September 10, 2000
Nikki had moved through her shift on autopilot, pouring coffee, smiling, dishing out orders to the usual Saturday-night truck drivers and drunks that frequented the diner during the graveyard. She hadn’t had time to see Kai before she’d left for work, although the truth was, part of her wasn’t sure she she’d wanted to see him. Not then, anyway. The worst she’d seen Kai was in the ER after his respiratory attack, and he’d been conscious for most of it. ICU was a whole other ballgame, and she hadn’t been certain she could have focused on work if she’d visited him before--even for a few fleeting minutes.
Now that she was heading home, making the short walk from the bus stop to her apartment in the early morning light, she wondered if she should--if she could--go see him. Before Jon called her. Part of her was terrified, told herself she should go home, shower, climb into bed and not crawl out again until it was time for her next shift. But the other part longed to see him again, whatever state he was in, even if he wouldn’t know she was there. Somehow, she felt like he might, once he woke, take comfort in the idea that she’d sat with him while he lay unconscious. He’d come to her last night for comfort. If it was all she could offer him, however miniscule, she had to do it.
Jon leaned against the counter of the empty waiting room, pressing the shaking fingers of one hand into his head, which pounded with intensity. His other searched his white coat pockets for a piece of candy, anything to give his blood sugar a temporary boost.
“Jesus Christ, Jon,” Vicky’s voice called from somewhere nearby.
Jon had to concentrate on staying upright. He’d spent the night with Kai, then come straight downstairs for his Sunday morning clinic. His brain was foggy, though, and he knew, distantly, he’d been behaving stupidly.
He heard a rustling nearby, drawers opening and closing, then warm fingers on his lips, shoving something in his mouth. “Chew.” Then arms embraced him and pulled him down into a chair.
As he obeyed, crunching the sweet candy between his teeth, he felt Vicky fumbling through his pockets, a zip, then a moment later, the sharp prick of a lancet. As the glucose from the candy began to hit his blood, his brain cleared a little, though it still pounded with a fierce headache.
A beep, and Vicky swore under her breath. “I haven’t seen you like this since before Kai’s transplant. Why did you let your blood sugar get so low? For being so smart, you sure do act stupid sometimes.” She muttered it all, as if speaking to herself instead of him.
He ignored her, letting himself drift half into sleep as he heard her whispering on the phone.
Seemingly a few seconds later, he blinked his eyes open, feeling less tired, his mind clearer. The clock across the waiting room informed him he must actually have slept in earnest, for an hour had passed. A subtle pain in his hand drew his attention to an IV which stood nearby, dripping clear fluid into his vein.
“I canceled your appointments and started you on a glucose drip,” Vicky said, matter-of-factly. “You’ve been on it long enough your sugar’s finally starting to stabilize. You going to tell me what’s going on?”
Jon’s headache still pulsed faintly behind his eyes, and it took effort to keep them open long enough to study Vicky. She was angry, true, but behind the veil was something else. Concern. “I’m sorry, Vicky. I’m an idiot.”
A small smile appeared on her face. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
Jon took her hand in his. “Kai.” He swallowed. His mouth seemed so dry. “‘S in ICU.”
Vicky’s lips pursed, and she offered a stiff nod, but didn’t push him for more. It was one of the things Jon had always liked about her. “Come on, you can finish that,” she said, gesturing to the IV, “reclined in my office. You need the rest and probably could stand someone to keep an eye on you and your levels.” She said it clinically enough, but that hint of warmth and concern flickered in her eyes.
Jon nodded and accepted her help as he rose back to his feet, still a little shaky and bone-tired. “Thanks, Vic,” he said simply.
“When Kai’s out of commission, someone has to look after you,” Vicky said with a wink and a quick peck to Jon’s cheek.
Jon woke up to silence. He lay, his long form awkwardly sprawled across the small couch in Vicky’s office, waking up in the dim light and the shocking quiet. Even with her door closed, the sounds of the clinic--voices, shuffling of feet, phones ringing--always leaked through, but all was still. Even the familiar click of fingers on keys as Vicky worked was gone. Jon focused his attention, and didn’t hear vacuums, which meant it was after six, but before nine. Jesus. He’d been asleep hours. No. Today was Sunday. Normally only he and Vicky would be here, plus a few patients. He checked his watch for confirmation: nearly four--he assumed afternoon.
He pushed himself to a seated position, rubbing his hand, now carefully bandaged and the IV removed. He glanced around for Vicky, but he was alone. It seemed unlikely she’d leave him, and spotting the straps of her purse peeking out of a bottom drawer confirmed his suspicion. So where was she?
A minute later, the door opened, and she emerged. Her face was dark and serious, but when she saw him awake, she smiled, transforming her entirely. How had he never noticed before? The way her long hair, cascading around her shoulders, perfectly complimented her delicate features, the way her pale skin had a sort of glow of its own--or maybe it was a trick of the light--her eyes glinting, the smile reaching them.
“Decided to rejoin the world?” she said lightheartedly, but some of the smile’s sparkle faded to concern as she fished a small capped syringe out of her pocket, offering it to him.
He accepted it without a word, staring at it for a moment.
“Take it. I’ve been monitoring you all day. Your sugar was dangerously out of control this morning. Any sane woman would have called your doctor, who probably would have admitted you.” Her eyebrows raised, and the hint of a smile played in her eyes, though her lips stayed pressed together. “You’re welcome.”
He nodded, lifted his shirt, pinched the skin, and injected himself. He capped the syringe again and pocketed it, rubbed his eyes, which were a little bleary. “You shouldn’t have let me sleep so long,” he finally said, speaking for the first time.
She sighed. “You needed it. Besides, I spoke to Alice, who promised to call me if anything happened with Kai. He’s fine.”
Jon stood suddenly, ignoring the minor dizziness that floated through his head. “He’s not fine. If he were fine, he wouldn’t be in ICU.”
“Jon,” Vicky said, approaching, arms stretched toward him.
He held up his hands in reflex, though he didn’t fight her when she pushed them aside, his anger melting rapidly as his vision grew blurry. He had to turn and blink his eyes to try to clear it as he felt Vicky pull him into an embrace, her delicate hands warm against him.
“It’s OK,” Vicky whispered.
“It’s not,” Jon said, his words surprisingly thick. “I thought he was done with ICU. I thought--” his voice caught.
She whispered calming nothings into his chest until it stopped jerking and they simply held each other in the dim quiet of her office.
“His MLS can’t kill him, right?”
Jon sucked in a harsh breath. “Not normally, not at this stage.”
“So he’ll be OK.”
“His blood pressure hasn’t been stable. And that can kill him.” Jon held her a little tighter. “And if he gets pneumonia?” He finally backed away, shook his head. Despite sleeping most of the day, he felt exhausted, like the gravity in the room had somehow magnified and were pressing down on his shoulders.
Vicky reached up and cupped his face, staring into his eyes for a long moment, a faint smile ghosting her cheek. “Go be with him. But don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.”
It had taken Nikki longer than she’d thought it would to make it to the ICU floor--nearly the entire day to work up the courage, finally deciding to drop in on her way into work for the evening. Jon had left her name as one of the acceptable visitors, to her relief, but it still took an effort of will to follow the hall toward Kai’s room. More, to force herself to enter it.
The nurse she’d spoken to--Alice?--had explained a bit of what she should expect, but as with most things, being told something and experiencing it first hand are two vastly different things. The room was a tiny cube barely large enough to contain the bed and assortment of machines Nikki couldn’t begin to identify.
Kai lay in the bed, arranged carefully on his side, layered in blankets and buffered by pillows, his right leg carefully elevated and bent. His eyes were taped closed, and tubes protruded out of his mouth, some of them leading up to a hook that kept them out of the way. They were also taped in place, masking part of his face. A blood pressure cuff was wrapped around one arm, and she followed the path of some of the tubes and wires as they led off to the machines and IV pumps scattered around his bed. Other than the unnatural rise and fall of his chest, he was eerily still.
She hardly recognized him, and it wasn’t the fact that she could barely see his face--but rather the eerie way he lay, almost like a mannequin, posed in the bed. Even asleep, he was never perfectly motionless like this. He often slept restlessly, even after sex, and it wasn’t uncommon for his feet or legs to twitch subtly, victims of minor spasms too small to wake him. It was disconcerting, and for a moment, she debated about turning around and leaving.
Finally, she grabbed a chair stuck into the far corner of the room and brought it closer to the bed. It was simultaneously better and worse to see him like this up close, and she couldn’t resist stroking his hair, as if to feel he was really there. After a moment, she sat, and stared at his hands for a long while, not sure if she should disturb them. Like the rest of him, they were posed, carefully arranged on and between pillows, each curled with a small, rolled up towel pushed into them, his fingers cradled around the fabric.
She settled for laying her hand on one of his. His skin was cold and disturbingly clammy, and she had to fight not to pull away immediately. She didn’t entirely understand what was going on, but if they hadn’t woken him yet, if he was still in ICU, with a machine breathing for him, it couldn’t be good.
She sucked in a breath. “Kai, I know you can’t hear me, but I had to see you. And I promise, as soon as you wake up, I’ll be here.” She swallowed hard, squeezed his wrist, and sat for a moment in the still, yet not quiet room, the din of the machines hissing and beeping blurring around her. She wouldn’t--couldn’t stay long, but she’d remain long enough so she could truly say to him later that she’d been there.
Jon reached Kai’s room and paused when he saw a figure beside his brother’s bed. Nikki, again dressed in her work uniform, speaking softly to Kai and stroking his hair. After a moment, she bent and kissed his forehead, before turning to go. Her eyes widened when she saw Jon.
“If you need more time with him, I can come back.”
Nikki shook her head. “No . . . I need to get to work,” she said, dipping her head and smoothing her skirt.
Jon cleared his throat. “Some studies have shown that unconscious patients do sense the presence of their loved ones, and anecdotally, I’ve--” he cut himself off, shaking his head. Took a breath. “It’s good for him that you were here,” he finally said in a quiet voice.
Nikki nodded, adjusted her purse, which she clutched against her body. “How long will he be like this?” she asked, risking a glance over her shoulder.
Jon sighed, shook his head. “Until his body is stable without the powerful muscle relaxant.”
A moment of relative silence passed between them. Nikki turned to walk past Jon when the stillness was pierced by the harsh blare of an alarm. Jon’s heart immediately began to race, leaping into his throat. Jon was used to ICU crises, but this wasn’t just some patient. This was Kai.
“What’s happening?” Nikki asked, terrified.
A quick glance at the monitor told Jon. “His BP. It’s crashing.” It surprised him how steady, neutral his voice came out.
A second later, Alice came rushing in, immediately going to work on Kai.
“What’s going on?” Jon demanded as he struggled to focus on Alice’s movements, but his knees suddenly felt weak, and though the initial alarm had silenced, he could still hear it ringing in his ears.
“Gates was trying to wean Kai off the Pavulon, but now that its effects are waning, his BP’s nose dived.” She turned to the nest of IV pumps and started to adjust settings. She glanced over her shoulder. “Dr. Taylor, I need you both out of here. Now.”
Despite desperately wanting to stay, to help, to do something, Jon obeyed, pulling Nikki out toward the nurse’s station. For a moment, they both stood there, neither speaking, staring ahead blankly. Jon’s heart beat painfully against his chest.
Seconds stretched. Breathing was difficult, and he nearly forgot Nikki was there, focused on Kai’s room, waiting for Alice to come back out to tell them Kai was fine, that he was OK now.
Instead, a wail of alarms suddenly sounded, reverberating around them like a living, screaming creature. Jon's ears could hardly focus on someone calling a code before the pounding of feet thundered toward them as two more nurses and the attending rushed in.
To Kai’s room.
Jon gripped the counter, the world spinning, the alarms and raised voices blurring nearby, their discordant harmony serving to clearly convey one message.
His little brother was dying.
Continue to September 12, 2000 - Part 1 ------------>