November 23, 2000 - Part III
Renee’s uncles were fighting; her Uncle Emile had won the dressing contest and now his brothers were accusing him of cheating. They were all drunk, too, which didn’t make matters any better, and when she’d finally decided to escape the chaos for a little while, her paw paw and JP were trying to pull them apart.
The weather was even more pleasant today than it had been when she’d flown in; in the low 70s with hardly any humidity by New Orleans’ standards. Some of her other relatives were gathered around chairs and tables in the front portion of the yard, or on the back porch, a few of them smoking, but after nearly a week of so many vivid personalities, Renee needed a little quiet time to herself. So she’d retreated to the far back corner of the yard, sitting underneath a huge live oak tree, picking at her plate of food and half watching her relatives in the distance, lost in her own thoughts.
She missed Kai terribly, and she couldn’t ignore how disappointed she’d been by how little they’d communicated this week, especially the past couple of days. Although she continued to reassure herself, remember Kai had said he was going to keep busy, it didn’t stop the doubt from wanting to surface. But then she’d remember that, as silly and open as Kai could be with her, he was innately a quiet, private person, and they never talked much on the phone at home, so why should this be any different?
“You look like someone just kicked your puppy,” Luc said, somewhere nearby.
Renee looked up. Luc had scrapped his low-cut jeans and tight T-shirt of his usual wardrobe for something a little nicer and more conservative, khaki pants and a button-up shirt that hung too loosely on his narrow frame. Renee realized the outfit really didn’t suit him. Probably because the clothes had been picked out by their mother. She offered a smile. “Did they have to call the police yet?”
Luc laughed as he crossed his legs and sank down beside her, Indian style, his plate in his lap. “Oh God, no. Do you know how mortified the parentals would be if that happened? And this isn’t even their house.”
Renee chuckled at that. Sometimes, Marie--Renee’s mother--reminded her of Hyacinth Bucket in Keeping Up Appearances, always terrified of what other people would think, especially since Anthony’s family in particular wasn’t from the same Uptown stock as Evangeline’s. (Their marriage had caused quite a stir back in the day.)
The two siblings picked at their food in relative silence for a while, watching relatives filter in and out of the house, though this far back in the yard they were sheltered from the noise and conversations, which were little more than background noise.
“So . . . can I ask you something?” Renee turned to see Luc looking at her, seeming hesitant.
“Sure.” She realized she wasn’t going to eat anything else, so she set her plate aside, hoping it wouldn’t get swarmed with ants, that maybe they’d gone underground for the winter despite the mild temperature.
“How . . . how do you know you like someone? Like, ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ like someone?” Luc blushed, but he kept his gaze fixed on her, expectant.
Renee smiled faintly, thinking about Kai as she spoke. “Well, I can only speak for myself, obviously, but . . . it’s like, you get this kind of floaty feeling in your stomach when you’re around them, sometimes even when you just think of them. And when they touch you, even if it’s just a casual brush, it feels like your nerves are on fire. And you can’t stop thinking about them. All you want to do is be with them. All the time.”
Luc nervously pushed a few bites into his mouth, chewing slowly, as if giving himself a chance to think of what else to say. He looked worried, troubled. Finally, he swallowed. “How do you know if someone likes you?”
“That’s a little harder,” Renee admitted, tilting her head. “Sometimes you can tell by the way they look at you, or talk to you. Like . . . it’s kind of a starry-eyed look, and a sweet, flirty smile . . .” Renee realized it was really hard to try to explain how you could know someone was flirting with you. “It’s not science. Sometimes, you might think someone’s flirting and interested, but they’re not, they’re just friendly. Sometimes, you just have to take a plunge and ask them out. Sometimes you get lucky, and they’ll ask you.” Renee smiled knowingly. “Is there someone you think you like?”
Luc’s blush spread, and he pushed his bangs out of his face only for them to slide back again. “Yeah.”
Renee wanted to press for details, but decided she’d let Luc tell her what he felt comfortable with. “Find something you’re both interested in. Like, maybe there’s a movie you both want to see, or a museum you both want to go to, and you could go together? That could give you more of an idea of whether she’s interested or not.”
Luc stared at her, his large eyes wide, as if he wanted to say something else. He still had that scared look in his eyes, but finally he relaxed into a smile and said, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Thanks, sis.”
Margaret was apparently super organized, Jon discovered, once they were led to the tables for dinner. The formal living and dining rooms combined into an enormous space, likely normally divided by furniture instead of walls, though every piece had evidently been removed in preparation for the feast. Perhaps relocated to another room, perhaps put into storage, Jon wasn’t sure. In their place were rows of long tables that Jon assumed were of the foldable variety, though they, along with the lines of chairs tucked into them, were covered with festive fabric in shades of autumn. It felt almost like a sit-down dinner for a particularly fancy wedding.
To Jon’s relief, it seemed as if each long table was dedicated to a particular segment of the family: one for Vicky’s siblings and their spouses; one for the cousins and their significant others; one for the uncles, aunts, their spouses, and Vicky’s parents; one for the grandparents and great uncles and aunts. Margaret and Vivian had apparently intended particular seating assignments, but Jon was relieved when Vicky pushed him down into one of the seats toward the end of the table, near Roni and her husband, making escape easy, should he need it. When Vivian began to complain, Vicky explained that because of his diabetes, Jon needed to be able to leave the table quickly. It wasn’t really true, but it was one of the first times in his life Jon had been grateful for his disease. He wasn’t sure he could have tolerated being “trapped” toward the interior wall, with Vivian at his ear cheerleading throughout dinner.
Jon was also grateful that the children apparently ate somewhere else, since the hum of conversation of dozens of adults was all he had to worry about. Still, Jon was feeling tired and a little hypoglycemic, unable to stop thinking about Vicky’s revelation, analyzing and reanalyzing everything both she and Roni had said earlier. Who among Vicky’s enormous family had mistreated her? Vicky hadn’t specified, and though obviously after two decades wounds had been mended, Jon couldn’t help but feel like they both had a huge neon sign over their heads that screamed, Sex out of marriage! Pregnant!
“You’re sweating,” Vicky whispered, squeezing his hand. “You shouldn’t have waited so long to eat.”
Jon squeezed her hand back. He didn’t want to admit that his discomfort wasn’t entirely tied to his blood sugar.
Sensing this, Vicky leaned in, kissing his cheek. “Eat, and check your sugar, then call Kai. Maybe you’ll feel better after.”
Jon nodded, forcing a smile as the rest of the siblings and spouses took their seats, a few of the women remaining standing to facilitate serving. The amount of food, even considering how many people there were, was staggering. And so, so many starches. Jon decided he’d load up on turkey and ham, then take just a taste of everything else.
Once everyone was served, Vicky’s father--his name was Peter, Jon had finally learned when they’d been introduced briefly--stood up from his place at the head of the center table--and led everyone in a prayer, ending with the sign of the cross, which Jon found himself going through the motions of even if he hadn’t attended mass in a long time.
As everyone sat down to eat, conversation began to flow, and Jon found himself relaxing. Roni’s husband Patrick was charming and funny, and the twins and their wives--who made up the rest of their half of the table--were also enjoyable company. Jon’s terror over being overwhelmed by strangers and the weight of Vicky and his shared secret faded away, and for probably the first time in a very long time, Jon felt the warmth of real family. This was what Thanksgiving was about, Jon thought, smiling, squeezing Vicky’s hand.
But then realization pierced the happy bubble. Kai was Jon’s family, and he had said some horrible things to him in anger. And what was one of Kai’s greatest fears? What had he cried about when he’d lost his mind because of Valium withdrawals?
Being alone. Abandoned.
And that was precisely what Jon had done to him.
Only this time, it had been intentional.
Though Kai had been relieved Megan hadn’t invited too many people, there were still more than would fit around their round dining table, so David had rented a couple circular folding tables and some chairs, which Kai had helped him set up that morning. Kai was immensely grateful he’d gotten a seat at the main table with David and Megan and her family, putting him completely separate from the annoying hearies, since all three of Megan’s family members were Deaf.
Kai’s appetite wasn’t great on a good day, and the Zofran was barely keeping his nausea at bay, but as they settled down to eat, Kai realized Megan’s family was pretty awesome. A remote part of his mind told him the food was good, too, as he forced himself to eat it without looking like he wanted to throw every bite back up. The vegetarian loaf thing Megan had made for him was one of those foods (like spinach, which he loved) whose sight and scent made his stomach churn uneasily, but once it was actually in his mouth tasted fantastic. And apparently it was really nutritious, too, full of protein and vitamins, or so she told him. He should probably get the recipe, Kai thought idly. Perhaps add a hint of a strong-scented spice (like curry) to distract his stomach.
As dinner passed, Kai was able to see how in love Megan and David were, and how happy his friend was. As Kai picked at his food, looking around their table, seeing the smiles and laughter and signed jokes, he realized this was almost exactly the type of Thanksgiving he’d always dreamed of as a kid. No English, no one forcing him to eat, no one harassing him. Surrounded by the warmth of family and friends.
But the pain of his fight with Jon lingered, of knowing that, at the end of the day, the spell would be broken, and Kai would have an empty apartment to go home to. That Martin would die because of Kai, that Jon might never talk to him again.
But Kai had meant well, keeping the ER visit and all that from Jon, hadn’t he? He hadn’t wanted Jon to worry. Kai glanced over at David, who was relating a story (modified slightly to take out mentions of County House, suggesting they’d dormed together at JSD) of the time they stole a bottle of cheap whisky one of the orderlies had hidden in the kitchen, and gotten incredibly, disgustingly drunk together. The orderly whose alcohol they’d stolen had been the one to find them throwing up in the community bathroom, but had known he’d lose his job if he reported them for it. Instead, he’d helped convince The Warden it was food poisoning, and David had had the guy under his thumb for the rest of the year he worked there.
A cascade of laughter filtered around him as David acted out the story, and Kai forced a smile, but he was lost in his own thoughts again. Who was he kidding? Kai’s motives for concealing the truth were always selfish. Just as they had been then, getting drunk with David, they were now. Kai didn’t tell Jon about his recent lung problems because he hadn’t wanted Jon to baby him or harass him constantly about being sick. No, it was more than even that: Kai had lied due to some twisted sense of denial. As long as Jon didn’t know about Kai’s breathing problems, Kai could pretend they weren’t real. Could pretend he didn’t face a future of struggling for air. Again.
Ultimately, Kai hadn’t kept the secret that he might not be cured because he wanted to protect Jon. He’d done it, like everything else he did, to protect himself.
Kai felt tears prickling in his sinuses, clenching his teeth to try to hold them back. Maybe that’s all his life was, Kai realized. A series of justifications to hide how truly self absorbed he was. Kai had convinced himself that Becca had left him because his being sick was too much for her to handle, but maybe she’d really cheated on him because he’d been too needy. Too angry. Too selfish.
Maybe Nikki’s leaving was his fault, too. She had never treated him like Becca, and yet today he had insinuated she was just like her. Maybe, when Renee left him, too, he’d blame her for it when the only one truly at fault was himself. Maybe he couldn’t be loved. Not really. His parents hadn’t loved him. And even those who thought they did--like Jon--only got hurt by him. Maybe he really was a horrible excuse for a human being, and Jon was better off without him, free to start his own, new, happy family without Kai dragging them down.
David was laughing at something Megan’s father was signing, though his peripheral vision was evidently honed on Kai. David had sensed the change in Kai’s thoughts, even though Kai was certain that outwardly, he’d kept up his mask. But David had known Kai for too long. They’d shared too much, could communicate too well with each other through the subtlest of body language. It was possible not even Megan would have noticed the slight alteration in David’s eyes or face, or the way his shoulders tensed subtly.
Kai forced his smile a little brighter, shook his head. Then he tapped Megan’s shoulder, thanking her for the food and complimenting her again on the vegetarian options, and excused himself. His hold on his emotions was tenuous, and if he was going to lose it again, he would do so in the privacy of the bathroom. He wouldn’t be selfish enough to destroy Megan’s perfect Thanksgiving.
But what is it that they say the road to Hell is paved with?
Kai wheeled through David and Megan’s bedroom into their bath. David never had managed to get the door not to stick, so Kai left it propped open as he entered. Immediately, he pushed to the toilet and vomited, his stomach spasming with the urge to empty itself. He felt a little guilty, throwing up Megan’s hard work, and the meal, at least in combination, was definitely not “good” food, leaving a harsh, sour taste in the back of his throat. His stomach, at least, felt better. If only the rest of him did, too.
He paused at the sink, sideways, since it wasn’t a roll-under (not that he was used to having one anyway) and splashed some cold water on his face, hastily rinsed his mouth. Looking at his reflection, he thought, no wonder David had been keeping an eye on him. Though he didn’t look quite as bad as he had that morning--the redness in his eyes had faded, and his cheeks had more color--his eyes were haunted. Kai tried slipping on a few of his default masks, from neutral to “I’m fine” to “disaffected” and back again, but no matter what he did, his eyes didn’t change. They reminded him of his mother’s, the way she’d stared out from that photograph Jon had given him.
He tore his gaze away from his reflection and started searching through cabinets and drawers. Maybe cutting would help take the edge off, if only for the rest of dinner. He could focus on the pain and it would stop him from losing it, which he felt precariously close to doing. Dr. Miller insisted he wasn’t crazy, but it sure as fuck felt that way as his hands trembled, diving through makeup and hair products and--Jesus women have a lot of crap.
Kai found David’s razor, which was electric, and Megan’s, which was the standard safety variety, both of which wouldn’t really do him much good. But Kai couldn’t find anything else remotely with a cutting edge, not even a fucking cuticle clipper. If only David had left his tools in the bath or bedroom. Surely, there’d be something there.
His stomach rolled in self disgust, and he felt his chest jerk inward, as if his body was trying to break down--again--into sobbing. Fits that seemed to catch him more and more off guard lately, and which Dr. Miller told him were his body’s way of releasing all his pent up emotions. “You’ve spent most of your life burying your feelings and projecting others,” Dr. Miller had said. “It’s like trying to control a river. Eventually, the water will burst through.” It was an inelegant analogy, but fitting.
Kai let out a scream of frustration, not giving a shit if it was loud enough for the hearing people to hear. Anything to keep himself from breaking down. He’d been alone before. He could do it again. It wasn’t such a fucking big deal. Despite Kai’s best efforts, fat tears rolled down his cheeks, self loathing sweeping over him. Today was a day he’d dreamed about for years as a kid, and he was hiding in the bathroom, crying like a five-year-old. For no fucking good reason, either.
The heat kicked in with a subtle roar and shift in pressure.
Then the door pulled shut with a loud crash.
And a click.
A click that sounded too much like a lock turning.
Kai’s pulse immediately skyrocketed, his head snapping up, looking to the doorway. It was just closed. Not locked. How could it be locked? Kai pushed himself toward the door as fast as he could, nearly colliding with it as he misjudged his momentum. His hands flew to the handle, pushing. Nothing.
Sweat had broken out all over his body, and his palms were clammy, kept slipping off the handle each time he tried to grab it again. It’s just stuck it’s just stuck it’s just stuck Kai told himself over and over, but he was beginning to shake, making it even harder to try the knob again. Kai threw his weight into it, slamming his shoulder into the wood, hoping to dislodge it, but it wouldn’t budge.
A cry of panicked frustration escaped his lips. Tears spilled out, blurring his vision. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck it’s locked oh fuck please, Kai’s thoughts tore through his mind like a river breaking its banks. He threw himself against the door again, harder, the angle causing him to tip out of his chair onto the floor, pain searing up his hip from where he’d hit the tile, but he ignored it. He had to get the door open, Get the door open get the door open get the door open.
He couldn’t breathe, his chest and throat tight with panic, his fingers clawing at the door. He reached up to try the handle again--maybe the different angle would help--and his heart nearly exploded in fear.
Locks, stacked high, high up on the door where he could never reach them, keys and bolts and chains that were all on the other side of the door. Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck. Locks that were unpickable even if he could have stood long enough to pick them. Locks she’d chosen on purpose so he couldn’t get out, never get out, not until she wanted him to, not until he’d learned to be good.
Kai’s vision had tunneled, blurred with tears, his breaths hurried, heaving gasps, his fingers clawing at the edges of the door, slipping under it, hoping he could find some way to open it, even though a dim, back part of his brain knew it was impossible. Oh God he couldn’t breathe. He leaned against the door, struggling for air, wanting to plead with her but unable to. Sobs stole what little breath he had left, heaving but not getting any air, trembling and shaking and crying.
I’m going to die here all alone all alone all alone all alone. His breathing became more frantic, harried, his mind racing. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry. But the air wouldn’t come. The air wouldn’t come.
Kai sank to the floor, still gasping, covering his head, trying to make himself as small as he possibly could. Desperately, he wrapped his arms around himself, trying to stop the shaking because he could hear her outside, probably to yell at him, but maybe if he was good and he didn’t make a sound, not even a peep from his harsh breathing, then maybe she’d let him out and she could see how sorry he was and how he’d be good and he’d never throw up again or fall or anything to make her mad ever ever ever never again.
When fifteen minutes had passed and Kai hadn’t returned, David became worried. Maybe Kai had taken him up on the offer to lie down for a while, but something nagged in his gut anyway. It didn’t help that Megan kept turning her head, distracted, her brows furrowing, as if she were hearing something she didn’t know what to make of. Dinner was essentially over, a few of the guests retiring to watch football and digest before dessert, so David excused both him and Megan, dragging her to their room.
“I might need your ears and your voice,” David explained as they entered their room.
Kai wasn’t in their bed, but the bathroom door was shut. David crept closer, looking to Megan, trusting her to tell him if there was anything he should be worried about.
Megan frowned. “It sounds like . . . he’s crying.” She paused, put her ear to the door, her brow furrowing deeper. She shook her head. “His breathing sounds bad.” She pulled away from the door, worry painting her features. “Something isn’t right.”
David felt his own worry churning in his gut, but he strode to the door, knocked, looking to his fiancee for guidance.
He watched her call out, likely saying something like, “Kai, are you OK?” based on the way her lips moved, though David didn’t try to read them.
Megan shook her head, perhaps to indicate Kai hadn’t responded.
“Tell him I’m coming in,” David ordered. He waited for Megan to interpret for him, then tried the door. It was stuck, but a few effortful pulls finally got it open.
David saw Megan gasp, her hands going to her mouth.
Kai lay on the floor, curled up, his face buried in his chest and legs. He wasn’t moving. David’s heart stopped. He tried to remind himself that just because he couldn’t see that Kai was breathing didn’t mean anything.
Megan tapped David’s shoulder to get his attention. Any remaining blood she’d had in her face was gone now, her eyes wide. “I can’t . . . I can’t hear him breathing anymore. God!”
Without a thought, David dropped to his knees, rolled Kai onto his back. Kai was unconscious, but when David put his hand near Kai’s mouth, he could feel the faintest breath, and his pulse was steady. A momentary wave of relief passed over him, but he noticed Kai’s overturned wheelchair, saw the drawers in various states of disarray.
Kai, if you hurt yourself, you son of a bitch, David thought, but as far as he could see, Kai was fine. Just unconscious. With a rush of breath, David sank back onto his feet. He could see Megan watching him, frozen, waiting for him to tell her what to do. He should have her call an ambulance, but he also knew Kai wouldn’t want that.
Kai was fighting with his brother, but still . . . “Call Jon.”
It had taken some effort, but David had managed to get Kai into their bed, stretched out, his legs propped up with pillows. He still hadn’t woken, but he was breathing OK, so David tried not to worry as he watched Megan talk to Jon on the phone. Kai had explained a little of what his fight with his brother had been about, and David wondered if Jon would let that come between them when Kai needed him.
Finally, Megan hung up. “He’s on his way.”
David nodded, feeling some of the tension in his chest unravel. “I’ll sit with him. Go take care of our guests. I’ll shout if I need you.”
Megan hesitated, but she finally nodded. “I’ll start encouraging people to go home.” With one more reluctant look, she eased out the door, shutting it behind her.
David checked Kai’s pulse again, just to ensure he was still OK--or at least as OK as he could be under the circumstances. He settled back to keep an all-too-familiar watch, his eyes fixed on Kai’s chest, tracking its slow but even rise and fall.
County House was divided into three wards. The first, the “indies” as David and Kai called them and where their room was, was for the kids who were more or less independent. Like Kai, some of the kids might need help occasionally, but for the most part, they could function on their own. Dress themselves, bathe themselves, etc. The second was for the more severely disabled kids, the “DPTs,” as David and Kai had called them, kids who were dependent on orderlies to help them with basic tasks, especially in the morning and evenings, but who otherwise, once they were in their wheelchairs or whatever, could be OK more or less on their own. Then there was the third ward, the “sickies,” as David had nicknamed them, even though Kai didn’t like the term. It was for the few kids who needed nursing care--not just an orderly or a volunteer, but an actual nurse--to care for them. There weren’t many of them at CH, since most of those types of kids were sent south, and CH only had one to two nurses on the clock per shift. But it was also where some of the kids--like Kai--were treated when they got sick, if things weren’t serious enough they needed to be hospitalized.
Kai often would end up there at night, if his breathing was bad enough he needed closer monitoring or oxygen, but not so bad they needed an ambulance to race him to the hospital. Technically, David wasn’t allowed back there, but after The Warden realized short of barricading David in his room, she couldn’t keep him from sneaking in there to be with Kai, she allowed it. So David spent many nights, forcing himself to stay awake as he sat beside Kai’s bed, watching him, keeping vigil over the rise and fall of his chest, worried that if he fell asleep, Kai might stop breathing.
Jon struggled to find a place to park; apparently quite a few Deafies had flocked to Megan’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Finally, he found a spot a few blocks over, not incredibly thrilled about trekking through the road, the icy wind biting his exposed skin. Kai’s car was parked in the driveway, and Jon’s anger spiked. As worried as he’d been the past couple days, he was still mad at Kai, for lying to him, for ruining the potential chance for dozens of other FS patients, and he was mad that he couldn’t even be mad if Kai was sick.
He grunted, adjusted the strap of his medical bag. When Jon finished his second year of medical school, his adoptive father had given him a traditional, old-fashioned leather open-mouthed bag. However, Jon had quickly replaced it with a more practical, modern fabric zippered version, more like the kind of bag an EMT carried. Inside, he always kept a spare stethoscope, a simple sphygmomanometer, a pulse oximeter, several doses of various nebulizer solutions, a couple new albuterol inhalers, and an epipen, plus a few bandages and other basic first aid supplies.
As annoyed and pissed as it would make him, while Jon walked to the front door, he secretly prayed that Kai was fine, that this was all some elaborate prank to get back at him. Jon pressed the doorbell. But he had heard the fear in Megan’s voice, and though Jon could see pulling David into the fiasco, it didn’t seem like Kai to drag her into it as well.
A moment later, the door opened, a middle-aged man who had Megan’s eyes answering. “Dr. Taylor?” Perhaps Megan had posted her father to answer the door.
Jon nodded, grateful he wasn’t going to have to come off as rude by skipping through the normal Deafie greeting rituals so he could get straight to the point. The man signaled across the room, and soon Megan appeared, looking pale and worried.
“Thank God you’re here,” she signed and spoke.
Jon sighed, his emotions swirling inside him while he used his training to keep him outwardly calm. He knew it was rude to speak, uninterpreted, in a room full of Deafies, but honestly, at this point, Jon didn’t care. English was easier and faster right now. “Where is he?”
Megan blinked for a moment, the interpreter in her nearly transposing his English into signs, before she finally replied, in unsigned English, “In our bedroom.”
Jon nodded and indicated for her to show him the way. “What happened?” he asked as they made their way through the crowded front rooms into a hallway.
Megan shook her head. “I don’t know. I thought I heard screaming and crying. When we got the bathroom open, Kai was unconscious.”
Jon frowned as Megan led him into the bedroom. Kai was laid out on their bed, David sitting beside him, watching him like a guard dog. He didn’t seem to notice them, so Megan walked until he caught her in his peripheral vision, glancing up. He scowled at Jon for a moment, but signed nothing.
Jon slipped off his bag, his eyes taking in Kai. His color was good, his lips weren’t blue, and his breathing, from a casual, fifteen-second check, was within the normal range for sleep, slow and even. Convinced this didn’t seem to be an emergency, Jon began unpacking his bag.
“Do you have any ammonia?”
David glared at him for speaking unsigned, but Jon ignored him.
“Like, for cleaning. Ammonia, or something that has ammonia in it,” Jon barked as he wrapped the blood pressure cuff around one of Kai’s arms.
“Uh, I’m not sure,” Megan said.
Jon saw Megan and David signing to each other, but he focused on checking Kai’s blood pressure, something he hadn’t done manually in years, so it took him a couple of tries. It was on the low end of normal for Kai. Jon removed the cuff as he noticed David hop off the bed and disappear.
Jon slipped the pulse ox on Kai’s finger, then tossed the sphygmomanometer in his bag. Kai’s pulse was fine, as was his PO2, so based on the limited information Megan had given him, Jon had to suspect Kai had had a panic attack and hyperventilated until he lost consciousness. Still, to be thorough, Jon listened to Kai’s lungs as well as he could, then his heart, both of which sounded fine, although Jon bemoaned his real, good stethoscope, the one he normally used daily, and which was infinitely better than this cheap one he kept in his kit.
Jon heard the bedroom door open and close, and soon David appeared at his side, offering him a bottle of cleaner with a scowl. His expression could certainly rival one of Kai’s worst, and Jon suspected David must not like him very much. Jon had to admit that attacking Kai in the guy’s living room probably didn’t earn him any brownie points, not that Jon really cared. It probably didn’t help that David’s deafness meant he would have only gotten Kai’s side of the story, and who knew how Kai had spun it. Maybe Kai had David convinced Jon was evil incarnate. Still, whatever bias David had against Jon, it hadn’t kept it him from summoning Jon to Kai.
Jon accepted the bottle, opened it, and took a hesitant sniff, his nose immediately scrunching up from the strong odor of ammonia. He nodded a kind of thanks to David, grabbing some cotton from his kit, soaking them in the solution. He capped the bottle, then waved the soaked swabs under Kai’s nostrils back and forth and back and forth until Kai’s eyes shot open with a start.
“Welcome back,” Jon said, his voice tight. Though he was secretly relieved Kai was OK, his lingering anger wouldn’t let him admit it.
Kai coughed, braced his hands on the bed, muscles tense, as if readying himself to move, his chest jerking, eyes wide with confused panic. He glanced around the room before shutting his eyes, covering his face with his hands and obviously consciously trying to calm himself down.
Jon took out a pen light from his kit, pulling Kai’s hands away to check his pupillary response, since no one could be sure if Kai had hit his head when he’d fallen. They were normal, but Jon didn’t like the way Kai looked at him when the light was taken away. Almost like he didn’t recognize his brother.
Jon forced himself to ask the basic orientation questions, to be a doctor instead of a brother for a few more minutes. “Can you tell me your name?”
Kai ignored the question, pushing himself up without help. A tremble coursed through Kai’s entire body, and his eyes filled. “Jon?” For a moment, Jon worried, until Kai threw his arms around him, hugging him tight. “I’m sorry.”
It was Jon’s turn to be confused, as Jon hugged Kai back for a few minutes, listening to Kai pleading in his ear a chorus of apology and gratitude.
Finally, Kai pulled back, his hands still on Jon’s shoulders. “You’re here.” Kai’s eyes were glossy, but full of such overpowering relief, almost as if Kai had believed he would never see Jon again.
Kai sighed and recited his name, the date, and a few other facts to convince Jon he was fine. As he did so, Jon noticed Kai’s emotionality of first waking had been shored up, though Jon knew it was still there, lingering under the surface.
“Can you tell me what happened?” Jon asked in his clinical, detached doctor voice. Jon tried not to focus on how lost and scared, yet grateful Kai had looked when he’d realized despite everything, Jon had still come to make sure he was OK.
Kai looked from Jon to Megan to David and shook his head. Jon could see his brother’s hastily painted veneer of calm chipping.
“You passed out in the bathroom,” Jon prompted. “Do you remember that?”
Kai’s eyes drifted to the bathroom door. His lip trembled. “That wasn’t a dream, was it?” Kai buried his face in his hands. “Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck,” he muttered, his breathing beginning to grow fast and shallow.
David looked at Jon, as if trying to impart an encyclopedia's worth of information with just his eyes and brows, his eyes darting to Megan. Picking up on his cue, Jon rose and pulled Megan to the side.
Jon laid a hand on Megan’s arm, comforting her the way he might a patient’s family member. “He’s fine. It was probably his blood pressure,” Jon lied, though as he did so, he wasn’t entirely sure why. He was fucking sick of secrets: Kai’s, Vicky’s. His mother’s, if he was really honest with himself. But maybe the doctor in him, who was bound not to share patient information--not that Kai was his patient anyway--directed his tongue. Besides, Kai had been upset enough about his panic attacks in the exam room and at the diner. The less people who knew about his anxiety, the less Kai would stress. And whatever had happened today, maybe it was partially Jon’s fault. Jon knew how much being abandoned terrified Kai, and yet he had walked out on him, going so far as to take most of his diabetes supplies with him when he’d left.
Jon glanced over Megan’s shoulder, where he saw Kai, huddled and trembling, nodding and shaking his head occasionally in response to David’s signs, but otherwise, shut down. Jon’s remaining anger fled his body as he coaxed Megan out the door. He had promised Kai, renewing that promise recently, that he would always be there for his brother, always be around when Kai needed him. And Kai needed him now.
Jon nudged Kai’s feet out of the way, sitting on the bed in front of his brother. “Tell me what you remember,” Jon said in a soft voice, gentle, the way he’d speak to one of his spooked younger patients. Nonthreatening, friendly.
Kai turned his head from David to Jon’s, and it was painful to see how hard Kai was struggling to keep it together, how any second his enforced calm was going to shatter. “It . . . it was like a nightmare. Only . . .” Kai took in a breath with enormous effort. “Only I was awake.” Kai’s lip trembled, his mask dropped, but Jon only saw it for a second before Kai buried his face in his knees, clutching them tightly to his chest as if trying to make himself as small as possible.
David jammed his fingers into Kai’s shoulder, perhaps annoyed by all the English, but Kai just shook his head without lifting it. But David was persistent, making an indeterminate noise to aid in getting Kai’s attention.
Kai finally looked up, released his grip on his legs to free up one hand enough to sign, “Thank you, but please go. I need to talk to Jon.” Kai’s eyes were pleading.
A long moment passed between them, in which they seemed to be communicating with only their faces. The hurt at being dismissed was clear in David’s face, and when Kai continued to plead with him, without words or signs to go, please go, David finally closed off his expression, glared at Jon, and left in a huff, the door slamming loudly behind him.
The sound was enough to make Kai jump and descend into trembling so bad he could hardly keep himself upright. Kai’s chest expanded and contracted visibly, breathing an obvious effort.
Jon laid a cautious hand on Kai’s shin. “Kai. It’s OK. Talk to me.”
Kai took another ragged breath and lifted his head just enough to peer over his knees at Jon. His eyes were red and tears were tracing down his cheeks. “It was the worst panic attack ever. . . . I . . . I lost myself, Jon,” Kai said, biting his lip hard and burying his face again.
Jon frowned deeply, grateful Kai’s face was hidden so he couldn’t see. He was trying to think of what to say and how when he heard Kai break into full sobs, loud and violent. It was a sound of despair unlike any Jon had ever heard from his brother, and though he’d never admit it, it scared the shit out of him.
Despite Jon’s attempts to console him, Kai cried for a long time, until he was gasping for breath and exhausted, lying listlessly on his side. “I’m fine,” Kai said, entirely unconvincingly. “Thank you for coming to check on me. But you can go back to Vicky.” Kai’s voice broke. “Where you belong.”
Jon was floored. “Kai--”
“It’d be selfish of me to ask you to stay,” Kai said with a pained smile, his breath labored and wheezy from the tears. It could easily have been a jab at Jon, but one look told him Kai was completely serious.
“Kai. I should never have said those things to you. I didn’t mean it. I was upset. And angry.”
Kai’s eyes slid to Jon’s finally. “We’re our most honest when angry,” he said flatly, as if he were quoting someone. He pushed himself back up, seemingly to help his breathing, coughing several times.
Jon handed Kai some tissues, watching his brother cough. With each cough, his breathing got better, though he was still shaking. He was far, far from “fine.” “I talked to Vicky before I came, and she told me to stay with you as long as you need.”
Kai looked up at Jon, his eyes unreadable, but he shook his head. “I need too much; isn’t that my fucking problem?” But Kai’s words held no anger, only pain. Apparently both of them had spent the past few days being mad at the same person--Kai. Jon saw a hitch in his brother’s breathing and wondered if Kai was going to break down again. His suspicions seemed confirmed when Kai jammed the heel of his hand into his eye and spoke, his voice shaking, “I’m such a fucking mess.” Kai pulled his legs to his chest again, hugging them close, silent now, but shaking again, a full body tremor not quite like an MLS attack, his eyes so disturbingly vacant.
Jon took out his phone and searched his contacts. “I’m calling Dr. Miller.”
Dr. Miller’s phone rang until her voicemail picked up, instructing the caller to leave a message and she would return the call promptly, but if it was an emergency, to hang up and call 911. She also gave the number for one of the suicide hotlines.
Jon looked at Kai, sighed heavily, and spoke quickly. “Dr. Miller, this is Dr. Taylor, Kai Fox’s brother. I apologize for bothering you on the holiday, but I would appreciate it if you could call me back ASAP.” Jon rattled off his personal cell number and hung up.
Jon reached out for Kai’s hand, wondering if Kai would pull away from him, relieved when he didn’t. Kai had buried his face again, and Jon realized he was crying quietly, his pulse jumping in his thumb. The shaking, the racing heart--it meant Kai was still ratcheted up.
“You’ll be OK,” Jon soothed. With his other hand, Jon smoothed Kai’s hair, concern and his unfailing parental instinct kicking in and sweeping away any lingering anger. “Let me take you home.”
Kai shook his head without lifting it. When he spoke, his words came out muffled. “I don’t want anyone else to see me like this.” Kai sucked in a harsh breath, squeezed his legs tighter, so tightly he had to be cutting off circulation. “What if . . .” Kai’s voice was strained. “What if Dr. Miller was wrong? I can’t blame drugs this time.” Kai cupped a hand over his neck, as if he were trying to silence his pulse. “I’m losing my mind.”
“You’re not,” Jon said with certainty, though he wasn’t nearly as sure as he tried to convey. “You--” But Jon’s phone buzzed in his hand, cutting him off. “Dr. Miller?”
“Dr. Taylor? Is Kai all right?”
Jon looked at his brother, who was rocking forward and back, though the movement was subtle since he couldn’t use his feet to push. He sighed. “Let me see if he’s up to telling you himself.” Jon held the phone on his shoulder. Nudged Kai’s leg. “Kai? Do you want to tell Dr. Miller what happened?”
Kai didn’t respond immediately, but finally, he reached a hand up blindly for the phone, holding it loosely to his ear; his other arm continued to embrace his legs tight to his chest. “Thank you for calling back,” Kai said in a voice Jon almost didn’t recognize as his brother’s. There was no way Dr. Miller couldn’t hear how upset Kai was. A pause, and then Kai choked out, “The bathroom door closed, and I panicked. It was like . . .” Kai’s eyes darted to Jon’s, then continued, “I was trapped in a nightmare, but I wasn’t sleeping. I . . .” Kai’s voice cracked, his breathing growing rapid and irregular. “I believed she was outside the door, that if I held my breath, she’d open it. I thought I was going to die in there, all alone. I passed out.”
Jon noticed the “she.” And apparently, the bathroom door had been some kind of trigger? Jon still didn’t know the root of Kai’s PTSD, but he suspected he’d find out more about it within the next few minutes, one way or another.
“No, no, I’m not OK,” Kai said in a wobbly voice, his breathing erratic. “I was living my nightmare, Dr. Miller. Sane people don’t do that.” Kai’s desperation was clear.
Kai was silent a long time, apparently listening to Dr. Miller, perhaps explaining what she thought had happened, and calming Kai down.
“OK. . . . OK. . . . Yes. . . . I’m shaking now, and I can’t . . . I can’t breathe. I can’t think. I want to scream and cry and close my eyes and disappear,” Kai rambled off, his words falling out of his mouth so rapidly his articulation failed him, his words slightly slurred. “I need to get out of my head.” Kai began to break down again. “I’m scared any second I’m going to slip back into that waking nightmare. Oh God,” Kai said, becoming more desperate and panicked. He looked like he would either break out in a full anxiety attack or pass out. “I hate this. I hate myself,” Kai nearly screamed into the phone. A pause. Kai took in a shuddering breath. “Because I freaked the fuck out in my friend’s bathroom and my brother had to come rescue me. Because I feel more out of control than ever. Because I keep straining to hear over the sound of my pounding heart for the sound of a lock clicking, and there’s this moment, when I think maybe I’m OK, but then I think, what if I missed it? And the silence is more terrifying than anything else.” Kai’s voice had spilled out rapidly, almost incoherently, the pitch rising in panic until he was forced to take several strangled breaths, almost like he was drowning.
Kai was really struggling for air now, so Jon laid his free hand on Kai’s chest as a gentle, wordless reminder for him to breathe. Kai attempted a few slow breaths, obviously listening carefully to what Dr. Miller was saying on the other line.
“Yes,” Kai said, and that single word held more pain than any other Kai had spoken. Jon couldn’t begin to imagine what Dr. Miller had asked him. “I don’t,” Kai said, in that same pained voice, “but I need to, I need to.” Kai’s voice was desperate, almost pleading, and he’d pulled his hand away from his legs, which were threatening to fall at any moment, digging his nails into his wrist. When Jon saw how Kai was doing so hard enough to leave serious, almost skin-breaking marks, he pulled Kai’s hand away, holding it tight.
Kai’s eye filled with tears, and he struggled to pull away initially, but didn’t fight it long, almost like he didn’t have the energy.
“OK. No. Please. No. I can’t . . . I can’t be alone. And I can’t--” Kai’s breath became more rapid, panicked. “I can’t be locked up. No.” Kai closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths. “Thank you. No, Jon will stay with me. . . . No. . . . You can tell him. . . . OK. Thank you.” Kai was crying again as he offered the phone back to Jon, but he was calmer now, struggling to regulate his breathing.
“I believe your brother had a flashback, his first, and it’s obviously a frightening experience. He’s in a very rough place right now. He’s given me permission to tell you why he has PTSD so you might understand a bit more what happened today.” Dr. Miller took a breath. “When Kai was a child, he was abused by a woman who fostered him for a summer. In addition to various forms of emotional and physical abuse, she used to lock him in the bathroom, sometimes overnight. One night in particular, he had an asthma attack, and he didn’t have his inhaler. He thought he was going to die.”
“Oh.” Dr. Miller’s words sunk in deeper as Jon glanced at his brother, curled up, crying and trembling on the bed beside him. “Oh,” Jon said again, words failing him. Jon knew Kai never locked himself in the bathroom, but had always assumed it was a hangover from County House.
“How old were you?” Jon asked Kai, who was busy tearing the sleeve of his T-shirt, a loud ripping sound disturbing the relative quiet of the room.
“Ten,” Kai said, almost without inflection. His eyes were vacant, though tears still streamed from them. He seemed like the panic had sucked his soul out of his body.
“I suggested a 72-hour hold, but Kai doesn’t want that, and considering his history, I won’t force it at this point. But he really should be supervised,” Dr. Miller said in a warning tone. “Are you able to do that for him? At least for the next forty-eight hours.”
“Yes,” Jon said without hesitation. Vicky couldn’t blame him for taking care of Kai when he was like this.
“Treat him with Valium, as needed, to help with the anxiety and panic, and I’ve agreed to an emergency session tomorrow morning. But the most important thing, as I told you before, is to support him.”
Continue to November 23, 2000, Part IV ------>