September 8, 2000 - Part III
Nikki woke to incessant pounding. At first, brain still heavy with sleep, she thought it might be her neighbors, who apparently believed tossing heavy objects around the apartment was the best kind of foreplay. Soon, she realized it was knocking, coming from her door. A flutter of panic hit her. Mark. He’d showed up at the diner a couple nights ago. Clyde had scared him off, but what if he’d followed her home? Nikki sat on the edge of the bed, trying to ignore the person at her door. Maybe if they thought she wasn’t home, they’d go away. Whoever it was.
The sound shifted, as if the person had stopped using their fist and were now slamming their palm against the door instead. The rhythm skipping, as if they were tired, but not willing to give up yet.
Soon, a voice accompanied the sound. Panicked, desperate, calling her name.
Nikki had never heard Kai sound like that, and it sent a shiver of worry up her spine. She dashed to the door, double-checking the peephole before opening for him.
Kai’s clothes were damp, and he was leaning heavily on the doorframe, his breath ragged, his face pale and . . . crazed. It was a look Nikki remembered from her brief time on the streets, and it terrified her.
“I saw your car. I hoped . . .”
Nikki reluctantly stepped back, warily watching Kai as he limped to her bed, collapsing blindly on it without unlocking his leg.
Nikki hurriedly locked the door, keeping her distance, worry mixed with the hint of fear. Maybe it was just thinking about Mark, but seeing Kai like this made her nervous. Before she could ask why he was here or what the hell was going on, he spoke.
“Kiss me,” he said. It wasn’t a command, but not quite a plea, either, his tone strange, like the rest of his behavior. He reached for her, and she approached, still cautious. “Please.”
As soon as she drew close enough, he pulled her onto his lap and devoured her in a hungry, greedy kiss, his hands clinging to her as if she were his lifeline. She opened for him, letting his tongue probe her mouth. Remembering the night after the party, when he’d fucked her with animalistic desperation. With that recollection, his behavior suddenly seemed more familiar. Had the girl, the one he said he was leaving Nikki for, rejected him? Was that what this was?
He nipped at her lips, encouraging her to bite him back, and she could almost feel the pain emanating off him. Gripping one of his shoulders, she slid her other hand under his shirt, and her fingers met unexpected resistance, dampness. The wrong viscosity for sweat or rain. She pulled back, lifted the fabric, and gasped. Half a dozen long gashes along his side and stomach, some oozing, marred his skin.
“Jesus. You’re bleeding!” She pulled his shirt farther up, seeing more marks. “What the fuck?” she demanded, nearly falling off his lap. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Kai said resolutely, yanking the fabric back down.
“Dammit, Kai. This isn’t nothing.” He didn’t resist when she moved to examine the marks again. “Some of these are deep.” Nikki shifted to rise; she needed to get stuff to clean those wounds. Hopefully none would need stitches. But Kai grabbed her wrists, his grip painful. Nikki struggled, trying to pull away, panic flaring instinctively, fighting him though she knew she had no chance if he wasn’t willing. “Let go,” she said in a strangled voice, her eyes wide.
Kai shook his head, as if he hadn’t realized how firmly he was holding her, releasing her immediately.
Her heart was still pounding in her throat, but before she could move or act further, Kai dissolved, covering his face, mumbling unintelligibly--she wasn’t sure he was even trying to make words--his chest heaving, his breath quickly turning into wheezes. She saw he was biting the heel of his hand, hard, and the terror of earlier quickly surged. Kai was definitely a headcase, but this . . . this was different.
She managed to pull his hands from his face, grabbing his cheeks so she could study his eyes. It seemed crazy, but was her boy next door strung out? For the first time, she got a good look at his face--his eyes were bloodshot, dark circles beneath them, several days’ worth of stubble coating his cheeks--and he looked exhausted.
“When was the last time you slept?”
His eyes were unfocused as he responded. “More than a couple hours?” A hollow, eerie laugh escaped his lips. “Days.” He shuddered, and he looked ready to break down again.
Hesitantly, she eased off his lap, nervous about leaving him alone, but something told her he wasn’t going anywhere. A few minutes later, she returned with a couple pills and a bottle of water, offering them to him insistently.
The panic attack--if that’s what this was--hadn’t completely subsided, and he studied the pills in her hand warily, his shoulders rising and falling in quick, forced breaths.
“Xanax,” she said. “Don’t ask where I got them, just take them.”
At first, she thought his breathing was getting worse, but then she realized he was shaking, his whole body trembling. Fuck.
“Take them,” she said, her voice stern.
He shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said, but even his voice was unsteady.
“You’re so far from fucking fine, Kai, you’re in another dimension,” Nikki said, her eyebrows drawing down sternly over her eyes. “Take. The. Fucking. Pills.”
He reached with a trembling hand and popped the tablets, swallowing them dry, defiantly. Then he wrapped his arms around himself as if he were cold, dropping his head and saying nothing.
She tugged at his shirt, and he let her help him pull it off. He wasn’t exactly calm, but he wasn’t resisting. Then she nudged him back on the bed, and wrapped her arms around him. He was getting blood on her blanket, on her clothes, but she’d worry about that later as he rolled into her embrace, sobbing into her chest. She smoothed his hair, mystified; the meds only took a few minutes to work. She knew he took Valium occasionally for his muscles and hoped he didn’t have too high a resistance. He needed the calming effect of the drug, and perhaps some sleep, too. Plus, it would give her a chance to treat his cuts.
After a few minutes, his body relaxed, and his breathing grew quieter, slower. Thank God, she thought, rolling him off her. It gave her a chance to finally fully see the damage etched into his flesh. Some of the smaller cuts had already begun to scab, but the others still wept a sheen of blood. Dammit.
She spent the next thirty minutes tending to his gashes and pulling off the rest of his clothes. His pants weren’t really wet, and neither were his braces, she was relieved to find, not particularly wanting her apartment to smell like soaked leather. She folded up his jeans, and his wallet tumbled out of the pocket, spilling business cards on the floor. Glancing over to make sure he was still asleep, she scooped them up.
As she prepared to shove them back into his wallet, she noticed the name on the first--Dr. Angela Miller, psychiatry--and frowned. Then she caught another doctor’s name. Dr. Jon Taylor, pulmonology. On the back, written in Kai’s slanted lettering was another number, likely his brother’s cell. She studied Kai, whose nose twitched subtly in his sleep, debating about calling. She didn’t know exactly what was going on, but she was willing to bet those cuts didn’t come from Kai taking a shortcut through a rosebush. Finally, she settled for entering the number into her cell and stretching out alongside Kai to watch him sleep.
The rain had stopped thirty minutes ago, although thunder still rumbled in the distance and the sky remained dark and threatening as Jon made his way over the boggy ground of the cemetery. Tombstones glistened with rainwater, and bouquets of dying flowers lay soggy on some of the graves. In the distance, he saw the end of a funeral, the majority of the mourners heading back toward their cars, and Jon forced himself to look away, heading up a small slope toward the familiar spot.
He smoothed his hand over the granite, sinking down to his knee, ignoring the dampness seeping into his pant leg. He studied the inscription,
Brian Taylor, b. 1948. | Ann Taylor, b. 1951.
d. 30 September 1984.
No farewell words were spoken, no time to say goodbye,
you were gone before we knew it, and only God knows why.
It was ridiculously sentimental, but fitting, even if Jon wasn’t entirely sure he believed in God. He’d purchased the headstone a couple years ago, replacing the cheap plaques that had marked their graves for years. Not that it mattered, he supposed. They were dead. Not even much of their physical bodies remained. But he’d done it, partially because, in the back of his mind, he’d been imagining the stone he’d get for Kai if it came to it, trying to warm himself up for the terrible task he was wearily certain would come to pass. It would be easier to select his brother’s marker, he’d thought, if he’d already done it for their parents.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Jon said, sinking down to both knees. “It’s not like you can hear me.” He sighed, pulled his fingers through his hair, glanced over his shoulder as the final mourners abandoned the coffin, slowly being lowered into the ground.
“I’m worried about Kai,” Jon said, then laughed subtly. “I know you’d probably accuse me of constantly worrying about him.” Jon frowned. The storm had brought a front, dropping the temperature nearly twenty degrees. A gust of wind blew, making Jon shiver. “I can’t lose him now,” he said, nearly pleading. His hands bundled into tight fists.
“I always used to know what to do for him. But this . . .” Jon swallowed, collapsing down onto his legs. “I hated you for so many years, Dad, for not doing more for Mom. For not preventing her from. . . . But I understand now, how you must have felt. Fuck,” Jon said, exasperated. He closed his eyes, ignored the cool wind that reminded him of Kai’s birthday.
Though it had been the height of summer, when temperatures were normally in the 90s, it had been unseasonably cool, a fierce, cold wind blowing as if winter were trying to come months early. It had felt almost like an omen, when Jon had climbed on his bicycle to head to the library, where he’d planned to spend hours absorbing as many books as he could. But the unexpected chill had sent him peddling back home after only a few blocks so he could retrieve a jacket.
Thank God he had.
The memory always seemed to move in slow motion. Jon’s bike, discarded in the front yard, his hand on the door, calling out to his mother about the jacket as he jogged for the closet. But when she didn’t answer, the innate worrier in him had searched the house until he found her.
Sprawled on the kitchen floor, blood oozing fresh from her wrists, the kitchen knife she’d used lying nearby. It was a scene no seven-year-old should ever have to see, an image that still haunted him sometimes when he shut his eyes.
Not yet eight months pregnant, both Ann and Kai had nearly died that day, an emergency C-section and life support managing to keep Jon’s premature baby brother alive, although, at the time, the prognosis wasn’t good. Both mother and son had spent months recovering, while Jon had struggled desperately to understand.
Jon had never been able to look at his mother the same after that, and it was years before the nightmares faded. Maybe their mother’s suicide attempt was the reason Jon had always clung so closely to Kai. Maybe that day was the reason Jon never ignored his anxious intuition.
Jon shook his head, trying to clear the vivid memory--the truth of which Kai was entirely ignorant of--rubbing his eyes with his forearm before rising to his feet. Jon glanced over at the new grave, now covered with a mound of fresh dirt.
“I won’t lose him now.”
Nikki woke a few minutes before Kai, giving her some time to admire him as he slept. The drugs had worked, lulling him into a deep, seemingly dreamless sleep, his body relaxed. When his eyes finally opened, it was slowly, and she saw the haze of the drug lingering in his pupils.
She offered a faint smile, smoothed his hair. “I cleaned you up while you were out,” she said.
Kai touched his side, as if he’d forgotten, and his forehead wrinkled momentarily. It could have been in confusion, it could have been pain, before he pressed the heel of his hand into his eyes, as if to help himself wake up.
Kai sighed, rolled onto his back and pushed himself up. He seemed disoriented, unsettled. It could be the Xanax, Nikki knew, or it could be whatever had made him wig out still lingered. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted.
Nikki nodded, sat up, curling her legs to her side so she could observe him as he folded his legs, hugging them close to his body and resting his chin on his knees. “What happened?” she asked gently, a palm draped on the bridge of his foot.
“Nothing. Everything. Fuck.” He shut his eyes for half a minute before opening them again. “I don’t know.” He frowned, his mouth taunt as if he’d sucked on a particularly sour lemon. “My doctor doesn’t know what’s wrong with my lungs. I’m pretty sure I’m heading toward a bad period for my legs.” Kai’s eyes darted at Nikki momentarily before he added, “And . . . Becca. I met with her this afternoon. Everything went to shit, and . . .” Kai’s voice evaporated.
Nikki waited a moment for him to continue before realizing he was done. She was still trying to formulate what to say when Kai spoke again.
“Sometimes . . .” Nikki noted he hugged himself tighter, but otherwise was perfectly still. “It’s like this fog comes over me, and . . .” He swallowed. “I try to fight it. I workout or I eat pie or I fuck, but . . .” His breath hitched. “I just had to let it out.” He looked at her, his eyes round, deep blue, pleading, hoping she understood. She’d never seen him look so . . . lost before.
Taking a chance, Nikki smoothed her fingers absently over the top of her phoenix tattoo. “When I was a kid . . . I went through some bad shit,” she admitted vaguely, focusing on the intricacies of the design inked into her skin so she wouldn’t have to meet his eyes. “I ran away when I was fifteen and try not to look back, but . . .” She sighed, shrugged weakly. The silence that followed her admission--she’d never talked about her past, not really, not to anyone, even vaguely--made Nikki’s stomach clench. But she’d already spoken the words; she couldn’t take them back now.
When she looked up, she saw Kai was staring off into the distance, clutching his knees so tightly to his chest the cords stood out in his forearms. “I was ten,” he said, barely a whisper, as if speaking to himself. “It was only a few months, and most of the time, I can forget. . . . Pretend.” He swallowed thickly, and for a moment, Nikki saw that scared ten-year-old boy again in the shadow of the large man sitting huddled beside her on the bed. “But then this happens, and I wonder.” He relaxed subtly, turning toward her. He took a deep, shuddering breath. “Thanks. For everything.”
Nikki shrugged, offered a faint smile. “Perfectly fucked up, remember?”
Continue to September 9, 2000 - Part I ------->
Continue to September 9, 2000 - Part I ------->