Tuesday, July 25, 2000

In/Exhale - November 24, 2000 - Part IV

November 24, 2000 - Part IV

Kai would have had no idea of the time if it weren’t for the large digital clock across the room from Jon’s bed, which informed him it was late afternoon. He’d been in and out of consciousness most of the day, and though he’d had a few “mini flashbacks,” he’d been relatively OK once he came back to himself. Right now he was sitting up in Jon’s bed, propped up with pillows, trying to will away the nausea in his stomach; Jon had offered him Zofran this time, which wouldn’t sedate him, in the hopes that he might be able to finally eat something.

He still had the IV in his wrist, which was taped thoroughly to make it difficult for Kai to pull it out if the urge to hurt himself came over him. He had to admit, though, he hadn’t thought about it, not really, since the morning. Maybe it was the Xanax, which worked spectacularly well--he could see why people took it recreationally. If it weren’t for the fact that it left him incredibly nauseated, he could see himself abusing it, too. But really, if he thought about it, it might have just been having Jon around, taking care of him without being his often overbearing, worrying self. Kai still couldn’t believe he had told Jon about Dr. Fox--benzos in high doses did make him more prone to confessions. It felt like a dream, but then a lot of the past couple days did, thanks to insanity and drugs.

Jon poked his head in. He had been reluctant to leave Kai alone, even for a few minutes, but Kai had promised he’d shout if he felt he was losing control over himself. Of course, the flaw in that plan was if he literally lost himself in a major flashback, then he wouldn’t be aware enough to warn Jon before he potentially hurt himself, but Kai wasn’t about to point that out. He appreciated Jon, but he didn’t need his brother watching him like a security camera every single second.

“David’s here. He came to drop off your car, but he’d like to talk to you, if you’re up to it.”

Kai pushed some hair out of his face, feeling how oily it was and frowning before he could stop himself. Jon hadn’t brought up a shower again yet, and honestly, thinking of the bathroom made his stomach clench, but he’d need to bathe at some point. “Yeah, I can talk for a few minutes.”

Jon turned around in the door, and Kai could see his shoulders working as he signed, though it was impossible to know what he was saying from the angle. A minute later, David came striding in, his face neutral but his eyes looking at Kai with wary concern.

David perched on the edge of the bed, facing Kai. He spotted the IV bags, which Jon had managed to hang off a hook on the wall. His eyebrows furrowed, but he said nothing, bringing his attention full on to Kai. “How you doing?” he asked with one sign, a casual flick of his middle finger off his shoulder.

Kai shrugged. “Haven’t killed myself yet,” Kai said with a wry smile, grateful he could sign that all with one hand; the cath in his wrist hurt.

David rolled his eyes. “You know, if you hated Megan’s food so much, you didn’t need to make up such a complicated story to get out of it.

Kai was surprised when a bark of laughter escaped his lips, but then he frowned as the memory of throwing up Megan’s Thanksgiving dinner flared at the back of his mouth, and nausea surged. He grimaced. “Please. No food talk.

David frowned, but nodded. “Look. I know I said I wasn’t going to risk my ass, but I found the records you wanted. It wasn’t simple.” David looked at Kai with a “you owe me” glare. “I left them in your car, so you can look at them when you’re better.” David scratched his nose, a nervous habit that signaled he was uncomfortable. “I won’t tell you what to do, but sometimes ignorance is bliss, OK? I’d rather not know about my father. Maybe he ended up driving his car into a tree a year after he gave me up; maybe he married some rich woman and lives in the lap of luxury with six ‘normal’ kids who he doesn’t slap around. Either way, I’d rather not know. Get it?

Kai nodded, but there was no way he was going to pass up a chance to learn more about his mother, and by extension, himself. “Did you read the files?

David looked offended. “No. Just a quick glance here and there to make sure they were the right ones. I figured it wasn’t any of my business.

Kai raised a single eyebrow in surprise, but nodded.

David deftly changed the subject. “So, how fucked up are you?” David signed it jokingly, but his eyes revealed genuine concern.

Kai sighed, picked at the medical tape securing the IV to his wrist. Not really trying to take it off, but just giving his fingers something to do while he decided how to answer. Finally, he lifted his good hand and replied, “Pretty fucked up.” He tried for a wry smile, but didn’t quite succeed.

David nodded, signaling he understood and Kai didn’t have to elaborate. “I know you have Jon, but if you need anything . . .

Kai smiled. “I have been thinking of robbing the First Bank of Jonesville . . .

David growled and punched Kai in the arm. “Anything, as long as it won’t get me arrested, asshole.

Kai grinned, held out his hand, and David accepted it, pulling himself toward Kai for a hug.

If you are ever feeling alone, text me, OK?” David said, once he’d pulled back, his face the most serious it had been since he’d arrived, conveying that he meant much more than the few signs did on the surface. “Any day. Any time. You know I won’t ask questions.

Kai felt tears springing up again. Dammit. He’d probably cried more in the past three months than he had in his previous 20+ years. He hurriedly wiped his eyes, sucked in a breath, and nodded enthusiastically. He felt David’s hand squeeze his shoulder, pat his cheek, then the bed shift. When Kai looked up, finally managing to regain some semblance of control, David was gone.


#
Kai was still fighting nausea, despite the Zofran, and he was beginning to feel restless and irritable, sweat breaking out on his forehead and back even though he was chilled. He threw the book he’d been trying to read across the room; focusing on the text only made the nausea worse.

Jon came rushing in just as Kai was trying to see if he could pull the tape off his wrist without unwinding it. “Kai, calm down,” Jon said, putting his hands on Kai to still him. He glanced at the clock, then at Kai’s eyes. “Guess it’s time for more drugs.”

“I’m fucking sick of being drugged,” Kai said, pushing against Jon, making his brother stumble, though he didn’t release his hold.

“I’d normally say it’s way too early for you to be having withdrawals, but nothing surprises me with you.” Jon yanked the collar of Kai’s T-shirt over his shoulder, exposing skin, which he wiped quickly with an alcohol swab before injecting him. “Valium. Hoping to get you weaned off it soon though,” he said, capping the syringe. He felt Kai’s forehead, frowned, but said nothing else. Instead, he handed Kai his cell phone. “Renee’s been texting and calling you since yesterday. I think you should talk to her.”

“And what the fuck am I supposed to tell her?”

Jon had crossed to his closet, which he opened, reaching up for one of the ziploc bags of meds he’d stashed there as a precaution, probably while Kai was sleeping. He turned to face Kai as he dug through the bag. “I don’t know. You’re a better liar than me.”

Kai glared at Jon as he used his good hand to scroll through his missed calls, voicemail notifications, and text messages. Jon was right: Renee was worried that he hadn’t communicated with her since Thursday morning. A pang of guilt hit him, shortly followed by a flash of inspiration. He could tell her about running into Nikki, and make up a story about giving into temptation and sleeping with her. Considering how big a deal it had been for Renee to trust Kai like that, certainly that would be enough to get her to hate him enough she’d never want to see him again. He’d keep his secrets, and he’d protect her (and himself) from inevitable future catastrophe.

But Kai had promised Renee he wouldn’t hurt her, and even if it was hurting her to prevent a bigger pain, Kai couldn’t do it. In fact, the idea that he’d even thought of it made him so disgusted with himself. . . .

Jon was distracted; apparently the first bag hadn’t had the drugs he was looking for. Kai had enough strength, even with the muscle relaxant, which was beginning to hit his blood as a subtle wave throughout his body, to rip out the IV cath, if he was determined enough.

“Fuck,” Kai said, his voice foreign sounding.

Jon immediately dropped what he was doing, obviously hearing the frustrated anguish in his brother’s voice. “Kai . . . ?”

Kai was breathing heavily, the dose of Valium Jon had injected him with not enough to really affect him, since it was primarily to prevent withdrawal. “Talk me down. Talk me down,” Kai muttered frantically, pressing on the point where the needle entered his skin, the jolt of pain shooting down into his hand and up toward his elbow.

Jon’s eyes widened, but he sank onto the bed, grabbing Kai’s hands and holding them tightly, as much for reassurance as to assure Kai wouldn’t do anything stupid with them. “Talk to me.”

Kai squeezed his eyes tight, clenched his teeth, trying to will the negative thoughts away. “Why are you here?”

Kai’s question seemed to catch Jon by surprise. “What? What do you mean?”

Kai opened his eyes. “I mean, why are you giving up your time with Vicky to make sure I don’t kill myself? Why do you care about me?”

Jon looked at Kai like he was crazy, which, despite Dr. Miller’s insistence, he knew he was. “Because you’re my brother. And you need me.”

“Even after everything bad I’ve done? Even though I lied to you about my breathing? Even though the committee is going to vote against you?”

Jon sighed. “Kai, we went over this already. It’s fine. I forgive you, and the committee isn’t your fault. Let me finish getting you some Xanax, OK?”

Kai shook his head. “I’m so fucking worthless,” he said, trying to pull his hands away. He wanted to tuck his legs up, bury his face in his knees, scream into them until he lost his voice, but Jon wouldn’t let go. “I promised Re I wouldn’t hurt her. She told me I make her feel safe. She trusts me. But I will hurt her, Jon. You’re right; I am selfish.”

“Kai--”

“I am,” Kai shouted, realizing he was hysterical but not able to control himself. “I am. Because a part of me would rather rip her heart out right now than risk subjecting her to this.” Kai broke down into sobs that were more jerks of his chest than true tears, like his body was battling itself as much as his mind was. He felt like tearing himself apart, like the momentary lull he’d experienced earlier had been nothing but a hallucinatory dream.

This was his new reality.

Kai didn’t even notice that Jon had released his hands, since time seemed to have disappeared. He was trapped in this out-of-control world in which he was too chickenshit to talk to the woman he loved, where he’d rather hurt her to protect himself than tell her the truth. And knowing that about himself made his self-loathing grow exponentially.

If he was quick, he could yank out the cath; the needle would be small, but if he jabbed with enough force, in just the right spot. . . .

“Jon,” Kai said desperately.

“Here,” Jon said, practically shoving pills into Kai’s mouth with one hand while he secured Kai’s wrists with his other. “Swallow.” Jon’s tone was uncharacteristically commanding.

Kai dry swallowed, the pills wanting to stick to his tongue. He wished they worked instantly; his pulse was racing in his throat, his mind was spinning with all kinds of conflicting thoughts, and above it all, he still wanted to hurt himself. As if doing so would somehow release the negativity and insanity like water leaking from a spigot.

“Kai,” Jon said, holding Kai’s head to force him to make eye contact. “You are not worthless. You are not unloveable. I care about you. David cares about you. Renee cares about you. Repeat after me, ‘I am not worthless. I am not unloveable. People care about me.’”

“And I’m good enough and smart enough and doggone it, people like me?” Kai snapped. He’d never seen SNL growing up, but Jake had been a huge fan and quoted from the show all the time. Kai was so, so angry, mostly at himself, but really, it was just more emotion raging out of control, with no real rhyme or reason anymore. “Dammit, dammit, dammit,” Kai said, reaching up to try to beat his fists against his head, as if that would make everything just stop.

Jon gripped his forearms, pulling them away and pushing Kai down on the bed. The position made Kai’s already racing pulse spike until it was almost all he could hear, thundering in his ears. “Kai. Calm down. Close your eyes. Focus on your breathing, OK? I don’t want you to think about anything else except that.” Jon released one of Kai’s arms, the one with the IV, and laid his hand on Kai’s chest as he guided him through slow, measured breathing.

Kai’s mind kept trying to scream at him how useless he was, tried to remind him of what a fuck up he was, of all the people he’d hurt or disappointed in his life. A mockery of the Circle of Forgiveness from the exercise Dr. Miller had guided him through earlier. (Which felt like forever ago.) A ring of people, some not even clear faces, circling him and shouting epithets: disgusting, worthless, retard, selfish, freak.

Darkness. Those words, muffled, coming through a locked bathroom door.

Then, suddenly, his perspective shifted and he felt the cold, hard metal of a locker up against his back, his arms pinned as they were held out at his sides, crucifixion style.

“They shouldn’t allow retards and freaks in this school,” Jeremy said. The high school bully still had bruising around his healing broken nose and glared at Kai with killer eyes full of loathing.

“Then what are you doing here, asshole?” Kai spoke the words slowly, proud he got the English right and the pronunciation clear on the first try despite the fact that he was struggling to breathe, on the brink of an asthma attack, the position not doing him any favors.

The first punch to his gut snapped him back to reality.

Sort of.

“Don’t touch me! Don’t fucking touch me!” Kai screamed, jerking violently away from Jon.

He heard a crash and a curse.

Kai was breathing heavily, his eyes wild, searching the room, trying to figure out where he was. Not the bathroom. Not the high school. . . . Jon’s room. Jon’s room, he reminded himself as he pulled his legs toward his chest. He was shaking now, practically vibrating. He dipped his forehead to his knees and rocked himself, willing it all to stop. To just stop. Just stop.

“Kai. Are you there? Can you talk to me?”

Kai lifted his head and saw Jon, hovering near the bed, though he was keeping a safe distance, his hand on his face. When he dropped it, Kai could see a bruise already beginning to form on his brother’s cheek that could potentially turn into a black eye. Kai’s eyes widened, fresh tears spilled. “Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck,” he muttered as he realized he had done that. What if that had been Renee? She was so tiny. What if he was with her and he freaked out? He could hurt her. He could . . . kill her. “Oh God, Jon. I’m sorry.”

Jon didn’t say anything; he just watched Kai warily, not that Kai could blame him. The self-loathing of earlier surged until it was overwhelming, almost like a poison gas filling his lungs and cutting off his air. Kai curled up into a tight ball, using one hand to keep his legs tucked to his chest and his other to bury his head in his knees. Maybe if he willed it strongly enough, he’d disappear.


#


Vicky listened to the sound of the water in Jon’s bathroom as he showered, taking a hesitant seat on one side of the bed. Kai lay on his side, curled into the fetal position, deep in a drug-induced sleep, barely breathing, though he didn’t look relaxed. His face was almost pained, his nose twitching, his eyes moving behind his lids, likely having nightmares. Despite the stubble on his cheeks, like this she was reminded how very young Kai was, almost young enough to be her son, and she couldn’t help thinking of Andrew. Part of her wanted to reach up and nudge some of the sweat-drenched bangs off his forehead, but Jon had warned her not to touch Kai.

Jon had refused to go into detail, respecting Kai’s privacy, but he had explained that Kai had been having some problems with his nightmares bleeding into reality, which was why Kai had attacked Jon in the first place. It’s also why Jon had asked Vicky to brave the Black Friday crowds he knew she hated (even if it was a yearly tradition for many of her female cousins and a few of her sisters) to buy a strange assortment of items for Kai, to help ground him in reality.

“Kai,” Vicky said in a low voice, part of her wondering if she was a coward for speaking to him while he was unconscious. But Jon had insisted it was better if she wasn’t around Kai for a few days, and she’d only stayed now to give Jon a chance to shower, shave, and eat without worrying about leaving Kai unsupervised.

Vicky stretched her hand out on the bed, her fingers resting only a few inches from Kai’s. “I’m sorry,” she said, focused on their fingers. “I’m sorry if I’m to blame for any of this. I know how important Jon is to you, and vice versa, and I try not to be selfish with Jon, but . . .” She took in a harsh breath. “It’s hard, with the baby, you know?” Vicky chuckled softly. “Of course you don’t know. How could you? I . . . I love your brother. Very much. And I want this baby. I want my own family. And I guess, for a little while I thought . . .” Vicky shook her head, rolled her eyes at herself. “It’s silly, but I guess . . . I was jealous of you. I thought Jon loved you too much. That he couldn’t have room in his heart for me and the baby.” Vicky tucked some stray hair that had fallen out of her braid behind her ear. “But I realized love doesn’t work that way. Especially for someone like Jon. The more you love, the more you can love. So I hope you won’t see me as stealing Jon from you. Instead, I hope you’ll see it as your family growing.”


#


Kai’s eyes opened slowly. He felt heavy, light-headed, and utterly exhausted, but that was par for the course. Even though they kept the sedation light, at his request, and even though he was on the most leak-free trache tube they had, there was no getting around the fact that his lungs could barely keep his blood oxygenated, even with the machine endlessly puffing away for him.

Every part of him hurt, a tingling numbness from nerves angrily crying out against the lack of oxygen, and one of the doctors--Kai could hardly keep them straight anymore if it wasn’t Dr. J--had explained his kidneys were precariously close to shutting down. And another, that his heart--which had always been healthy--was beginning to feel the strain of overwork. Kai had technically been dying for years, but now it was more real than ever. He was tired, and he was ready for this all to finally end, but at the same time. . . .

He was afraid.

Kai’s life hadn’t been terribly wonderful, and the brief moment of happiness he’d found with Becca had been shattered weeks ago. He really had nothing to live for or look forward to, and yet. . . . He was so very, very afraid.

And the worst part was he could never, would never, admit that to anyone, including and especially Jon, and that made him feel so achingly alone.


#


“Hey,” a soft male voice whispered.

Kai’s head throbbed. Before he opened his eyes, he was assaulted by the strong scent of fragrant, burning wood, followed by the whine of violins. Vivaldi? Tchaikovsky? Beethoven? Jon had exposed Kai to some of the classical standards while waiting for his transplant, but he honestly couldn’t recognize a composer based on the tune, except if a particular symphony or concerto (or whatever, he didn’t know what the difference was) was familiar. He felt a large hand smoothing his arm, then placing something rough in his grip. Confused, he finally raised his lids, his vision a little blurry and hazy from the lingering drugs. He saw what looked like some kind of projection night light casting a faint pattern of rotating stars on one wall. Maybe it was the drugs, but he found himself entranced by it.

“You with me?”

Kai blinked slowly a few times before guiding his eyes toward the voice. Kai realized he lay on his side, carefully arranged, and Jon sat on the edge of the bed. He looked better than Kai remembered, a little more rested, not so haggard. He’d shaved, and probably showered, from the look of his hair, which seemed like he’d washed it but forgotten to brush it. Kai’s stomach still roiled uneasily, and he wondered if it was the smell not helping matters. His fingers brushed along the object Jon had placed in his hand. He honestly didn’t know what it was; it was almost like a scouring brush, but about a foot long, with a string on one end, and made of a softer, plastic material that stretched if he pulled on it but was rough when he rubbed it between his fingers. Again, maybe it was the drugs, but he found he liked the feel of it, the way the fibers shifted as he fiddled with it. It might be a nice prop to take to his sessions with Dr. Miller, he thought idly. His brows furrowed. How much time had passed? The clock across the room revealed the time as nearly eight, which meant he’d lost almost half a day since his last freak out. Unless . . . was it still Friday? Had he already taken his nightly meds? Everything was a blur.

“Kai?”

Kai forced himself to look at his brother again, who had turned more to face him, and this time Kai saw the redish purple bruise on his brother’s cheek. Too fresh for Kai to have lost more than a day, then. “Am I hallucinating again?”

Jon’s eyebrows quirked up, but then he seemed to realize Kai was asking about the strange objects and the scent. Incense, maybe? Kai had never actually smelled any, but he had read about it. “This is all to help keep you in reality, so no,” Jon said with a friendly smile. “It’s past time to take your meds. You up to it? I tried to wake you earlier, but you were too out of it.”

Kai had a vague memory of dreaming about his final days before his transplant, and telling Jon about Dr. Fox, of Jeremy beating him while he was pinned to the school locker, of David visiting, and Vicky’s voice telling him how much she loved Jon, though he wasn’t entirely sure what was real and what wasn’t. He managed a faint nod, and Jon helped him sit up slowly.

Kai took his inhaled medications first, coughing more than normal afterward. For a minute, while he was coughing, he had a flash of a memory: coughing violently, unable to stop, unable to breathe, while Jon tried to help him and their mother shouted at Jon to shut him up. Kai’s eyes widened, but didn’t have too long to dwell before Jon slipped something in his mouth.

“Suck on that. It’s not medicine.”

It was strongly sour, and it pulled him away from the surprise memory, before turning sweet. He chewed and swallowed, looking at Jon, confused.

“Were you starting to get lost there? Did the candy help?”

Kai blinked, wondering if something in his face had showed to clue Jon in. He nodded.

“Good,” Jon said, sounding both happy and relieved. “Here.” He offered Kai several pills, all of which Kai recognized except for one.

“What is that?”

“Celexa. I talked with Dr. Miller while you were out, and we both think you should start it now.”

Kai frowned, plucking all the pills but that one and swallowing them with a few drinks of Gatorade that Jon offered him. “I’m already nauseous enough.”

Jon sighed. He looked sad. “I know, Kai. But I did some research on it while you were sleeping, and I talked to Dr. Miller again, and we both agree it could really help your anxiety, and maybe, long-term, your depression, both of which could help with your PTSD symptoms.”

Kai’s eyebrows furrowed angrily, but his emotions didn’t swirl out of control. He just felt hungover, dizzy and sick. “Did I hallucinate her telling me she didn’t want to start me on a drug to control my symptoms?” He thought he remembered Jon forcing him to talk to her after Kai . . . after Kai hit him, but he couldn’t be sure anything was real. He frowned deeply, the uncertainty, the inability to trust himself--in more ways than one--swirling around in his belly like an unhappy beast.

Jon sighed again, more exasperated. “No. I did call her, and you did talk to her. But that other drug will mean you have to go into the hospital since it’ll affect all your other medications and could potentially put you at risk for infection or rejection. The Celexa only affects the Zofran and the Mexitil, and it could start helping you within a few days.” At Kai’s continued scowl, Jon added, “Renee comes home tomorrow. If you don’t want to see her yet, I can keep her away for a few days on the excuse that she’s covered with germs from her trip, which, honestly, is true. If you take this now, maybe you’ll be more of yourself by the time you have to face her.” Jon pushed his hand with the pill toward Kai.

Kai’s shoulders slumped. He missed Renee so fucking much, yet at the same time was terrified of facing her, especially since he could hurt her, not only emotionally, but physically, and he hated himself for it.

Jon pushed another candy into Kai’s mouth, and waited.

Focusing on the taste of the candy, on the incense, on the weird plastic loopy thing in his hand, on the music, instead of the negative thoughts helped center him, and he took a deep breath. “OK,” Kai said, accepting the pill and popping it into his mouth.

“Good,” Jon said with a strange smile, almost proud, maybe? “There’s something I wanted to talk to you about. If you aren’t ready to deal with it right now, I get it, but I’m hoping it might help you feel a little better.”

A half dozen possibilities raced through Kai’s head, though they were all negative, so he knew he wasn’t right. “OK,” he said tentatively, deciding to take a few more sips of Gatorade.

Jon carded his fingers through his hair a few times. “I know you’re nervous about Vicky’s pregnancy, and how that’ll change things between us. . . . I talked to Vicky about it a little--don’t get mad, please, let me finish--and she offered to modify her house.” Jon let that hang for a moment.

With the drugs, Kai wasn’t his sharpest, so it took him a little longer to understand what Jon was saying. “Does that mean she . . . wants us both to move in?” His brows furrowed deeply.

“It’s an option. You could help us with the baby. We could all be a family, and you wouldn’t have to be alone.”

Kai shut the Gatorade so he could use his hands to pull his knees up to his chest and rest his chin on them. Part of him was touched by the fact that Vicky obviously cared enough about Jon to be willing to put up with the parasite that Kai was, but he knew this was likely just another recipe for Kai to destroy Jon’s life. He wanted to say something, anything, but he couldn’t even seem to form the truth into words.

“I thought you’d be happy,” Jon said, almost heart broken.

Dammit. Even not saying anything he was fucking things up. “I ruin everything, Jon,” Kai said in a small voice.

“That’s not true. Vicky cares about you, too.”

Kai laughed and realized he was fucking crying. Again. “She barely knows me, Jon. But she’d do anything for you. I’ve seen the way she looks at you. And she obviously puts up with all the shit I create in your lives, so that right there says a lot.” Kai let his forehead hit his knees with a thud. “God, I’m so sick of this.”

He heard Jon sigh, and the shift of the mattress, and a moment later, something was nudging his shins.

Reluctantly, Kai looked up and saw a stuffed fox that looked eerily like the one Dr. Fox had given him a dozen years ago. “What . . . what’s that?” Kai asked, barely able to get out the words.

“I know I’m supposed to be grounding you in the present, but . . . I thought . . .” Jon pushed his fingers through his hair, gripping the strands. “Shit, it was a terrible idea, wasn’t it? I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Kai wasn’t even sure what expression was on his face as he dropped one hand from his legs and reached out for the animal, cradling it close to him. It even smelled the same, but for some reason--maybe because of the music and the incense and the lights--he didn’t flashback. “Vicky bought this, didn’t she? And everything else?” Kai’s voice was heavy with tears, though only a few escaped his eyes.

“I didn’t tell her why. Not really, and definitely not about that--”

“I don’t deserve any of this,” Kai said, beginning to lose it. “I hurt people. That’s what I do.” He thought how if he’d died last year, he would never have hurt anyone ever again, but he didn’t voice that, because he knew that would hurt Jon more than anything right now.

“That’s not true. Call Renee. I think you’ll feel better if you talk to her.”

Kai took a few minutes to regulate his breathing, to get the tears under control, at least for the time being. He snuggled the fox with one arm, knowing it was ridiculous but still finding it disturbingly comforting, and accepted his phone with his other hand. Taking another deep breath, he dialed.


#


Renee was carefully watching her maw maw drop squares of dough into a pot of boiling oil. “Remember, the secret is the temperature of the oil. If it’s not hot enough, the beignets won’t come out right, and if it’s too hot, they’ll burn.”

Evangeline was convinced that Renee could make the beignets for Kai when she got back to Jonesville, and had spent a chunk of the day teaching her, including making them from scratch. Renee was worried enough about making them from a Cafe du Monde mix, let alone if she had to start from raw ingredients. Still, she was doing her best to pay attention, because she really wanted to do this for Kai.

Renee watched the dough sizzling in the oil, barely hearing her phone ring above the noise. Surprised (and hoping it wasn’t one of her high school classmates hoping to hit the college bars on her last night in town), Renee pulled it out of her apron pocket. Her face lit up in a smile when she saw Kai’s name on her caller ID. “Kai! I hadn’t heard from you since yesterday morning. I missed you.”

“Hey, Re,” Kai said. His voice sounded . . . off, somehow. Sad, maybe.

She remembered his confession in the car en route to the airport the other day and wondered if that had anything to do with it. Still, she decided to be delicate. “How was your Thanksgiving?”

“. . . Interesting,” Kai said after a long pause. He hesitated again before adding, “It’s been a rough couple days.”

Part of Renee hurt that Kai obviously hadn’t felt he could call her and talk to her about it, but she knew that “being forthcoming wasn’t Kai’s default setting” as he’d told her more than once. “I’m sorry. You’ll see me soon, though, right? That makes everything better.” She let the smile come through in her voice.

Kai sighed heavily, which surprised and worried her. “Actually, I . . . I can’t see you for a while. That’s why I called.”

Renee’s heart fell. “What?”

“Between the airport and the planes, and being around so many people in a strange city. . . .”

“Oh.” Evangeline was watching Renee surreptitiously as she removed the cooked pastries from the pot with a wire skimmer, setting them on paper towels nearby. “I hadn’t even thought about that. I don’t want to make you sick.”

Kai took in a sharp intake of breath. “Re . . . you know I wouldn’t hurt you intentionally, right?” Kai’s voice was pained.

“Kai?”

“I . . . you know I told you I’m complicated, right?”

That made Renee smile faintly, though she walked farther away from the stove, concern churning in her gut. “Yeah?”

“There’s . . . there’s a lot about me you still don’t know, and I . . .” His voice was trembling.

“Kai? What’s wrong?”

“I’m in a bad place right now, Re,” Kai admitted after a long pause. She was surprised by how much emotion she heard in his voice. “It’s probably safer for you if you stay away from me for a while.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either, and that’s the problem,” Kai said in a defeated voice. “I’m so sorry.” She thought she heard what sound like him breaking down into tears before her ears were met by the harsh sound of the dialtone.

Renee stood, bewildered, staring at her phone for several minutes, trying to process what just happened.

“Sugar? Are you all right?”

Renee’s brows furrowed and she shook her head slowly. “I think . . . I think Kai just broke up with me.”

Evangeline guided her to a chair and sat down beside her. “What do you mean you ‘think’?”

“It was so strange. Something was clearly bothering him. He said he thought it would be better if I stayed away from him, and that he was sorry, and that he didn’t want to hurt me intentionally. I have no idea what he’s talking about.” Renee blinked rapidly. “I already told him I accepted everything about him, his health. . . .” Renee seemed to be talking to herself.

“What are you talking about?”

Renee sighed, fiddled with the apron string. “I was going to talk to you about it at some point, but everything was too hectic. . . . I guess now it doesn’t matter.”

Evangeline frowned. “I saw the way he was looking at you in that photo, hon. I’m sure whatever he said, you probably just misunderstood.”

Renee wanted to believe her grandmother, after all, Kai had sung for her, which he’d confessed after the fact was not something he ever did. Ever. He was still self conscious enough, he’d admitted, about speaking, let alone trying to put a tune to it. “I’d do anything for you,” Kai had told her, sincerely. Maybe he was sick? He hadn’t sounded like it, but maybe that was why he told her to stay away? But that didn’t make sense. He’d spoken as if being around him would be dangerous for her, not him. And he’d clearly been extremely upset.

“Hon?”

Renee snapped out of her thoughts and managed a faint smile. “Kai . . . he has a neuromuscular disease,” she said bluntly.

“What does that mean?”

Renee leaned back in her chair, shoving her hands into her apron pockets. “His legs don’t work right,” Renee said simply. “He needs braces, and crutches, too, sometimes, to walk, or he uses a wheelchair.” Renee looked over at her grandmother, bracing for some kind of castigation.

“I see,” Evangeline said with a nod, completely non-judgmental. “There was a boy I liked when I was younger, before I met your paw paw, who’d had polio when he was a child, and needed braces and crutches to walk. I thought he was so interesting, though. Handsome. But, believe it or not, I was too shy to do more than say a few words to him.”

That caught Renee completely off guard, and she found herself remembering their night at the movies, how incredibly sexy Kai had been, standing so tall and strong, leaning on his crutches. She sighed softly at the image, though a wave of sadness overtook her when she realized she wouldn’t get to see Kai when she got back. For how long? Did that mean he wasn’t going to come to class?

“I bet your parents won’t approve, but as long as he treats you right, your paw paw and I won’t care if he can walk or not.”

Renee tried to smile, but it was weak. She debated about whether she should explain the rest, but knew she had to. Hopefully whatever Kai was going through was temporary, and if so, she would want to be able to talk to her grandmother about everything Kai-related, and she didn’t want to have this conversation over the phone. “Thanks, Maw Maw. But . . . Kai . . .” She struggled to find a way to put it. “Kai also has a lung disease, and he had a transplant last year. So he’s healthy now, but he has to take a lot of medications, and he has to be careful about getting sick. That’s part of why he called me, to tell me I can’t be around him for a few days since I’ll be all germy.”

This information seemed to give Evangeline pause, and she spent several minutes in silence before speaking. “I don’t know much about these things, but people don’t live long after transplants, do they? I thought I saw something about that on the news, or PBS, or something.”

Renee sighed. “He warned me before we got serious that he could get really sick, and he could die, but he also might not. I told him I wanted to take that risk.” Renee hesitated, twisting the fabric of her apron around and around her finger, making a spiral shape that remained even after she let it go. “I love him, Maw Maw.” Then Renee suddenly burst into tears.

“Shh,” Evangeline whispered, pulling Renee into a hug. “It’ll be OK. It’ll all be OK.”

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Continue to Season Finale - November 25, 2000 ------->

8 comments:

  1. First, I want to say, I love love love your story. I love your characters And their depth. Everything. That being said, I don't know if kai channels me or somehow I channel him. Foxes have always been my comfort. When the world goes wrong in my head, its always been a fox I've reached for. I know it's fiction And i love every word of the story but because i relate to kai in a way that is frightening as hell...I want to thank you for the unintentional mirror that kai is for me.
    I look forward to the final chapter of this season, and to season three!
    Aka

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  2. I keep checking this blog to see if you update the story. I love this story, please keep writing :)

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    1. Thank you :D. I normally update every Tuesday during an active season, unless something comes up. Season 2 ends next week, but I'll be back later in the year with Season 3 and more weekly updates. Thank you for reading and commenting! I'm so glad you enjoy I/E. :D.

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  3. Oh nooo, poor Re. She'd put on a freakin hazmat suit if it meant she could see him. Thanks for the two-parter!

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  4. Your story coaxed a few tears from me, but in a good way. I would love to see a bit of backstory from Maw Maw, perhaps. She is a great character, too. Perhaps you could hav her recount a story about her past to Renee.

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  5. Thank you for updating!! I am really curious how you will continue this story. Kai is in such a bad shape that I can`t see how he can have a heathly relationship with any woman. In my experience, having no self-confidence at all will destroy every romantic relationship. I don`t see a realistic way for Renee andd Kai to continue.
    Another question - what you write about the us foster system, is that based in reality?? I have a really hard time imagining that things are THAT bad. Do they really seperate siblings that have a close relationship, and even tell one the other had died when that is wrong? Do they really not allow kids in group homes to have personal belongings?? Are disabled kids really kicked out with nothing once they turn 18??? Are there really people in the US who adopt kids who got orphened past puberty without having a deep personal relationship with them?
    Nicole

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    1. Well, things have changed, and not all stories through the system are nearly as bad as they are portrayed here, of course (remember, Kai was in the system 30 years ago)! Nowadays, you see a lot more fostering and a lot less group home situations, even for children with disabilities. You also see a lot more effort to keep sibling groups together (even if one of those siblings has a disability), but that wasn't always the case.

      You still have a LOT of abuse of foster children (at least 10%, though it's likely actual numbers are much higher than this), especially disabled children. (Disabled children are almost 2x more likely to be abused than able-bodied children; children with disabilities are also 1.5x more likely to be seriously harmed by the abuse, and 1.5x more likely to suffer sustained abuse greater than 2 years. In some states, a child with a disability has up to a 10x greater chance of being abused repeatedly (by more than one person) than an able-bodied child.) States pay foster parents a stipend (which isn't very much, usually, admittedly) to help the parent care for the child. In the case of disabled children, the stipend is higher. So you do get some people who abuse the system for their own benefit. It is also sad but true that once a child is past the age of six-- six! (the age Kai entered the system)-- their chance of adoption is low, even without a disability (most children spend at least 2 years in the system; many, their whole lives). Obviously, children with disabilities have even less opportunities to be adopted. Most people want babies, not children who already have problems (potentially). Of course there are exceptions to all of this-- one of my husband's aunts adopted siblings that were older and this was years ago. But, like everything in I/E, I like to take elements of truth and weave them into the story, even if overall we're experiencing something fictional.

      The personal belongings thing here is more of an exaggeration than pure truth based on how I'm envisioning CH was run. They were low staffed and constantly under funded, and though it wasn't so much that personal possessions were "forbidden" as such, but... Everything was very communal, and so Kai (and David) got used to not having a lot that they could ever truly call "theirs"--even the wheelchairs (unless you needed one 24/7) were communal, which is why having his own chair was such a big deal for Kai when he aged out. You also had a very "tribe-like" system there (for lack of a better word) where the older kids who had the ability to harassed the younger kids and took what they wanted. And that's not even taking the orderlies into account.... And I'm realizing we'll probably need to see more of Kai's/David's memories of their time at CH (which will probably happen in Season 3).

      As for your question about aging out, that is pretty true for anyone in the foster system. Once you're 18, you are no longer the state's responsibility. Some states will give kids like a $100 check when they kick you out the door. If you're really lucky, you live in an area where there are programs to help former foster kids find jobs, places to live, etc., but in general, it's a real problem (for example, in the TV show REVENGE, that's one of the MC's charities, to help foster kids once they age out). According to statistics, 51% of children who age out are unemployed; 65% age out without anywhere to live (as much as 40% of people in homeless shelters are often former foster children). Most children with disabilities age out without any access to services or heatlhcare.

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    2. As for your questions about Jon's experiences--first of all, no one TOLD him Kai had died. They didn't tell him anything, so he assumed the worst. (You know what they say when you assume.) Again, in the modern system I think there's less of a chance of that happening, especially since they do generally try to keep siblings together. But then we wouldn't have a story, would we? :D

      Tied to his own adoption... at Jon's age he probably would have had a choice about the matter; if he didn't want to be adopted, he didn't have to be. But you have to consider the mindset that Jon would have been in at this time--15 or so, assuming that his brother is dead and his sister is lost to him, super bright and determined to try to do something with himself, but assuming that at his age no one would be interested in adopting him. Suddenly, someone comes along who wants to take him in and educate him? Plus, I don't think at the time, Jon (and maybe even the man who adopted him) even realized that it would become pure business (to use Jon's wording). I think it just ended up that way. The man was too caught up in the memory of his own son, and Jon was too caught up in his memories/guilt over Kai to form a relationship with the man anyway. (Remember, we heard about the situation from Jon's POV.) That kind of thing has happened with Jon time and again, and Vicky is the first person in his life (as he admits at one point) that he's ever forged a real connection with (despite Kai). In the end, as much as Jon seems perfectly fine (especially to Kai), he has plenty of his own issues/demons to deal with (and this is something we'll get into next season, too).

      (BTW, if you're curious about what life was like in an institution for disabled kids, you should read http://smartasscripple.blogspot.com/ - he grew up in one and his posts are hilarious.)

      Some general, quick facts on the US foster system: http://www.childrensrights.org/issues-resources/foster-care/facts-about-foster-care/

      (Really detailed, but a good read if you're really interested on the topic): https://www.childwelfare.gov/can/statistics/stat_outOfHome.cfm

      And here's an article specifically addressing how things are worse for children with disabilities: http://www.childrensrights.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/forgotten_children_children_with_disabilities_in_foster_care_2006.pdf

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