Tuesday, July 25, 2000

In/Exhale - November 24, 2000 - Part I

November 24, 2000 - Part I


Kai woke with a pained gasp, his eyes still closed, and his first conscious thought was hospital. He felt heavy and disoriented, like he’d been drugged, and his right side hurt, particularly his hip and ass, a low, steady throb that echoed the dull headache, probably a side effect of whatever drugs he was on. His stomach churned angrily, too, supporting the drug hypothesis.
    
But before he attempted to open his eyes, he listened. Far too quiet. Hospitals were noisy places. The constant beep and hum and hiss of machines. The whispers of doctors and nurses. Phones ringing, PA announcements. Shuffling feet. Rolling carts. Clicking of computer keys. It never ended. Kai’s experience with the cacophony of hospitals was one reason he’d developed the ability to fall asleep anywhere, and quickly.
    
Kai forced his eyes open. Which hurt. He couldn’t quite tell if it was from the headache or the light--the room wasn’t fully lit, just a lamp off to one side--but it was perhaps enough. Still, Kai was relieved not to find himself in complete darkness, his heart thrumming against his chest wall fast and fluttering. Kai attempted to push himself up, which took a few awkward tries, his upper body swaying slightly, a wave of nausea sweeping over him, and he dry heaved. Vaguely, he wondered if he was dehydrated, and that had saved him from spewing. But he tried not to think about it. The more he did, the more likely he wouldn’t get so lucky the second time around.
    
Kai felt lethargic as he forced his brain to work. Jon was asleep in the bed beside him, stretched out on his stomach, his arms wrapped around a pillow, his face obscured. Wait. Why was he in Jon’s bed? Kai tried to bring a hand to his head, to press it against his temple to ease the pulsing ache, but he nearly fell over and had to quickly drop it again. The near-fall made a flare of panic dash up his spine, setting his heart racing faster, which confused him until suddenly it hit him, like the sun piercing through heavy, dark clouds.
    
He’d fucking lost it. Yesterday. Was that yesterday? The digital clock across the room, with its enormous bright red numbers, displayed the time as just after three AM. Unless Kai had truly blacked out, it meant that less than twelve hours had passed since this all started. Dammit. It felt like ages ago, yet just the edge of the memory made his body begin to respond, his breathing shifting, becoming more frenzied, sweat breaking out on his neck.
    
He struggled to find something to focus on to stem the impending full panic attack. His bladder. Now that he forced himself beyond confusion and headache and soreness and a racing pulse, he felt the pain of its fullness. When was the last time he’d emptied it? He couldn’t remember. It didn’t matter. Concentrating on it had successfully stemmed the tide of anxiety, but now he knew he had to take care of it--soon--the urgency increasing with every second. Perhaps that was what had awoken him from the depths of the drug’s embrace.
    
Kai wanted to ignore it, but because of the Gatorade Jon had made him chug, he either had to take care of it or risk wetting the bed, and it wasn’t even his bed. Kai was already pushing the boundaries of brotherly love no matter what Jon said. He didn’t really need to add fuel to the fire.
    
Kai took a few breaths, shifted his weight onto his right hand, and reached blindly over the side of the bed for his chair, but he found only empty space. Panic threatened to grip him again, but he forced himself to think logically. He had to remember: this wasn’t his own room, and Jon had needed to help him in bed last night because of all the benzos in his blood. No matter what he told himself, he still felt that creepy, almost fluttery feeling beneath his skin that sometimes preceded a panic attack as he pushed himself away from the headboard and toward the edge of the bed.
    
Kai’s heart threw itself against his chest like a kidnapping victim pleading for escape when his now-adjusted eyes surveyed his half of the room and didn’t see his chair anywhere. Again, he tried to calm his body’s urge to freak by telling himself it had to be around somewhere. He’d been out of it last night, and didn’t really remember a lot of what happened after dinner yesterday--bits and pieces, like a damaged film reel--but not so much that reality could have warped for real, even if it had seemed that way. Barring serious muscle relaxants, Kai was probably strong enough to lift Jon, but Kai knew the reverse wasn’t true. Jon could not have carried Kai, especially as drugged as he’d been, from one room to the other.
    
His chair had to be here.
    
But then a panicked thought raced through Kai’s brain: had Jon kept his chair away from him as insurance that Kai wouldn’t do anything stupid if he woke up before his brother? It made the already existing nausea surge. Jon wouldn’t do that to him. Jon wouldn’t trap him like that.
    
Would he?

Kai shifted his weight again, not trusting himself to stay upright without support, and jabbed his brother in the shoulder. Jon groaned but only hugged his pillow tighter. Kai vaguely remembered how tired Jon had looked yesterday; maybe he’d taken some drugs himself to help him sleep. Though Jon could be a ridiculously deep sleeper when he did manage to fall asleep, even without meds. Kai losing his fucking marbles probably didn’t help Jon’s exhaustion. Kai tried shaking his brother a few more times, calling his name, but to no avail.
    
That floaty, buzzy, anxious feeling hovering inside him battled against his insistent bladder. He needed to go, soon. And he needed to focus on that before he seriously lost his shit, which he was far too precariously close to doing than he was willing to admit. Maybe Jon had a bottle in the nightstand drawer. It was a false hope, especially since Kai couldn’t imagine Jon ever peeing in a bottle. There was a bottle in the drawer, but it was lube. Half empty, something Kai really didn’t need to see, but at least all of this was distracting him from the fact that this wasn’t the first time in his life he’d found himself desperate and without his mobility aids. He shivered as memories tried to seep through.
    
He gazed across the room, toward Jon’s bathroom. In theory, he could lower himself to the floor, pull himself across the room, but he wasn’t at full strength, and there was a good chance he wouldn’t have the energy, once he got there, to make the difficult transfer from the floor to the tub or toilet.
    
The pain in his bladder and the nausea swirling in his gut dragged him back from his thoughts. Enough thinking. He needed to just get down on the floor and figure it out. Maybe Kai’s chair was on the other side of the bed, and he just couldn’t see it from here. Maybe he’d find a bottle on the kitchen table just outside Jon’s room, and he wouldn’t need to drag himself all the way to his room.
    
Kai threw back the covers, then lifted one leg at a time over the edge of the mattress. Jon’s bed was high, and even with his long legs, from as far back as he sat on it, his feet just touched the floor. He stared at them for a moment. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to cry. He wanted to scream. His mind was threatening to pull itself into the past, and he wasn’t going to let it happen.
    
Still, unwilled, a memory flooded his consciousness.

#

Kai sat on the small bed, needing to pee, bad, but his legs were loose and unresponsive, and she’d taken his crutches and braces again. So he wouldn’t get into trouble, she’d said. He had saved a bottle--pulled it out of the trash when she was at work--and hidden it in his room. For times like these. But she couldn’t catch him. He reached under the lip of the bed for the bottle, which was partially full--he’d have to try to empty it later, when she was sleeping, dragging himself slowly across the floor--but it’d work for now.
    
But she caught him, slapped the still-shut bottle out of his hands. “That’s disgusting!” she said. “Stand up! I’m tired of your pathetic lazy ass. Stand up!”
    
Fat tears formed and rolled down Kai’s cheeks as he shook his head. “I can’t,” he signed. “I can’t.
    
“For fuck’s sake. Stop it!” She grabbed him by the upper arms and pulled him unsteadily upright, off the bed. His knees wouldn’t lock, and he couldn’t get his feet where they should be, not without something to hold onto. Her hands wrapped tightly around his thin biceps, the only thing keeping him from tumbling to the floor.
    
For a brief moment, he was happy. She was touching him. And not just the occasional slaps when he cried too much or when he forgot himself and signed to her. It was a tight, harsh grip, and as soon as she let go, he’d fall, but right now she was supporting him. It meant maybe he wasn’t so bad, so disgusting, that she couldn’t touch him except to discipline him. Maybe it meant she’d want to keep him after all, and if he’d just be good, really, really good. . . .
    
He willed his legs to obey. If he could just stay standing, not fall when she let go, then maybe she’d be proud of him. Maybe she’d even hug him and tell him he was a good boy and he could stay forever.
    
Focusing hard on his legs and feet and not crying meant he stopped holding his bladder so fiercely, and urine leaked out, wetting the front of his pants and running down onto the floor, making a splattering, wet sound.
    
“Oh for fuck’s sake!”
    
He bit the inside of his cheek, hard, so he wouldn’t cry. She’d never keep him now. He readied himself for her to release him in disgust, for the impact of the fall, but instead of dropping him, she half dragged, half carried him toward the bathroom.
    
That’s when panic set in, and he began to fight her as best as he could, frantically shaking his head and doing his best to get purchase to push away from her body, mouthing No repeatedly, frantically, his tongue making a subtle clicking sound against his teeth, the most sound he could produce. He let himself cry, putting his effort into fighting her instead of blocking the tears.
    
“If you’re going to misbehave and pee everywhere like a God-damned dog, then you can stay in the bathroom like one,” she said. He fought her, but she was too strong. Too strong. So strong.
    
He barely had time to think before she threw him into the bathroom. The door already locking before he’d even hit the ground.

#

Kai hit the floor with a thump that sent jolts of sharp, icy pain through his body, but the pain was good. It kept him focused away from the pull of insanity, and any more of that haunting memory.
    
He adjusted his legs, squeezed the base of his dick. It wasn’t too far. He could do this. He planted his palms on the floor, pushing to shift his body away from the bed, facing himself backwards so he could drag himself toward the open bedroom door. His arms and shoulders burned with heavy fatigue; he didn’t have the strength he normally did, and he had to pause several times, leaning against the footboard, but he finally got to the other side of the bed.
    
Kai pulled himself closer and paused, his muscles trembling, and spied his chair, finally. In the far corner of the other side of the room, draped in shadows. No wonder he hadn’t seen it. Almost like Jon had been hiding it from him. A rush of hot anger flooded his system, temporarily overwhelming anxiety and pain and exhaustion and everything else. Immediately following the anger were the tears that always seemed too fucking close to the surface lately, and he grit his teeth, taking a few steadying breaths to push them away. He could almost smell another breakdown coming, like it was a component of the air, like the sharp, humid scent before a summer storm.
    
He had two choices. He could go for his chair, risk exhausting himself getting to it and then not be strong enough to pull himself up into it. Damn Valium. Or he could forget it and stick to his original plan.
    
At least Jon had left the door opened, propped in place with a chair stacked with medical journals. Though he’d left the lights off in the main living space, the darkness threatening to creep into the bedroom like a fog.
    
Kai didn’t want to go out there. It was illogical and fucking nuts, especially since his room was only a few feet away, but it didn’t change the way his breath came quicker, shallower, at the mere thought of venturing into it. What if Jon had tidied up and the bottle of Gatorade wasn’t on the table after all? What if he aimed for his room, and the lights were all off? Would he be able to reach the switch from the floor?
    
Kai pulled himself toward the door, making his decision. He needed to pee, so he’d find a bottle, and use it, and then. . . . Then he’d figure out what the fuck to do after that.

#

Despite his best efforts, the nearly impenetrable darkness of the main room had caused Kai to break into a cold sweat. Rather than risk full panic or worse while he searched for the bottle that should be on the table, he’d dragged himself into the relative safety of his room as quickly as his relaxed and fatigued muscles would carry him, grateful Jon had left the bedside lamp on, casting the room in a soft, warm glow.
    
Kai took a moment to regain his strength and breath in the middle of the room. He was halfway to an anxiety attack no matter how hard he was struggling to tell himself he was perfectly fine and derail the crazy train in his mind. He tried to force himself to think what would be faster and easier to get to: his backpack, in one corner of the room, or his nightstand. He kept bottles in both.
    
He just couldn’t manage to catch his breath, though, an involuntary shudder coursing through his body. Even the pain in his bladder wasn’t enough to pull him away when, somewhere nearby, a door unlocked, swung open loudly, then shut with a bang. Kai jumped, let out a reflexive yelp as his mind immediately began to race.
    
She’s home. She can’t catch me like this. Oh God.
    
Maybe he could get in bed before she got to his room. But he still had to pee. Would he have time to find the bottle he kept hidden under the bed and use it before she barged in? His shirt clung to his back with sweat, his breathing panting, and he knew he should be moving, but he was frozen. Heavy footsteps. Somewhere. Coming closer? Made his stomach seize up. Oh no, he was going to throw up. No, he couldn’t throw up, because that was bad and that made her mad.
    
A small, warm wet spot formed on the front of his pajama pants before he caught himself and stopped, squeezing the base of his dick with one hand. If he made a mess, she’d lock him up again. Maybe forever.
    
Kai clenched his eyes tight, took a few breaths, but he just couldn’t seem to get enough air. Suddenly, he heard a loud popping sound, and the room went dark. Pitch dark. Kai yelped again, his eyes desperately searching for light, but found only the faintest suggestion of it, somewhere beyond his doorway. Just enough that he’d be able to see her when she came in to yell at him.
    
Kai’s entire body was tense and jittery and ready to explode with fear, his eyes fixed on the door. He heard the creak of floorboards as she approached. He needed to move. He needed to move.
    
He waited, listening carefully. Maybe she’d go straight to bed. He’d be OK. Safe. He could clean the house really well tomorrow while she was at work and then she’d be proud of him. A sharp creak, creak, creak, as heavy, angry footsteps drew closer. Kai was trembling so intensely now he could barely stay sitting. No matter how hard he tried to see in the darkness, it was impenetrable, like a thick blanket covering everything. So dark and cold, like the bathroom.
    
The thought sent a violent shiver through his body. Warmth flooded over his groin and legs, pooling around him on the floor. Oh God, she was going to be so mad. Tell him how disgusting he was. And wasn’t he? Peeing himself like a little kid because he was too afraid to move.

The ear-grating creaking noise of the old solid wood doors in her ancient house seemed to go on forever. Kai had to escape, hide, somewhere.
    
You better be fucking sleeping in there!
    
The voice made Kai’s heart leap into his throat and soon he was bent over, throwing up. He’d hardly finished when he was pulling himself back as fast as he could, away from his mess, from the door, from her. Maybe if he hid she wouldn’t see the mess and he could clean it up before she saw it and then she wouldn’t send him away. His thoughts were racing fast as his back slammed into the edge of the bed. He could hide under there. For a little while. She wouldn’t bother to pull him out, would she?
    
He could stay with the dirty things under the bed, because he was dirty, and maybe then she’d leave him and he could write her a note saying how sorry he was and how he’d try harder.
    
Another shudder seized him, his arms shaking so badly he slid down. Pull yourself under the bed, he told himself. You’ll be safe there. For a little while.
    
Kai rolled himself onto his stomach, hands reaching blindly for something to help pull himself under. Behind him, he heard her footsteps grow closer. He had to hurry! He wrapped one hand around the metal slats of the bedframe, his other hand pushing against the floor, moving as fast as he could in his panic, in the darkness. He shifted his grips, pulled and pushed, the metal cutting his fingers, but he didn’t care, he didn’t care, he didn’t care.
    
Safe.
    
That’s all that mattered.
    
He moved until one shoulder pressed against the wall, using a hand to guide his stubborn legs under. Kai’s vision, even in the darkness, was fading, his breathing panicked to the point of nonexistence, but he kept his eyes trained for the gap between the mattress frame and the floor.

Fucking more trouble than you’re worth. I’ll have you out of my house in five minutes, even if it is the God-damned middle of the night!”

Even in the darkness, somehow Kai saw her shoes, only inches away from him, and any remaining logic that told him he was hiding, that he needed to be quiet, shut down. He felt her hands wrapping around his ankles, and he wanted to kick her away, he tried to kick her away, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. She was pulling him out! Kai tried to find something to grip--the legs of the bed--the slats--something, to keep himself safe, but she was strong. So strong. She was going to have him soon, and then what? Oh God. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t see in the dark. Oh God. Oh God Oh God.

Kai screamed.

#

Jon’s eyes shot open, but it took a moment for him to process, his mind strangely fuzzy, whether the scream--pure, undiluted fear--was real, or just the remnant of a dream. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. Kai’s side of the bed was empty, and a quick glance told Jon his chair was still there, too, where Jon must have left it the night before. Jon had helped Kai into bed on his own side, but Kai had wanted to keep Jon between himself and the door, and had shifted over. Exhaustion, aided by the dose of drugs, had meant Jon had fallen asleep without bothering to guide Kai’s chair to put it within Kai’s reach.
    
The lingering grogginess of the Valium faded as Jon shifted into focus, tearing off the blankets and hopping out of bed. He jogged toward his bathroom, taking a quick peek inside--it was unlikely Kai would have been there, but he decided to be thorough. Empty. Turning back around and surveying his bedroom, it was clear Kai wasn’t here. Had he decided to go back to his own room?
    
Worry flared in Jon’s gut. What if Kai had tried to hurt himself? What if he had hurt himself?
    
Jon dashed out to the main room, hurriedly slamming his hand against the switch to turn on the lights. He should never have taken the Valium. Even though it had been a ridiculously small amount, especially compared to what Kai was on, it did its job, luring Jon into a deep, dreamless sleep, which he’d desperately needed. But it meant he hadn’t been as vigilant as he should have been. Fuck. If Kai was hurt because Jon was sleeping when he needed him. . . .
    
Jon scanned the main room--what he could see from the hall--and saw no sign of Kai, so he rushed to Kai’s room. It was dark, but he thought he heard a weak, pained sound, so without bothering to turn on any additional lights, Jon rushed into Kai’s room, relying on the glow spilling in through the opened doorway to guide him. He stepped in something warm and wet, a paralyzing chill gripping his body.
    
Blood.
    
Jon’s world spun for a brief moment, but he managed to get himself under control to hobble back to the light switch. Jon blinked to adjust his vision and sighed with relief. Not blood. Urine. And now he could smell it, along with the faint, acidic tinge of vomit. Jon saw that now, too, and the redness of it again made worry flare up, but then the logical part of his brain kicked in--too red for blood. It was the bright, artificial shade of the sports drink he’d made Kai drink the night before. It meant Kai had obviously had another panic attack--a bad one--or perhaps another flashback. Jon had to find him before he hurt himself. But the room was empty, and a quick glance into Kai’s bathroom--which Jon could easily see into with the door removed--didn’t yield his brother, either.
    
Better to be thorough, and clean his feet, Jon thought, hopping into the bathroom, wiping his feet and checking the tub--just in case. No sign of Kai. He snagged some towels, threw them over the puddle on the floor, and headed back out into the main room. Maybe Kai was on the floor near the couch, or in the kitchen?

Jon combed the main room, but Kai was no where to be found. How could a nearly 6’4”, 200-pound disabled man just disappear? Without his wheelchair, or even his crutches--they’d been propped against the wall where Kai always kept them when not in use. It didn’t help that Kai had grown quiet, and Jon couldn’t use sound as a way to help locate him.
    
It was a long shot, but Jon checked the front door. Kai couldn’t reach all the locks from the floor, even as long as his arms were, but panic enabled people to do crazy things. All the locks were shut, including the chain. Even if Kai had managed to unlock the door and open it without Jon hearing, then lock everything again, he couldn’t have done the chain. It meant Kai was somewhere in the apartment. But where?
    
Jon grabbed a roll of paper towels from the kitchen and headed back to Kai’s room to finish cleaning while he racked his brain for where else Kai might be. Add disinfectant and it’d smell just like the medicine ward, Jon thought as he dropped down to his knees to paper up the vomit.
    
That’s when he heard it. Sobbing. Quiet, breathy, but nearby. Jon blinked, looked around, but didn’t see anything until he stooped to scoop up the dirty paper. The glint of two panicked eyes. Underneath the bed.
    
Jon blinked. It had to be his imagination; the space between the floor and the frame was a foot, maybe. Jon was skinnier and less muscular than his brother, and he didn’t think he’d fit under there.
    
Jon dropped to his stomach, peering under the mattress. He could just barely see the outline of Kai, also on his stomach, pressed up against the wall, his head tilted, cheek on the ground. He was crying, and as soon as Kai saw Jon, he began to shake, trembling hard enough to rock the bed.

“Kai. It’s Jon. Your brother. You’re safe. No one is going to hurt you.”
    
But Kai clearly wasn’t seeing Jon, crying and mumbling and barely breathing.
    
Jon pushed away, to his feet, trying to figure out how to either get Kai out from under the bed or snap him out of the flashback, or both. Of course, he could wait until Kai passed out, but he didn’t really like that option at all. Especially since Kai was wedged in there pretty good, and it didn’t look like Jon would be able to move the bed--because of the way it was braced into a corner--without potentially hurting Kai. Kai was literally sandwiched between the bed and the floor, and it was clearly only sheer panic that had enabled him to even fit into the tight space to begin with.
    
Jon supposed he could take the bed apart, but he didn’t really relish that idea, either, especially if he tried to do that before Kai passed out or snapped out of it. Who knew what Kai’s reaction might be if he was still panicked when Jon tried that approach?
    
Jon found a penlight, left on Kai’s nightstand from when Jon was checking his pupils earlier, and got down on his knees one more time to survey the situation. Kai was still trembling, still muttering and crying, but when Jon passed his closest hand, he saw blood. Either Kai had cut himself during his tumble down the rabbit hole, or. . . . The light wasn’t very bright, but it was clear Kai was gripping the metal slat of the mattress frame tightly, tightly enough it was cutting into his palm.
    
Dammit. Jon couldn’t leave him there long if he was potentially hurting himself.
    
Jon closed his eyes and breathed in and out for several moments, trying to decide what to do. He had too much training to panic, but this was Kai, and there was a reason physicians weren’t supposed to treat their family members. He opened his eyes and decided to try the first method that came to mind--sign language. Presumably, the woman who had hurt Kai didn’t know ASL, so perhaps if he signed to Kai--as awkward as it would be lying on the floor, holding a pen light to try to illuminate his signing--that would snap Kai out of it. Something that was distinctly in the now instead of in whatever horrible memory Kai was still trapped inside.
    
Kai,” Jon tried, using the name sign of their childhood, a letter K brushed off the tip of his nose, which, amusingly, was strikingly similar to the sign for pissed off, Jon had since learned. “You’re safe. No one can hurt you. Come out.” Signing this way was challenging, and he wasn’t even entirely sure if the light was such (despite Jon’s best attempts to carefully angle the beam) for Kai to make out what he was saying, but he kept going, signing platitudes and reassurances and hoping it would work.
    
Jon was about ready to give up and try to figure out a plan B when he saw Kai’s grip on the bedframe relax, and he let out a shuddering breath. He looked around, as if panicked and confused as to how he ended up wedged under the bed, but then his eyes finally found Jon, as if truly seeing his brother for the first time. It was hard to see, but Jon thought they filled with tears. Jon fought back the urge to use his voice, just in case, and offered Kai his hand, sliding it under the bed and hoping Kai would accept it.
    
Kai was reluctant, but he finally released his death grip on the frame and slipped one hand in Jon’s, using the other to help push himself away from the wall. Together, they slowly managed to extract Kai from under the bed, Jon doing a lot of pulling, since Kai’s position didn’t give him much leverage, and it wasn’t like he could use his legs to kick away from the wall. The entire time Kai was quiet, though tears still spilled out from the corners of his eyes, tracing paths on his dirty cheeks.
    
When Kai was completely free, Jon helped him sit up, leaning against the mattress to support his back, trying to survey the damage, but Kai pushed him away.
    
“Don’t touch me,” Kai said miserably. Before Jon could protest, Kai added, “I’m disgusting.” He pulled his knees up to his chest, burying his face in them and sobbing.
    
Each time Jon tried to touch Kai, to reassure him, Kai would flinch and sob harder. So Jon rose, went to the bathroom to wet a couple washrags and grab some clean towels, being sure to keep Kai at least partially in his sight, and to move quickly. On his way back to his brother, he snagged some clean PJs and underwear from a drawer before sinking down beside him again.
    
“Let’s get you clean, OK?” Jon said in a gentle voice, tugging at Kai’s shirt.
    
Reluctantly, Kai let go of his legs, pushing them down, calm now, though he was clearly still upset, and wouldn’t let Jon touch him. His clothes, face, and hands were filthy, his shirt soaked in sweat and vomit and coated with dust, his pants and underwear drenched in urine, and he removed them clumsily, mechanically, his tears dried but his eyes so . . . dead. It broke Jon’s heart.
    
“Here, clean yourself,” Jon said, offering Kai the warm, damp cloth. “It’s OK.”
    
“It’s not,” Kai said with pained anger, wiping his face and chest and injured left hand (which Jon noted, to his relief, seemed to be superficially hurt--he’d have to treat it properly later, once Kai was asleep). Kai hurriedly slipped on the long-sleeved tee Jon had brought. Shivering, Kai took care cleaning his groin and thighs and drying everything thoroughly before using his hands to help pull a fresh pair of underwear and pants on. Jon could see how Kai was focusing on his task, biting his lip in a desperate attempt not to break down again. It killed him to see his little brother--who Jon had always admired for being so strong--looking so . . . broken.
    
Jon plucked a damp cloth from the floor, turned it around to find a clean side and used it to wet Kai’s hair, gently brushing out some of the dust that clung to it. He had to make sure to vacuum under there more often. Jon had gotten lax since Kai’s transplant, since he didn’t have attacks like he used to before, but if he really wasn’t cured, maybe he shouldn’t push their luck. Kai did sound a little wheezy right now, but it could simply have been from all the tears.
    
As Jon gently cleaned Kai’s hair, grateful his brother didn’t pull away or push Jon back, he poured all the comfort he longed to offer his brother, but which Kai wouldn’t accept right now, into the touch. Kai kept his eyes shut, trembling subtly, as if he were crying without tears.

“How can you even look at me right now?”
    
Jon stifled his sigh, debated about saying the words that rose in his mind. “You’re unwell, Kai. It might be in your head instead of in your lungs or your legs, but it’s no more your fault. It’s why we’re going to see Dr. Miller, so she can help make you better.” Jon tossed the dirty rag aside, gently grabbed the sides of Kai’s face to force him to meet his eyes. “You have nothing to be ashamed about, OK?” Jon kissed his forehead. “Do you want to give yourself the diazepam shot, or should I?”
    
Kai sighed brokenly, but put a hand out for the shot Jon had grabbed with the towels. “I’m worse,” Kai said in a small voice, shifting his body and quickly injecting the medicine in his hip. “What if I can’t get better?”
    
Jon took back the syringe, then slipped a hand in Kai’s. “You will. You’re more stubborn than I am. You’ve survived when everyone said you wouldn’t. More than once.” Jon pushed the dirty linens aside so he could sit beside Kai, back supported by the bed. He capped the syringe and set it on the bed for now, holding Kai’s hand firmly.
    
“Have I ever told you about your first year?”
    
Kai shook his head, pushed himself down to the floor again, grabbing his legs and curling into a ball, his head resting in Jon’s lap.
    
Jon smoothed Kai’s shoulder, a slow, repetitive, soothing gesture, happy Kai was allowing the touch. “You were almost two months premature, and the doctors said you weren’t going to make it. You weren’t breathing on your own, and they didn’t expect you to last more than a few days. They even made an exception, since they were certain you were going to die, and let me in with Dad to see you. I wasn’t even eight, so I normally wouldn’t’ve been allowed in the NICU, but Dad fought for me.” Jon sighed. “You were so, so tiny. We could hardly see you with all the tubes and wires. I talked to you and told you I needed you to get better and if you did, I’d be the best big brother ever.” Jon laughed wetly. “You survived the week, so they said you wouldn’t make the month. Then three. Then the year. But you kept fighting, Kai, because that’s who you are. You’ve never given up. I’ve always admired that about you. It’s the memory of your tenacity that kept me going all those years we were apart.”
    
“No one can fight forever,” Kai said, his words slurred and sleepy, the drug beginning to take effect.
    
“No,” Jon admitted. “But you’re not fighting alone.”

#

It had been difficult to rouse Kai at seven for his morning medications, but Jon wasn’t entirely sure it was due to all the diazepam. The entire morning, Kai had been cooperative, but distant and silent, as if his mind had shut down at some point during the night and he were just an empty shell. No matter what Jon said or signed to him, Kai barely responded, offering a nod or a shake or a shrug as absolutely necessary, and no more. It had pained Jon to give Kai another large dose of Valium along with the rest of his usual medications, but with so much in his system over the past day, Jon couldn’t risk pushing Kai into withdrawals on top of everything else he was already going through. He’d also added a Zofran, something Kai usually took symptomatically now that he wasn’t on the Mexitil anymore, as a precaution to help ease any nausea brought on by his anxiety or the large doses of Valium.
    
After dressing himself in several layers of tee shirts (both short-and long-sleeved), sweatpants, and an enormously oversized thrift-store hoodie, Kai pushed out toward the rest of the apartment, since Jon had insisted he eat something despite his insistence that he wasn’t hungry. Kai had refused a shower, but Jon wasn’t sure if it was fear of entering the bathroom or if Kai felt he wasn’t deserving of being clean. The slight shiver and dead look in his brother’s eyes when Jon had suggested it seemed to suggest a combination of both.

At least Kai had allowed Jon to tend to his injured left hand. None of the cuts were terribly deep, but because several lay in the creases of his fingers and palm, it meant bending or flexing too much risked re-opening the wounds. Not wanting to risk infection, Jon had washed them all thoroughly with an antimicrobial rinse, treating each with antibiotic ointment and bandaging it as well as he could.
   
Jon had expected Kai to plant himself stubbornly at the kitchen table--it wouldn’t have been the first time Jon had “forced” Kai to eat when he didn’t want to--but instead, Kai had made it all the way to the kitchen, using his arms on the counters and cabinets to propel himself on his left as necessary to give his hand a break.
   
Kai snagged the coffee carafe from where Jon had left it drying by the sink, presumably to fill it. Kai never drank coffee, but he did occasionally make it for Jon, though it surprised Jon that Kai was doing it this morning. Maybe he simply needed something to keep himself from being alone with his mind?
   
“You don’t need to worry about that,” Jon said before he could stop himself. “I’ll get it.”
   
Kai turned with shocking abruptness, the carafe halfway to the sink, and it hit the edge of the cabinet and shattered, glass exploding over Kai’s lap and the floor around him. “Fuck!” Kai screamed loudly, the sound especially vivid since he’d been completely silent all morning.

“It’s fine, Kai,” Jon said, holding up his hands as if to pacify his brother. “Just stay still--”

“I’m not helpless,” Kai said, angry, but with a tinge of desperation. It was a relief to see emotion finally, after the morning’s vacancy, but that look, that tone, was enough to nearly throw Jon into his own flashback. Jon remembered vividly, his mother, dropping the carafe--this one filled with coffee--in the middle of the kitchen floor. Trying to pretend she was fine before dissolving into tears, folding down onto the ground, seemingly oblivious that she was kneeling on shards of glass and hot coffee. At the time, Jon was only four, maybe five, and the entire experience had been terrifying.

“I know that,” Jon said, doing his best to keep his voice level and not patronizing. “But you’ll ruin your tires.”

Kai took a few heaving breaths, and Jon could see he was on the verge of either screaming or crying, or maybe both. “Like I ruin everything.” Kai’s voice was a blend of anger, frustration, shame, and heavy with the suggestion that he was barely keeping himself from a breakdown.

Jon snatched a tea towel and used it to help him gather up the biggest shards of glass, though he tried to keep a cautious eye on his brother. “What are you talking about?”

“Your relationships with Jenny. Vicky. Mine with Becca, Nikki. Renee, too, once she realizes how fucking insane I am. Your chance with the committee. Thanksgiving. Your vacation. Even your fucking coffee.” Kai folded himself into his lap without pushing the glass out of it, and Jon was immediately on his feet again, pushing Kai back up and brushing the glass away. He had to forcibly hold Kai’s chin to check for cuts, but Kai’s cavernous hood had protected his face, and most of the glass had fallen on the floor, anyway.

Jon held Kai’s head in place so he couldn’t hide. “Is that what you really think?”

Kai looked away. It was answer enough.

“Kai . . .” Jon started, but he wasn’t sure what he could say to reassure his brother right now.

Kai brought his eyes back to meet Jon’s, so blue, so sad, so guilty. It felt like an eternity, Kai attempting to convey so much without words, without signs, though Jon knew only seconds had passed between them. Don’t touch me, Kai had told Jon only hours earlier. I’m disgusting. Kai really saw himself that way?

Finally, Kai looked down, around him, over his shoulder, and before Jon could say anything or even react, Kai leaned back and wheeled backwards sharply, out of the path of the glass and toward the opposite end of the kitchen.

“I’ll make toast,” he said, slipping into his monotone voice, his mask firmly in place now. “If I can manage not to fuck that up, too.”

Fortunately, the carafe had shattered in mostly large shards, so it didn’t take too long for Jon to get most of it, though it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to do a pass with the vacuum to protect Kai’s wheels.

“We could go to the diner for breakfast,” Jon suggested before he realized what he’d said.

Kai’s eyes darkened, and he visibly stiffened. “I can’t go there anymore.”

“Of course you can. You love that place. It’s bad enough you let Nikki’s leaving keep you away from it for so many weeks--”

Jon could see Kai’s jaw working, a subtle shimmer in his eyes, his face almost flickering, like an out-of-alignment TV channel, as he tried to keep his mask in place. “I’m not exactly inconspicuous.”

“It’s a small town, Kai. Everyone knows everyone. That doesn’t mean they care.”

“Everyone doesn’t know everyone. Everyone knows me,” Kai said with more vitriol in his voice. “Don’t stand there and fucking tell me I can pretend it didn’t happen,” Kai continued, emphasizing the word “stand.” Kai breathed heavily, staring intensely at Jon, as if he were merely pausing in his tirade, but then he shook his head, and seemingly not caring about his hand or the glass, barreled past Jon and out into the living room.

#

A few minutes later, Jon found Kai on the couch, his wheelchair disassembled as he carefully examined each tire for any signs of puncture, any hint that he’d snagged some glass that would cause a flat at worst, or a leak, at best. Jon could see Kai’s fingers and palm were bleeding through their bandages, but if Kai noticed, he didn’t seem to care, focusing intently on his task.
   
“I’m sorry,” Jon said, perching at the far end of the sofa to give Kai as much space as possible.
   
Kai didn’t seem to hear him, setting one tire aside and beginning on the second.
   
“I could make you pancakes,” Jon offered after a tense moment of silence. Jon couldn’t really eat them, because they spiked his blood sugar too much, but he knew Kai liked them, especially with a little honey added to the batter to make them sweet, even without syrup.
   
Kai didn’t respond. He found a small piece of something, plucked it off the tire, running his fingers over the rubber, squeezing it, seemed satisfied no damage had occurred, and set it aside. He stared down at the frame, but didn’t move to reattach the wheels.
   
“Or we could go get donuts. There’s that place that opened--”
   
Kai held up one hand, though his face was devoid of any emotion. “I’m trying not to throw up my morning meds,” he said in the same way you might say, “I got the mail.”
   
Jon sighed. “You need to eat.
   
“Missing a meal won’t kill me,” Kai said flatly, pulling his wheelchair frame closer. He took the time to smooth his uninjured hand over it, as if he expected to find a flaw. The dark blue paint was worn off in some places, exposing the metal beneath, but otherwise, it was in almost as good condition as when Kai had first received it four years ago. Kai was meticulous about maintaining his wheelchair, and though he didn’t have his tools, he felt each bolt anyway, searching for any that might be loose. Jon suspected it was a way for Kai to keep his hands and mind busy.

Silence stretched.

Finally, Kai spoke again, laying a hand possessively on the frame, his eyes hidden by his hood. “Don’t ever take my chair away from me again.”
   
Jon blinked, trying to process what Kai was talking about. Shit. Jon had been so exhausted by the time he’d gotten Kai settled he hadn’t even thought about it, the dose of Valium he’d taken for himself pulling him rapidly toward unawareness.
   
“She used to do things like that to me,” Kai said in that same eerily emotionless voice. “Take my crutches and braces.” Then he snapped the wheels back on the frame in a few quick movements, as if to punctuate the end of the conversation.

#

The hood shielded Kai’s face from the cold of the passenger window, though he could still feel it, dully, through the fabric. Kai’s car was still at David’s--who had texted several times to unobtrusively ask if Kai was OK and say that he and his father-in-law-to-be would drop by later to give Kai his car back. Jon was grateful David wasn’t being pushy--his texts were succinct, delightfully ASL-y, and direct. No false reassurances or insistences that Kai tell David everything. Damn, Kai loved Deafies.
   
Still, Kai could hardly handle Jon right now, so he’d replied simply with his brother’s phone number (not that Megan didn’t already have it, obviously), telling David to deal with him for now. Whenever he got his head on straight (ha! if that would ever happen), he promised he’d fill David in.
   
So Jon was driving, not that he would have let Kai drive anyway with the ridiculous amount of drugs in his system right now. But it also meant Jon had tried, several times, to alternately explain and apologize for last night, for Tuesday, for everything, because that’s what Jon did. He was a martyr. If there was guilt to be had about anything, he’d absorb it for himself, like a human sponge. It made Kai wonder if Jon was like that because of fourteen years of Catholic indoctrination, or if that was just who Jon was. Kai was glad that his only religious exposure had been the Youngs and similar goody-two-shoes missionaries proselytizing to the kids at County House once a month. That, and the creepy Bible-Thumper, “Jesus Loves Me More Than You” clique at the hearing high school, who always carried their bibles under their arms where everyone could see and followed the group leader in two neat rows like she was Jesus reborn and they were apostles. Kai had found them incredibly amusing until they’d decided to make him their project and pray over him at least once a week, convinced that if he would accept Jesus into his heart, he’d be healed. They weren’t so entertaining after that, but at least the bullies left him alone when he was surrounded by born-agains.
   
But none of this was Jon’s fault. It was easy enough to blame him, at least on the surface, but Kai knew the truth. He was a drain, a worthless parasite, and he always had been. People were better off without him, including--maybe especially--Jon. He felt tears prickle behind his eyes and thumped his head against the glass to shake himself out of it. Dammit, he wasn’t going to do that again. Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
   
He felt Jon’s hand on his shoulder, trying to still him. “Kai, it’s OK. Dr. Miller will help you and you’ll get through this.”
   
Kai stifled a laugh. Jon was always so confident about everything. He had truly believed, down to the very last day, that Kai would get a transplant. Really, truly believed. If he’d ever doubted, he’d never let it show in front of Kai. Kai sighed heavily, his breath temporarily fogging the glass. He wished he could be so certain.
   
“You cold?”
   
Evidently, the shiver had been more visible, even with his coat and oversized sweatshirt, than Kai had thought. Truth was, he was freezing, despite his layers. Probably partially because of the Valium. “Fine,” Kai said, not bothering with the rest of the sentence. English was so unnecessarily complicated.
   
Still, he heard Jon fiddling with the controls, and soon he felt even warmer air blowing on him. He shivered again. It had snowed some time during the night, not heavy, just enough to be annoying and melt and refreeze when the temperature plummeted, making the roads treacherous. Probably extra good Kai wasn’t driving. Valium and icy roads didn’t mix very well.
   
Although driving head-on into a tree sounded pretty appealing right now.
   
Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
   
Kai slipped his right hand into the pocket of his sweatshirt, which was large enough it peeked under the hem of his jacket. Kai’s fingers found the piece of glass he’d snuck in there earlier. He hadn’t intended to break the carafe, but once he had, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. In case he needed to remind himself, later, that physical pain was so much easier than trying to deal with the war within his head.
   
They said crazy people didn’t know they were crazy, but Kai couldn’t think of any other way to describe the last eighteen hours.
   
Kai didn’t wait for Jon to finish parking when he pushed the door open and heaved, throwing up the little amount of fluid he had in his stomach, hoping enough time had passed that all his meds had already been absorbed. Though part of him didn’t care either way.
   
“Dammit, Kai,” Jon swore. “You should have eaten something.”
   
At least that’s what Kai thought Jon was saying. He couldn’t hear him well as his stomach spasmed again and he tried desperately to throw up more, but he had nothing left. He sank back in his seat, wedging his head in the doorframe, not even bothering to close the door. Not caring about the bitter cold that swept in, his stomach still cramping as if it were disgusted it had to be a part of him.
   
Don’t blame you, Kai thought as he let his eyes shut, cherishing the cold. It was nice to feel something outside of himself, something sharp and painful that had nothing to do with his fucked up head. Pain he could focus on that wouldn’t get him committed.
   
Kai heard that annoying chime that meant the key was still in the ignition but the driver’s door was open, and then he felt Jon checking his pulse, and probably talking to him, too, but it was like the combination of low blood sugar and the surge of Valium was making his brain delightfully foggy, and so it was almost like trying to hear underwater.
   
Even with the nausea, even with the brutal honesty, Kai could start to see how dosing himself up with benzos could be nice. He felt heavy and groggy, but they also made it easier not to care about anything. And of course, there was always the possibility, like yesterday, of OD’ing.
   
Dammit. He was thinking far too many bad thoughts this morning. And he was so drugged up he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to hide it from Dr. Miller, either.
   
Eventually, though Kai wasn’t sure how much time passed--it could have been seconds, could have been minutes--Jon made sure he was out of the way of the door and shut it again. A moment later, Kai felt Jon reenter, the shift of the car with his weight, and then the car was moving, presumably to another spot.
   
Dr. Miller’s office was in a small multi-story office building with its own parking garage, but it being the day after Thanksgiving, presumably the other businesses--lawyers, accountants, architects, etc.--were all closed, leaving the garage cold and empty.
   
Kai drifted, waking with a start when he felt his brother tap on the window. Kai forced himself away from the door as Jon opened it. He’d already assembled Kai’s chair, and seemed to be unsure of how Kai would react. He really didn’t want Jon to touch him right now; as illogical as it seemed, it was like Kai would contaminate Jon somehow. Honestly, Kai just wanted to pull himself out of the car, curl up on the cold concrete floor and let the sound of the wind howling through the garage wash over him, monstrous whooshing sounds, as if the structure were some kind of snoring beast that would swallow him up.
   
It was hard to keep his eyes open, and sleep would be so nice, because, barring nightmares, it was an escape.
   
Jon’s hands were on him, and Kai was too tired to push him away. “Jesus, Kai. You’re freezing. I should take your blood pressure.”
   
Kai managed to shake his head. “FINE,” he signed lazily. He batted Jon out of the way and barely managed to make the transfer himself without falling on his ass.
   
“I’m worried about you,” Jon said in a low voice that mostly got swallowed by the roar of the wind.
   
“Join the club,” Kai said tiredly, pushing slowly toward the entrance.

#########


1 comment: