that. “Can I drive your car? Maybe I should?
    
Kai sighed, nodded reluctantly.
    
David squeezed Kai’s shoulder, checking Kai’s face one more time before standing up again. “You really tapped that?” David asked, using a particularly lude sign.
    
Kai rolled his eyes. “Thanks for having so much faith in me.
    
David laughed. “Just saying, you’ve changed a lot. The Kai I used to know would never have even tried to hook up with a girl like that.
    
Kai shrugged, but then he realized if he didn’t say something, David would keep bringing it up, and he didn’t want to talk or even think about Nikki anymore today. “Look, the deal was, she was just a fuck to get over my ex, after my transplant. Then things got complicated. She left me one night, completely out of the blue, while I was in the hospital. Left me a note saying she loved me but I deserved better, like I can’t fucking decide for myself.” Kai was trying to maintain control, and they were tucked into a nook out of main line of sight, but he felt himself starting to lose it. “Fuck,” he said out loud, barely resisting the urge to shove the heels of his hands into his eyes. He’d washed them, but he really didn’t want to get some funky eye infection. “Fuck.”
    
David gave him a moment before nudging Kai’s wheel with his foot to get him to look up again. “God, I’m sorry. I’m an asshole.
    
Kai shrugged, struggled to take a few breaths. He was not going to break down in Walmart, in front of David, over Nikki. Kai was gritting his teeth so hard his jaw hurt, and his eyes were starting to blur, so he shut them firmly. He felt David wrapping his arms around him, squeezing him tight. David’s supportive embrace tightened when Kai did finally lose it and started to sob, powerful, reflexive jerks of his chest like his body was trying to forcibly expel the pain and self-loathing, his mind filled with negative thoughts of Becca and Nikki, Jon, and even Renee. Not letting go until Kai got himself under control again.
    
David pulled back, his hands on Kai’s shoulders, staring at him intently. His eyes said it was OK, and he understood, and life fucking sucks sometimes, but he was there to help Kai if he wanted it.
    
“Get a room fags,” a couple guys sneered as they came out of the restroom. David must have seen a change in Kai’s face, because he turned and rose to his feet, his eyes narrowing.
    
The two guys tossed a few more epithets, but their determination clearly wavered once David faced them full on. David wasn’t the biggest man, but he was broad-shouldered and muscled, plus great at being intimidating. Especially when he was really mad, and he did this hissing, growling thing, his teeth bared like a cornered animal ready to strike.
    
When the two guys continued their harassment, like a couple of yippy dogs too stupid to back down, David yelled at them, a couple of harsh, inarticulate sounds that freaked the fuck out of the two punks, sending them scattering, muttering “freak” and “fag” a few more times as they left.
    
Kai was surprised how much that made him feel better--not that he gave a shit about those kids, or what they said--he’d been called far worse before, after all--and not like he couldn’t have handled things himself, but because it reminded him of when David and he were kids, how David really was always there for him, always sticking up for him when he needed it. In fact, Kai had learned how not to take shit from people partially from David’s example.
    
I have no idea what they were saying, but I could tell it wasn’t good. You feeling better?
    
Kai smiled, took a deep breath, and realized that, yeah, he did. He nodded.
    
Good. Because Megan will serve me for dinner if we don’t get back soon.” He leaned forward, patted Kai’s cheek and flashed a grin, as if nothing had happened, as if Kai hadn’t totally lost it only a few minutes earlier. That was the great thing about David, and why he’d been such a good friend to Kai all those years growing up. When Kai needed him, he was there, always unobtrusively, and no matter what, he never rubbed anything in Kai’s face.

#

It was still relatively early; thank God most of Renee’s relatives weren’t really morning people, and Renee had offered to do some final prep work while her grandmother showered. She was enjoying the relative peace and quiet of the kitchen, the sun streaming in through the shutters. This house, even more than the one she grew up in with her parents and brothers, had always seemed more like home somehow. She wasn’t sure how Kai would manage it, but she was already thinking ahead, looking forward to introducing him to her grandparents and this house, and to the city she loved so much. He’d been in a grumpy mood when she’d called that morning, barely disguising it even at the end, but she’d found it endearing and amusing. Despite his health issues, Kai did his best to convey an essence of “perfection,” as if nothing upset him or bothered him, even though she knew that was far from the truth. Hearing him admit that he actually wasn’t a fan of rising early--despite everything she’d previously seen to the contrary--was refreshing. As she chopped vegetables in the bright, comfortable warmth of her grandmother’s kitchen, she couldn’t help images of Kai popping into her head. She saw him, sprawled on his side in bed, his legs tangled in the sheets, his hair delightfully mussed, looking sexy and sleepy, and maybe even grunting and trying to pull the pillow over his head when she attempted to wake him.
    
She’d been continually shocked that she didn’t regret the sex, even the more risque morning sex in the kitchen, and each night had surprised herself by how much she missed him beside her in bed. Only one night together, his large, long form taking up most of the mattress, the subtle snore of his breath, his arm casually draped around her, protective yet not possessive, and she already wanted that every night. She wanted every morning to open her eyes to his.
    
She sighed softly and forced herself back to work. She was capable of two things in the kitchen: chopping vegetables and handing over tools or spices, and she wasn’t going to let her lovesick daydreaming ruin that. The kitchen door opened, and she assumed, initially, without looking up, it had to be her grandmother, or perhaps her grandfather, searching for more coffee. But something in the air changed: a heaviness that sucked the light out of the room. It was probably the sun going behind a cloud, but it made her look up.
    
“JP.”
    
Her older brother, at twenty-five, was, by all accounts, a very handsome, masculine man. Tall for their family (and New Orleans) at just a couple inches under six feet, broad shouldered and muscular, with the same dark hair as Renee and Luc, only it had a subtle wave to it rather than springing up in tight curls. He had it cut short, but long enough to part and brush to one side, framing his face and drawing attention to his dark hazel eyes, which were more brown than green, unlike those of his younger siblings. They seemed hard, menacing, and calculating, enough to send a shiver up your spine, but perhaps that was simply Renee seeing in his face what she knew was in his heart. Like their father, JP was cold, ruthless, and manipulative, while still easily slipping into an affable, disarming persona when necessary. It made him an excellent businessman, but not someone you really wanted to share a room with.
    
“Morning. I see the Great White North has sucked out all your manners,” he said cooly, plucking a pastry from one of the trays laid out on the far end of the island.
    
“Manners are for people you respect,” Renee responded, ice in her own voice, focusing on her task to avoid his scrutinizing stare. She tried not to think about what JP was doing over at their grandparents’ house so early, suspecting he had come specifically to harass her.
    
JP let out a sound that wasn’t quite a scoff as he drew closer, practically in her personal space, leaning on the counter and crossing his arms on his chest, accustomed to using his size to intimidate others.
    
“My boyfriend is bigger than you,” Renee said without looking at him, dumping some diced celery into a bowl and moving onto the next bunch. “So you can stop.”
    
Now JP laughed. “I heard you were seeing someone up there. Does he ride a horse to school?”
    
Renee looked up at JP only so he could see her roll her eyes before returning to her work. She did wonder how he’d heard about Kai. It wasn’t like he was a secret, but Renee was really only close with her maw maw and Luc, and she doubted either one of them would have told JP much of anything. “Not everyone is a hick, you know.”
    
“Well, you never talk to me,” JP said, snatching one of the carrots she had yet to slice and taking a big, obnoxious crunching bite out of it, right near her face, grinning in satisfaction. “When I think of Iowa, I think of corn and scarecrows and guys fucking sheep.”
    
“I really don’t need to hear about your sexual fantasies,” Renee said, crossing to the sink to rinse some more celery, even though she had already washed everything, just to give herself some space.
    
“I just want to make sure you’re not dating some loser,” JP said, ignoring her comment.
    
Renee laughed, a sharp, bitter sound, purposefully shaking off the excess water so JP would get wet. “You’re hilarious.”
    
This made JP scowl and tighten his grip on his arms. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”
    
Renee met his eyes in a challenge, but said nothing.
    
“I don’t know what the hell happened between you and Jude. He won’t tell me. But you should really grow up already. He’s a good guy, and he’s still crazy about you. Maybe when you’re done playing farm with your little cowboy you’ll come to your senses.”
    
Renee stiffened, gripping the knife so tightly her knuckles turned white. “I have a knife, JP. Don’t make me use it.”
    
JP let out a sigh, but she noticed he did shift to the opposite counter, putting some distance between them. He leaned casually enough against it, but Renee counted it as a small victory and willed herself not to smile. “You’re always so melodramatic. Jude’s not even in town. He went with his parents and current girlfriend on some cruise,” JP explained, waving his hand as if to signal how unimportant the details were.
    
Renee was grateful for the opportunity to regain her composure, focusing on her chopping, taking out her frustrations on the celery. “If Jude loves me so much,” she said, her voice dripping with scorn, “why is he out galavanting on a cruise with some bimbo?”

JP frowned, but said nothing, as if what Renee said didn’t merit a response. Instead, he took another sharp bite of the carrot and left without another word.

Renee let out a long sigh of relief, grateful for the peace and quiet, the only sounds the chop, chop, chop as she continued her prep and the birdsong outside the window. The silence was soon fractured, though, with the raised male voices of her brothers exchanging increasingly creative insults at each other. Well, most of the true creativity was on Luc’s part, not surprisingly.   

Get back to me when you can come up with something that’s not a trite epithet,” Luc spat just outside the doorway. JP often accused Luc of being stupid, of only knowing how to do a few scribbles on paper or toss paint on a canvas, and Luc never lost the opportunity to show off his impressive vocabulary. “Asshole,” Luc said as he walked through into the kitchen, and Renee wasn’t entirely sure if it was a final point to his last jab at their brother, or if it were directed toward Renee about JP.

Renee just shook her head and smiled as she continued to chop.

Luc sunk into one of the barstools and leaned on the counter, supporting his head on his hand, watching her. “Wow, you’re armed and JP isn’t bleeding. You’re a better person than I am.”

Renee stuck out her tongue. “Don’t make me hurt you instead, Lulu.”

Luc groaned. “You know I hate that nickname,” he whined, his voice cracking. Luc’s voice had changed almost entirely, but occasionally, in moments like this, it’d break, becoming higher pitched. He hated it, especially when he was trying to make a point about not being a child anymore, like now.

“Hey, Little Lulu was awesome.” Renee scooped her latest choppings into a bowl and burst out into the cartoon theme, “‘The clock says seven thirty; it’s really after ten. Looks like Lulu’s been repairing it again.’”

Luc tried desperately not to get sucked in, but as Renee started in on the chorus, he couldn’t resist, bursting into a smile and singing along, “‘Little Lulu, I love you-lu just the same, the same. Little Lulu, I love you-lu just the same.’”

Luc and Renee laughed together for a moment, but his smile faded. “You know Lulu was a girl, right?”

“Yeah, but she was a bad ass, and she had hair like us, too.”

Renee noticed Luc’s eyes looked haunted for a moment before he flashed a pained smile and hopped off the stool, hugging her from behind, resting his chin on her head.

“I miss you, sis. I love NOCCA, but I’m so ready to get out of here.” He sighed heavily.

Renee dropped the knife and turned, kissing him on the cheek. “Iowa is a million miles from here, but you know you can always call me if you need to talk, right? About anything.” She put extra emphasis on that last word, raising her brows. “Anything.” She tried to corral some of his bangs, only to have the curls spring out and fall back in place again.

Luc smiled. “Seriously, though. Call me Lulu again and I might have to pick JP as my favorite sibling.”

Renee laughed, winked. “Yeah, no way you hate that nickname that much.”

##########

2 comments:

  1. Great episode. Can't wait for more.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I wish Jon wasn't so mad at Kia, it seems so harsh to leave him alone on a holiday.

    ReplyDelete