September 9, 2000 - Part I
Kai sat huddled on the bed, his legs tucked up, arms wrapped around them, resting his chin on his knees and desperately trying to make himself disappear. He shivered violently, though he wasn’t cold despite the thin T-shirt and briefs he wore, and he clutched his legs harder, trying to still his body. His heart thundered loudly in his ears.
A loud crash off to his side--metal hitting sheetrock--made Kai hunch reflexively, although the thrown crutch was several feet away and in no real danger of hitting him as it clattered to the floor.
The woman--his “aunt”--who’d thrown it was muttering, only a few words loud enough for Kai to make out. “. . . Fucking retard . . . not worth . . . monthly check.” She hurled the second crutch, and though Kai tried not to shirk, he did, his heart leaping into his throat. His T-shirt clung to his back with sweat. “Disgusting. . .”
Tears tracked down Kai’s face as she turned toward him. She’d picked up one of the crutches and was wielding it like a bat. She’d never hit him, but then she’d never been this angry before. She was still hurling insults at him, yelling at him to stop crying. He released one arm from its death grip on his legs just long enough to sign, “I’m sorry,” over and over again on his chest.
“Stop with the fucking--” she waved her hands in the air in mock imitation. “You know I don’t know or care what the fuck you’re saying.”
Kai nodded and returned his grip to his legs. His left foot had started spasming terribly, and he tried to shift it under the edge of the bunched up blankets, hoping she wouldn’t see it.
“You’re too fucking quiet,” she murmured, slapping the stick of the crutch against the other palm. “I had thought that was a bonus. Turns out it’s annoying as fuck. I wonder if I hit you with this, if you’d scream?”
Kai’s eyes widened, but he squeezed his legs tighter, burying his face in his knees. The spasms had traveled up into his left calf now.
“I don’t feed you and you still throw up,” she said, disgusted. “And on my fucking shoes.” Kai felt her draw closer, and he trembled again, holding his legs to keep his left from jerking too visibly, desperately trying to shrink into the mattress. “On. My. Fuck. Ing. Shoes,” she repeated, louder and slower this time, the way she usually spoke when talking directly to him, as if he couldn’t understand her otherwise. Kai was used to that. Because he didn't talk and often struggled to walk, most people assumed he wasn't all there.
He was sorry. So sorry. He hadn't meant to throw up. It had just happened. His “aunt” refused to let him eat more than scraps unless he would ask--out loud--for food. But eating so little meant his stomach complained when he tried to fill it. He sobbed harder into his legs. Trembling all over. He’d never made her this mad before.
“Stop. Crying.” She clanged his crutches together.
He jumped in surprise, his arms falling from their grip. Unrestrained, his left leg's spasms became blatant, his right foot joining in. He had to struggle not to cry harder, to take calm, deep breaths, to be good. Instead, his breathing was jagged, wheezy, panicked, and he tried to pull his legs back, but they didn't want to bend, and it hurt so much. His heart was beating so fast he could barely hear over the sound of it thundering in his ears.
“Jesus,” she said, anger and disgust dripping from her words. After a moment of staring at him as he struggled to hide his spasms beneath the bedclothes, she added, “You're paying for those shoes.” She pointed the crutches at him, now, and he wondered if being hit with them would hurt more than his legs or his persistently empty stomach or the bruises from the falls he'd taken often since coming here. It was all his fault, he knew. If he'd been good, his legs wouldn't twitch and he wouldn't have trouble walking and he wouldn't throw up, no matter how sick he felt.
He cringed, bracing himself for the impact. But it never came.
“I can't stand to look at you anymore.” Kai risked a tentative glance up, and saw his "aunt" had tucked his crutches under her arm. “Fuck. Up. My. Cof. Fee. To. Morrow. And. I. Break. These.” She grunted and headed for the door. “And if they fucking take you away, good fucking riddance.”
The door slammed shut violently, and the sound immediately set Kai's entire body shaking again. She'd taken his crutches, which wasn't a new punishment, but she'd never threatened to get rid of him before.
Now he was alone, and that terrified him more than the shouting, the pain in his still-spasming legs or the bruises or from the cuts in his thighs where his braces had dug in, or the threat of being hit, or the roll of his uneasy, empty stomach. First, his mother and father had abandoned him. Then his siblings--even Jon, who he’d thought would never leave him. Then, the people at County House had sent him away, too. If this “aunt” decided she wanted him gone because he wasn’t good enough--though he tried so hard to be--what would happen to him? Where would he go?
Kai clenched his eyes tightly, more tears seeping out, his breathing ragged, his body overwhelmed with trembling that had nothing to do with his MLS. He shifted onto his side, struggling into as close to a fetal position as his legs would allow. He had no more tears, so he slid a hand to his thigh, fingers digging into one of the particularly bad sores. The pain was fierce and immediate, coursing through his leg like fire chasing across a room. But it pulled him away from the bed and the woman and the terror of what would happen when she decided she didn’t want him anymore, either.
Kai woke suddenly, gasping. He struggled to push himself up, his head swimming, his back and hips resisting the movement. His skin was slick with sweat, his hair damp and clinging to his head as if he’d just stepped out of the shower. His pulse raced, and his shoulders heaved with each breath, fighting for air.
The deep fear of his ten-year-old self from his nightmare permeated his body, the panic pulling at him even stronger than it had with the buried-alive dreams of the past week. No matter how hard he worked his chest, he couldn’t seem to fill his new lungs, and that lent its own level of terror.
He struggled to suck in air, his stomach jerking, a faint wheeze echoing on his breath as he reached for his inhaler. Two puffs, as his breathing grew harsher, shallower, faster, desperate. Kai’s terror surged, still fueled by the dream and the horribly familiar feeling of not getting enough air.
He took two more puffs, leaning forward despite his muscles’ complaint, straining with every fiber for as much oxygen as he could muster. The attack seemed to be getting worse, not better, his vision darkening on the edges. His fingers gripped the sheets tightly. A drop of sweat caught and snaked down along his spine. He shivered, still pushing himself to fight, to stay conscious. The medicine would work soon.
His chest burned from the exertion and the barely beginning to heal cuts, and he clenched his eyes closed, focusing. Several panicked minutes passed, but finally Kai felt the vice in his chest relaxing, and he was able to take slower, fuller breaths. He ached everywhere, he was drenched in sweat, still trembling from the adrenaline wearing off, but he was breathing. He was OK.
His shaking hands roamed his body, feeling for his sternal scar, for the old marks on his thighs at the same time his eyes surveyed the dim room. He could see the outline of his wheelchair near the bed, and the faint glint of his crutches propped up along the wall, longer and without the pins of the sticks in his nightmare. It reassured him he was back in reality, in 2000 and not 1988.
Kai couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that viscerally terrified before. Sure, there was always an element of fear when he couldn’t breathe, even though he'd been battling it his entire life. But this was different. For a few fleeting, fearful minutes, Kai had been that terrified ten-year-old again, a boy he hadn’t thought of in nearly a decade, whom he thought he’d buried deep in the recesses of recollection.
Still catching his breath, Kai shifted so he could lean his aching back against the wall, his eyes sliding shut. His chest hummed with residual pain from exertion and the cuts, a hand smoothing his left thigh. That leg was stiff, so much so that if he could trust his knee not to give out randomly when his muscles decided they were done being taunt, he wouldn’t even need his brace.
He could still feel his heartbeat pulsing in his throat, and he shut his eyes, though he knew sleep wouldn’t find him again tonight.
Nikki jumped, but didn’t stop what she was doing.
“You’ve been cleaning that same patch of counter for the last five minutes. What’s going on?” Marge leaned on the surface, staring at Nikki. Nikki could feel it, even though her eyes were cast downward.
After a few minutes, she straightened, glancing around. It wasn’t quite five AM, almost time for shift change, so the diner was quiet and empty except for a regular in the back corner booth nursing his coffee. Nikki sighed heavily, but said nothing.
“If it’s that creep Mark you’re worried about, it’s OK. Clyde threatened to chop off his dick with a cleaver if he ever came back.”
Nikki managed a faint smile.
Marge’s eyebrows knit, and she folded her thick arms over her chest. “So if that’s not what’s bothering you, what’s wrong?”
Nikki shook her head, traced a fingernail into a crack in the counter, gazing out through the dark windows across the diner. “You ever been in love, Marge?”
Marge let out a barking laugh. “Once.”
“What happened?” Nikki asked, resisting the urge to go back to wiping the counter.
Marge sighed and snatched the rag away from Nikki. “He was sent overseas. Never came back.”
Nikki studied Marge’s face, but couldn’t read it. “He was a soldier?”
Marge nodded. “It was a long time ago.” She smiled faintly, as if recalling a pleasant memory despite the man's fate.
Nikki nodded and turned to snag the coffee. She could at least refill the regular’s cup. Maybe convince Marge to let her work an extra half-shift. She could use the money and the distraction. Nikki felt Marge’s hand on her shoulder, and she stiffened for a moment, carafe in hand, coffee sloshing against the sides.
“When are you going to tell Blondie how you feel about him?” Marge asked, her voice soft.
Nikki’s breath caught and she looked up at Marge’s eyes, saw the knowing glint in them.
“Refills,” Nikki said quickly, gesturing with the carafe and ducking away. But her heart was pounding against her chest.
Kai had left her not long after waking up, once he was convinced the drugs were out of his system enough to manage the short drive to his apartment. Nikki had needed to let him go; she was working the graveyard and had to leave anyway, but the look in his eyes had haunted her all night, even though they’d been pretty busy with travelers and drunks and kids just looking for a late burger. It was a look she recognized, one she’s seen in her own eyes often enough when she was younger, and not something she’d ever expected to see in Kai’s blue irises.
As terrifying as it was, all she wanted was to cradle Kai in her arms and hold him until that look went away, to kiss each self-inflicted wound, to fuck him until she lived up to her sign language nickname and help him forget.
Renee hadn’t expected to be angry when she woke up that morning. The night before, she’d cried until she’d run out of tears, then cried some more when her body restocked. She'd woken up with a tear hangover, her head stuffy and heavy, and instead of feeling better, she’d felt worse. Angry at Kai, at herself, for being such an idiot and being sucked in again by a handsome face and a luscious kiss. She already knew he was good at masking his emotions; it wouldn’t be a stretch for someone like that to be a good actor, too.
The happiness he’d supposedly displayed when he saw her yesterday morning could have been feigned. Maybe he even set things up so she’d witness the kiss. Maybe Diane was right, and the other girl--Becca?--had been an ex, and Kai had just been using Renee as a rebound--at best--or as a tool to make Becca jealous so they could get back together.
Renee took her anger out on a stack of boxes she was going through in the storage room, letting out a loud grunt. The tape on the bottom of the box she held split, spilling the contents onto the floor. A quick, reflexive hop was all that kept them from crushing her tiny feet.
“Shit,” she said, sinking to her knees to gather up the books, praying none had gotten damaged. Only her second Saturday on the job and she was already messing things up. She had to stop thinking about Kai. After all, he’d given up calling her after she’d refused to answer yesterday afternoon. If he couldn’t even be bothered to keep trying her cell, how likely was it that she (or their kiss) had meant anything to him?
“Ms. Poche, there’s a customer out front who needs your assistance.”
Renee dipped her head momentarily to mask the fierce blush that spread across her face. “Yes, sir.”
Art chuckled. “I told you: call me Art. And it’s OK. I keep telling that company they don’t use the right tape on their boxes. I’ll get that. You go on up front. He’s waiting for you near the mystery section.”
Renee nodded, pushed herself to her feet and dusted off her knees, striding past Art and back into the store proper. She struggled to compose herself. Her first few days on the job, she’d mostly been getting her feet wet, doing inventory, working in the background. Occasionally ringing up a customer or two on Art’s ancient cash register that seemed to rely more on brute strength to operate than anything else. But this was her first real opportunity to work with a customer, one on one, and especially after the box failure in the storage room, she wanted to do well.
Plastering on her best smile, she strode confidently toward the front of the store. The mystery section occupied an L-shaped niche near where the old part of the building met the addition, and a small table and two wingchairs were set amongst the shelves to give patrons a chance to sit while they perused the wares. Big-box stores kept seating to a minimum; you didn’t want to risk the customer reading without buying, but like everything Art did, his philosophy was different.
Her smile faded instantly when she saw the customer, long legs stretched out, blond head leaned back, eyes closed, a paperback in his lap as if it were a prop. Her anger immediately tried to flare up, but he hadn’t yet noticed her, so she took the opportunity to study him. He looked even more tired and haggard than yesterday, his stubble darker and more visible, the bags beneath his eyes deeper. Clearly, he hadn’t slept.
A flutter of hope tried to surface: maybe his insomnia had to do with guilt or worry over hurting her? The fact that he was here, bright and early on a Saturday, clearly to see her, rather than waiting until Monday, had to mean something, right? She swallowed. Got herself under control again. What had premature excitement done for her yesterday? Better to hold onto the anger and be happily surprised, rather than bitterly crushed.
She cleared her throat a couple times, and he stirred with a jerk, waking suddenly. Apparently, he’d fallen asleep. He blinked a few times, as if trying to fully shake off sleep, but he still seemed weary, a little groggy. He didn’t try to stand; instead, he gestured for her to take the other seat.
She resisted at first, finally settling on the edge of the cushion, primed to leave. She didn’t want him to think she was comfortable. He needed to see she was hurt and angry. “Can I help you?” she asked, voice crisp.
Kai sighed, rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry, Re,” he said, his voice dry and soft.
She frowned, but said nothing else. Inside, she was screaming. She wanted to lean forward and kiss him again, but she forced herself to stay rigid, formal.
He formed his lips into what could have been a pained smile, then nodded. “Probably doesn’t mean much. Fair enough.”
“So explain. Five minutes. I have to get back to work.” A part of Renee cringed inwardly at the cool tone of her words, the harshness of the time limit, but she forced herself to keep her course.
Kai coughed, used his hands to push himself up a bit so he wasn’t reclining. “Uh, this’ll take more than five minutes.”
Renee glared at him, not making things easy.
He nodded, rubbed his leg absently. “Could I meet you . . .” He paused, his eyes sliding shut, his hands closing over one thigh and trying to massage the muscle. Either he was mentally reviewing his calendar, his nervous tic had expanded as he grew more anxious, or his leg hurt.
“Tonight? After work?” he said finally, stilling his hands and reopening his eyes.
He wanted to meet, to talk to her the way they were supposed to have yesterday. She wanted to say yes, again she craved another kiss, but she held it in. “Sort of did that already. Who’s going to kiss you this time?” The bitterness of her words surprised her, but she realized, from the fierce pang in her stomach, that she meant them.
Kai sucked in a breath through his nose. “Probably deserved that.” His shoulders drooped and he leaned back in the chair, looking somehow even more exhausted than before. “Becca and I dated a long time.” He hesitated, found her eyes, and she saw his were open, honest, but weary. “She wasn’t who I thought she was. She’s selfish and manipulative. She knew I . . . liked you, and she wanted to screw with me.”
Renee’s anger melted a bit, but even though Kai’s eyes told her he was telling the truth, she’d been burned already, and knew she should be cautious. “So that kiss . . . ?”
Kai shook his head. “I told her I didn’t want to see or talk to her again. I’m sorry.” Kai pushed himself to his feet with effort, and offered a semblance of a smile. “Tonight, nine o'clock. The sandwich shop again. I’ll answer any questions you may have.”
Continue to September 9, 2000 - Part II ----------->
Continue to September 9, 2000 - Part II ----------->