Table of Contents - for refreshing, catching up, and all that.
September 2, 2000 (continued)
The pool at the Y was pretty much off limits on Saturdays after nine because of swim lessons, and though the weight room was tempting, the allure of losing himself for forty laps drew him to the university's fitness complex instead. The muffling silence of water, allowing his mind to blank as he crawled toward one wall, then the next, over and over until his chest and arms and hips ached.
Kai hadn't yet visited the school gym or pool, partially out of habit, but the contrast in facilities between the Y and the university were immediately stark and apparent. The center hummed with activity, but he wouldn't have to worry about six-year-olds hogging the pool here. He might have to consider changing his routine.
The girl at the check-in counter had asked if he needed help.
"You know, like, with the doors or getting in the pool and stuff." She’d looked at him, annoyed, as if praying he’d say no so she wouldn’t be inconvenienced.
He'd abliged her and quickly made his way to the pool locker room, grateful he kept a spare suit and lock in his car. He did need help, but more like a shrink than someone to open a door for him. Anger burned under the surface of his skin. Why did Becca still affect him so strongly?
Because just when he thought things were getting better, she'd reassert herself on his life. She’d done it before, and she was doing it again. He sighed heavily, pushing past other guys, oblivious to the looks and stares until he found an empty aisle. He heaved his bag off his lap and tossed it on the bench, fishing through it, pulling out his suit. Becca continued to hurt him because he let her. As long as he allowed her to, she had power over him. It'd be best if he severed himself from her. Ignored her calls, pushed her from his mind. He had an opportunity with Renee now, and as terrifying as the prospect of another relationship was, he knew he wanted to give her a chance.
Kai examined the suit. It was his old one, and had seen better days, but it’d do in a pinch. A competition suit, more specialized than simple trunks, it covered him from knee to neck, leaving his arms free. Difficult to put on, even with the zippered back, but it hid his scars. Hiding. Was that all he did anymore? At school, with Renee, even with Nikki and Jon. In fact, he realized, his time with Nikki was as much about forgetting as it was hiding. He bent, pulled off one shoe, then another, tossing them in the locker. Hesitating for a moment, he gripped the fabric of his shirt, yanking it over his head, setting it on the hook. He fingered his trache scar. Maybe he wasn't ready to tell Renee everything, but he was ready to be done with Becca. If she didn't call back, he would. He'd agree to meet her, and he'd tell her they were finished, and she could leave him to get on with his life.
Jon shifted his weight in the chair, glanced at his watch for the ten-hundredth time, smiling weakly at the waiter who refilled his water. It was almost two-thirty; Kai was late. Jon had been forced to eat, his blood sugar too low to wait for his brother, but he'd already tried Kai's cell and checked the apartment, all with no luck. So he'd decided to come back to the restaurant, wait another hour before he called the hospital. Maybe Kai was studying in the library, phone off, and had lost track of time? Worry pulsed in Jon's gut as he clenched his water glass and drank.
Jon turned his gaze to the wide, arched entrance to the dining room, a rush of relief flooding through his body when he saw Kai finally appear, pushing his way toward the table. But something was wrong. Kai didn't guide his chair with his usual force or grace; every stroke seemed to take immense effort. He looked pained and tired, which surprised Jon even more, since Kai normally hid his emotions, at least initially. Kai's hair was damp, making the golden almost brown, long strands clinging together.
Kai seemed to notice Jon for the first time as he drew near, offering a faint apologetic smile. A few more strokes, and he parked at the table across from his brother.
Jon opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Kai did. "I'm fine, just tired. I'm sorry I'm late. I'm sorry I didn't call. I lost track of time. Did you eat? Please tell me you did." He said it in the same way one would read items on a grocery list, but as if he were repeating himself for the sixth time, growing tired, a little frustrated. Bread. Milk. Butter. Yes, butter. Juice. Do we need juice?
"I was worried," Jon said simply. "And yes, I ate."
"Good," Kai replied with a slight nod, linking his fingers and stretching long arms above his head.
Awkward silence descended on the table. Kai shifted his weight, tried to avoid his brother's stare. After several minutes, a waitress appeared, and Kai ordered a baked potato, smiling at her as he handed her his menu.
"Nothing for me," Jon said, not able to mirror his brother's smile. Once the waitress was gone, Jon pursed his lips and stared at his brother, who still refused to meet his gaze. "How many meters?" His tone was flat.
"What?" Kai responded, annoyance coloring his words, grabbing one of the shakers and tapping it anxiously on the table. Tap. Tap tap. Tap. Tap tap tap tap.
Jon inclined his chin toward his brother, noticing again the damp hair that clung to Kai’s head.
Kai lifted his eyes just briefly before turning them back to his fingers gripping the shaker. "A thousand."
Jon did the quick math in his head. Forty laps. "How much did you do this morning?"
Kai's tapping halted abruptly, and he looked up at his brother, eyes narrowing. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Jon sighed heavily, reached across the table, and snatched the shaker out of his brother's hand. "Don't BS me. Every Saturday morning for the past four months you've gone to the Y to swim, before classes start and the little kids take over the pool."
"So maybe I didn't go this morning. Maybe I went before lunch, and that's why I'm late."
"You want to play this game? Fine." Jon stared down at the shaker, now in his hand, gave it a few annoyed taps, before huffing and pushing it aside. "What's going on?"
"Jon," Kai said, forcing his voice to be neutral. "I've lived almost my whole life without a father. I don't need one now."
Jon cradled his water glass, wiping condensation off onto his hands, trying to bite back how badly Kai's words had stung. "I just want to help."
Kai sighed, but it wasn't out of frustration, more like . . . acceptance. "You can't fix everything." Kai touched his brother's hand and their eyes met. "I'm not six anymore; I can deal with things by myself."
"I know you can," Jon said, his face pained. "That doesn't mean you have to."
Kai pulled away, leaning back in his chair, a faint smile gracing his face. "I love you, Jon. But some stuff I do have to handle on my own."
Jon and Kai had spent the rest of the afternoon and evening together in a kind of silent communion, trying to ignore the tension between them as much as possible. By ten, Kai had told Jon he’d decided to call it a night, and retired to his room, going through his nightly routine and determined to make a few important phone calls.Kai sat on his bed, back against the wall, legs hanging off the edge. He was sore and tight everywhere from the double workout, but he didn't care. The extra swim had helped him clear his mind, and he knew what he needed to do.
Becca hadn't called again, so Kai went to his recent incoming calls and redialed the unfamiliar number from which she'd reached him before. It was possible he'd have no luck getting in touch with her. Fitting, even; she was around for him when she wanted, but if he needed her, that was another story. He frowned. No, he wasn't going to think like that. He had managed to push away nearly everything from his life pre-transplant, locking memories in the farthest reaches of his mind and sealing up any remembrances into a box he kept taped up in the back of his closet. He simply needed to add Becca to the list. And it needed to be done in person. While she might not have given him that benefit, he knew he'd only feel satisfied that things were well and truly over between them by looking her firmly in the eyes and telling her so himself.
The phone rang several times before a tired male voice answered. "Yeah?"
Kai swallowed, took a breath. "Is Becca there?"
Kai could almost hear the frown over the line, but shuffling sounds warped by the mic assaulted his ears, and the next voice he heard was hers.
"Friday. The triangle quad, Jonesville U. Four."
"You said you wanted to meet me. That's where I'll be, and when, if you want to talk." Without waiting for her to say anything else, he ended the call, letting out a breath. His chest felt tight, and he breathed slowly for a few minutes before releasing the air and dialing Renee.
She picked up after only the second ring. "Hello?"
Kai held the phone with his neck, then used his hands to help pull his right knee up onto the bed. He was stiff, but he'd been worse.
"Hey, it's Kai."
He stretched his foot with his hands, knowing he'd have to stretch properly later, after he finished his calls.
"Hey," she said; he could hear the smile in her voice.
"I know there's some kind of unwritten rule about how long you should wait until you call someone after they've given you their number, but . . . I couldn't wait. Didn't want to wait."
"It's a silly rule anyway," she said, and he knew she was glowing. Even though he couldn't see it, he could sense it, her mood coloring her words.
"I figure since you're so far from home and you hadn't left yet, you're not going anywhere for the holiday," Kai said, the words coming in a rush as his heart beat quicker in his chest. "I was just wondering if you were doing anything Monday."
The line was silent for a moment, until finally Renee gasped, "Yes! I . . . uh . . . mean . . . no. I'm free Monday. My roommate won't be back till late. . . . But what about your brother? Don't you want to spend the holiday with him?"
"Jon's working. He's a doctor and likes to work holidays so he can see patients who can't get work off other days." Kai gripped his toes in one hand, flexing them, trying to break the cycle of contractions that had seized them.
"Huh. My doctor back home didn't even work Fridays, let alone holidays. What did you have in mind?"
Kai grinned, bit back a wince, and slowly let his hip rotate, his leg falling in a V, knee still bent. "I thought . . . maybe we could study? Get something to eat?"
She didn't answer immediately.
"Oh. Um. Unless you don't want to," he said, a little crestfallen. He shifted the phone to his other shoulder and rubbed at the opposite one with his hand, pinching the muscle to relieve the tension.
"No! No." She cleared her throat. "That'd be great. We could go over some of the stuff you missed. Do you want to pick me up?"
Kai swallowed. He'd said no hiding, but the moment she got a good look at his car, saw the way he drove, spied the spare crutches he always kept in the backseat, any illusions he had of telling her at his own pace would burst and disappear. It'd leave an awkwardness that would color the whole day. Either because she was afraid to ask, or because he'd feel the need to explain everything and she'd be mad or weirded out or just treat him differently.
Now it was his turn to clear his throat. "I'm here. Sorry. Uh, I think it'd work better if I just met you somewhere. Is that OK?" Kai's right calf twitched, and he rubbed at it with one hand, gripping the phone with the other.
The disappointment clung to her words. "Sure. I understand. Where do you want to meet up?"
The thought of inviting her to the apartment flashed through his mind, but if he couldn't even pick her up, then how could he invite her here? Besides, they'd only known each other two weeks. He might be a little naive, but not that much.
"Uh, you know that sandwich shop off Main?"
"The one with the sign that says, 'Best Chicken Salad in the Midwest' in the window?"
"That's it. They'll be open tomorrow, but probably not real busy. Most of their business will be catering, takeout, that type of thing. We can hang out in the back for a few hours; the owners won't mind." Kai pushed his right leg straight, braced the knee, and focused on flexing his ankle, pointing his toes toward his body, trying to get the calf muscles to relax. The muscles didn't respond immediately, a couple toes catching in spasm, but he concentrated, working through it.
"Do you know everyone in this town?" Renee asked playfully, laughing.
Kai frowned, picked at the fabric of his pants. "No. But they know me." Before she could get a chance to ask for clarification, he said, "12:30 tomorrow. See you there. Bye."
Although it was late and he was tired, his muscles tight, some spasming, he knew he couldn't sleep yet. He'd already taken his meds. His peak flow was slightly down, but he chalked it off to stress and over doing it. His body beckoned for a good stretch, some muscle relaxant, and rest, but he knew he had one more thing to do.
"Come in," Nikki said with a nod, stepping away from the door to let him in. "You look totally wiped."
He smiled faintly, crutching in slowly. Nikki's apartment door was too narrow for his chair, but she was right: he was exhausted. "It's been a long day."
Carefully planting each crutch, coaxing his right leg forward, then pulling his left along with his body, he worked his way toward her bed, sinking down with relief. His back was tight, joining the rest of his aches. He laid his crutches on the floor, tucked partially under the bed, slipped off his bag, then each shoe. A moment later, Nikki stood in front of him, offering him a mug.
"Microwaved, since that's faster. Already saturated it in honey, just like you like it." She sank down next to him, gripping her own mug.
"Thanks," he said, taking a sip.
They sat together in silence, side by side. His back was spasming; it bothered him rarely, especially if he wasn't using his crutches as much. Simply a price to pay for the day, he thought, knowing he was lucky he hadn't had a full-blown attack.
"So. Long day?" Nikki said, sipping her tea, trying to prompt him to speak.
Kai nodded, staring into his mug, gripped in both hands, enjoying the warmth that penetrated his skin. He thought he could do this, but now that he was here, his resolution wavered.
"Nikki . . ." Kai began, then took in a deep breath, his back complaining from the movement. "I owe you a lot." He took another breath, shallower this time. "You've taught me so much," he said with a subtle smile, looking up at her. "You've been there when I needed to forget. You put up with my fucked-up . . ." His brow crinkled. ". . . -ness." He laughed nervously, and felt her hand smoothing along the tight muscles of his lower back. "And you're sexy as hell. But . . ." Another deep breath, a wince. He dropped his eyes, then forced himself to lift them to hers.
Before he could continue, Nikki said, "You think we shouldn't see each other anymore."
Kai dropped his head, as if he'd suddenly realized its weight, nodding subtly.
Nikki frowned, but not deeply. She continued tracing her palm over Kai's back, muscles taunt. "What's her name?"
Kai jerked his head up, eyes widened in a mixture of confusion and surprise. "Huh?"
Nikki dropped her hand from his back and calmly sipped her tea. "Your white-picket-fence girl." Nikki stood, held out her hand for his mug. After a confused moment, he gave it back to her.
Without another word from either of them, Nikki strode to the kitchen and rinsed the mugs in the sink. Kai listened to the sounds of water flowing, of ceramic clinking, trying to decide what to do or say next. Nikki was as unreadable as he was when she wanted to be, maybe even more so. If she were hurt or angry, he couldn't tell.
Finally, the water shut off. She crossed back to the bed, where he still sat, and straddled his lap, hands on his shoulders. Once settled, she planted a quick peck on the tip of his nose.
"I'm proud of you," she whispered, kissing his nose again. "Spend the night. One last time?"
Kai's eyebrows dipped, staring into her eyes, trying to read them, but they refused to speak. He contemplated her invitation. Jon knew he’d left the apartment, saying he was going to visit a friend. As overbearing as his brother could be, Kai was grateful Jon hadn’t pressed him for details on exactly who the "friend" was that he spent so many nights with. Other than giving him some trouble about pushing himself too hard, Jon hadn’t judged. What would be one more night? One last night together?
Kai reached up, large palm cradling her face, pulling her toward him. They kissed, tentatively, almost chastely, more words expressed in their lips than they'd previously spoken. It was a kiss that said, Goodbye. Thank you. I'm sorry. If.
Kai opened his eyes to darkness: an intense, overwhelming, crushing, suffocating pain in the center of his chest. He gulped at air, only to meet mouthfuls of something powdery, earthy, musty. Dirt. He panicked, clawing frantically, trying to dig through the blackness, panting, choking, fear pressing tensely, urgently against him.
Light. Air. Escape. These were his only desperate thoughts as he felt his strength waning, his mind beginning to flutter and fade. He was shaking. No, the darkness itself was trembling, and he had no air left, his throat closed tight in defeat. A voice echoed in soil-filled ears, seeming murky, distant, as if he were underwater instead of underground. It vibrated through the earth, through his body, in tune with the tremor. He felt the pull of unconsciousness, strong, compelling, like a powerful wind gripping him and carrying him away.
"Kai!" The voice was clearer, louder, more insistent. Despite the shudders, the intense pressure in his chest, he wanted to slip into the blackness, yield to its embrace.
A sharp sting of pain burst through his cheek, and his eyes snapped open. To a dimly lit, yet blurry room. His vision struggled to focus as pain and desperation slammed into him, his body fighting for air. Awareness didn't fully come to him yet, even as a hand gripped tightly on his arm, shook him.
"Kai, don't fucking die on me. Wake up."
He forced a blink. Air felt like something solid, tangible and stubborn, resisting the movement in and out of his body. Suddenly, the figure hovering above him cleared, his mind recognizing the silhouette. Nikki. Nikki clutching him with one hand, a phone in the other. And he came back to himself, if only barely, his body battling for oxygen, breathing raspy, high-pitched, panicked.
"Pants," he managed to say, and Nikki frowned, confused, before leaping off the bed.
He struggled to concentrate, to try to calm the hysterical reaction of his body, attempt to push himself up. Several tries as the flutter of fabric off to one side warred against blood rattling in his ears, wheeze loud out of panting mouth. Finally sitting, leaning forward, his breathing eased, if only slightly, ribs pulling frantically, neck muscles flexing in a desperate search for air.
"Here," Nikki said, shoving an object into his hand.
He had to concentrate, focus on breathing, on using the inhaler. Survival left no space for thought beyond continuing to exist through sheer force and will.
"I think you stopped breathing. I couldn't wake you. I called 9-1-1." Nikki's voice was urgent but surprisingly calm.
Kai shook his head, not able to answer more than that as he focused, trying to sense the effects of the medicine. But he felt heavy, his body wanting to sink back down to the bed. He was tired. His back, neck, sides ached, and his head grew foggy again, the reflex to breathe fading. It'd be so easy to just close his eyes. . . .
Kai wavered, collapsed sideways on the bed, slipped back into darkness.
Cliffhanger!!! Stay tuned next week for a juicy, long chapter where we find out what happens to Kai!!
Continue to September 3, 2000 ---->