September 8, 2000 - Part I
Kai's eyes shot open in the dark of his room, his breath coming in panting gasps, his hair clinging to his head, damp with sweat. He pushed himself up, trying to focus, calm his racing heart and ease his ragged breathing. A quick glance at his alarm clock made him groan. 3:34. The nightmare had woken him, again.
Sunday and Monday nights, Kai had slept decently enough, mostly due to exhaustion and Valium. But every other night since, the same nightmare that had preceded his trip to the ER had returned to strip him, panicked, from sleep. He'd been lucky to manage a couple hours, and three nights of this, plus the lingering effects of both the FS and MLS attacks meant he was exhausted. He'd avoiding taking anything to try to help him sleep; as a general rule Kai didn't take anything sedating or with the potential for addiction any more than he had to.
He snatched his inhaler from the bedside table, shook it, and took two puffs, trying his best to give the medicine time to sink down into his lungs. He'd had recurring nightmares before, when he was young. But never anything like these. The whole experience felt so real, like he was actually buried alive, like he really was suffocating. The terror so visceral and immediate. Every. Single. Time. Kai wasn't even sure if his response was due to his FS, or psychological, an anxiety attack that mimicked the symptoms of suffocation and fear.
His body was beginning to calm, and his breathing came more easily, so he let himself lie back, his eyelids falling closed. So. Tired. He'd been too worn out and in too much residual pain to go to class Tuesday, and as much as he'd wanted to see Renee Wednesday, he knew his legs were still too uncooperative to manage the stairs to the back row. At least his braces had held up. Thanks to Jon, Kai had been able to afford titanium-magnesium alloy uprights for his current KAFOs, which meant they were light, yet strong. So today he'd put them on and attempt his two morning classes. Maybe seeing Renee again would make him feel better. He could still taste her: sweet, faintly of lip gloss and coffee.
He felt himself drifting. Maybe he could snag a couple more hours of sleep before he had to start his day. Maybe.
Renee’s entire body seemed to ignite when she looked up and saw Kai in his usual seat in the back row of the auditorium. She hurried up the stairs, then decided to slow down and relax her face. She didn’t want to seem too excited to see him, in case Diane was right and he really had meant to blow her off. In case the kiss–which still made her stomach flutter every time she thought about it–hadn’t meant anything to him. In case he thought it was a huge mistake, and was hoping they could go back to the way things were before it happened.
The first thing she noticed as she drew closer was how tired he looked. Slouched instead of sitting up straight, eyes shut, almost as if he were asleep. As she got up the last few steps, she could see dark circles under his eyes, and the hint of stubble when the light hit his face just right, his blond hair nearly invisible against his skin otherwise. He was always clean shaven, and it looked like he hadn’t bothered to shave in a few days.
As quietly as possible, she sat down, hoping not to wake him. He certainly looked like he needed the sleep. Either she wasn't as stealthy as she thought, or he hadn't been asleep, because she'd barely hit the seat when his eyes opened, a sweet smile slipping across his face as soon as he saw her.
"Hey," she echoed, returning his smile, feeling a strange, yet wonderful sensation course through her body.
That wasn't a smile that said their kiss was a mistake. She hadn't even realized how much she'd needed that reassurance until it happened.
"I thought maybe you were avoiding me."
He used his hands to push himself up, so he wasn't slouching anymore. He looked at her, and his face rapidly shifted through a range of emotions, too fast for her to distinguish them individually. "Oh, sh--I'm sorry, Re. I . . ." His voice dropped off, as if he were unable to find the rest of his sentence.
She noticed him rub the heel of his hand on his left thigh. "Did your missing class have anything to do with your leg?" Renee's boldness seemed to surprise them both, and he immediately stopped rubbing his leg.
He opened his mouth, then closed it, glanced down at the front of the auditorium, as if hoping the professor would walk in and end their conversation.
Suddenly anxious, she eased her hand into his. For a moment, she feared he'd pull away, but instead, he squeezed it. When he turned his head, some of his exhaustion seemed to have melted away, replaced by a complex expression she couldn't quite determine. A mixture of relief and uncertainty and hope.
"Yes," he said in a whisper, looking down at their hands.
She reached up with her other hand, smoothing his cheek, feeling the tickle of stubble against her skin. Not sure what to say next, desperate to feel his lips against hers again, she reveled in their touch. Let him tell you. Don't push, Renee reminded herself. Talking about himself obviously wasn't easy, and whatever the story was behind his leg, it was a struggle for him to share. She already felt like he'd let her in more in the short time they'd known each other than he did for most, and that didn't even include the kiss.
"It's a long story, right?"
He looked away, swallowed hard, shrugged.
Offering a hand squeeze and a smile, she said, "Then we can leave it until this afternoon, after class. We'll grab a bite and you can tell me then. If you want to," she added, realizing she really didn't have a right to know if he wasn't ready. They may have shared one kiss, but it wasn't like they were boyfriend/girlfriend. Yet.
He let out a long whoosh of breath, as if he hadn't breathed in the last few minutes. Then he looked up at her with a simple, relieved smile. "OK. OK." He inhaled sharply, as if to buoy himself. "I'm meeting someone at four, but it shouldn't take long. We could do something after that?"
She nodded, smiling.
Their attention was momentarily drawn to the front of the lecture hall, where the professor had arrived and was setting up.
"I have . . ." He took in a deep breath. "I won't be in philosophy."
She looked over at him, but his gaze was still fixed on the professor.
"Didn't want you to be surprised when I didn't show."
Her eyebrows furrowed. "All right. I'll see you this afternoon, then?"
Kai sat on the exam table, pushed all the way back so the wall supported him. His back hurt, and the nearly full-body soreness still hummed just beneath the surface, a constant reminder of the MLS attack of Monday. He closed his eyes and tried not to think about what Dr. J might have to say. Instead, he let his mind turn to Renee. She'd looked different today. He couldn't quite say why; maybe it was the simple fact that after days apart, it was nice to see her face again. She'd tried to hide it, but she'd been excited to see him, relieved he hadn't been avoiding her. God, he felt awful that the idea had ever plagued her. He should have called her.
He wondered what she'd think about him once he told her about his MLS. He hadn't lied. But Jake had insisted his hiding it was enough of a deception. Would she feel betrayed? Would she decide she didn't want to see him anymore? It really wasn't a big deal. Jake was right. He should have told her from the beginning, got it out there. His stomach cramped. So far, she'd handled everything well. They'd kissed! She might have questions, but she'd be OK with it. And it'd be nice to have one less thing about himself he needed to hide from her.
"Sorry to keep you waiting." Dr. Johnsen's voice snapped Kai out of his reverie. "We really did squeeze you in." Without waiting for Kai to respond, Dr. J grabbed the stool, wheeled it closer, and sat. "So what's going on?"
Kai sighed and nudged his chin toward the medical file in Dr. J's hands. "I'm sure you know better than me."
Dr. Johnsen flipped through the file absently before shutting it and laying it in his lap. He leaned forward. "I'll be honest with you, Kai. I don't know much more of what's going on than the fellow who treated you in the ER. If you were any other patient, I'd pull your brother in for a consult--"
"No," Kai said firmly. "I want to figure out what's going on before getting Jon involved. He'll just freak."
Dr. J nodded. He opened the file again, reviewing its contents. "Your X-ray was normal, your bloodwork fine. Your sats and peak flow were acceptable today. . . . How have you been feeling since Sunday?"
Kai swept the hair off his face. "I had a bad MLS attack Monday. . . ." He hesitated a moment, then added, "And . . . I've been having nightmares. Every night, the same one. And I always wake up, struggling to breathe."
Dr. J frowned, stood up, and set the file aside. "How bad are these attacks?" He pulled his stethoscope out of his pocket.
Kai sighed and used his hands to push himself away from the wall. "I'm usually OK after I use my inhaler and a few minutes pass, but . . . obviously, I haven't been sleeping well."
Dr. Johnsen's eyebrows dipped sternly, and he moved closer, positioning the earbuds of his stethoscope in each ear, rubbing the end to warm it up. "Does this happen more than once a night?"
"Almost every time I fall asleep."
Dr. J slipped the head of the stethoscope under the back of Kai's shirt. "Just breathe normally." He moved the stethoscope around Kai's back, listening carefully in each spot. "OK, slow, deep breaths now." After several minutes, Dr. J shifted the stethoscope to Kai's chest, checking his heart, before removing it and slinging it over his neck. He sighed heavily.
"It's all in my head, isn't it," Kai said before the doctor could speak. "I sound fine."
"You do sound fine," Dr. J agreed. "But that doesn't mean there isn't something going on. I read the notes from the ER the other night. That attack was real, and your sats were way down."
"So what do we do?" Kai asked, looking forlorn.
Dr. J sighed and scrunched his face up. "How's your nightly peak flow been?"
Kai shrugged. "OK. In the 90s." Generally, peak flow values above ninety-percent were considered good, so the fact that his were OK each night, yet he still was waking with labored breathing was yet another perplexing part of the puzzle.
"What about your PO2?" Dr. J had settled back on the stool and was scribbling notes.
"Uh . . ."
He stopped abruptly and looked up. "You're telling me you live with Jon Taylor and you don't check your sats regularly?" Dr. J laughed softly. "This is what we're going to do. I'm going to write you a script for some oral steroids. I know it's not ideal if you're having trouble sleeping, but if this is a rejection issue, it'll buy us some time to figure things out, and it might help with the attacks. Make sure you take the last dose at three PM." Dr. J scribbled quickly. "I also want you to check your peak flow and sats three times a day, and record the numbers. And I'd like you to come in for some more tests, see if we can figure out what's going on here."
"What are you thinking?" Kai said in a sigh, shoulders hunched.
"Draw some more blood before you go, then get you in for another X-ray, a methacholine challenge, a biopsy, and a full pulm function test. Cover all our bases."
Kai nodded. "Can't wait." He sighed.
"I know things have been stressful lately. You've had a lot to adjust to, and now you have school. . . . And I know Jon works too much." Dr. Johnsen took in a breath. "You might want to consider talking to someone. About the nightmares."
"It wouldn't have to be the same psych the transplant committee made you see," Dr. J said, trying to reassure Kai. "I know a few good doctors I could refer you to. You might find it helpful, and it might alleviate your stress. Which isn't making things any better." Dr. J pulled some business cards out of one of his white coat pockets and thumbed through them quickly, finally handing a few to Kai.
Kai stared at the first card. Dr. Angela Mitchell, MD. Child, Adolescent, Adult Psychiatry. Board-Certified. Specialist in Adjustment Disorder, PTSD, Personality Disorders. Without bothering to read the rest, Kai let his head drop; his exhaustion seemed to magnify. He'd been forced to see a shrink a few times in his life, and each time had resented it. The first was when his parents died, the state convinced a psychologist could help him get over the trauma that was keeping him mute. Thankfully, it wasn't long before they realized no amount of therapy was going to get the sickly, tiny blond boy to speak, and he'd been able to return to kindergarten at the deaf school. Most recently, he'd had six months of psych visits, one of the requirements of the transplant program. Kai had been very careful in what he said and how so that he could get through the mandatory sessions without making waves or throwing up red flags. Shrinks didn't work, because they thought they knew all the answers. Sometimes, there simply weren't any.
"I'll think about it," Kai muttered.
Dr. J put a hand on Kai's shoulder. "It's not uncommon to feel depressed or off-keel after a transplant. I think if you found a good therapist, whom you felt comfortable with. . . . You can't keep everything to yourself forever, Kai. Sooner or later, it has to come out."
"Why am I not surprised to find you here?" Dr. Johnsen grabbed a chair and sat in it, backwards, next to Jon.
The lounge on this floor was small and empty, especially at this time of day. The smell of stale, burnt coffee lingered in the air. Jon was bent over some paperwork, his hair a tangled mess, one of his hands working through it absently as he concentrated. He barely acknowledged the other man's presence.
"You do realize, Dr. Howser, that you have an office. And you're not a fellow anymore."
Jon finally looked up at Dr. J, who was smirking. "I told you never to call me that," Jon growled.
Because Jon had graduated high school early and done a six-year combined undergrad/MD program, when he started his medicine residency, he was only twenty-two, the youngest of his class by four years--at least--most of the residents were in their late twenties, or even into their thirties. He was also brilliant, so he'd quickly earned the nickname "Doogie" or "Dr. Howser," after the TV show character. Jon hated it, but had never been able to shake the nickname, even when he became chief resident. Even his attendings often called him Dr. Howser instead of Taylor, and when he graduated, the head of the department had given him a white coat with the joke name embroidered on it, as if it really were his. During the first year of Jon's fellowship, Dr. J had found the coat in Jon's office and immediately taken to the nickname. At thirty, Jon was not only the youngest staff pulmonologist, he was also younger than nearly all the fellows below him.
"Fine. It's meant as a compliment, you know. Dave and I still can't believe you stayed here. National Jewish would have loved to have you," Dr. J remarked, referring to one of the top pulmonary centers in the country, located in Denver.
Jon ignored him, focusing intently on the documents in front of him.
Dr. J sighed. "We need to talk. Come on. I'll buy you a real coffee."
"Here. Against my better judgment: triple espresso. Black," Dr. J said, setting the paper cup in front of Jon. A Starbucks kiosk had opened on the first floor of the hospital, intended for outpatients and families of inpatients, but had quickly become a hangout for hospital staff craving their caffeine in something other than "sludge." Dr. J took his seat across from Jon, sipping his latte.
"So what did I do?" Jon said, opening the lid of his to cool it.
"We're not here to talk about you. Well, maybe a little," Dr. J admitted, looking around. They'd retreated to a group of couches ensconced in a nook off the lobby, and were alone despite the bustle of traffic they could hear moving through the busy foyer just feet away. "How has Kai been adjusting, do you think?" Dr. J asked with one raised eyebrow.
Jon cradled his cup in both hands, staring down into its darkness. "I've been a little concerned. . . . Why? Have you seen him lately? Did he say something?" Jon's head popped up, scrutinizing.
Dr. J sighed and masked his face with several sips of coffee. "You know I couldn't tell you, unless--"
Jon almost spilled his drink. "Unless you think he's going to harm himself. Ben--"
"Don't put words in my mouth, Jon," Dr. J cautioned. "But you are worried about him."
Jon took a few swigs of his espresso, then nodded. "I don't have any real evidence; it's just a hunch, based on his behavior, some things he's said, that kind of thing, but . . ."
Dr. J shifted in his seat. "You have the best gut of any physician I've ever worked with. If it's telling you something, you need to trust it."
Jon sighed heavily. "I'm worried Kai might be . . . overly stressed. Maybe depressed." He pulled his fingers through his hair. "I think he'd talk to me more if my ASL were better, but . . ."
"Then hire a tutor. I know you care about your brother, and you're obviously worried about him. Make time for improving your sign language. Make time for him. Maybe that's all he really needs." Dr. J leaned forward. "A transplant is a life-changing experience. And you know that thoracic surgery often puts a patient's emotions in flux. Without support from friends and family. . . . Kai needs you now more than ever."
"So this is my fault," Jon said quietly.
Dr. J rolled his eyes, suppressing a sigh. "If Kai is depressed, it's not necessarily your fault, but making time for him will help. Maybe you can convince him to see someone again. Maybe you both should."
Kai shifted his weight on the bench. His legs ached, especially his calves, but without taking his braces off, he couldn't really massage them. He leaned back on his hands, stretching his back, resisting the urge to check the time again. Becca was late, not surprisingly. Kai shut his eyes, breathing slowly, pulling himself away from pain and stress and everything, focusing on the dance of color behind his lids.
"You finish already?"
"Huh? What?" Kai blinked, recovering slowly. It took him a moment to realize Renee was sitting next to him, and was the one who had spoken.
She laughed, musical, lilting, tossing her curls a bit. "The person you were meeting."
"Oh," he said with a slight shake of his head. "No. I'm still waiting." He sighed, cradled his neck. "Might be a no show. Wouldn't be surprised."
Renee smiled at him, and couldn't resist the urge to trace a finger along his jawline, up to his sideburn, shifting some hair off his face. He let his eyes fall closed, leaning into her touch, a soft sigh escaping his lips. Encouraged, she lightly traced his ear, sending a shiver through his body.
"Re," Kai breathed. Her touch managed to make him forget everything.
"Kai," Renee said, dropping her hand. "I think your wait is over." Her tone shifted drastically, bitter.
Kai opened his eyes suddenly, and saw her: she'd changed her hair, straightening and dying it so that it was a honey brown, lying flat against her. She wore chunky heels with a platform on the front, meaning she towered over Kai and Renee on the bench. Her makeup was heavy, but carefully applied, and Kai hardly recognized her.
She smirked, held a hand out for Renee. "Becca Banks," she said simply.
Renee glanced at Kai, as if hoping for an explanation, before accepting the shake. "Renee Poche."
"You're thirty minutes late," Kai spat, feeling the bile rise in his throat.
Kai glared at her, then looked at Renee, forcing his face to soften. "I'm sorry, Re. This should only take a few minutes." He nudged his head toward the center of the quad. "Let's walk and talk," he said to Becca.
"Where are your crutches?" she asked, ducking a bit to see if he'd hidden them under the bench.
Kai held in his sigh, reminding himself that Renee would know all about his MLS within the hour.
"I don't need them," Kai responded flatly, arranging his feet, then bracing his hands on either side of the bench to help push himself up.
Renee watched mutely as Becca sighed and offered her hands to help pull Kai to his feet. Kai glanced at them, then looked up, his expression so searing, Becca should have jumped back. But she didn't even flinch.
"And I don't need you, either," Kai said, pushing himself to his feet. He steadied himself on his right leg, then locked his left, pushing past Becca toward the center of the quad.
Despite what he'd told Becca, Kai moved slowly, the pain in his lower legs making him wish for his crutches, or even better, his chair. Maybe he'd start Renee's education early by taking her back to his car and using his chair the rest of the evening. He'd already ignored Troy's advice to minimize his time on his feet for the week, but he didn't expect to take long with Becca. Either he'd find out quickly what she'd called him for, or he'd tell her off and walk away.
As slow as Kai moved today, Becca was slower, either intentionally--another part of her incessant mind games--or due to her five-inch heels, Kai wasn't sure. Either way, he waited, arms tightly crossed on his chest, until she finally reached him. She was disorientingly tall in those shoes; he only had a couple inches over her, and wondered if that had been intentional, too.
She smiled as she drew closer, walking leg crossed over leg until she stood in front of him. "You've let your hair grow," she said. "And I like the stubble. It suits you." She grinned and reached to tuck a strand of hair behind his ear.
Kai leaned back just enough to duck her touch, although she snagged him anyway, giggling. "What do you want, Becca?"
She pouted. "You called me."
"Only after you called me. What. Do. You. Want?"
She pouted. "You know, you gave me so much shit about Phil, and look who's Mr. Plurality now." She shrugged. "Although this one--Renee, was it?--is cute. I'll give you that."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Kai's nails dug into his palms, his hands balled into tight fists. He wanted to sign, powerful, jerking movements, until his arms ached, but Becca had never learned ASL.
"Don't play dumb. Little Lulu there. And I know about Nikki."
Kai couldn't hide his surprise.
Becca laughed. "Don't look so shocked. That girl fucks everything with two legs and a hard dick. If you hadn't fucked her, I'd worry about you."
"Fuck you," Kai said, unable to resist signing as he spoke. But a small part of his brain niggled. Kai and Nikki had never had any true illusions of exclusivity, and he knew she was experienced, but over the past couple weeks, especially, he’d sensed something. Something special, even if neither of them could qualify it. And yet, when he’d suggested they end it, she hadn’t fought him. His hands dropped to his sides and his stomach lurched.
"So hostile. You used to be so sweet. Did you get a personality transplant, too?"
Kai squeezed his fists so tightly his fingers numbed. He shut his eyes, trying to contain his anger. He wouldn’t let her bait him. Kai felt the soft brush of fingertips against his cheek. He flinched, but soon the hand cradled his jaw, another on his neck, and his body reacted to memory, leaning into the touch before he could catch himself.
The last two months before his transplant were fragmented, days blurring together into a long stretch of dying. Every time he closed his eyes, caving to exhaustion, he thought he might never open them again. And each time he woke, struggling through drugs and pain and oxygen deprivation, he’d hope to see Becca’s face.
He never did.
When Kai looked at Becca again, it was through misted vision, his anger muted, and he had to blink rapidly to still the tears that threatened. “Why--” Kai’s voice broke, and he had to swallow hard and try again. “Why did you leave me?”
Several quiet seconds passed, the only sound the distant roll of thunder and a warm, humid breeze. Kai realized he wasn’t getting an answer, and his anger began to resurface, though a harsh ache he knew wasn’t related to his health formed in his chest.
“What do you want?” Kai finally asked again, his voice nearly carried away on the wind. “Did you ever want me? Or was it just a game?”
Becca grew closer, reached up once more to drag fingers along his jaw. This time he snagged her wrist, pulling her away, his teeth clenching.
She inhaled through her nose, but he couldn’t read her face other than a subtle purse of her lips. “Oh, Kai,” she said with a slight shake of her head, like an adult dismissing a naive child.
“I loved you,” Kai whispered.
In the distance, thunder cracked, the sky grew a shade darker, casting long shadows over them.
He forced himself to turn, to start to walk away, because maybe if he was the one to leave it wouldn’t hurt. Feel less like abandonment and more like a choice. After all, hadn’t that been his reason for meeting her?
Becca moved quickly, suddenly, grabbing his cheeks and kissing him.
Shocked, he stumbled backwards, nearly losing his balance. For a brief second, his mind shut down and his body reacted instinctively, meeting her kiss, those lips that he remembered so well. It should have felt right. Incredible and passionate, a spark coursing from tongue to toe. Instead, he pushed her away, relieved the momentary flare of familiarity quickly dissolved to disgust.
He knew, however much it stirred the anxiety in his gut, that Becca was officially something else he could box up and file away as part of his past to be forgotten.
“Go back to Phil,” Kai said slowly, the words careful and measured, “and never contact me again.” He wiped his mouth with his forearm, searching for Renee, but she was gone. When he scanned the perimeter of the quad, he saw her running off. She'd seen him lean into Becca’s touch, kiss. Fuck. He'd never catch up with her.
For a moment, he stood, frozen, his hand over his mouth, his heart pounding.
"You care about her," Becca said, saddling up alongside him.
Kai resisted the urge to look at her, the words spilling out. "You never loved me.”
Becca didn't answer, and after several minutes, Kai forced himself to turn. He saw Becca striding away, the wind gently blowing her hair. Once again, she'd left him alone, without any answers. But that wasn't true, Kai realized. She'd shown him his past, clearly behind him, and his future. . . . He knew Renee needed to be a part of it.
Now he just had to hope she still wanted that, too.
Continue to September 8, 2000 - Part II ------->
Continue to September 8, 2000 - Part II ------->