September 15, 2000
Jon helped Vicky carry the last of the groceries in from her car. She’d called earlier and offered to pick up a few things they needed, mostly for Kai, now that he was back home--basics like Gatorade, ginger ale, and crackers, things he could tolerate on his queasy stomach and that would help keep his blood pressure stable.
“Thanks for this, Vicky,” Jon said, setting the case of sports drink on the kitchen counter and unpacking one of the bags.
Vicky offered a moderate shrug as she began pulling items out of bags on her side of the kitchen. “How is he?”
Jon sighed. “Sleeping. Finally. I’ve been having a hard time keeping him hydrated. He can’t keep much down.”
Vicky paused in what she was doing to meet Jon’s eyes, visibly confused, uncertain how Kai could have fallen asleep if he were as sick as Jon claimed.
Vicky nodded. One side effect of the antiemetic was drowsiness, but in this case, it was a benefit. Jon seemed tired, even more so than normal, floundering through the bags as if he’d forgotten what he was looking for. She stilled one hand with hers, then offered him the box of crackers, then straws. He smiled faintly, pushed some hair out of his face, holding it between his fingers for a moment. His eyes drifted to hers, and his smile sweetened, became more natural and relaxed, and he walked around the counter, pulling her into a tight embrace. For a moment, they just savored each others touch, scent, company.
“Have you told him yet?” Vicky whispered.
Jon shook his head against the top of hers, sighing. “He’s going through enough right now.”
Vicky nodded against him, then started to pull away, but he clung to her.
“I want you. So bad. Right now.” He spoke into her hair, his voice low. “It’s wrong, I know, but--” He pulled away so he could study her eyes. She loved his eyes. The many facets and shades of grays and blues and even subtle greens that made up each iris. The colors always seemed to be shifting, changing. Today his eyes were particularly gray, tired, sad. Suddenly, she knew why.
“It’s been--” she started to say.
Jon nodded. “--a long time for me, yeah,” he admitted, turning his head just enough to try and hide his blush.
That faint smile again, elusive and beautiful and something else she loved about him. He used a single, long finger to draw her chin toward him, touching his lips against hers. Lightly at first, as if testing her taste. Soon, he deepened the kiss, another of his slow, tender, savoring explorations that made her insides turn ridiculously gooey.
She’d known Jon cared deeply about his patients; she’d seen how devoted he was to his brother, but feeling the warmth of his body against hers, the way his arms both clung to and supported her, the way the kiss extended yet never grew stale. How it was heated, yet never demanding. Yes, she wanted him, too, even if it made her heart skip a few beats from both excitement and fear. But she savored these moments together, these kisses her body remembered as a pleasant, lingering tingle long after they ended.
This one was no different.
She found herself sighing into his mouth, leaning into him, her body craving more. What would his skin, beyond his mouth and cheek and neck taste like? Her hands smoothed along his sides, fingers tracing over ribs she could feel through the fabric of his shirt. He’d never been a heavy man, but he’d lost so much weight when Kai got sick, and he’d never really recovered.
Jon was used to being the caregiver. Doctor, older brother. Maybe what he really needed--wanted--was someone to take care of him. They pulled away, each breathing hard, smiling, noses brushing, ready for another long, deep kiss.
Then they heard the scream.
Vicky felt Jon’s entire body tense. He straightened, but otherwise didn’t move immediately.
“No! No! Please!” Kai was shouting, his voice tinged with pure, unfiltered terror.
Jon met Vicky’s eyes briefly; she nodded, and he immediately dashed into Kai’s bedroom.
“Please! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Kai’s voice filtered out of the room briefly before the door shut Vicky out.
Kai’s room was dark except for a small lamp, but Jon could see Kai moving restlessly in bed, still on his side the way Jon had left him. His shouts had turned more to mumbles, partially incoherent, partially a refrain of the same variations on apology and pleas that had drawn Jon to the room in the first place.
He didn’t seem to hear. Apparently, he was still asleep. In the midst of a horrible nightmare, then. Jon could see, as he drew closer, the sheets soaked through with perspiration, his brother’s breathing fast and shallow, his hands trembling where they clung to a pillow. Kai continued mumbling, as if he were pleading with someone in his dream, and Jon saw tears trace down his brother’s cheeks.
Jon smoothed Kai’s hair, trying to calm him, hoping to wake him, surprised when Kai flinched, shuddered, and began to sob in earnest, his words lost as his breathing grew harsher, strained. “Kai. Wake up. Wake up.” Jon shook Kai’s shoulder firmly a few times.
Finally, Kai’s eyes snapped open, searching the room in a clear moment of lingering panic, his chest heaving, before finally seeing Jon. Although his body was still ratcheted up from the dream, Jon saw Kai blink, swallow, struggle to calm himself.
“Oh, God. It was so real,” Kai muttered.
Jon smoothed Kai’s arm cautiously, in case his brother was still on edge. “A bad reaction to the meds?”
Kai hesitated a moment, his eyes unfocused, before seeming to realize Jon had spoken to him. Finally, he shook his head.
Jon inhaled. “This have anything to do with those marks on your stomach?”
Kai’s hand shifted from the pillow to his belly.
“Nikki lied for you about those when they admitted you. And I managed to sweep it under the rug. But I need to know, Kai. Should I be worried?”
Kai didn’t answer immediately, still coming down from the adrenaline. “Been having nightmares. And . . . panic attacks.” His eyes met Jon’s. “Past few days, been OK. Probably the drugs.”
Jon sighed. “And now that Gates has paired down your dosages . . .”
Kai nodded. “Saw a shrink Saturday. Before all . . . this.” Kai grunted. “Now-now what?”
Jon noticed Kai’s ASL grammar but said nothing. “Friday.”
“Shit. Tuesday. Phone?” Kai started to push himself up.
The combination of a week in the hospital, plus muscle relaxants and Mexitil meant Kai didn’t have the strength or coordination he normally had, and he soon sank back, his face pale. He groaned, covered his mouth.
Jon checked his watch. “Are you nauseous? It’s too early for more Phenergan.” He felt for Kai’s pulse. “You’re dehydrated. I’ll bring you some Gatorade. Sipping it might help the dizziness.” Jon started to rise, but Kai grabbed his wrist.
After a moment of silence, Jon attempted, crudely, “We’ll talk when you’re feeling better.”
Kai nodded and let Jon go.
Jon wanted to know more. Nightmares? Panic attacks? How long had this been going on, and Jon hadn’t noticed? Had he somehow slept--or worked--through Kai’s panicked screams night after night? Or had the drugs made Kai more likely to talk in his sleep?
Kai was in no condition for the deep conversation all of it required, for Jon to tell Kai the truth about their mother. That would all have to wait. At least Jon could be reassured to know that Kai was seeing someone. He gathered that Kai was supposed to have had another session earlier that week. Tuesday, the day he finally got out of ICU. He wasn’t sure if Kai would be well enough to leave the house for a couple more days. If Kai wasn’t up to it, maybe he’d let Jon speak to this psychiatrist, see if he could set something up for early in the week. Kai wouldn’t be able to drive for a while yet, but Jon could handle it. A few more days off wouldn’t kill him.
Jon was surprised to find Vicky bustling away in the kitchen--she’d put away their purchases and was chopping up vegetables, dumping some into a bubbling pot of water.
“Nightmare,” Jon explained when she looked up at him questioningly as he squeezed by her to grab a drink for Kai, along with a straw.
She frowned. “Soup,” she said, adding more veggies to the pot.
She nodded, stirred it a bit, heavily salting the water. “I’ll blend it once it’s cooked, so you get all the nutrients from the vegetables in a smooth broth. Little trick I picked up from my mom as a way to get my younger siblings and cousins to eat their veggies. I’m making it extra salty for him.”
Jon opened the bottle with a sharp flick of his wrist. “You didn’t have to do this.”
She shrugged. “He has to eat. It’s got a lot of nutrients, which he needs after a week of tube feedings and vomiting. And the salt will help his blood pressure. Plus, it’s vegan and easy on the stomach.”
“Thank you,” Jon said in a small voice, the ghost of a smile tipping his lips, though his eyes were weary and worried.
“When this is done, I’ll make some meals for you, so you can just throw them in the microwave when you need to eat.” She smiled. “You’re welcome.”
Normally, Renee loved her drafting lab. Most of her core classes focused on the future--computers--but this semester, she’d found a professor who valued the basics--traditional pencil-and-paper--and her hours in the lab were her favorite time of the week. Renee had never shared her younger brother's innate raw talent for crafting beauty on a page. But drafting was like guided meditation. It helped focus and hone the scrambled thoughts and visions in her mind into something filled with carefully considered angles and lines. Renee often found a sort of zen while working on a blueprint, and could lose hours of time in crafting the perfect design, the image in her head flowing into the two-dimensional sketch as naturally as if she'd been drafting her entire life instead of only a few months.
But today, today her thoughts were jumbled, disordered, and she couldn't seem to focus on even the simple project she'd selected for this afternoon. She laid her pencil down and scanned the room. The drafting lab was nearly empty, as it usually was on Friday afternoons, one of the reasons she liked to work at that time. Today, though, it felt creepy. Lonely. The rows of slanted metal tables with their dark, flexible lamps attached to the edges, hunched over like grim appendages on lean skeletons. Rather than a haven, the room felt hostile, depressing, and Renee suddenly very much wanted human company.
After quickly gathering up her supplies, she jogged out to the benches that fronted the building. A cool wind blew, reminding everyone the last few weeks of summer were rapidly ending, and Renee shivered as she sunk down onto the nearest bench. In New Orleans, it wouldn't get cold until December. What was she doing here? Who was she kidding?
She pulled out her phone, staring at her recent calls, wondering if she should try Kai again. It’d been nearly a week, and she hadn’t seen him in class or gotten a call. Hesitantly, she dialed. It rang once before immediately going to voicemail, as if his phone was shut off. She listened patiently to the familiar message, and this time, when Kai’s recorded voice informed her to call his brother, Dr. Jon Taylor, if it was urgent, she copied the number into her notebook instead of immediately hanging up. She contemplated leaving a message, but before she could, it beeped.
“This user’s voice message box is full. Please try again later.”
Sighing, Renee hurriedly hit speeddial #3. Diane.
"Yeah?" Diane almost never answered the phone like a normal person, and it made Renee smile faintly.
"Please tell me you’re nearby. I'm outside the MacMillan building." Though it was irrational, Renee scanned the crowd of students that walked past her, as she'd gotten in the habit of doing the past couple weeks. Searching for tall, lean, and muscled, a shock of golden hair glinting in sunlight. He wasn't there. He never was. In fact, she hadn't seen him since that morning in the bookstore nearly a week ago.
"Earth to Renee."
Renee blinked, sputtered out a quick apology.
"I was saying," Diane said with emphasis, “that I'm walking toward you. They can see that sulk from space."
Before Renee could respond, the phone clicked, and she could see Diane striding toward her, her multiple braids, each threaded with strips of ribbon, swinging as she went.
"Party, tonight. You're coming with. No argument," Diane commanded, pulling Renee to her feet.
Renee opened her mouth to make some kind of protest, but Diane was right; she needed a break, maybe even to get drunk and make out with some guy she wouldn't remember. Because if she couldn't remember, she wouldn't have to worry about analyzing how she felt about him and why. She'd struggled to forget Kai, but it hadn't worked, and the fact that he'd gone from seemingly persistent to just, well, gone, was troubling. Especially after Art had insisted that wasn't in Kai's character. Diane may have said--
"Stop it. You're doing it again."
Renee blinked. Swallowed. Tried to look innocent. "What?"
"Obsessing over a guy you kissed once. Fuck. What would you be like if he'd fucked you? Forget about him. I have it on good authority that there will be plenty of available--emotionally and otherwise--guys at this party tonight. So let's grab something overly caffeinated and plan out what we're wearing."
Kai lay on his side, one arm wrapped around a small bowl, just by his mouth, his other hand gripping the sheets. His eyes were half open, staring. Suddenly, his body jerked, and he threw up into the bowl, though it wasn’t much more than mucus.
Jon took a seat on the edge of the bed, setting the bottle and straw aside temporarily and helping Kai clean his mouth. “You need to try to drink something. It’ll help.”
Kai groaned, but he opened his mouth for the straw when Jon offered it and took a few slow, careful sips. Neither brother spoke much as Jon helped Kai drink about half the bottle over the course of several minutes.
Kai still felt like the world was spinning, and nausea still hovered in the back of his mouth, but sipping like this, slowly, steadily, helped a little. When Jon set the bottle aside, Kai closed his eyes, expecting at any moment for his stomach to violently reject the liquid, but it didn’t. Relieved, he opened his eyes.
“Vicky. She brought the groceries. She’s making you soup.”
Kai groaned, knowing he’d have to eat later and not at all looking forward to it.
“I wanted to show you something,” Jon signed clunkily, but not badly, to Kai’s surprise. Even with all that had been going on the past week, apparently Jon had still prioritized improving his ASL. It made Kai smile faintly.
Kai watched as Jon pulled a small square piece of stiff paper out of his pocket. He held it for a moment, staring at it, his expression unreadable, before offering it to Kai.
It was a photo, worn, faded, creased in places. Obviously from the ‘70s. Kai studied the people in it. A tall, thin man with strong arms and sharp features and shaggy, straw-colored hair and gray eyes dominated the shot. Beside him stood an equally tall woman, perhaps only a couple inches shorter, with long, thick, flowing golden hair and bright, intense, sea-green eyes. Her face held a look both determined and complex, like an encyclopedia of expression. The woman was visibly pregnant, at least six or seven months, her arms wrapped around her bulging belly. Between them stood a tall, lanky boy with platinum-blond hair and eyes that appeared nearly black in the lighting of the photo. He looked about seven, staring out at the camera as if trying to analyze how it worked.
Kai was surprised to find his vision blurring, and he had to blink rapidly to clear it. He’d seen a single smudged black-and-white photo in microfiche at the library from the newspaper article covering his parents’ deaths, but that had been the only image of his parents he’d seen since they died. He’d barely remembered what they looked like, but studying the photo, he clearly saw elements of both their mother and father in Jon and himself. Kai had more his father’s frame; Jon had taken his marginally slighter build from their mother. Jon had their father’s eyes and hair, Kai, their mother’s, along with her expressive face. Kai’s eyes rested on the boy Jon, grinning reluctantly for the camera, surprised by how much they’d looked alike at that age, although Kai’s hair had been darker, lightening as he grew, whereas Jon’s had apparently been light and grown darker with age. Jon also seemed taller at age seven than Kai had been. The photo was obviously from when their mother was pregnant with Kai and Jon’s diabetes hadn’t yet developed.
Perhaps this was a bad shot. Perhaps that’s one reason Jon had it, because it had been loose and not hung on the wall or displayed in an album. Perhaps there had been snapshots before and after that showed the young family beaming, eyes glinting, happy. But this one, even faded as it was, was sad, serious, each face haunted in its own way.
Jesus, Kai thought. “I look so much like her.”
"You're a lot like her in more than looks," Jon said in a whisper.
"Tell me about her," Kai said drowsily.
Jon sighed, smoothed Kai's hair. "She was illusive, like you."
Kai let his eyes fall shut again, wondering if the world would stop spinning long enough to let him sleep. He focused on his brother's voice. Jon never talked about their parents, ever. Even when Kai asked, Jon always shut down, or found some way to change the subject. Kai had reunited with Jon years ago, and this was the first time he’d ever seen this photo. A photo Kai had never even known existed.
"She . . . was an actress. Before she married Dad. She . . . would sometimes act out bits of roles she'd played while she worked around the house. She especially loved Shakespeare. Ophelia was her favorite."
"She loved Hamlet?"
"I used to have that part--you know, where Ophelia's muttering about the herbs and what they stand for--memorized. Mom was always saying, 'there's rue for you, and here's some for me.'"
Kai heard his brother's voice hitch, and he was silent a long time.
"We need to talk. When you're up to it. Here. Finish this and take your meds. Try to get some more sleep," Jon said after several minutes of silence, offering Kai the straw.
Kai sipped obediently, trying to force his drug-addled, nauseated brain to think, remember. Hamlet was one of Kai's favorites, and he'd spent a lot of time when he was younger with his beat-up copy Art had given him, analyzing lines whose meanings had been lost to history, like Ophelia's herbs.
That Kai had shared his love for the play with his mother. . . . He wasn't sure what to think of it. For so many years, he'd distanced himself from his parents, shadowy figures that were almost as mythical as any fantastic creatures he read about in books. Now, he had a woman whom he looked like, with whom he shared more than golden hair and blue eyes.
Rue is for regret, Kai remembered. A poison.
Vicky watched Jon surreptitiously as she cooked; he was pacing back and forth, speaking in a low voice on his cell phone, his other hand twisting his hair anxiously. Jon was still technically off the clock, at least for a few more days while Kai recovered, so if he'd been paged--and he'd answered--it had to be Martin.
Jon was nodding now, his face serious; he'd dropped his hand so his hair remained tangled and sticking up. Not that Vicky liked Jon stressed and worried, but she loved seeing him like this, looking so very "Jon," and part of her wanted to turn down the heat on the stove and go to him, wrapping her arms around his waist, her cheek pressed up against his back.
A moment later, he ended the call and stood there, looking around, lost in thought, obviously, though he seemed more like a confused, addled tourist struggling to find the path. Finally, he sighed, pocketed his phone, and crossed to the bar that divided the kitchen from the rest of the apartment.
Jon laid his forearms on the counter, dropping his head, a heavy sigh echoing from the cavern he'd created with his body. "Martin's not responding to the steroids, and even though it's still early, the antifungal doesn't seem to be helping, either," Jon said, lifting his head just enough to make sure his voice wasn't muffled. "He's not worse, but he's not better, either." Jon pushed up, hands splayed on the counter. His face was haunted in a way Vicky hadn't seen it since the day, more than a year ago, when Jon had come to her to confess the realization that Kai's time was running out. It had come down to the wire for Kai, and Jon had been filled with such tragic despair of a kind Vicky had hoped she'd never see again.
Vicky shut the heat off the stove and crossed around to him, stroking his back, not saying anything, feeling his tension as she moved to his shoulders.
"I'm going to give him a few more days, then . . . then maybe I should consider stronger immunosuppression than steroids."
"Like the kind of meds Kai takes?"
Jon sighed, arched his shoulders into her touch. "Stronger."
"Like chemo? Jon . . ."
"I know," Jon said, defeated. "I could stop the reaction to the Aspergillus only to have him die from infection. Be lucky Inez doesn't sue me."
"You really think she would?"
"I don't know." Jon pulled away from her, crossing quickly to the couch and sinking down, letting his head fall back against the top of the sofa, his long legs stretched. "I don't know anything anymore."
Vicky followed, curling up beside him, her hand on his thigh. "Jon, you've had tough cases like this before, but. . . ."
Jon nodded. Let his eyes slide shut. "I know. I think . . . it's this whole thing with Kai coinciding with Martin. . . . I mean, I knew it, but it's like this made it real, you know? That it's not over. I still could lose him any day." Jon covered his face, sweeping a hand into his hair. "Kai is all I have."
"Jon," Vicky attempted, smoothing down some of his hair. A part of her wanted to say, What about me? Instead, she asked, "What about your adoptive father?"
Jon let out a sound that may have been a laugh, but came out more as a cough. "What I have with him is a business relationship. He paid for me to go to the best schools, to become Doogie Howser," Jon said bitterly, "and I repay him by discovering a new disease and hopefully making brilliant medical breakthroughs so he can live vicariously and look good to his friends."
Vicky knew Jon loved his work, and genuinely wanted to help people. She also knew, as he'd reminded her only a couple days earlier, that no one could force him to do something he didn't want. Seeing him acting so cynically like this was disconcerting.
"If that's what he wants, why didn't he insist you take his name?"
Jon's hand moved blindly until it found Vicky's, at which point he laced his fingers in hers. "He felt my taking his name would dishonor his real son's memory."
Vicky knew Jon never spoke of his adoptive father, and Jon had never visited him as long as Vicky had known him, but she had no idea their relationship was so cold. No wonder Jon clung to his brother so intensely.
Vicky raised their hands to her lips and kissed his fingers. "I know you've treated Martin for years, but maybe you should surrender his care completely to someone else. It might be best for both of you."
Jon nodded weakly. "I know. I just . . . I feel like that would be giving up on him. And right now he needs someone who won't."
Jon spread his arm, beckoning her in closer. She loved these little invitations to physical affections, treasuring them. Jon hadn't said anything about what they were, but his body had spoken volumes, allowing touching and caresses that constantly took her by surprise.
She laid her head on his chest, listening to his quiet heartbeat pounding rhythmically. She could fall asleep like this, and as she felt his breathing slow, she realized so could he.
“Thanks for being the designated driver, Diane,” Renee said, leaning back in the car seat. “I need to get ‘Mardi Gras’ drunk tonight.”
Diane nodded. “Agreed. You need to drink and have fun and forget about that guy. What is it about him, anyway? Is he really just that good looking? Does he really kiss that well?” Diane grinned, casting a sideways glance a Renee, who was fiddling with the hem of her skirt, but didn’t answer. “Because I’ve seen you fall fast and hard before, but nothing remotely like this.”
Renee tucked a curl behind her ear. “It’s not the way he looks. I mean, yeah, it is, but . . . it’s more than that. I can’t quite put my finger on it. His mystery, maybe?”
“You don’t want those emo guys. Not in real life. They’re fine to read about or watch on TV, but they’ll just cause you trouble.”
“And what, I’ll poke my eye out?” Renee laughed, but her smile evaporated when she saw how serious Diane was.
Diane shook her head, sighed, then finally said, “The last real boyfriend I had was my senior year of high school. I was a goth back then--yeah, judge me.” Diane tightened her grip on the steering wheel. “His parents were alcoholics, and he had to take care of his siblings on his own. He lived in a constant state of fear of losing them to CPS, so he was always covering for his parents.”
Diane was quiet a long time, pensive. It was a side of her friend Renee rarely saw. Hesitantly, Renee asked, “What happened?”
Diane’s eyes were fixed on the road when she answered, “He hanged himself.”
“Jesus,” Renee said, her hand going to her mouth.
“He was depressed. I mean, how couldn’t you be in a situation like that? And I, stupidly, thought it was sexy.” Diane laughed snidely. “One day while he was at work, CPS came and took his siblings away because his parents almost burned the house down. He didn’t have any chance of getting custody, even though he was 18. I tried to help, but . . .” Diane shrugged and sighed. “I gave up the whole goth thing after he died. Why play at death when you’ve seen it?”
“Did you love him?”
Diane didn’t answer for a long time. “Can you really love someone when you’re seventeen?”
“We’re only a couple years older now. Can we love now? What’s the magical formula of age plus experience you need in order to love?”
Diane laughed, but it was sad, forced. “I’m an art major, not math. Give me a break. Tonight’s not about love, anyway.”
Renee was silent, staring down at her fingers, knotting them together.
“Forget it. You’re going to make fun of me and dismiss me and . . . just forget it.”
Diane sighed, softened. “I shouldn’t have told you that story. I don’t know why I even did.”
“No. That’s not it. I mean, I’m glad you did. It’s just--”
“This guy. It’s always this guy.”
“His name’s Kai.”
Diane braked hard. “Oh God. Don’t tell me you’re in love with him?! Jesus, Renee. You don’t even know him.”
Renee gritted her teeth, breathed. “No. I’m not saying that. I’m just saying . . .” Renee struggled to express herself, to make Diane understand that when she was with Kai, she felt . . . different. Almost like she were walking around as only a fraction of herself and he was the magic ingredient that made her feel whole. “Have you ever met someone that you just knew, instantly, you would be friends with them?”
Diane’s brows furrowed as she searched the crowded street for a place to park. “Uh, I guess I kinda felt like that with you. Even if you were totally not what I was expecting.”
“That’s kinda how I feel about Kai. Only, not just friends. It’s something I just feel. Know. It’s why I can’t stop thinking about him.”
Diane parallel parked a few blocks down from the house where Renee could see the party was gathering and looked over at her friend. “Jesus. This isn’t just a crush you can’t kick, is it?”
Renee shook her head. “I know it’s not love, can’t be love, yet. I’m not stupid. But . . . if love is like a house you build with someone, then being with Kai is like that moment you walk into a room and you suddenly see all the possibilities. You just know, that if you can just spend some time, it’ll be the room you always dreamed of. And if that room is magic, you can’t even fathom what the entire house will be like, if you only have the chance to experience it.”
Diane smiled faintly at her friend. “OK. How about we go hit that rom-com double feature at the cineplex instead of this party?”
Renee beamed. “Really?”
Diane nodded. “And then we’ll see about getting your guy--Kai--back.”
Continue to September 18, 2000 ------>
Continue to September 18, 2000 ------>