November 2, 2000

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November 2, 2000
TableofContents
Author’sNote
October28,2000
October31,2000
November2,2000
November3,2000
November4,2000
November5,2000
November8,2000
November11,2000
Flashback:June15-21,1996
November17,2000
November18,2000
November21,2000
November23,2000
Flashback:June26,1996
November24,2000
November25,2000
AppendixI:Faux-WikipediaEntry:FS
AppendixII:Faux-WikipediaEntry:MLS
AppendixIII:OnWritingASL
AppendixIV:ABriefNoteOnDeafCulture
AppendixV:ABriefNoteontheUSFosterCareSystem
AppendixVI:JonesvilleMemorialHospitalFloorGuide
OtherTitlesbyChieAlemán
AboutTheAuthor
2
Copyright©2015byChieAlemán.
Allrightsreserved.Nopartofthispublicationmaybereproduced,distributed,or
transmittedinanyformorbyanymeans,includingphotocopying,recording,orother
electronicormechanicalmethods,withoutthepriorwrittenpermissionofthepublisher,
exceptinthecaseofbriefquotationsembodiedincriticalreviewsandcertainother
noncommercialusespermittedbycopyrightlaw.
CoverDesignCopyright©2015byChieAlemán
SketchofKaibyInkDevil.Allimagesandfontsusedarepartofthepublicdomain.
Thisisaworkoffiction.Names,characters,businesses,places,eventsandincidentsare
eithertheproductsoftheauthor’simaginationorusedinafictitiousmanner.Any
resemblancetoactualpersons,livingordead,oractualeventsispurelycoincidental.
Thisworkisprovidedfreeofcostinebookformasacourtesytomyreaders.Pleasedo
notdisrespectmeormywritingbyusinganyofmymaterialwithoutcontactingmefirst.
ChieAlemán
@ChieAleman
http://chiealeman.com
[email protected]
3
In/Exhale:SeasonTwo
by:ChieAlemán
4
“Witheverybreath,theoldmomentislost;anewmomentarrives.Weexhaleandwe
letgooftheoldmoment.Itislosttous.Indoingso,weletgoofthepersonweusedto
be.Weinhaleandbreatheinthemomentthatisbecoming.Indoingso,wewelcome
thepersonwearebecoming.Werepeattheprocess.Thisismeditation.Thisisrenewal.
Thisislife.”
―LamaSuryaDas,LettingGoOfThePersonYouUsedToBe
5
Author’sNote
Thoseofyouwhoreadmyauthor’snoteforSeasonOneofIn/Exhaleknowthatitisn’t
justastory,butverymuchpartofme.SeasonTwo—especiallythesecondhalf—wasa
reallyroughtimeforbothKaiandme,andIknowitcanbedifficulttoreadatcertain
points.Itwasextremelydifficulttowrite.
I’mafirmbelieverthatI’mnotacreator,butmoreofaninterpreter—these
emotionsandcharactersalreadyexist,andmyroleistobringthemtolifeforyousothat
youcanexperiencethem,too.It’sonereasonI’veneverdonewellwitharigidwriting
stylethatinvolvesalotofcarefulplanning,becauseevenifIcomeupwithadozen
possiblewayssomethingcouldturnout,mycharactersalwaystakemesomewhereelse
—andthestoryisinevitablybetterwhenIfollowtheminsteadoftryingtotooharshly
takethelead.
Thatwassotruewiththisseason.Istruggledforalong,longtimewiththe
directionitwantedtogo,knowinghowharditwouldbeforme,forKai,andformy
readers.ButnomatterhowmuchbothKaiandIstruggledagainstit,Ifinallyrealized
thatIwasn’tbeingtruetomyself,toKai,tothestory,ortoanyofyoubytryingtoholdit
back.
AndsoIwentthere.Iwenttothedarkplaces,tothescaryplaces,totheplaces
thatKaihadbeenavoidingjustasmuchasIhad.And,asIlookback,havingspentalot
oftimeonSeasonThree,Iknowitwastherightdecision.It’simpossibletogrow,to
heal,withoutconfrontingoldwounds,andthoughIwishthingscouldhavebeeneasier,
Iknownowitwastheonlyway.
Whatreallygivesmecouragetokeepwritingthisstory,tokeepsharingthis
story,isthegreatfeedbackI’vegottenfromsomeofyouwhohaveyourowndemonsto
dealwith,andwho,throughreadingthislastseason,haveabletoconfrontthem
yourselvesandstartmovingtowardhealing.
Astheoldclichésays,“It’salwaysdarkestbeforethedawn,”right?
Thispastyearhasbeenahardone,adarkone,butI’mhopefulthere’smuch
morelightinthefuture,forme,forKai,andforallofyou.Thanksforreading.
[email protected],
http://chiealeman.comformoredisability-relatedfictionandmusings,including
informationonUnConventional,myfirstprofessionallypublishednovel,availablenow
fromallmajorebookretailers.
Enjoy,andI’llseeyouinSeasonThree.
-ChieAlemán
Note:Thisseason’sebookincludesalltheoriginalappendices(soyoucanrefreshon
MLSandFS,forexample),alongwithtwonewones.Thefirstnewappendixoffersabit
ofanexplanationoftheUSfostersystem(inspiredbysomeofyourquestionsaboutit)
andthesecondgivesyouafloorplanofJMH,incaseyou’respatiallycuriousastowhich
6
departmentsandsectionsoccupywhichfloorsofthehospital.
7
October28,2000
“Thecoffeereadyyet?”Artcalled,cominginfromthebackroom.
“Almost,”Reneesaid,standingonastepladder,pouringthewaterintothe
machine.
“Good.TheASLstoryhourisatten,andalotofpeoplefromtheDeaf
Communitycomeoutofthewoodwork.Iwanttomakesureeveryonehascoffeeifthey
wantit.”
Reneefinishedandstartedclimbingdown,glancingoveratArt,whowas
pushingalittlerollingcartstackedwithfoldingchairs.“Isthissomethingyoudooften?”
Artsighed.“Iusedtodoitmonthly,butthevolunteerhadherownbabyand
hadtostop.ThisisthefirstmonthinalongtimethatIwasabletofindsomeoneelseto
fillin.”
“I’llgetthisstartedandmeetyouinthechildren’ssectiontogetthosesetup?”
“Soundsgood,”Artsaid,callingoverhisshoulder.“Makesurethereareplenty
ofcupsandsugarandallofthatbeforeyoudo.”
“Ofcourse,si—Art,”Reneesaid.Evenafteracouplemonths,shestill
sometimesslippedinto“sir”insteadoftherequestedfirstname;hergrandparents
mannersweredrilledintoherbrain.
Afewminuteslater,Reneewasjustfinishingsettingupthechairsfortheparentswhen
sheheardthechimeofthefrontdoor,indicatingsomeonewashere.Itwasn’tquitenine
yet,whentheyofficiallyopened,soshejoggedouttothemainareaofthestoreto
investigate.Herheartdidadelightfulskipwhenshesawafamiliarblondfigureina
wheelchairrollin.
Hedidn’tnoticeherimmediately,butwhenhedid,hisfacelitup,andhe
pushedcloser,glidingtoastopjustafootaway.“Morning,”hesaid.
“Morning,”sheechoed,herchestsuddenlytightandhercheeksflushed.“We
don’topenforanothertenminutes,butIsupposeIcanhelpyouifyouneedanything?”
Kaismiled,shookhishead.“IknowI’mearly,butIfiguredthatgivesmetime
topickoutthebooks.”
Renee’seyebrowscrawledtogetherinconfusion.“Books?”
BeforeKaicouldrespond,Artappeared,rushinguptoKaiandpattinghim
enthusiasticallyontheback.“Sogladyoucouldmakeit.Thekidshavereallymissedout
thepastfewmonths.”
KaiandArtshookheartily,butKailaughedatthebewildermentthatwas
evidentonRenee’sface.“I’mguessinghedidn’ttellyouI’mthereplacement.”
Artshrugged.“Itrynottogetinvolved,”hesaid,butheflashedacraftysmileas
hemutteredsomethingaboutdouble-checkingtheregisteranddisappeared,leaving
themalone.
“So...whendidArtaskyouaboutdoingthis?”
Kaipushedtowardthechildren’ssection.“Lastweek.”
“Andyousaidyes?Ithoughtyouwereavoidingherebecauseofme.”
“Iwas.Ididn’ttellhimyesuntilyesterday.”Kaidisappearedintotheshelves,
hisbacktoher,soshecouldn’treadhisexpression.Although,withKai,evenseeinghis
facemaynothavecluedherin.Butsurelyitmeantsomethingifhehadonlyagreedto
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dothisafterreconnectingwithher,right?AndasgoodanactorasKaimaybe,he
couldn’tpossiblyhavefakedthelookonhisfacewhenhefirstsawher.ItmadeRenee
smile.
Thespacebetweenthechildren’s’bookshelveswasalittletighterthan
elsewhereinthestore,andKaipulledhimselfalongslowlybygrippingtheshelveson
eachsideashescannedthetitles.
“Whatareyoulookingfor?”
Hepaused,dippedhisheadbacktolookupather.“Somethingtoreadtothe
kids?”
Shestuckhertongueout.“WhataboutDr.Seuss?Allkidslovehim.”
“Yeah,mostdeafpeoplecan’tappreciaterhymeinthesamewaythathearies
can,”Kaiexplained,pullingoutabookandflippingthroughit.“Icaninterpret,of
course,butI’dratherdosomethingelsethattranslatesbetter.Preferablysomethingthat
willhelpreinforcesignstheyalreadyknowandmaybeteachthemsomenewones.”
“WhataboutAmeliaBedlia?IusedtolovethosewhenIwasakid.”
Kaireplacedthebookhe’dbeenskimmingandpulledhimselffartherdownthe
row.“Idon’tknowthose.Jonreadtomebeforeourparentsdied,butafterthat,my
accesstobookswasmorelimited.”Kaishrugged.
“Oh,it’saboutthismaidwhotakeseverythingliterally,solike,she’stoldto
drawthedrapes,soshetakesasketchpadanddrawsthem.Orshe’stoldtodressthe
chickenfordinner,sosheputsclothesonit.”
Kaireachedtheedgeoftherow,sohewasabletoturnaround.Shecouldn’t
readhisexpression,buthisheadwastiltedtothesideslightly.“Drawthedrapes,”Kai
saidashesigned,makinganoutlineofcurtainsintheairwithhisspreadfingers,
bringingthemout,thendown.Next,heheldhishandsup,flat,palmsout,bringing
themtogethersohisthumbstouched.“Drawthedrapes,”herepeatedinEnglish,this
timeholdinghislefthandoutandguidinghispinkyalonghispalm,asifhewere
scribblingonit.“WordplaylikethatrarelytranslatesfromEnglishtoASL.”
“I’msorry,”Reneesaid,staringatherfootasshetoedthefloor,embarrassed.
“Hey,”hesaid,reachingoutforher,hisfingertipsjusttouchingher;itwas
enoughtosendthatwonderfultinglecoursingthroughher,takingawaysomeofher
embarrassment.“You’reusedtothinkinginEnglish.It’sOK.Just...imagineyouwere
goingtoreadoneofthesebooks,butinFrenchinsteadofthewayit’swritten,in
English.Thinkvisually.Bookswherethere’salotofvisualstorytelling.Orbooksthat
teachcolorsandnumbersandthingslikethat.”
“Youactlikeyou’vedonethisbefore.”
Kaishrugged.“Somethinglikethat.”
ReneeheldinasighatKai’susualnoncommittalresponse,butsheletitbe.
WithKai,itseemedshe’dhavetochooseherbattles,andthiswasn’toneworth
pursuing,atleastnotrightnow.ReneefollowedKaitoanendcap,whereafewnew
releasesweredisplayedalongsidesomeclassics.
“Oh,Iwasobsessedwiththisbook,”Kaisaid,pluckingacopyoftheVelveteen
Rabbitandflippingthroughit.“Jonreadittome.”Kaiturnedafewpages,scanningthe
text.“IusedtowonderifIwasn’t‘Real,’andifthat’swhyIwassobroken,”Kaisaidina
whisper.“Ithought,maybeiftherabbitcouldbecomeReal,Icould,too.”Hesighed,set
thebookinhislap.“Realisn’thowyouaremade,”Kaisaid,asifquoting,hisfingertip
tracingtheoutlineoftherabbitonthecover,“butsomethingthathappenstoyouwhen
you’reloved.Whenyou’reReal,youdon’tmindbeinghurt.OnceyouareReal,youcan’t
9
beugly.”
Reneelaidahandonhisshoulder,relievedwhenheacceptedhertouchby
reachingupandrestinghishandontopofhers,onlyforamomentbeforelookingupat
her.Hiseyeswerefilledwithadepthofemotionshecouldn’tquiteextract,likestaring
atthebackofaweavingandtryingtointerpretthepictureontheotherside.
Shesqueezedaroundhim,joggingdowntheshelvestillshefoundwhatshewas
lookingfor,pullingitoutandreturningtoshowhim.“Whataboutthisone?”
Kaiblinked,shookhishead,asifhe’dbeenlostinthoughtbeforefinally
reachingoutandacceptingthebook.Heflippedthroughit.“TheVeryHungry
Caterpillar.Oh,thisisperfect,Re.”
Shelovedhearinghernameabbreviatedlikethat,sincehewastheonlyone
whoeverdid,anditrolledoffhistongue,deepandopenandbright.“It’sbeautifulto
lookat,andit’sgotalotoflearningstuffinit.Fruitsandcolorsandnumbersandthings
likethat.”
Hesmiledather,tuckedthebooksbetweenhislegstomakesuretheywouldn’t
fall,andwheeledtowardthereadingarea,layingthemoutonthefoldingchairRenee
hadassumedthereaderwasgoingtositin.
“Whatareyoudoing?”
“I’mgoingtoreadthese,soIcanstartthinkingofhowI’llinterpretthem.
EspeciallytheVelveteenRabbit.It’sbeenalongtimeandthatone’sabitmore
complex.”
“Oh.OK.Well,uh,I’llbeinthefrontifyouneedme.”
Kaismiled.“Youshouldwatch,ifyoucan.Youknow,later.”Heblushed
slightly.
Reneenodded,then,atthelastminute,rushedupandstoleaquickkiss.She
wantedtotellhimsomethingcheesy,likehefeltRealtoher,butflusheddeepred
insteadatthemerethought,soheldhertongue.“Uh,goodluckwiththekids.I’lltalkto
youafter?”
Henodded.“MaybeI’llevenconvinceArttoletmestealyouawayforlunch.”
Arthadn’tbeenjokingabouthowtheplacewouldfillupforthestoryhour.Thoughthe
storewaspackedwithparentsandchildren,insteadofthedinofmultipleconversations,
shemerelyheardtheslapofskinagainstskinandtheoccasionalinarticulatesoundas
parentsgossipedeagerlywitheachother,catchingup,andthethunderousfootstepsand
cacklesofchildrenplayingandchasingoneanother.Reneefoundherselfentrancedby
theconversations,howanimatedtheywere,involvingmuchmorethanjusthands.
Afterafewmoments,oneofthemothershelpedsettleallthechildren,andKai
rolledin,takinghisplaceatthefront.SomeofthemotherstookthechairsArtand
Reneehadlaidoutearlier,butthereweremoreadultsthanchairs,somanysimplystood
towardtheback,waiting.Reneehadneverbeenarounddeafpeoplebefore,letaloneso
many,andshefeltabitawkward,notknowingwhattosayordo,soshefoundaspotin
theback,whereshecouldstillsee,anddecidedtotakeupKai’sinvitationtowatch.
Kaibegantosign,hishandsmoving,hisfaceshifting,thatexpressivenessput
tobeautifuluse.
“AreyouRenee?”oneofthemomswhispered,leaningin.“Arttoldmehehad
hiredsomeonenew.”
“YouspeakEnglish,”Reneesaid,halfsurprisedandhalfrelieved.
Thewomanlaughed.“Pam.Myhusband’sdeaf,andsoareourchildren.They
10
weresoexcitedwhenItoldthemASLstoryhourwasback.”
Reneenodded.“What’shesaying?”
“He’sintroducinghimself,invitingthemtoaskquestions.They’reaskingabout
hiswheelchair.”
Reneemimickedthesignshe’dseenKaimake,hishandsoneachside,asifhe
werepushinghiswheels.“Thismeanswheelchair?”Reneeasked.
Pamnodded.“He’sexplainingthatwalkingisdifficultforhim,sohis
wheelchairhelps.Oh,nowhe’saskingthekidswhatcoloritis.”
Reneewatchedasthekidsraisedtheirhands,palmsflat,thumbsfolded,
wavingthemintheair.Kaismiledandnoddedhisfist,repeatedthesign.“Blue?”Renee
asked,alsoimitatingthissign.
Pamnodded,grinning.“Nowhe’saskingthemwhattheirfavoritecolorsare.
Andpointingoutsomeexamplesofeach.That’swonderful;he’sreallyreinforcingwhat
theyknow,engagingthem.Theotherreaderwasn’tlikethatatall.”
Reneecouldn’thelpsmiling.
“Nowhe’sexplaininghe’sgoingtoreadthemtwostories,oneshortoneand
onelongerone.”
ReneewatchedKaishowoffthebook,holdingitupwithonehandandsigning
withtheother,hishandinakindofclawshape,drawingitdownsternlyoverhistorso,
thenfoldinghisleftarmandinchingafingeralongit,hismouthmovingalittle,butno
soundcomingout,hiseyebrowsarchingslightlywhenhedidwhathadtobethesignfor
“caterpillar.”Helookedatthechildren,hiseyebrowsscrunchingtogether,leaning
forward,hisrighthandsplayedonhisside,palmup,fingersslightlycurled,asiftosay,
“huh?”Hepointedtothepictureofthecaterpillaronthecover,thenrepeatedthesign,
thenhelduphisfistandmovedthroughseveralmotionsinvolvinghisfingers,then
pointedtotheprintedword.
“He’steachingthemthesignforcaterpillar,andspellingitoutforthem,too,so
theycanstarttoassociatetheEnglishwordwiththeASLsign.Wonderful.”
Kaiopenedthebook,makingsureeveryonegotachancetoseethefirst
illustration,thenhelaiditfacedowninhislapandbegantellingthestory.Reneefound
himadelighttowatch;hewassoexpressive,hissigningsuchthatshecouldalmost
understandhim(knowingthestoryhelped,too).Occasionally,he’dpausetoshowthem
thepicture,explainingasignand/orspellingitout,ashehadwith“caterpillar.”Apple,
strawberries,oranges,etc.Kaiusedhisentireupperbody,hands,arms,andfacetotell
thestory.EventhoughReneecouldn’tcompletelyfolloweverything,itwaswonderfulto
watch.Hewashavingfun,andthekidswere,too,andtheywerelearningintheprocess.
Reneefoundthepartwherethecaterpillareatsallkindsofstrangethings
particularlyentertaining,asKaiwentthroughthedifferentfoods,excitedandeagerly
“devouring”thecake,frowningatthepickle,makinglittleasidestopointoutwhatshe
assumedmeanthe“loved”or“hated”aparticularfood,thenapparentlyaskingthekids
fortheirfavorites,seeingachorusofsignsshecouldn’tidentify,butshecouldseethe
othermomslookingonapprovingly.
Shehadtocupherhandoverhermouthwhenshebegantolaughashesigned
outthestomachachethecaterpillargotfromeatingallofthat,handsonhisstomach,an
exaggeratedfrownonhisface.ShenoticedKairaisedasinglebrowandmethereyesfor
amicroscopicinstant,butotherwisecontinuedwiththestory.Shehadtobiteherlip
againwhenheshowedhowthecaterpillarwasn’tlittleanymore,itwasbigandfat,
gesturingandpuffingouthischeeks,evenchangingthesignfor“caterpillar”toindicate
11
it,spreadingouthispinkieandthumbasheinchedhisindexfingerupalonghisarm.
Pamlaughed,too,whenshesawhowKaiexplainedwhatacocoonwas,illustratingthe
caterpillarwrappinghimselfup,thenpointingtothepictureinthebook,thenspelling
outtheword.
Finally,heendedwiththebeautifulbutterflyflyingaway.Reneeobservedhow
thechildrenandtheparentsallraisedtheirhandsandshookthem.“It’swhatwedo
insteadofclapping,”Pamtoldher.“He’samazing.IhopeArtcanconvincehimtodo
thisagain.”
Reneesmiled,caughtKai’seyes.Hewinkedatherbeforelookingbackatthe
kids,askingthemsomething,perhapsaboutthebook,thatReneecouldn’tquitemake
out.Butshewantedto.She’dprobablyneverlearntosignasnaturallyashedid,butshe
wantedtoatleastlearnsomeofthebasics.
Deafieswerenotoriousforprotractedgoodbyes—withavisuallanguagelikeASL,anda
smallcommunity,Deafpeopledidn’tliketoturndownthechancetotalktoeachother
facetoface.Nevertheless,Kaiwassurprised,whenhereenteredthebookstore,tofind
someofthefamiliesfromthereadingearlierthatdaystillbustlingaround,andhisheart
beatalittlefasteralthougheverythinghadgonewellsofar.He’dworried,initially,how
theDeafieswouldreceivehim,anditwastheprimaryreasonhe’davoidedthe
Communitythepastfewyears.Hehadbeenanxiousabouttheinevitablequestions—
onesthatsometimescameevenbeforeintroductionsweremade—aboutwherehe
learnedtosignorwherehewenttoschool.Orifhewasdeaforhearing.Theywere
questionseveryDeafieaskedsomeonetheymetforthefirsttime,butforKai,they
weren’teasy,simpleanswers.He’dworriedaboutalienatinghimselfagainifhe
answeredtruthfully,buthedidn’twanttogetcaughtinalie,either.Yes,he’dstayed
awayfromtheCommunityforyears,andhe’dchangedalotinthattime,butJonesville
wasasmalltown,andtheDeafCommunity,evensmaller.Hislieswouldcatchupwith
himandperhapsbeworsethanthetruth.
Fortunately,mostofthemomshadbeentoobusycollectingchildrentodo
morethansignaquick,single-handed“AMAZING”or“THANK-YOU”astheyyanked
theirkidtowardtheexits.Thefewwhohadlingeredhadacceptedthetruth:thathe
wenttoschoolatJSDuntileighthgrade,atwhichpoint,becausehewasanorphan,the
stateforcedhimtogotothehearinghighschool.Insteadofmorequestions,thatmerely
elicitedachorusofsympathy:Thatmusthavebeenawful.Howcouldtheydothat?
Theyforcedyouintospeechtherapy?etc.,etc.Anditwasthatsimple.Maybehe’d
impressedthemwithhissigningenoughtheyassumedhehadtobedeaf?Andwhy
wouldaheariegotoadeafschool?Still,itwassurprisinglyrelievingtohavepassedthat
barrier.
Reneewasattheregister,smilingandalittleharried,ringingupawomanup
whosechildrenwereracingaroundoneofthedisplaytables,playingtag.
Afewotherwomenwereinline,andwhentheysawhim,theysmiledand
wavedandthankedhimagain,insign,forthewonderfulreading,tellinghimhowmuch
theirchildrenenjoyeditandhowtheyhopedtoseehimnextmonth.Anotherone,Pam,
remindedhimabouttheHalloweenpartyattheschoolforthedeafTuesday,sayingshe
hopedhe’dgo.Kaiforcedasmilethatdidn’tlookfakeandsigneditdependedon
whetherhisTalesfromtheCripcostumecameinornot,overactingthepartofacorpse,
eyesrolledback,tonguehangingout.Heknewshewashearingandwouldappreciate
thepun,thoughgimpjokesoftenmadepeopleuncomfortable.Shefrozeforamoment,
12
fingerspelled“C-R-I-P”backtohim,double-checkingshe’dunderstoodhim.
“JOKE,”Kaisigned.“I’llthinkaboutit.”
Kaididn’tseePam’sresponse,becausehecaughtablurofmovementoutofthe
cornerofhiseye,reachingoutreflexivelybeforehecouldtrulyprocesswhathappened.
OneofthekidshadnearlyrunintoKai’schair,stoppedonlybyKai’sfirmgrip.
“Becareful,”Kaisignedwithonehand,beforelettingthekidgo.
Theboystoodthereforamoment,gaping.“You’rethestoryman.”
Kaichuckled.“Yes.”
“Areyourlegsreallybroken?”
Theotherkidshadrealizedthegamehadstoppedandhadwanderedover,
standingaroundsotheycouldseetheconversation.
“Theydon’tworkright.ButIgettousethiscoolwheelchair.”
Therewasaflutterofhands,allwantingtotouchit.Kailaughedandnodded,
thoughhegrippedhispushrims,keepinghiswheelsimmobiletotrytominimizethe
chanceofsmallfingersaccidentallygettingpinched.
“Whenwillyoubefixed?”thefirstboysigned.
“Idon’tknow.Maybesomeday,”Kaisaid.
Bynow,Pam,apparentlythemotherofafewofthekids,wanderedoverand
apologized,stillalittleflusteredbyKai’searlierjoke,butKaiwavedheroff.
“TUESDAY,MAYBE,”Kaisigned.“Ifnot,nextmonth,”hesaid,asaformof
goodbye,addingawavetothechildrenastheywereherdedaway.Theyoungquestionaskerkeptglancingback,finallysmilingwhenKaiwavedtohimspecifically.
Afewmomentslater,andthestorewasempty.Reneewanderedovertohim,
lookingtired.Shespottedthebaginhislap.“Isthatlunch?I’mstarving.”
ItfeltalittlejarringtohearEnglishafterhissignedconversations,andhehad
toremembertorespondverbally.“Yes.Nancy’schickensalad?”
Reneepracticallyleaptonhim,wrappingherarmsaroundhisneckand
squeezing.“Icouldmarryyourightnow.”Shepulledback,seeminglynotevenrealizing
whatshe’dsaid,andadded,“Letmejustdouble-checkwithArtthatIcantakeabreak.”
Kaicouldn’thelpchucklingashewatchedherskipoff,hercurlsbouncing.
Thoughhe’dbeenfuriouswithJoninitially,hejusthadtorememberthewayhefelt
everytimehekissedher:complete,grounded,andnooneelse,nothingelsemattered
suddenly.Reneewasacuriousperson,hecouldtellthatmuch,butsheneverseemedto
pushhimtoohard.NotlikeBecca,whowasconstantlyprobinganddemandingand
insisting.Evenwhenheknewhewasn’tfullyincontrol,whenhewaswithRenee,he
didn’tfeelpanicky.Knowingshe’dbethere—ironically—wastheonlyreasonhe’dfinally
agreedtohelpArtout.Andnowthathe’ddoneit,seeingthelookonherfaceasshe
watchedhimsign....
Kairealized...hecouldlovethisgirl.
“Thebreakroom:theheightofromance,”Reneejokedasshelaidouttheirfood.
Kaipushedachairoutofhiswaysohecouldpullintothetableandhelp
Renee.“I’mnotmuchfortraditionalromanticgestures.Whybetritewhenyoucanbe
personal?Besides,I’mdeathlyallergictopollen.”
“IsthatyourwayoftellingmeI’llnevergetflowersfromyou?”
“Realones.Unlessyoudon’twanttoseemeforacoupleweeksafterward.”
Reneelaughedassheunwrappedhersandwich.“Youcouldn’ttakean
antihistamineandlivewithwateryeyestomakemehappy?”
13
Hesmiledfaintly,rubbedhischestabsently.Honestly,hedidn’tknowhowhe’d
reactwithhisnewlungs.Before,asingleflowercouldpotentiallykillhim.Butnow?He
knewdustdidn’taffecthimasbadlyasbefore,thoughthatcouldalsobenervesstill
healing;hiscoughresponsewasn’twhatitusedtobe.
“Ifthatwasallitwas,IcouldandIwould.”Hisheartbegantorace,andhehad
tohidehishandsunderthetableashefeltthemstarttotremble.No,please,notnow.
Thehydroxyzinehe’dtakenthatmorningasaprecautionhadprobablywornoff.He
knewheneededtotellherabouthistransplant,hisFS,but....Hehadtoredirecthis
thoughtsbeforethisbubbleofanxietyturnedintoafull-blownpanicattack.That’sallhe
needed,withReneeandherfront-rowseattothecrazyshow.
Butthensheleanedacrossthetabletolayahandonhisarm,justfora
moment,anditwaslikeawaveofcalmwashedoverhim.Hetookafewbreaths,looked
upather.
“Asthma?”
Kaiswallowed.“Somethinglikethat.Itoldyoutherewasmorethanthechair.”
“Flowersareoverratedanyway,”shesaid,castingitoffasifitgenuinelyweren’t
abigdeal.ItmadeKaismiledespitehimself,andthoughhestillfeltaflurryofanxiety
lingeringinhisstomach,Renee’sopen,honest,carefreeacceptancemadehimfeel
better.“What’snotoverratedisyou.Youwerefantastic.”
Kaishrugged,gratefulhishandswerestillsohecouldopenhissoupwithout
spillingiteverywhere.
“Really.Imean,Iknowthemomsweregushingoveryou,evenifIcouldn’t
understandwhattheyweresaying.Andoneofthehearingmomstoldmeyouwerea
milliontimesbetterthanthelastreader.”
Kaistaredathissoup,stirringitwithhisplasticspoonasawaytoavoidher
eyes.“Ofcoursethey’regoingtotellmeI’mwonderful.ThelasttimeArtwasabletodo
thiswas...four?five?monthsago.They’lltellmeI’mJesusreincarnatedifitmeans
they’llhaveoneSaturdaymorningamonththeydon’thavetobeathomewiththeir
childrenrunningaround,drivingthemcrazy.”
Resighed.“That’sawfullycynical.”
Kaishrugged.Tastedsomesoup.Ithadgottencold,butheswallowedit
anyway.
“Doyouthink...doyouthinkIcouldlearn?”
Kaifinallylookedup.“Learnwhat?”
“Signlanguage,”Reneesaid,smiling,asifshe’dwantedtoadd“silly”totheend
ofhersentence.Shewassobeautifullyhappyallthetime.Itwouldhavebeenannoying
ifhedidn’tlovethatabouthersomuch.
“Mosthearieswhosaytheywanttolearnpickupacouplesigns.”He
demonstratedthe“Iloveyou”sign.“Thatdoesn’tmeanwhatyouthinkitdoes,bythe
way.”Heshruggedagain.“Andthat’sit.Maybetheylearnabitmore,buttheystill
basicallysignEnglishwithoutcaringaboutASLgrammar,usage,etc.Orlearning
anythingaboutDeafculture.”
Reneealmostliterallydeflated,andKairememberedtheothernightinhiscar,
whenhisangerhadpouredthroughdespitehisbesteffortstocontainit,feeling,again,
likeanasshole.Herewasawomanwhocalmedhisanxiety,whotookhisescalating
amountofcrazyinstride,whoapparentlywantedtolearnASL,andyethehadthe
portcullisdownandthesoldiersonthebarricades,readytofire.
Hedecidedmaybeitwastimetoturndownhiscynicmeterafewnotches.“Do
14
youknowthealphabet?”
Reneeshookherhead.
Kailaidhisspoondown.“OK.Watch.I’mgoingtodoitfast,first,thenslow
downandyoucandoitwithme.”Kaiblewthroughthealphabet,correctingherform
whenshedidn’tgetitquiteright,remindinghertorelaxherhand—theironyofhis
tellingsomeoneelsetorelaxnotescapinghim—untilshe’dgottenthehangofit,moreor
less.“Practiceuntilyoucandoitwithoutthinking,andhopefullybeabletoatleastread
whensomeonefingerspellstheirname.”
“Domine.Myname.”
Kaismiled,thenfingerspelledherfirstandlastname,showingherthesigns
fornameandlastname.Simplifyingthingsforherbydouble-signingthe“E’s”in
“Renee”insteadofsliding.
“Nowyours.”
Kaifelthissmilegrowing;Reneewasleanedforwardonthetable,hereyes
sparklinglikealittlekid’s,engaged,excited,andsoincrediblykissable.Without
thinking,Kairapidlyfingerspelledhisfirstandlastname.
“Whoa.IfIdidn’tknowwhatyouweredoing,I’dnevergetthat.”
Kaichuckled.“Mynameisreallyeasytofingerspellquickly,especiallymyfirst
name;thelettersallflowintoeachother.K-A-I.F-O-X.”
Shesquintedathim,asifassessinghim,beforesittingbackandtakingafew
bitesofhersandwich.Onceshe’dswallowed,sheasked,“Ifyou’redescribingsomeone,
doyoureallydo‘fat’likeyoudidinthestory?”Reneedemonstrated,lookingadorable,
hercheekspuffedoutandherhandsspreadwideathersides.“Orwasthatjustforthe
kids?”
“Yesandno.ASLisavisuallanguage.WhereEnglishwoulduseamodifierlike
‘really’or‘very,’weconveyitbythewaywesignawordandinourfacialexpressions.So,
like,‘reallytall’wouldlooklikethis,”hesaid,signingbyholdinghisrighthanduphigh
abovehishead,hishandflat,shakingitabittoemphasizetheheight,alsoexpressingit
onhisface,hismouthopeningtoemphasizeextremeheight.“And‘reallyshort’would
bethesame,onlydownhere,”hesaid,usingthesamegesturebutattableheight,his
facialexpressionshiftingagain.“Thatcanalsomean‘little’asin,‘whenIwaslittle,’but.
..you’lllearnASLisheavilycontext-based.”
Sheobservedhimintentlythewholetime;hecouldalmostseeherbrain
working,absorbingtheinformationgreedilyasshenibbledhersandwich.“Whatabout
colors.IpickedupafewfromwatchingyoureadTheVeryHungryCaterpillar,but...”
“Sure.COLORS,”Kaisaid,holdinghisspreadhandabovehismouth,wiggling
hisfingersslightly.Thenhesignedthroughthebasicrainbow:red,orange,yellow,
green,blue,purple,pink,white,black,gray,brown.First,todemonstrate,thenagain,
slower,lettinghermimichim,correctingherwhennecessary.
Shepickedupquickly,andKaibegantohopemaybesheactuallywouldlearn,
atleastenoughforbasicconversation.Hisheartdidafunnytangoinhischestatthe
thoughtofbeingwithawomanhecouldsignwith.Evenifhehadtoslowdown,evenif
itwasn’tassmoothasitwouldbewithanativesigner....
“So,ifIwantedtodescribeyou,Imightsay,WOMAN,VERY-SHORT,THIN,
HAIRBLACKCURLY,EYESGREEN.”Kaisignedslowly,speakingeachwordsoshe
couldclearlysee.
“HAIR?”Reneeasked,mimickinghim,herfingersonherheadasifshewere
pickingupapieceofhair.
15
Kainoddedhisfist.“YES.”
“OK,doyou!”
Kaicouldn’thelpchucklingatherchildlikeexuberance.“Well,Icouldcheat
andjustsay,‘manwheelchair,’”Kaisaidwithoutsigning.“Butyouwouldn’tlearn,would
you?MANVERY-TALL,WHEELCHAIR,HAIRYELLOW!,EYESBLUE!”
Reneelaughedwhenhesignedthecolors,quickflicksofhiswristandhiseyes
buggingout.“That’sthe‘very’youweretalkingaboutbefore,isn’tit?”
Kainodded,smiling.“There’sasignforblond,but‘hairyellow’works.”
“OK,onemorequestion,”Reneesaid,shiftinginherseat.“Inoticedyoudid
thisafewtimesduringthereading.”Sheheldherhandupononesideinarelaxedclaw,
palmup.“Itlookedlike‘what’or‘huh’?”
“Yes.”Hedrummedhisfingersonthetable,thinking.“IfIwantedtoaskyou
yourname,I’ddoitlikethis.YOUNAMEWHAT?”Hepointedtohiseyebrows.“My
eyebrows,andthewayIleanforward,tellyouI’maskingaquestion.Thinkofitkindof
liketheASLequivalentofaquestionmark,ortheinflectionyoudoinspokenEnglish:
whatisyourname?”Kaisaid,addingabitextrainflectiontotheendofthesentenceto
illustratehispoint.“IfIwereaskingayesornoquestion,you’dknowbecausemybrows
wouldbehigher,”Kaisaid,demonstrating,makingReneelaugh.“IfIaskyousomething
likethat,youknowallyouneedtosayis‘yes’or‘no.’”Kaidemonstratedthesignsforyes
andnointurn.“Thoughit’spolitetosignmorethanthat,toshowyou’reengagedinthe
conversation.”Heshrugged.“ASLhasalotofbody-languageandfacial-expression
elementsthatindicategrammar.”
Renee’seyeswidened.“Soundssocomplicated.”
Kaishrugged.“It’sreallynot.It’sprettyintuitive,forthemostpart.Itjust
seemsthatwayonceyoustartbreakingitdown.Englishismuch,muchmore
complicated.”Hestareddownathissoup,realizingheneededtoeatmoreofitbutnot
reallywantingto.“Butthat’sonereasonmosthearingpeopleneverreallylearntosign
well.TheykeeptryingtothinkinEnglishinsteadofrememberingASLisitsown
languagewithitsownrules,andit’svisual.”
Reneestudiedhimawhile,anelbowonthetable,herhandsupportingher
head.Finally,sheasked,“DoyouthinkIcouldlearn?Reallylearn?”
“LEARN.”Kaidemonstratedthesignforlearn,hislefthandflat,hisright
pullingfromittowardhishead.“Yes.Myhearingfriendinhighschoollearnedfromme,
thoughhetookclasseslatertoimprovehisfluency.He’sacertifiedinterpreternow,so
it’sdefinitelypossible.”
“Howdoyousay‘want’?”
Kaidemonstrated,hispalmsup,asifgrabbingsomethingandpullingittoward
him.
“Ireallywanttolearn,”Reneesigned,doingherbesttoputheremphasison
the‘want’toshowhowmuchshewantedtolearn.
AsmileblossomedonKai’sfaceasadelightfulwarmfeelingfilledhim,seeing
her,afteronlyafewminutes,putafullsentencetogether.
Yeah,hecoulddefinitelylovethisgirl.
“WhatareyoudoingHalloween?”Kaiblurted.
Reneetiltedherhead.“Uh,Dianewantsmetogotothispartythevisualart
studentsarethrowing,but...”Sheshrugged.
Kaiswallowed,reachedforherhands.Hisheartwaspoundinginhischest,but
hedecidednottobackdown.“Ivolunteeredtotakesomeofthekidsfromthegroup
16
homewhereIgrewuptrick-or-treatingatthehospital.Wouldyou...”Heswallowed,
bithislip.“Wantto...comewithme?”
Herfacetransformedintoconfusionandhesitation,pullingherhandsaway;it
madehismostlyemptystomachknotandswirl,hispulseathisthroatracingsofastit
hadtobevisible.“Yes,”shesaid,signingandspeaking,smilingshylybeforeretakinghis
hands.“Ifyoureallywantmethere.”
Didhe?Wantherthere?HisfirsttimebacktoCountyHouseinyears,andhe
wasgoingtobringReneewithhim?“Yes.”Hesmiled,feltsomeofhisanxietyfading
awayagainasherthumbsstrokedthetopsofhisfingers.“Yes.Yes.”
Jonwasjustfinishingasandwichandsomecoffeewhenheheardthedooropen,then
close,andtheslightcreakofKai’schairasherolledin.Jonlookedup,wonderingifhe’d
getthesilenttreatmentfromhisbrother—who’dbeenavoidingorignoringhimthepast
coupledays.(Notthatitwasdifficult,sinceJonhadbeenworkingnightsmostofthe
week.)
Kaipushedtothetable,glidingintohisusualspotacrossfromhisbrother.He
signedhello,thendrewhispinkyinakindofsidewaysmirror-imageofa“J”onhis
mouth,likehewasdrawingalopsidedfrown.Jon’soldnamesignthatKaihadgivenhim
whenhewaslittle,becauseJonrarelysmiledandalwayslookedworried.Itmayhave
beennearlytwentyyearssinceKaihadgivenhisbrotherthenickname,butitwasstill
prettytruetolife.InDeafculture,youneverusedaperson’snamesigntoaddressthem
(yousimplypointedtoindicatewherethepersonwasorwherethey’dbeenifthey’dleft
theroom),butKaisometimesdiditteasinglytoemphasizehowseriousJonwasallthe
time.
Kaismiled,leanedforwardwithhiselbowsonthetable,lookingamusinglylike
apuppywaitingforhismastertonoticehimsotheycouldgototheparkandplayfetch.
DidthismeanKaiwastalkingtohim?“IguesseverythingatLostApplewent
well?”
Kaileanedbacksohecouldsign.“Reneewantstolearntosign.Reallylearn.I
taughthersomebasics.Shelearnsreallyfast.”
KaisignedalmosttoorapidlyforJontocatchit,buthisworkwithMeganover
thepastfewweekshadapparentlyhelped,andhewasabletogleanthemeaningdespite
Kai’sexcited,harriedsigning.
“Thegirlfromtheothernight?”Jondecidedtokeepthingsvagueincasethat
wouldclamKaiupagain,andhewasn’t100%surehowtosignit.
Kainodded.“I’mstillmadatyouforsendinghertoPT,butI’malsogladyou
did,sowe’llcallitawash.Deal?”
“Deal.”Jonfinishedhiscoffee,checkedhiswatch.Hestillhadafewminutes
beforeheneededtoheadin,andthiswashisfirsttimeinawhilethatKaireallyfeltlike
talkingandwasn’tgivinghimmonosyllabicorsingle-signanswers.“Sothisgirl...”
“She’samazing.She’sjustso...alive.Happy.”Kaisignedwithenthusiasm,
hisexcitementcomingthroughwiththeintensityofhissigns,thegleaminhiseyethat
Jonhadneverseenbefore.“Shemakesmefeel...calm.LikeIcandonowrong.She
doesn’tpushmeorjudgemeorlookatme...weird.”Kaiseemedtobechoosinghis
signscarefully,asifhealmostcouldn’tbelievewhathewassaying.“Iinvitedhertogo
withmetoCHforHalloween.”
Jonleanedforward,hiseyebrowsraised,hisindexfingerdrawingoutfromhis
mouthtowardKai.“Really?!”
17
Kaiduckedhishead,noddedhisfist.
“That’sreallygreat,Kai.”
“Ialso...maygotoDeafHalloween.It’sattheschool....”
“Wait.”Jonleanedforward,asiftoseeKaibetter,hiseyesnarrowed.“You
endedyourboycottofLostApple,madeyourselfthecenterofaDeafevent,invited
ReneetogotoCountyHousewithyou,andyou’replanningongoingtoDeafHalloween.
AfteryearsofstayingawayfromtheCommunity.Whoareyou,andwhathaveyoudone
withmylittlebrother?”
Kaigrippedtheedgeofthetable,usedittopushandpullhimselfawayand
backtowarditoverandover.“Artneededhelp.Dr.MillersaysIneedtoconfrontmy
past,andIgotexcitedandinvitedRenee.Andsigningtodaymademerememberhow
muchImissit.Makinganappearanceatthepartywon’tkillme.”
Jonpushedhimselftohisfeet,carryinghisplateandmugwithhimtothe
kitchen.“AndthishasnothingtodowithRenee.”JonlookedoveratKaiasherinsedthe
itemsinthesink.
Kaishrugged,thehintofasmileplayingathislips.Herotatedback,picking
hiscastersupjustafewinchesoffthefloor,carefullybalancinginplaceonhisrear
wheels.“YouworkingHalloweennight?”
JonnoticedKai’sartfuldodge,butsaidnothing,fishingouthismeteranda
cleanlancetfromadrawerandquicklyprickinghisfingerandtestinghisblood.“Yeah.I
gettobetheconsultfortheER,too.Yay.”Jonlefthismeteronthetableandgrabbeda
vialofinsulinfromthefridge.HeheardtheclackofKai’scastershittingtheground.
“Basically,IhavetheschedulefromhelluntilmidNovember,plusI’mon-call
Thanksgiving.”Hefilledasyringe,stillwaitingforthemeter.
Kaitwisted,Jonheardazip.Somerustling.Thenhisbrotherturnedback
around,offeringJonabookhe’dobviouslytakenoutofhisbag.Jonaccepteditjustas
hismeterbeeped,soheleftitonthecounterwhilehequicklyinjectedhimself.
Aftertossingtheusedmaterialsinthesharpsbinhekeptforthepurposeand
returninghisinsulintothefridge,heexaminedthebookclosely,noticingKaiseemedto
besilentlywaitingforJon’sreaction.“Wow.TheVelveteenRabbit.”Jonflippedthrough
thebook,shakinghishead.“Ididn’tthinkyouremembered.”
JustbeforeThanksgiving,1983,Jonhadwokeninthemiddleofthenightto
findKaiunconscious,feverish,andbarelybreathing.ItwasthesickestKaihadbeen
sincehewasababy.Kaispentnearlyamonthinthehospital,mostofthetimesedated
andonaventilator,andeventhoughJonhadonlybeen13,he’dunderstoodhowserious
itwas.TheirfatherhadbeenworkingnearlysevendaysaweektopayKai’smedical
bills,andtheirmotherhadbeenbarelykeepingherselftogether,hardlymanagingto
takecareofthree-year-oldSara.
SoitwasJonwhosatwithKai—gratefulKai’snursesallowedhimtobealone
withhisbrotherdespitehisage—wheneverhewasn’tinschool,readingaloudtohimfor
hours,likeInezwouldtoMartin,notevensureifKaicouldhearhimorknewhewas
there,butneedingtodosomething.Tobethere.AndwhenKaigotalittlebetter,he’d
askJontoreadhimthe“bunnybook.”Everytime.Jonnearlyhaditmemorizedbythe
timeNewYear’scamearound.
WasthisKai’swayofsaying,withoutwordsorsigns,Thankyouforalways
beingthere?
“IkepthopingthefairywouldcomeandmakemeReal,”Kaisaid,notmeeting
hisbrother’seyes,tracingascratchinoneofthecabinetswithhisthumbnail.“Because
18
thenIcouldbelikeotherkids.LikeyouandSara.AndMomandDadwouldloveme.”
“Kai—”
“It’sfine,Jon,”Kaisaid,doinga180andheadingoutofthekitchen.“Ijust
thoughtyoumightlikeacopy.”
Jonracedaround,caughtKaibeforehecouldescapeintothehallway,standing
inthedoorwaytokeepKai’sattentionandblockhisflight.HeignoredtheglareKaigave
him,whichcouldhaveleveledasmallcontinent.“Isthatwhyyouhadmereadittoyou
overandoverandover?”
Kaishrugged.“Aren’tyougoingtobelateforwork?”
“Ihavetime.Comeoverhere.Don’tmakemepushyou.”
RedhadcreptupKai’sneck,buthefollowedJontothelivingroom,saying
nothingwhenJonperchedontheedgeofthesofa,lookingintentlyathim.Kaiwasmad
now,butangrywasbetterthanshutdown.Kaihatedtobepushed—physicallyand
emotionally—butifJonhadlearnedanythingthepastfewweeks,itwasthatsometimes,
that’sexactlywhathisbrotherneeded.
“Ourmotherhadproblems,OK?Itmeantshewasn’talwaysthereforus,asa
mom,thewayweneeded.AnditwaslikeDadwaspracticallyasingleparentoffour
children,Momincluded.Buthelovedyou.Hewassoproudofyou.Always.”
KaiblinkedatJon,buthisangerhadfaded.He’dslippedonthatmask,that
infuriatingaffectationthatmadeitimpossibletoknowwhathewasthinking.
“DadwastheonewhobelievedmewhenIinsistedyouweren’tretarded.He
wastheonewhohelpedmefighttogetyouintothepreschoolprogramattheschoolfor
thedeafsoyoucouldlearnASL.”Jonpushedhisfingersthroughhishair,wonderingif
heshouldcontinue.“Hegaveyouthisgiantlollipopthefirstdayyouwalkedonyour
own,athome.Itwassobig,itmadeyouloseyourbalance,andyoufell.Youcried,
becauseyouthoughthe’dtakeitawayfromyouforfalling.”Jonsmiledfaintly,
rememberingKai,asatoddler,soproudofhimselfoncehe’dfinallymasteredhisfirst
pairofbraces,supportinghimselfwithawheeledwalkertohelpwithhisbalance.“But
hescoopedyouupandkissedawayyourtears,andhuggedyoutight,andthenyou
sharedthecandytogether.”
Kai’smaskdropped,lookingabitshellshocked.“I...Idon’trememberthat,”
Kaisaid,shiftingtoASL.
“Howcouldyou?Youweren’teventhree.”
“Younever...talkaboutthem.Aboutme,whenIwaslittle,before...”Kai
shookhishead.“Idon’tremember...them.”
“SoyouremembermereadingTheVelveteenRabbittoyou,inthehospital,
whenyouwerefive,butyoudon’trememberourparents?”
AflashofhurtcrossedKai’sfacebeforehequicklysuppressedit.“Iremember
you,”Kaisaidinasmallvoice.
Jonsighed,staringatKai’shunchedshoulders,hiselatedmoodofearlier
havingcompletelyvanished,tryingtoformulatewhattosay—orsign—next.Hispager
sounded,breakingthemoment.Jonresistedcheckingit.“Howaboutyoukeepthebook.
AndIpromise,we’lltalklater.”Jontookinabreath.“I’lltellyouanotherstoryfrom
before.OK?”
Kainodded.
“Ihavetogo.You’llbeOK?Don’tlietome.”
Kaiofferedafaintsmile,noddedagain.“Thanks.”
Kai’sbriefsign—hishandflat,drawnoutquicklyfromhislips—wassimple,but
19
Jonknew,likethebook,itmeantmore.Jonstood,squeezedKai’sshoulderashewalked
by.Iloveyou,too,Jonthought.
20
October31,2000
KaigrinnedassoonashesawReneeemergefromherapartment.Sheworeareddress
withwhitepolkadots,ahugematchingbowandbig,black,roundmouseearsonher
head.Shelockedherdoor,thenwrappedherarmsaroundherselfasthecoldhither.
Hercostumemanagedtobebothadorableandsexy,butitwasn’texactlymeantforlate
OctoberinNorthernIowa.Hehonkedhishornandflashedhislights,andshe
brightenedassherushedover,immediatelyjumpingintothecarandpullingthedoor
closed.
“Icouldhavecomein.”
Reneewavedherhand.“Nosenseinyougoingthroughthetrouble.”She
smiled.“Where’syourcostume?”
Kaiglanceddownathimself:hewaswearinghisusualclothing,along-sleeved
teebelowafleecepulloverandjeans.Heshrugged.“Youlookadorableenoughforboth
ofus.”
Shesighed,blushedasredasherdress.“NowIjustfeelsilly.InNewOrleans,
Halloweenisabigdeal.Everyonedressesup.Everyone,andgoestrick-or-treating,even
adults.”Sheshivered.“It’salsoalotwarmer.”
Kailaughed,turneduptheheat,thenreachedforhertopullherclose.She
acceptedthekiss,sweetandpureasalways,takingawaysomeofhisanxiety.
Sherestedherforeheadagainsthisforamoment,breatheddeeply,then
releaseditwithasighofcontentment.“Shallwe?”
Kaipulledoutoftheparkinglotandheadedtowardthehospital;CountyHouse
wasn’tfarfromJMH.Astheydrewclosertoit,Kaifelttheanxietyrisinginsidehimlike
mercuryinathermometeranddesperatelyhopedthecombinationofhydroxyzineand
Renee’scalmingpresencewouldpreventafull-blownpanicattack.He’dgottenclosea
fewtimesinthepastmonth,butthusfarhadbeenlucky.
“So,”Reneesaidafterawhile,interruptingthesilence,“isthereanythingI
shouldknowbeforewegetthere?”
Kaisighed.“Likewhat?”
Reneeshrugged.“Youtellme.”
Kaitookamomenttoconsider.“Iowahastwoplacesparentscandumptheir
brokenchildren,”Kaisaid,hisvoiceflat,thoughstillbitter.“CountyHouseinthenorth
andanotherinthesouth.CHismostlykidswhodon’tneedconstantnursingcare.”
“Wait,dump?Ithoughtyouwereanorphan.Imean—”
Kaicouldn’thelpsmilingatRenee.Shesat,curledupintheseat,tuckingsome
ofhercurlsbehindherear,makinghischestachejustfromaglance,fromhowbeautiful
shewas,fromknowingshewasrightbesidehim.“Orphanisn’tabadword,Re.My
parentshavebeendeadmostofmylife.Butyeah.Myparentsweregone,butonlyabout
40%ofthekidsatCHareorphans.AfewweretakenbyCPSforvariousreasons.The
restaresurrenders.”
“Surrenders?”
“Kidswhoseparentsdecidedtheydidn’twantorcouldn’taffordtodealwitha
disabledkid.”Kaishrugged,madethefinalturntowardthelongroadleadingupto
CountyHouse.“Parentsgiveuptheirhealthykidsallthetimeforallsortsofreasons.
Being...”Kaibitbackthe“fuckedup”he’dwantedtosay,andinsteadsaid,“disabledis
expensive;somekidsneeddailycare.”Kaiheldhisbreathastheypulledintothe
21
parkinglot—theplacehadn’tchangedinthepastfouryears,stilllookingsolitaryand
forlorn,likeanabandonedcabinyoustumbleuponinthewoods.“Myroommatewasa
surrender,andforalongtime,IthoughtIwas,too.”
KaifeltRenee’shandonhisthigh,anditinstantlycalmedtheswirlofnauseous
nervesinhisstomach.Hemaneuveredintoaparkingspotnearthefrontentrance.
“Homesweethome.”
Reneestaredoutattheforsaken-lookingbuilding,adark-brick,characterless
boxthatboreanuncannyresemblancetoalargepostoffice.Whatpassedfor
landscapingsurroundingthestructurewasovergrown,riddledwithdyingweedsfrom
thecold,andobviouslyhadn’tbeentendedproperlyindecades.JustthewayKai
rememberedit.
Reneewaitedinthewarmthofthecar,notsayinganythingimmediately,until
Kaihadassembledhischairandtransferredout.“NotoneofJonesville’sfiner
architecturalexamples.”
Kaichuckledashelockedthecarandbumpedupthecurb.
“Itlookslikeitwasbuiltinthe1950s.”
“Yup.Withthepolioepidemicsofthe1940s,suddenlyalotofpoorfarmershad
kidsthatcouldn’tworkandtheycouldn’tsupport,soCountyHousewasbuilttohouse
theoneswhocouldbreatheontheirown.Withthevaccine,thenumberofpoliocases
dropped,buttherewerestillplentyofkidswithotherproblems,sotheyweresenthere.”
“Youknow,forsomeonewhoclaimshe’sfailinghistory...”
“Iknowmytown.Art’sabitofahistorybuff,whenitcomestoJonesvilleand
Iowahistory,andhe’dtellmeaboutit,orbringmebooks.Besides,Ilearnedallthat
before...”Kaiclearedhisthroat,rememberinghestillhadtotellReneeabouthis
transplant.“Mymemoryproblems.Weshouldheadinside.You’refreezing.”
Kaiheldtheouterdooropenforher,wavingherin.
“CalhounCountyHousefor—”Reneestartedtoreadaloudfromthesignnear
theinteriordoor:CalhounCountyHouseforCrippled,Diseased,andFeeble-Minded
Children.Ringforadmittance.
“JustCountyHouse.Please.”Kaipressedthebuzzer.
Reneelookedathimquizzically,butsaidnothing.
“Afewyearsago,therewasapetitiontorenameallthepublicinstitutions.Go
PC.Butthestatedecidedthatitwouldcostfartoomuchtochangesignage,paperwork,
etc.,so,yeah.JustCountyHouse.”
Reneeopenedhermouthtocomment,butshewasinterruptedbyaharsh
voice,bleedingthroughstatic,“DeliveriesareMondaythroughFriday,eighttofive,rear
entrance.VisitinghoursareSaturdays,tentothree,andofficehours,weekdays,tento
five.Thankyou.”
Kaisighedloudly.“It’sKaiFox.Trick-or-treat?”
Therewasapainfulscratchofstatic,thenabuzz,andthedoorpoppedopen.
BeforeReneecouldhelp,Kaipushedittherestoftheway,wheelingthroughand
holdingitforher.Shesmiledathim,buthereyesweresearching,clearlytakinginthe
place.
ItamazedKaihowitstillsmelledthesame:stale,depressing,withjustahintof
disinfectant,thoughitlookedlikethestaffhadmadegenuineattemptstospruceupthe
lobby.Don’tfeelbad,parents!Leaveyourdisabledkidinthestate’scare.He’llloveit
here!Seehowhappyeveryoneis?Kaithoughtbitterlyastheyapproachedthefront
desk,wherealarge,stagedMDA-telethon-worthyposterhadbeenhungonthewall,a
22
groupofkidsarangeofracesandapparentdisabilitiesgrinningforthecamera,withthe
words,CalhounCountyCaresAboutKids!printedinadisgustinglycheerfulfontatthe
bottom.
“OhmyGod,it’sreallyyou,”avoicecalledout,drawingbothReneeandKai’s
eyestowardthebackoffice,justoffthefrontdesk.
Apudgywomanwithatuftofwhitehairwholookedlikesheshouldhave
retiredtenyearsagoemerged.CathyEvans,“TheWarden,”asKaiandDavidcalledher,
thewomanwhohadessentiallybeencursedwithrunningCountyHouseforthepast
fortyyears.Shewaspartofthesystem,theultimateauthorityfigureallthekidshadto
bowto,andshe’dneverlearnedmorethanahandfulofsigns,butstill,shecaredinher
ownway,andshe’dalwaysdonethebestshecouldwiththelimitedfundsallottedtoher.
SheputherhandsonKai’sshoulders,appraisinghim.“Lookatyou.Allgrown
up.Ihardlyrecognizeyou.You’reamannow.”
Kaidippedhishead,surprisinglyembarrassed.Heclearedhisthroat.“Ms.
Evans,thisismyfriend,Renee.She’sgoingtohelpmewiththekids.Aretheyready?”
Cathyfrowned.“I’msorry,Kai.ButyouknowIcan’tletanyofthechildrenoff
thepremiseswithoutamemberofthestaff,andwithcutbacks...Ican’taffordtospare
anyone.”
“Dammit.Can’tyoumakeanexception?It’snotlikeyou’rehandingthemoffto
somestranger.AndI’mtakingthemtoJonesvilleMemorial.Ifanythingweretohappen,
we’reinafreakinghospital.”
Cathycrossedherarmsonherchest,shookherhead.“YouandDavid.Always
thoughttherulesshouldn’tapplytoyouifitwasn’tconvenient.”
Kai’sangerflared,temperedonlybythehydroxyzine,andhefoundhecouldn’t
thinkoftheEnglishwordsfastenough,hishandsmovinginharsh,rapidsigns.“It’snot
aboutconvenience,Warden.”Kai’shandsslappedtogetherloudlywhenhesigned
“CONVENIENT,”hisfaceturningintoascowl.“It’saboutusgivingthesekidsa
smidgenofarealfuckingchildhood.”Kai’ssignswerejerking,intense,hischest
heaving.
Cathyblinked,clearlynotfullyunderstandinghim,butsherecognizedher
“namesign”(ifyoucouldevenreallycallitthat),andthecurse.Kaialsoknewshewas
familiarwithKIDS,REAL,andGROW-UP.Enoughshegotthegist.
KaifeltRenee’shandonhisshoulder,andheforcedhimselftotakeafewslow,
deepbreaths.Afteramoment,hewasabletofindtheEnglishtosay,“We’llbeback
withinthehour.Letthekidswhocangatherinthecommonroom.”
“Whatdidyousaytoher?”Reneeaskedassoonasthey’dclimbedbackintoKai’scar.
“It’snotaboutrules;it’saboutwhat’sbestforthekids.Givethematasteof
whatnormalchildrenhave.That’swhywe’regoingtoWalmart,we’rebuyingcandyand
stuffwecanusetoplaysomepartygames,andwe’regoingtoimproviseHalloween.”
Reneestaredathim.“Somehow,Isuspectwhatyouactuallysaidwasalot
angrierthanthat.”
Kaicrackedahintofasmileastheypulledoutofthelot.
Reneewasquietamoment,watchingthesceneryflypastherwindow.“Idon’t
thinkI’veeverseenyouthatvisiblymad.”
Kaisighed.“Ishouldn’thaveblownupather,andIshouldn’thavedraggedyou
intothis.I’msorry.”
“Don’tbe.I’mgladyouwantedtoincludemeinapartofyourpast.”She
23
grinned.“Andit’sgoodtoseeyouaren’tthisinhumanandroidcapableofsuppressing
youremotionsallthetime.”
Kaiglancedsidewaysather,felthimselfrelaxingmore.Ifitweren’tforthefact
thathedidn’twanttodisappointthekids,he’dbetemptedtojustblowitalloff,takeher
backtoherplace,andkissheruntiltheybothweredizzy.“IfI’mcompletelyhonest,I
washopingtoconvinceMs.Evanstoletmetakethekidsevenifshecouldn’tspare
anyone,andIcan’tdrivethevan.”Kaitappedafingeronthehandcontrolstoconveyhis
meaning—thevandidn’thavethem.Aneasy,playfulsmileslippedontohisface.
ReneeshookherheadandboppedKaiontheshoulder.
“Hey!I’mdrivinghere!”Kaisaid,laughinggoodnaturedly,hisbadmood
completelygone.Theireyesmetforamoment,andKaihadtosighsoftlytohimselfat
howunrealthisallfelt.
Theylaughedtogether,andwhenitfinallyfaded,sheasked,“Didyoumean
whatyousaid?Aboutgivingthesekidsasclosetoa‘normal’Halloweenasyoucan?”
Kaitookinabreath,drummedhishandonthesteeringwheel.“Ionlygottogo
trick-or-treatingonce.Theyearbeforemyparentsdied,mybrothertookme.Iwasthe
IncredibleHulk,”Kaisaidwithasadlaugh.Kaiwasfive,superexcited,becauseitwas
thefirsttimehe’dbeenwellenoughandwalkingeasilyenoughthathisfatherhad
allowedit.Ofcourse,hepaidforitlaterthatyearwiththebadcaseofpneumonia.“At
CountyHouse,theonlyacknowledgementweevergotforholidaysweretasteless,sugarfreecookies,andsometimes,ifwehadanenterprisingvolunteer,afewdecorations.”
“Kai...”
Kaishrugged.“Igotusedtoit,fast.ButifIcandoalittlesomethingforthe
kids...”
Hecaughtthehintofhersmileinhisperipheralvision,buthewascirclingthe
Walmartparkinglot,searchingforaspot,notreallyabletofocusonher.“Fuckingold
people,”hemuttered.“Shouldn’ttheybeinbingooratchurchorsomethingthistimeof
night?”
“Ifyouwanttodropmeoff,Icanjustrunin...”
Kaismiledfaintly.“It’sfine.Ifaspotdoesn’topenupinthenextcouple
minutes,I’llparkdowntowardtheendoftherow,ontheline.That’llgivemespace
enoughtotransfer.Onegoodthingaboutthechair;Idon’tneedtoparkclose.”
“Thisissoweird,”Reneesaid,leaningonthecarthandle,observingidlyasKaisorted
throughtheremnantsofthecandy.
“Shoppingwithsomeoneinawheelchair?”Kaiaskedabsently,tossingabag
intothebasket.
“Shoppingwithyou.Afewdaysago,youwereavoidingme,yethereweare.”
Kaipushedfartherdowntheaisle,coasting,scanningthedecimatedshelves;
shesuspecteditwashiswayofavoidingeyecontact.“Hereweare.”
Reneeabandonedthecartfornow,approachinghimfrombehind;heseemed
toofocusedondiggingthroughapileofrandomstuff—honestly,theHalloweenaisle
lookedliketheremnantsofacampsiteafterbeingtornapartbyhungrybears—andshe
gotthisstrangesenseofdeja-vu.Theothernight,whenshe’dgonehomewithhimafter
surprisinghiminPT,andhe’dtriedtohidebyputtingawaytheirleftovers.
Hesitantly,shelaidahandonhisshoulder,justbarelytouchinghim.Shefelt
himtenseinstinctively,thenforcehimselftorelax.“Doyouevenstillwantmehere?
Nowthatyoudon’t...”Sheswallowed.“...needmeanymore?”Shehesitateda
24
moment,thenadded,“Todrive?”
Kaisighed,grippedtheedgeoftheshelvingtohelphimselfturnaround.He
lookedupather,notspeakingforalongtime.“Partofmewantstosayyes.Itwasone
thingtohaveyouhelpmetakethekidsaroundthehospital,anotherforyouto...really
seewhatwasbasicallymychildhood.”
Reneedroppedherhead,nodded.“Icanhelpyoufinishuphere,orIcanjust
go.Callafriendorcatchabusorsomething.”
Kaireachedout,grabbedherwrist,buthelditlooselybetweenhisthumband
indexfinger,asifhewereafraidtobreakit.Itsentareflexiveshiverthroughherbody
shehopedhecouldn’tsense.“True,Idon’tneedyou,”hesaid,staringatherwrist,
strokingtheundersidesoftlywithhisroughthumb.Itmadetheshivermoreintense,
andshehadtofightnottopullaway.Nomanhadevermadeherfeellikethis,asimple,
innocenttouchsendingthenerveendingsinherbodyfiringinamadfrenzy.“ButIwant
you,”hefinallyfinished,lookingupather,hiseyeswideandsincere.
Withoutthinking,Reneebracedonehandonhisshoulder,leanedforward,and
kissedhim.Shefelthimimmediatelymeltintoher,ahandreachingbacktogripthe
shelvingtokeepthemsteady.Awarmthfilledherwhenshefelthissmile,but
evaporatedwhenhepushedherawayonlyamomentlater.Hereyebrowsdippedinhurt
andconfusion,butKai’sgrinwasstillthere,beautifulandgenuine,hiseyessoftand
uncharacteristicallyunguarded.
Hesighedsoftly.“Wehavetohurryupandgetback.Light’soutisnine,and
theyputsomeofthekidstobedearlierthanthat.IdoubtMs.Evanscouldconvinceany
ofthestafftopushbedtimeroutinesupeventhirtyminutes,evenforHalloween.”Kai
droppedhishandstohisrimsandexpertlyswiveledoutfrombetweenReneeandthe
shelf.“Bakery,thencheckout.Comeon.”
Reneewatchedhimashepushedtowardthegroceryportionofthestore,
occasionallyspinningaroundandsmilingatherbeforeturningbackandcontinuingto
leadtheway.Shebecamedistracted,watchingthemusclesinhisneck,shoulders,arms,
ashemoved,wantingdesperatelytowrapherarmsaroundhim,kissalinedownhisear,
jaw,neck,shoulder....
"...pieforthekidswhocan’tdocookies?"ReneerealizedKaihadbeen
speakingtoher.
"What?"
Hespunaround,lookedupatherquizzically,wheeledbackwardsashe
repeatedhimself,"Ithought,getthemsomerealcookiesandmaybepieforthekidswho
needsomethingeasiertoeat."
"Uh,sure,"Reneesaid,followinghimtothebakery,notreallyunderstanding.
ButthiswasKai’sshowanyway;shewasjustsupportingcast.
KaipausedatadisplayoftheremnantsofHalloweentreats."Orcupcakes....
Oh,man.Weneverhadcupcakes."Kaibeganfillingthecartwithavarietyofbaked
goods,hiseyeslightingupasifhewerealittlekidgettingtheseraretreats.
WatchinghimmadeRenee’sstomachache.Isthiswheresomeofthat
penetratingsadnessshesawfartooofteninhiseyescamefrom?"Youreallygrewupin
thatplace?"
Kaisighed,wheelingtoanothertable."Yes.Itwas’home’fortwelveyears."
Reneedidsomequickmath.SheknewKaiwas22;thatmeanthe’dspentmore
thanhalfhislifethere.Nowonderhehadissues."Wasitreallybad?"
"CountyHouse?"Kaifinallyspunaroundtofaceherinonesmoothmovement.
25
Truthfully,shemissedhisheight,butshehadtoadmitshelovedthewayhemovedin
hiswheelchair,herstomachdoingfunnyknottingthingswatchinghimglideoverthe
floor.
"Yeah."Shebarelygotthewordout;shewantedtoclimbinhislap,pulloffhis
shirt,andkisseverypatchofhisskin.Thethoughtmadeherblush,andshehopedhe
didn’tnotice.
"Everything’srelative,"Kaisaidcryptically,offeringheraforcedsmile."That
shoulddoit;weshouldheadbackbeforeitgetstoolate."
Acouplehourslater,thefestivitieswerewindingdown.Reneestood,leaningagainstthe
farwallofthecommonroom,besideCathy,watchingKaiplayingakindofblindman’s
bluffwiththeyoungerkids.
“He’ssogoodwithchildren,”Reneemused.“Youshouldhaveseenhimthe
otherday,readingtothekidsinsignlanguage.”
“Hmm.Heandhisroommatealwayskepttothemselves.AlthoughKai
integratedmorewiththeotherchildrenthanDavid.Itwasareliefforthestaffwhen
Davidturned18,butitwashardonKai.It’sgoodtoseehimhappy.”
Kai’sfeetnudgedthewheelofoneoftheotherkid’schairs,andthegirlburst
outlaughing.“Hmm.IthinkIfoundsomething,butit’sawfullygiggly.”Hereachedhis
handsoutuntilhefoundthechild,ticklingher,causinghertosqueal.Finally,heopened
hiseyes.“Madison?”
Shenoddedenthusiastically,apparentlydelightedKairememberedhername.
Shelookedlikeshewasaboutsix,andfromthewayherlimbsseemedbentatodd
angles,Reneesuspectedcerebralpalsy.There’dbeenagirlatRenee’sschoolwho’dhad
it,alongwithapersonalaidehiredbyherfamilytohelpherthroughclasses.She’dbeen
smart,butseverelydisabled,andthoughReneehadn’tactivelyavoidedher,shehadn’t
beensurehowtoapproachherordealwithher,especiallysincethegirlhadasevere
speechimpediment.
Madisonapparentlydidtoo,hersmilefadingasshestruggledtosay
something.ReneewatchedasKaileanedcloser,allhisfocusonthegirl.Henodded,
whisperedsomethingReneecouldn’thear,thenleanedback.Shesawhimsmile,gesture
tohisnecklikehewasturningakey,thenwinkatMadison.
Therestoftheirconversationwasmimed—Reneewasn’tsureifKaiwasusing
signlanguageorsimplegestures,butevenshecouldunderstandthepointhewas
making.HewaslettingMadisonbe“It,”toherobviousdelight.
Madisonstruggledtomaneuverherwheelchair,partiallybecauseitwasso
largeforher,butalsopartiallybecauseherCPevidentlylimitedherrangeofmovement.
Kaipositionedhimselfbehindher,surreptitiouslypushinghertohelpheralongwhen
shewouldgetparticularlyfrustrated.
Thegamewentonlikethatforawhile,onechildswitchingwithanother,Kai
helpingwherehecouldorwasneeded,untilafewstaffmembersstartedroundingthem
upforbedtoachorusofwhinesandboos.
KaipushedtowardReneeandCathyoncemostofthechildrenhadbeen
herdedout.“Madisonshouldbeinapowerchair.Oratleastamanualchairthatfits
her.”
“She’llgrow,”Cathysaidinaquiet,yetauthoritativevoice.
“It’stooheavyandtoobig.Shecanbarelymoveinit.She’sachild,nota
doorstop.”Kai’seyesburnedintoCathy’s,andasshehadtheotherdayinPT,withTroy,
26
Reneesuspectedtherewasmoretothisargumentthanwhatsheheardonthesurface.
Wouldsheseemoreofhisearlierangercomeout?
“Ifyou’dliketoprovidetheseveraladditionalthousanddollarsperchildper
yearthatIneedinmybudgettoprovidesuchthings,perhapsyoucandonateitandwe
canbothhopethestatewon’ttakeitallforanothermore‘important’project.”Cathy
smiledandblinkedatKai,unfazedbyhisanger.
Kaisighed,thetensioninhisshouldersrelaxed,andheleanedback.“I’msorry.
Iknowyoudoyourbestwithwhatyouhave.Ijust—”
Cathynodded.“Iseeyougotyourselfagoodchairnow,though.”
Reneelookedbetweenthem,curiouswhatCathymeant.Kaihadexplainedhow
hismobilitychangedconstantly.HadKairelatedtoMadison’sstrugglewithabulky,
heavychairthatdidn’tfithimproperly?Yetanotherthingforthe"AskKaiLater"list.
Kailookeddownreflexively.“Giftfrommybrother.”Hespunaroundinatight
circle,asiftodemonstrateitsnimbleness,andRenee’sstomachflutteredabitwatching
him.
Cathysmiledacomplex,tiredsmilethatReneecouldn’tquiteinterpret.“Itwas
goodofyoutodropby.Thekidsreallyhadfuntonight.”Thenshelaughedquietly.“I’ll
admitIneverthoughtI’dseeyoueveragain.”
Kaiwavedhishandbetweenthem,centralfingersfolded,thumbandpinky
extended,pointingbetweenhimselfandCathy.ReneerecognizeditasthesignSAME;
essentially,inthiscontext,itwastheASLequivalentof“ditto.”
“Thekidswouldloveitifyoucamebyanotherday.”
KaiglancedoveratReneeforthefirsttime;she’dalmostbeguntothinkhe’d
forgottenher,orshe’dsomehowmasteredtheartofcamouflageandblendedinwiththe
wall.Hetookherhand,squeezedherfingers,smiledupather.“Imightdothat.”
“Thatwasreallysweetofyou,”ReneesaidasshehelpedKailoadtheremnantsofthe
partyinthebackofhiscar;Cathywouldn’tletthemleaveanything,muchtoKai’s
chagrin.
Kaishrugged.“Justlivingvicariously.”Kairaisedhisbrowsupanddown,
Marx-brothersstyle,andstoleacupcakeoutofoneofthecontainers,eatingitintwo
bites.
Reneelaughed,shakingherhead,leaningforwardtowipeoffsomefrosting
fromthesideofhismouth.Thenshegaveinandlickedthespot,kissinghim.Hetasted
likesugar—he’dhadasmuchcandyandsweetsasanyofthekids,andshewondered
howhewasn’tbouncingoffthewalls.Thekisswasshort,butwonderful,endingwhen
KaievidentlyfeltRenee’sshiver.
“Comeon,let’sgetyouwarm.”Hehandedherhiskeys.
Reneehurriedaroundtothepassenger’sseat,climbinginandstartingthe
engine,feelingtheshiftofthecarasKaiclosedthetrunk.Shewasslowlybeginningto
defrostwhensheheardaknockonhiswindow.Lookingover,shesawhimpointtothe
lock,hiseyebrowsraised,makinghimlooklikeasadpuppy.
Laughingatthemboth,sinceshe’dneglectedtounlockhisdoorwhenshe’d
gottenin,sheleanedoveranddidso,givingheraninadvertentpeekathowhishand
controlsworked.Shecouldseetheleverleadingdownwithbarsthatconnectedtoeach
pedal.Healsohadwhatlookedlikearemovablefootguardblockingoffthepedals.She
madeamentalnotetoaskhimaboutitatsomepoint,butfigureditmustbeawayto
makesurehislegspasmswouldn’tcauseanaccident.
27
ReneewatchedasKaihurriedtopullhimselfin,disassemblinghischair
quicklytominimizehowlongthedoorwasopentothecold.Hedidn’tseembotheredby
it,eventhoughhewasonlywearingalightfleecepullover,butsheknewKaiwasbothan
actor(whoonlyrevealedwhathewanted)aswellasanative.Afterall,itwasn’teven
November;thingswouldgetmuch,muchcolderthanthis.Reneecouldn’thelp,though,
ifherbodystillrememberedNewOrleanswinterswhere40wasconsideredabysmally
frigid.
“Youwarmenough?”Kaiaskedhertenderlyassoonashischairwassecurein
thebackseatandthedoorwasshut.
Reneenodded,butsheshivered.
Kailaughed,heldupafinger,andpulledhisfleeceoffoverhishead.It
temporarilymadetheT-shirtheworeunderneathrideup,exposingpartofhisstomach
andchest,whereReneesawthehintofseveralscars.Butbeforeshecouldgetagood
look,themomentwasover,andhewashandingherhissweatshirt.
Shesmiled,threadedherhandsthroughthearmsandhuggeditclosewithout
pullingitoverherhead.Itsmelledfaintlyofhim,andstillretainedthewarmthofhis
body.Renee’seyelidsfellhalfwayinpleasureforamomentbeforeKai’sgentlelaugh
broughtherback.
“Keepitifyouwant.”
“ImeantwhatIsaidbefore,”ReneesaidasKaidroveoutoftheparkinglot.“It
wassweetofyoutodothis,andespeciallythewayyouhandledMadison,turningoff
yourvoicesoshedidn’tfeelbad.”
Kaishruggedasingleshoulder.“I’mnotsureifIwasclearaboutthisbefore,
butIwasmutewhenIwasakid.Icouldn’tspeak.”Hiseyesdartedsideways,perhaps
expectingReneetohavesomehugenegativereactiontothis,beforereturningbackto
theroad.“That’swhyIknowASL.Ididn’tlearntotalktillIwasfourteen.”
“Wow.Youspeaksowell.Ineverwouldhaveguessed.”Perhapsthatexplained
hisangrysignedoutburstearlier;hehadn’tswitchedtoASLsoReneewouldn’t
understandhim,asshe’doriginallyassumed.Instead,shewonderedifitwasbecause,
whenhewasfuriousortired,hisbraindefaultedtohisfirstlanguage.Reneehad
relativeslikethat,rememberingmanyafamilygatheringwithheatedargumentsin
barelyintelligibleCajunFrench.Italsoexplainedwhyherememberedbetterwhenshe
helpedhimvisualizethematerial.Withtheirmidtermcomingup,she’dhavetokeep
thatinmind.
“Lotsofspeechtherapyandbeingthrownintoahighschoolwheremostofthe
teachersforcedmetotalk,”heresponded.Herolledhisshoulders,asifheweresoreor
stiff.“Anyway,Iunderstandwhatthat’slike,strugglingtocommunicate.”Hesmiled,but
itwasoneofhiscomplexgrinsthatmeantmuchmorethanitseemed.“Ihavealotof
experienceingettingpeopletounderstandme,whennecessary,withoutspeaking.”
Reneesnakedherhandontohisthigh,relievedwhenhesmiled,notshirking
fromhertouch.“Isthatwhyyou’resuchagoodkisser?”
Heletoutashort,rich,genuinelaugh.“I’mreallyskilledatotherformsof
nonverbalcommunication,”hesaidslyly.“AndIthinkyoualreadyknowI’mgoodwith
myhands.”
KaipulledupinfrontofRenee’sapartment,parked.“Thanksforyourhelptonight.”
Reneeshrugged.“Itwasdefinitelyadifferentwaytospendtheholiday.”
“Wedohavethebestdates,don’twe?PT,orphanagefordisabledkids.Next
28
timeIshouldtakeyoutoanursinghome.Completetheawkwarddatingtriumvirate.”
Reneelaughed,shookherhead.ShetookKai’srighthand,smoothingher
thumbonhispalm.“Ilikeyoubecauseyouaren’tlikeotherguys.”
“Yeah,thewheelchairsortofsetsmeapart,”hesaid,buthewassmilingather.
Reneeleanedover,laidahandonhischest.Kai’sheartspedup;hehadn’ttold
herabouthistransplant,hisFS,yet,otherthanhisvagueadmissionabouthisallergies,
thoughheknewhecouldn’tletitgolikehehadwithhisMLS.Ifhelostherbecauseofit,
itwouldbebettertodoitsooner,beforehegottooinvolved.“Youhaveagoodheart,”
shesaidwithasweetsmile.“Artwasrightaboutthat.”
Kaiechoedherexpression,holdingherhandinplace.“Weshouldhavea
properfirstdate....ThoughI’mafraidI’mnotrealexperiencedwithconventional
dating.”Hefeltthebeginningsofablushbutforcedhimselfnottohidefromher.
Sheclimbedontoherkneessoshecouldleanoverbetter,stoleaquickbut
intensekissthatlefthimdizzyandhalfhardinseconds.“Ijustwanttobewithyou.I
don’tcarewhatwedo.Surpriseme.”
“OK.Sunday?”Kaitookinadeepbreath.“Andwe’restillonforstudying
tomorrowafterclass,andThursdayafternoon,solongasthebookstore’snotbusy,
right?”
“Yes,”Reneesaid,“butyou’lldofine.”
Kailookedaway,pickedatthesteeringwheelwithhisthumb.“Saysthegirl
withtheA+.IfIbombthemidterm,there’snowayI’llbeabletopasshistory.I’llhaveto
waituntilnextfall,andIwon’tbeabletotakeWorldHistoryIInextsemester...”
Reneesankdownontohercalves,stillfacinghim.“OK.Minipopquiz.What
yearwastheMagnaCartasigned?”
“Uh...1000something?No.1100?”
Reneeshookherhead.“1215.”
Kailethisheadfalltohishandsonthewheel.“See:Icanneverrememberthe
dates.”
“Kai.Lookatme.”
Reluctantly,hedid.
“Signthatdateforme.”
Kai’seyebrowsfurrowed,butheobeyed,signing,“TWELVEFIFTEEN.”
“Good.”Reneemimickedhim.“WhatwastheMagnaCarta?”
“Re—”
“Comeon.Ifyougetitright,I’llkissyou.Isthatincentiveenough?”
Kairolledhiseyes,buthewassmiling.“Uh,liketheBillofRightsforEngland,
right?”
Renee’seyebrowswentup,smilingencouragingly.“MORE.TheMagnaCarta
inspiredthefoundingfathers,definitely.”
Kaisqueezedhiseyesclosed,tryingtothink.Kaisignedslowlytospeakthe
English,too,forRenee’ssake,“Itlimitedtheking’spower?”
“GOOD.Andwhowastheking?”
Kai’sbrowsfurrowed.Hecouldfeelthetopicbeginningtoescapehim.He
lookedatRenee,waitingsopatientlyforhimtoanswer,wonderingifheshouldadmithe
couldn’trememberwhattheyweretalkingabout.Heknewshewasquizzinghimfor
history,andtheyear1215wasclearlyvisible,insign,inhismind,butbeyondthat....
“It’sOK,”shesaid,smoothinghisarm,obviouslysensinghisanxietyand
confusion.“ThinkRobinHood.”Shegrinnedasshebegantosing,“Toolatetobeknown
29
asJohntheFirst;he’ssuretobeknownasJohntheWorst.Apoxonthephonykingof
England!”
Kailaughed,butthatdidn’thelpstirhismemory.
“KING?”Reneesigned,mimickinghimfromearlier,a“K”drawndownfrom
herleftshoulder,acrosshertorsotoherrightwaist,hereyebrowsquestioning.Whenhe
noddedthatshewasright,shecontinued,fingerspelling“John,”thendoingthesignfor
writetoindicate“signed,”thenfingerspelled“MagnaCarta”slowly.“WHEN?”
Withoutthinking,Kaiimmediatelyresponded,“1215.”Thenwhathad
happenedhithimandhisheadjerkedup,asmileslippingontohisface.
“Guessyouearnedthatkiss,huh?”
Kaipulledherclose,kissingherdeeply,intensely,pouringhisgratitudeand
amazementathavingsomeonelikeRenee,whowassmartandbeautifulandpatient.
Whowaslearningtosignandwillingtodowhatevershecouldtohelphim,fuckedup
brainandeverything.Hisheartwasinhisthroat,alight,featheryfeelingthatalmostfelt
likeabloodpressurecrash,butwhichherealizedwashappiness:pure,undiluted,and
amazing.
“Yousureyoucan’tcomeinside?”
Kaisighed,shookhishead.“ButI’llseeyoutomorrow.”
Reneeletoutanadorablewhineofcomplaint,stealinganotherkissbefore
sittingback.ShetuggedatKai’sfleece,whichshe’dslippedontherestofthewayearlier
inthedrive.“I’llkeepthisascollateral.”
Kailetoutaloud,freeinglaughthatfeltenormouslygood.Partofhimwanted
toinvitehertotheparty,anexcusetospendafewmorehourswithher,butshe’dbe
totallyoutofplacewithoutknowingmuchASL,andifKaididrunintoDavidagain,he
wantedtheirconversationtobeprivate.“Night,Re,”hesaidinavoicehealmostdidn’t
recognizeashisown,quiet,longing.
“Night,”shesaidasshelookedbackathimbeforeclimbingout,thelightfrom
thebuilding’slampscastingahalooverherdarkcurls,pullingoutherauburnhighlights
andperfectlyframingherface.
“Night,”hesaidonelasttime,evenafterthedoorhadshut,hiseyesfollowing
herassheunlockedherapartmentandslippedinwithafinalwaveandasmile.
Kaileanedbackintheseat,lettingoutalongbreath.Fuck.Onlyafewdays
sinceReneewalkedinonhiminPT,andalreadyhewasfallingforher.Dizzying,headover-heels,merry-go-roundlove.
VickyandJonstoodinhisoffice,kissinghungrily.Theyclungtoeachother,desperate
totakethekissfarther,butJononlyhadtenmoreminutesbeforeheneededtogetback
towork.VickyguidedJontowardthecouchinhisoffice,pushinghimback.Heresisted
atfirst,butfinallyfelldownintoit.Shequicklyfollowed,reachingtoundohisbelt.
“Vic,”hegaspedasshestrokedhimthroughhispants.“Wecan’t.”
“Wecan’t,butIcan,”shesaid,freeinghisaching,leakingcockandstrokingita
fewtimesgentlybeforetakinghiminhermouth.
Jongruntedatthewarmwetnessofhertongueasitcaressedhim,lettinghis
eyesfallshut,unabletospeakanymorecomplaints.Hehadn’texperiencedmanyblow
jobsbeforeVicky—Jenny,forexample,hadconsideredfellatiounsanitary—butVicwas
notonlyfondofgivingthem,shewasgoodatit.
“IlikethesoundsyoumakewhenIhaveyouinmymouth,”she’dtoldhim.“So
uncharacteristic.Itdrivesmecrazy.”
30
Jonstartedmakingsomeofthosenoisesasshelickedandsuckedthehead,
longstrokesthenlittleflicksofhertongue,makinghimwhimperandthrustintoher,
desperateformoresensation.Sherewardedhim,takinghimdeeper,lettinghimhitthe
roofofhermouth.Hefeltthetightnessinhisbellyandknewhewasclose,pressing
againsthershoulder.
“Vic,Vic,I’mgoingtocome.”
Shesuckedharduphislength,releasingjustasheletoutashout,shootinginto
herhand,whichshecuppedoverhistiptotrytocatchthemess.Hisstomachspasmeda
fewmoretimes,andthenhewasstill,therushofpost-orgasmicrelaxationsweeping
overhim.
“You’reterrible,”hesighed.
“Terrible?”sheasked,teasingly,gettinguptoplantalazykissonthesideofhis
mouth.“Orterriblyawesome?”
Sheusedsometissuestocleanherhandandhim,andhetuckedhimselfback
in,hopinghecouldenjoyafewminuteswithherbeforehehadtogetback.
“You’llbeveryrelaxedfortherestofthenightnow,Ihope.”
Jonlaughedsoftly.“I’mgoingtohavealottomakeupforwhenmycrazy
scheduleisfinallyover,aren’tI?”
“Mmmhmm.HaveyougivenanymorethoughttoThanksgivingatmy
family’s?”
Jonsighed.“Idon’twanttoleaveKaialone.It’snotfairtohim.Lastyearhe
wasstillsoclosetohistransplant,wecouldn’treallycelebratetoomuch.Iknowhe’s
alwayswantedtodothewholetraditionaldinnerthing.”
NowitwasVicky’sturntosigh.“I’dinvitehim,too,butI’llassumehe’d
decline.”
Jonshrugged.“You’llhavetoaskhimyourself,butKaidoesn’tlikelarge
groupsofstrangersmuch.Anddon’tyouhavelikeseventeenbrothersandsisters?”
VickysqueezedJonplayfully.“Haha.Seven.Butyeah,Ihaveahugefamily.If
youdecidetocome,I’llneedtomakeyouayearbook-styleguidejustsoyoucankeep
track.”
“Notbeingveryconvincingrightnow.DidImentionKai’snottheonlyonewho
doesn’tlikecrowds?”
Vickyopenedhermouthtoretort,butwasinterruptedbyJon’spager.
Heshiftedsohecouldtakeitoffhisbeltandcheckit.Jongroanedwhenhe
sawthenumber.“TheER.Probablyanotherkidwhoaspiratedacandycornoroneof
thosestupidplasticspiders.I’vegottago.”
Vickysighed,kissedhimquicklyonthelips.“GuessI’llheadhome,then.I’m
exhausted.”
“Drivesafe,”Jonsaid,standingandofferinghishandtohelppullherup.“Call
orpagemewhenyougethome,soIknowyougotthereOK.Imightnotbeableto
answer,butI’lltalktoyoutomorrow.I’llprobablystillbeherewhenyougetininthe
morning.”
“Takecareofyourself,OK?”Vickysaid,kissingJononelasttimebefore
acceptingahug.Jonlovedhowrightherbodyfeltagainsthis,andthoughhe’dteased
her,he’dbravehundredsofhostilerelativesifthat’swhatittooktobewithher.
ThepartywasapparentlyinfullswingbythetimeKaiarrived,andheendeduphaving
toparkinthefarbackcornerofthesecondarylot,hopinghewouldn’tgetboxedin.He
31
grabbedtheearplugshe’dpurchasedatWalmartearlier—withalltheotherjunk,Renee
hadn’tevennoticed,andstuffedthemineachear,hopingthey’dsufficetoinsulatehim
fromtheepicallyloudmusicheknewwouldgreethimoncehemadeitinsidethe
school’sgym.
Thenhepoppedopenhisglovecompartmentandpulledoutapairofleather
gloves;ifhewasgoingtowheelallthewayinthecoldandmanagetohavehisfingers
limberenoughforsigningoncehegottotheparty,heneededtobeprepared.Heslipped
themon,suckedinabreath,andpushedthedooropen,anicywindhittinghiminthe
face.Thetemperaturehaddroppedsignificantlysincehe’dbeenoutearlierwithRenee,
acoldfrontthatthreatenedtobringwithitthefirstlegitimateicestormoftheseason.
Kaitwisted,pulledoutthepiecesofhischaironebyoneandquicklyattached
thewheelstotheframe.Hecouldalreadyfeelthecoldseepingthroughhisjeans,andhe
hadn’teventransferredyet.Itwasn’ttoolatetochangehismindandgohome,butthe
prospectofbeingamonganentirepartyfullofnativesigners,andmaybe,asterrifying
astheideawas,runningintoDavidagain,forcedhimtopullhimselfoutofthecarand
intohischair,adjustinghislegs,leaningovertopulldownhisjeanstominimizethe
chancethewindwouldbitehisskin.
Thisfarout,theparkinglotwasunpaved,amixtureofflattened,dyinggrass
andbitsofgravel,meaningeveryfewfeetKaihadtoleanbackandwheelietoprevent
hiscastersfromgettingstuck.Itwasharderwork,butitkepthimwarmuntilhereached
themainparkingareawithitssmootherasphalt.Thisclose,Kaicouldalreadysensethe
music,evenifhecouldn’tquitehearitwiththeearplugs.Ifhereallywasgoingtoget
backintheCommunityandstartgoingtomoreDeafevents,hewasgoingtohaveto
investinbetterhearingprotectionthan2/$1atWalmart.
Itwasevenstranger,insomeways,toberollingaroundthegroundsofthe
schoolforthedeafthanithadbeenreturningtoCountyHouse.KaihadleftCHbehind
onlyfouryearsago,butthelasttimeKaiwasheadingtowardthisgymwas1992.
Nothinghadchanged,excepteverythinglookedalittlemorerundown,thecracksinthe
sidewalkleadingtowardthegymnasiumlarger.Thepathwayhadbeendecoratedforthe
holidaywithgravesandskeletonsandpumpkins,withalargebannerdrapedoverthe
doors,announcingHappyHalloweeninfingerspelledhandshapes.
Kaispottedafewstraypeoplehurryinginside,costumesconcealedbycoats
andjackets.Kaitookinadeepbreath.Stilltimetoturnback,buthefeltsomethingin
hisstomach—excitement?—thatmadehimpressforward,pullingtheheavydoorsopen
andsqueezinginside.
Theshockofthecoldburningoffhithim,mixedwiththeintensebassthathe
couldfeelrattlinghischair.Itwaslikeasaunainside,betweentheheatandallthe
dancingbodies,butKaispottedacoatcheckofftohisleft,sohedriftedover,pullingoff
hisglovesandthenhiscoat,stuffingtheminthepocket.
Itwasstrange,yetwonderfulwhentheattractiveyounggirl—wholookedlike
shewasstillinhighschool—greetedhiminsign,welcominghimtotheparty,wishing
himahappyHalloween,andtakinghiscoatinexchangeforaclaimticket.Shealso
remindedhimthattheywereraisingmoneytopaintthegymandresurfacethefloor,so
hecoulddonate,orallproceedsfromthefoodandbeverageswerealsogoingtoward
thoseprojects.
“Didyougotoschoolhere?”
“Classof‘96,”Kairesponded,whichwastrue,evenifhegraduatedfrom
JonesvilleHighinstead.
32
Shesmiled.“Welcomeback!”AndofferedhimanalumniHalloweenbutton.
Kaismiledandthankedher,waitinguntilhe’dwheeledoffbeforeshovingitin
thepouchbehindhislegs.Hescannedtheroom,wonderingifthiswasamistake.Being
inthechairputhimatanautomaticdisadvantageatanyparty,butparticularlyonein
whichmostofthecommunicationhappenedliterallyoverhishead.
Hewanderedaround,carefullyweavingthroughthecrowd,gettingafewlooks
frompeopleobviouslywonderingwhohewas.Perhapshe’dchangedtoomuchforany
ofhisformerclassmatestorecognizehim.Wouldn’tnecessarilybeabadthing.Halfthe
crowdwassandwichedtogetheronthedancefloor,therestgatheredincirclesalongthe
sides,engagedinanimatedconversations.Everyonewasincostumeofsomekind.
Kaiwasdebatinggettingadrinkwhenhesawsomeonefranticallywavingat
him;atfirst,heassumedthewomanhadtobetryingtogetsomeoneelse’sattention
behindhim,soheswiveled,onlytorealizewhenheturnedbackaroundthatshehad
beentryingtosignalhimafterall.
Shewastall,narrow,blondandbubbly,acheerleaderorsoccer-momtype,
thoughshewasabouthisage,dressedina1950spoodle-skirt.“Kai?Dr.Taylor’s
brother?”
Kai’seyebrowsdippedashenoddedhisfistinayes.
Thewomanpracticallyexplodedintoasmile,literallyjumpingup.“I’mMegan
Younger!I’mtutoringyourbrotherinASL.Youlooksomuchalike!”
Oh.TheideaofJonlearningASLfromsomeoneso...effervescentwas
amusing.
“Where’syourcostume?”
Kailookeddown,anevilthoughtpoppingintohishead,beforereturningeye
contact.Heindicatedhiswheelchair.“Thisismycostume.”
Hereyeswidenedforamoment,clearlynotsurewhattodo.
Kaisighed;messingwithMeganwasevencruelerthanmessingwithPamthe
otherday.“I’mjoking.”
Herfacetransformedasshebattledbetweenlaughingandbeingintensely
uncomfortable.“You’reterrible.Youremindmeofmyfiancé.”Sheglancedaround,
signaledtosomeone.
Soon,abroad-chestedman,aboutMegan’sheight—whichmadehimshorter
thanmostofthemenattheparty,anddefinitelyshorterthanKaiifhewerestanding,
pushedhiswaythroughtowardthem.Hehadashockofredhaircroppedshortsothatit
stoodup,andhealsowasuncostumed.
Kaidriftedbackwardsafewinches.Themanbeforehimhadchangedalotin
theinterveningyears,buttherewasnodenyingit.“David?”hesaid,mouthingthename
whilesigningWRONGonhischin,Kai’sprivatenamesignforDavidhe’dgivenhim
whenthey’dfirstmetatCountyHouse.Kaihadbeenscared,notfeelingwell,andupset,
recentlyseparatedfromeveryoneheknew,placedinahomewherenooneknewhis
language.UntilDavidhaddrawnhisattentionandlookedatKai,eyebrowsdrawndown
inconcernandquestion,hishandinthehandshapeidenticaltoSAME,knucklesonhis
chin,askingKai,“What’swrong?”Inthatinstance,Kai’sworldchanged:suddenly,he
wasn’tisolatedandaloneanymore,becausehehadaboyhisagewhoknewsign.
Abrother.“Kai!”Davidechoedafterablinkofshock,greetingKaiwithhisown
originalnamesign,avariationonthesignforBROTHER,aKdrawndownfromhis
foreheadtohis“L”-shapedhand.
BeforeKaicouldtakeinanotherbreath,Daviddroppedtohiskneesand
33
embracedKaitightly,asiftryingtosqueezethelifeoutofhim.Asuncomfortableas
David’sintensegripwas,thehugfeltlikecominghome.JakehadtaughtKaiinhisfirst
fewdaysinthehearingworldthatheariesdonotliketobetouched,andmendonot
hug.ItwasahugewakeupcallforKai,whowasusedtotheDeafnormswheretouching
wasnotonlyallowed,butnecessary.Ifyouendedaconversationwithoutahug,the
otherpersonwouldbedeeplyoffended.
Kaichoked,andfinally,Davidreleasedhim,crouchingtokeepateyelevel,
graspingKai’sfaceandstudyingitforafewminutes.David’seyeswerefullofemotion,
andwhenhefinallypulledbacktosign,hewiggledhisfingersintheairasifhecouldn’t
evenfindthewords.
“God!You’restillalive!Ithoughtyouweredead!”Daviddidn’tusethe
euphemismsignPASSED-AWAY,butinsteadfingerspelledtheword,sharp,intense
movements,practicallythrowingthefinal"D"intheairforaddedemphasis.
Kaishrugged,smiled.
Davidletoutalongbreath.“Youlookgreat.Healthy.You’vegainedweight!
Butyou’renotwalkinganymore.”Ah,thatwassomethingelseKaihadmissed:Deafie
bluntness.AnotherculturaldifferenceJakehadtriedtoteachhim,thoughthathadbeen
ahardoneforKaitoovercome:Deafpeopletolditlikeitwas,gettingstraighttothe
point.Itwasn’tconsideredrudetobehonest.Itwasbaffling,atfirst,toKai,howhearing
peopleusedsomanywordsbecausetellingthetruthwasconsideredrude.Acultureof
lying,KaihadexplainedtoDavidafterhisfirstfewmonthsatthehearingschool.
BeforeKaicouldreply,MegantappedDavidontheshouldertodrawhis
attention.Hestoodbackup,visiblyannoyed,thoughhetriedtocontainitforhersake.
“Youtwoknoweachother?”
David’seyesdartedtoKai’sbeforehereplied,“Wewenttoschooltogether,but
Kaitransferredtoadifferenthighschool,sowehaven’tseeneachotherinsixyears.”
KainoticedDaviddidn’tmentionCountyHouse,sohesaidnothing.Infact,
KaiwonderedifMeganevenknewaboutCH.JustbecauseDeafiescouldbebluntdidn’t
meantheycouldn’twithholdinformation.KaiandDavidwerealikeinthatway:what
someonedidn’tknowcouldn’thurtyou.
“We’vegotalotofcatchinguptodo,”DavidexplainedtoMegan.“Thinkwe’ll
gosomewhereprivatetotalk.”Hegesturedwithbothsplayedhands,fingerspointing
towardhimtoindicateallthepryingeyesprivytotheirconversation.“I’llfindyoulater?
OK?”Hekissedhisfiancée’scheek,eventhoughKaicouldseeinherfaceshewasless
thanthrilledbyhishastyexitandlacklusterexplanation.KaiwasprettycertainDavid
didn’tgreeteveryonethewayhehadKai,andMeganhadtosuspecttherewasmoreto
thestory.
Shereluctantlydisappearedintothecrowd,andonceshewasgone,David
lookedKaioveragain.“Whoareyousupposedtobe?”
“TonyHawkafterhemissedamajortrick,”Kaisignedfacetiously,mimicking
askatertakingareallybadfall,hisfacialexpressionsfollowingthejourneytothefinal
splat.Hefurrowedhisbrows,pointedatDavid.“You?”
Davidlaughed.HepulledonhiswhiteT-shirt.“Whiteshirtandjeanstogo
withMegan’sGreasetheme.ToldheritwastheclosestthingtoacostumeI’ddo.”
Kaisignedinacknowledgement,noddingthehandshapeforSAME.“Canwe
gosomewheretotalk?”
Davidlookedaround,thennodded,signaledforKaitofollow.
34
Davidledthewaythroughthecrowd,glancingbackeverycoupleminutestomakesure
Kaiwasstillbehindhim.Theywovethroughthegroupsgatheredaroundthefoodand
beveragetables,circlesofchattingpeoplegratefulforaplacetoresttheirdrinkwhile
theysigned.
Davidexitedthegym,immediatelyfeelingtheshiftinairtemperature.The
vibrationofthemusicbegantofadeasheheadeddownahallwaytowardaclassroom
withaneasilypickablelock.Hepulledhiskeysfromhispocket,flippedtillhegottohis
tools,crouched,andinaminutehadthedooropen.Hegrinned,wavingKaiinside.
Kaijustshookhishead,buthewassmiling.
Davidpulledadesktowardthecenteroftheroomandsankintoit,leaning
back.HewatchedKairollin,movingsmoothlytofacehim.ItshockedDavidhowmuch
Kaihadbulkedupsincethey’dlastseeneachother.Hewaswearingalong-sleevedTshirtasizetoobig,butDavidcouldstillseetheoutlineofstrongshouldersandbicepsas
Kaimaneuveredhischair.Theskinnylittle“brother”Davidrememberedwasgone,and
thoughheworkedoutregularly,hewonderedifKaiwouldbeathimonthebenchpress
orchin-ups.Maybeheshouldhaveunlockedtheweightroominsteadsotheycouldhave
foundout.
Davidnevercouldresistacontest.
Butthenithithim:hislittle“brother”reallywashere,infrontofhim,alive.So
veryalive.Kailookedbetterthanever,andforamoment,Davidwastransportedback
sixteenyearstothedaytheyfirstmet.
DavidhadlandedatCountyHouseafteradisastrousseriesoffosterhomesandafailed
yearofhearingkindergarteninwhichhe’dbeenplacedinSpecialEdasthey’d
attemptedtoteachhimEnglish.Mouth-movers,he’dthoughtofhearingpeople,because
theywerealwayslookingathim,theirmouthsmoving,moving,moving,sometimes
tryingtogethimtomakehismouthmove,too,thoughhecouldneverfigureoutexactly
why.Hisfather—whomhe’dthoughtofasRed-neckbecausethat’swhatwouldhappen
tohimwheneverhismouthmovedinlargemotions,spitflying,teethshowing,usually
rightbeforeheslappedDavid’scheek—hadtriedoverandovertogetDavidtoimitate
him.Pointingtosomethingandmovinghislips,thenencouragingDavidtorepeatthe
motion,holdingDavid’sfingerstohisthroatbecauseapparentlyforcingairoutwhen
youmovedyourmouthwaspartofthegame.
Davidlovedgames,butthatwasneveroneheliked.Becausehecouldnever
winit.Hecouldn’tunderstandwhythemouth-moverswaggedtheirlipsandblewair
out,whenpointingandgesturingmadesomuchmoresense.David’smother—whom
he’dthoughtofasSmiley-warm-nice-smell—hadunderstoodthat,andshehadnever
madehimimitatethemouth-movers.Butshewentawayonedayandnevercameback.
CountyHousewasastrangeplace.Thegoodthingwashe’dfinallygonetoa
schoolwheretherewerenomouth-movers;instead,everyonetherewasahand-mover,
andoverthepastyearhehadlearnedthatthereweresignsforthings.LikeRed-neck
washis“half-man,”thumbofhisspreadhandonlytouchinghisforeheadinsteadofalso
goingdowntohischest.Father,they’dtaughthim.AndSmiley-warm-nice-smell,even
thoughshe’dgoneaway,washis“half-woman,”thumbonlyonhischin.Mother.
Davidstilldidn’talwaysunderstandtheotherhand-movers,becausetheyused
signsforthingshedidn’tknow,buthelearnedquickly,becausethiswasagamewith
ruleshecouldcomprehend.
Buthewastheonlyhand-moveratCountyHouse.Noonetriedtomakehim
35
likethem,buttheystillwaggedtheirlipsathim,andthewhite-hairedladyalways
seemedtobeangrywithhim.Hewonderedifitwasbecausehewassupposedtotryto
imitateherbuthewasn’t.Buthedidn’twanttoplaythatgameagain,neveragain.
He’donlyhadacoupleweeksofkindergarten,andhewasolderthantheother
kidsinhisclass,becausehewasstilllearningtosign,whenhereturnedtohisroom
surprisedtofindsomeonethere.TheentireyearDavidhadlivedatCountyHouse,he’d
roomedalone,whichwasfine.Itwasniceafterallthefosterhomes,mostofwhich
wherehelastedonlyafewweeksandwerefilledwithannoyingmouth-movingchildren.
Theboywastiny,frail,sittingonthebed,hislegspulledintohischest,hisface
buriedinhisknees,hisyellowhairatangledmess.Apairofcrutchesleanedagainstthe
wallnearby,andtheboy’slegsweretrembling,hisbackshaking.Cautiously,excitedthat
maybethisboywasahand-movertoo,Davidapproachedandtappedhislegstotryto
gethisattention.
Buttheboydidn’trespond,andDavidwonderedifmaybehewasliketheolder
kidatCountyHousehecalledSmashed-face,becausehisnosewasallmessedup.He
couldn’twalkbecausehecouldn’tfeelhislegs,andWhite-hair-old-ladyhadgrown
particularlyangryatDavidwhenhe’dexperimentedwithhowfarhecouldgobefore
Smashed-facewouldfeelanything.
SoDavidhadtriedagain,tappingtheboy’sshoulderthistime.Thismadethe
boylookup.Hisfacewaspuffy,hiseyesred,hischeekswet,andhewaspanting,his
chestworkinghard,likebreathingwasdifficult,likehe’djustrunaroundandaround
andaroundandwastryingtocatchhisbreath.ButwhatreallystruckDavidwashow
incrediblybluetheboy’seyeswere:bluerthananyhe’deverseenbefore,andhe
wonderedifBluewashisname,sinceDavid’snamewasRedbecauseofhishair.They’d
taughthimhisrealnamewasD-A-V-I-D,butthatdidn’tmeananythingtohim.
David’seyebrowsdipped,andhetappedhisknucklesonhischin,thumband
pinkystandingout,“WRONG?”Thoughiftheboywasamouth-mover,likemostpeople,
heprobablywouldn’tunderstand.
Instead,theboyhadreleasedhislegs,andthey’dfallentothebedlike
discardedtoys.Hiseyeshadwidenedandshimmeredwithfreshtearsbeforehethrew
hisarmsaroundDavidandembracedhimtight.
Finally,theboypulledback,hishandsmovingrapidlyintheair.Hewasa
hand-mover,too!Davidwassoexcited,hedidn’tevenpayattentiontowhattheboywas
saying,andhadtoaskhimtorepeathimself.
TheboyexplainedhisnamewasK-A-Iandthathe’dlosthisfamily,andhewas
particularlysadabouthisbrother.DidDavidknowwherehewas?
FamilywasaconceptDavidstruggledtograsp,butheknewhedidn’thaveone,
notanymore;nooneatCountyHousedid.Ifthisboywashere,hisfamilywasgone,too.
“Themouth-movers,”Davidexplained,usingthesignthey’dtaughthim,indexfinger
rotatingoutathismouth,whichmimickedthesillywaytheywerealwayswaggingthem,
“putyouherewhenyourfamilydoesn’twantyou.Forgetaboutthem.”
Daviddidknowwhat“brother”meant,onacertainlevel,anyway:therewere
twinbrothersinhisclass,andtheywerebestfriends.“I’myourfamilynow.Brother.”
DavidfinallyrealizedKaiwaswavingathimtotrytogethisattention.“YouOK?”
Davidnodded.“SORRY.TIRED.Istillcan’tbelieveyou’realive.Ileft
Jonesvilleforyears,andwhenIcameback,everyonetoldmeyou’dgottenverysick,
thatyou’ddisappearedfromtheCommunity.Whathappened?Somekindofmiracle?”
36
DavidwatchedtheheavyriseandfallofKai’schestashesighed.ThenKai
shookhishead.“Transplant,bothlungs.Lastyear.”Heliftedhisshirtjustlongenough
forDavidtoseethelongscarinthecenterofhischest.
“WOW,”Davidsaid,shakinghishandofftohisside.“I’mgladyou’reallright.”
Kailaughed.“Stillalive,right?Whatyoubeenupto?”
Davidspreadhisarms,gesturingaroundtheroom.“Oddjobs.Whateverpays
thebills.AfterIagedoutofCH,Ibouncedaroundfromfamilytofamilyforawhile,but
Icouldn’tdeal.Droppedout.Youknowme.Alwaysangry.”
Kailaughed.“Andtakingitoutontheworld.Youmadeityourmissionto
knoweverydirtysigntherewas.”
“It’sonereasonIlearnedtopicklocks,soIcouldstealstufftobribetheolder
kidstoteachme.IknewthesignsbeforeIevenreallyunderstoodwhattheyall
meant.”
Kaishookhishead,stilllaughing.“Youalwayshavetowinateverything.”
“Hey,iftheydidn’tcallmeRed,they’dprobablycallmeStubborn.Remember
thecontestsweusedtohave?Toseewhichofuscouldsigntheworstpossiblethingand
convincethestaffatCHitwasperfectlyinnocent?”
Kaihadtopausetowipetearsfromhiseyes.“Thebestonewasthattimeyou
convincedthathorribleorderly,Ken,youwereaskingforanotherpillowwhenyou
werereallytellinghimhismotherwasagreatfuck.”
Theyreminiscedforawhile,swappingstories,untilfinallyKaiadmitted,“I
missedyou.”
“Don’tgetallsappyonmenow.”
“Fuckyou.YoucriedlikeababywhenyouthoughtIwasdead.”
Davidshrugged.“SowhatifIdid?HowdidyousurviveafterCH?Youdidn’t
gointotheCommunity,likeme.How...?”
Kaitookadeepbreath.“Mybrother.My...real...brothercameforme.”
DavidpickeduponKai’shesitanceinhissigning,thoughDavidwouldn’tdeny
howithurttoseethesignsTRUTHandBROTHERjuxtaposed.“Unlikeyourfake
brother,whoabandonedyou?”Davidtriedtoplayitoffasajoke,butknewhefailed
beforehe’devenfinishedsigning.“I’msorry.Imeanttocomeback,onceI’dgotten
somemoney,butI’dforgottenhowmuchthehearingworldsucked.Noonewouldhire
me,oriftheydid,Iwouldn’tlast.They’dalwaysfindsomereasonotherthanmy
deafness,but...”Davidshrugged.“IendedupinCouncilBluffs,attheDeafschool
there.Workedasajanitor,managedtogetmyGED.LivedacrossthebordersoIcould
establishresidency,gotintoUNO—”
“UniversityofNebraska?”Kaiaskedinclarification.
Davidnodded.“That’swhereImetMegan.Shewasdoingherinternshipand
interpretedformeafewtimes.”
“Ican’tbelievemybrother’sASLtutorisyourfiancée.Ican’tbelieveyou’re
engaged.Andtoahearie.”
Davidshrugged.“Myopinionofhearingpeoplehasn’tchanged.ButMegan’s
goodforme.Keepsmeoutoftrouble,”hesaidwithagrin.“Andyou’llalwayshave
Deafheart,”Davidsigned,theletter“D”handshapetappedonhisheart,“nomatter
whatanyonesays.”
InezwasonherfeetbeforeJonhadevencompletelyemergedthroughthecurtain.
“GracíasaDios.Ineverimaginedyou’dbetheconsultingdoctorthey’dsendus.Usually
37
it’ssomeonelikethatDr.Kainer.”
JonsmiledfaintlyatInezbeforeapproachingthebed.Martinwaslyinginit,
thebedangledhighsohewassittingup,ahigh-flowoxygenmaskonhisface.Hewas
alert,thoughJoncouldseebytherapidmovementofhischest,howhisshouldersrose
andfellwitheachharshbreath,hisneckmusclesengaged,thateventheoxygenwasn’t
relievinghisdyspnea.AquickglanceatthemonitorsconfirmedJon’sinitialassessment,
butheforcedasmileashetookMartin’shandandmadeeyecontact.
“Overdiditwiththetrick-or-treating,huh?”Jonaskedashecarefullycounted
Martin’sbreaths.
“Hewaswithhisfriendswhenhestartedhavingalotoftroublebreathingand
hadtorest,”Inezexplained.Jonangledhisheadsohecouldhearher,butkepthisfocus
onMartin,whowasclearlynotbreathingeasily,hisrespirationratealmostdoublehis
normal.“Butafterafewminutes,hislipsturnedblueandhestartedshivering,soI
broughthimin.”
JonnoddedashecheckedMartin’sfingernails.Jonnibbledhisliptohidea
frown;likeKai’s,Martin’sfingerswereclubbedonthetips,andthebedswerepale,
faintlyblue.Cyanosis.Martin,despitetheoxygen,despitehowhardhewasworkingfor
eachbreath,wasn’tgettingenoughoxygenintohisblood.
“Ishouldn’thaveletyougo.Itwastoocold.Itwastoomuchwalking.”
Martinshookhishead,liftedthemaskawayfromhisfacetoargue.“Youdrove
medoor-to-door,Ma,”hesaid,hiswordshaltingandbreathy.Hehadtopausea
moment,puttingthemaskbackinplaceandbreathingforafewsecondsbeforeadding,
“Comounniño.”
Joncheckedtheoxygensettingatthewalltoensureitmatchedwhathadbeen
recordedintheorders.Itwasunlikelythatbumpingitupanyhigherthanitalreadywas
wouldbenefitMartinmuch,butJonturnedtheflowrateupanyway.
Jonpausedtorecordthechangeinthefile,alongwithafewquicknotes,butin
reality,hewasgivingMartinsometimetoadjusttothehigherflow.“Didyoudressup?
Orareyoutoocoolforthat?”
Martinlaughedfaintly,andJonobservedhisbreathinghadeasedslightly.
“MartyMcFly.BacktotheFuture.”JonwasrelievedtoseeMartintalkingalittlemore
fluently.
JonlaughedashenotedMartin’sheartratehadcalmednoticeably.“Wereyou
evenalivewhenthatcameout?”
“Itcameouttheyearhewasborn.It’shisfavoritemovie.Helikestotellpeople
IwaswatchingitwhenIwentintolaborwithhim,andthat’swhyInamedhimMartin,
butit’snottrue.”
Jonlaughed,setthefileasideandpulledouthisstethoscope.“Youknowthe
drill,”hesaid,warminguptheheadbeforeslidingitalongtheskinofMartin’sback,
carefullylisteningtoeachlobeandbronchus,occasionallyencouragingMartintotakea
deeperbreath,holdit,thenrelease.Jonwasparticularlyconcernedbythediffuse
cracklesthroughMartin’slungs,whichsoundedlesslikethecongestionthatoften
accompaniedFSorpneumoniaandmorelikescarring.TheareasofMartin’slungswith
abnormalbronchialbreathsoundshadspread,withacompleteabsenceofbreath
soundsinthelowerlobesofMartin’srightlung.
“OK,say,‘Applesareawesome,’afewtimesforme,”Jonsaid.“Youdon’tneed
totakeoffthemask.”Jonplacedtheheadofthestethoscopeintheareashesuspected
werenewlyfibrosed,listeningforhowMartin’svoicesounded.Ashe’dsuspected,the
38
“E’s”hadtransformedto“A’s”infarmoreofMartin’slungsthantheyhadevenafew
weeksbefore.EverythingsuggestedthattheaffectedtissuefromMartin’slasthospital
stayhadn’thealed,butscarred.
“Youdidgreat,”Jonsaid,takingoffhisstethoscopeanddrapingitaroundhis
neck,checkingMartin’sfingernailsagain.Stillpale,butlessblue.“Howhaveyoubeen
feelinglately?”
“OK,”Martinsaid.
“He’sbeenprettygood.Hegetstiredfaster.Hecan’twalkasfar,andhehas
moretroublecatchinghisbreath,buthehasn’thadasmuchmucusorcoughingsince
youputhimonthatmedicine.”
Martinhadbeenonanimmunosuppressantregimen,notquiteasintenseas
Kai’s,butsimilar,whichhadpushedhisABPAintoremission,butitsoundedlikethe
damagehadbeendone.
Jonnodded.“IwanttogetaCTtoconfirmwhattheX-rayandmyexam
showed,andI’dliketokeepyouovernight,justtomakesurewe’renotdealingwith
somethingmoreserious,”Jonsaid,alternatingglancingbetweenMartinandhismom.
“Nobiopsy,right?”Martinsaidwithoutliftingthemask,hiswordsmuffled.
Jonshookhishead.“Itshouldn’tbenecessarythistime.”Jonfoundhishand
reachingupforhishairandtuckeditinhispocketinstead.HepattedMartin’sshoulder,
offeringhimanencouragingsmile,beforeturningtoInez.“Puedohablarconustedun
momentico?”
HeledInezoutofthecurtainedarea,towardoneoftheactualexamroomshe
knewwasempty,sothey’dhaveaplacetotalkoutsideofMartin’searshot.Inez’sface
wasworried;Jonhadapolicy,ingeneral,ofbeinghonestwithhispatientsiftheywere
oldenoughtounderstand,soheknewshewaswonderingwhatitwashefelthecouldn’t
sayinMartin’spresence.
“IwanttowaituntilIgetallthetestresultsback,butIthinkitmightbetime
toconsiderputtingMartinonoxygenfulltime,”JonsaidinSpanishassoonasthey
wereensconcedintheroom.
Ineztookinaslow,deepbreath,noddingsubtly.
“Ididn’twanttosayanythingtohimyet,notuntilI’mcertainthat’sthe
treatmentplanI’mgoingtogivehim,butIwantedtotellyoufirst.”
“Whatdoesthismeanforhim?”
Jonsighed,crossedhisarmsonhischest.“He’sgotalotofscarringinhis
lungs.FromyearsoflivingwithFS,frompreviouspneumonias,andnowasignificant
amountfromthisABPA.Ihadhopedhewouldheal,buteverythingsuggestsMartin
haslostalotoffunctionallungtissuerecently.”
“Andthat’swhyhe’sbeenhavingsomuchtrouble,eventhoughhe’snot
coughingorwheezinglikehewasbefore?”
Jonnodded.“Oncethetissueisdamaged,itcan’tberepaired.It’sgone.”Jon
smiledfaintly.“Peroeloxígenopuedemejorarsucalidaddevida.”
Inezbrokedownwhensheheardthewords“qualityoflife,”andJonhadto
reachtohelphertoherseat.“That’swhatdoctorssaywhensomeone’sdying.”
Jonsighedheavily,sankdownintotheotherseatsotheywereateyelevel.“I’m
stillfightingthetransplantcommittee.Onebyone,tryingtoconvinceoneofthemto
callanewmeetingtoreconsidertheirdecision.Iwon’tgiveuponhim.Ipromise.”
Ineznodded,laidahandonJon’sarm.“Ioweyouanapology.ForthewayI
treatedyoutheotherday.You’vedonenothingbutgoodforbothofus,andyoudidn’t
39
deservethat.”
Jonshrugged.“It’sforgotten.”Hesmiled,grippedInez’shandsinhis,looking
herdirectlyintheeyes.“I’mgoingtohavesomeonecometalktoyou.She’llhelpyou
dealwithyourinsuranceingettingMartinhisoxygensupplies,andshe’llexplainhow
touseit.AndIwilltalktoMartinmyselfifthat’swhatwedecidetodo,allright?”
InezsurprisedJonbyrisingandthrowingherarmsaroundhiminatight
embrace.“QueDioslebendiga,DoctorTaylor.Gracíasportodo.”
Don’tthankorblessmeyet,Jonthought.TakeawaytheABPAandreplaceit
withpneumonia,andMartin’scaselookedalmostidenticaltoKai’s,fouryearsago.The
oxygenwouldmakeMartinfeelbetter,buthedidn’thavemuchtime.
AsKaiexitedtheschool,heimmediatelynoticedthetemperaturehaddroppedafew
moredegrees,andalight,colddrizzlehadbeguntofall.Kaipausedtoziphiscoatup
further,buthestillshivered.He’dgettohiscarasfastashecould,gethome,andsleep
forever.Still,ithadbeensurprisinglynicetoseeDavidagain,andtochatwithsomeof
theotherDeafieswhowerenonethewiseraboutwhohewasorhishistory,whichwas
fine.Itwouldcomeouteventually,butforonenighthecouldjustenjoybeing
surroundedbythelanguageandculturehelovedandmisseddesperately.
Afewcarshadleft,makingKai’spaththroughthepavedportionoftheparking
lotmoredirectandfaster,tohisrelief,butashecarefullywheeliedthroughtheunpaved
lot,nearinghiscar,heletoutastringofEnglishcurses.Anassholeinalargepickup
(completewithcattleguard)hadparkedillegallyonthedriver’ssideofKai’scar,leaving
himblockedinonbothsides.Hepushedaround,butitwasnouse.It’dbehardenough
foranable-bodiedpersontosqueezein;therewasnowayhischairwouldfit.Kai
shiveredassomerainsnuckdownthebackofhisneckbetweenthecollarofhisjacket.It
wasalongwaybacktotheschool,andsinceitwasstillearly,relatively,itwasn’tlikely
anyoneelsewasgoingtocomealongintheimmediatefuture.
“Fuck!”Kaiscreamed,slamminghishandonthehoodofthetruck.
Herubbedhisfist,glaringatthecar,asifthepowerofhisstarecouldmoveit,
whenanideaoccurredtohim.Hepushedaway,studyingthesituation.Hecould
potentiallyusetheproximityofthetrucktohisadvantage.Hesnortedatthethought.At
leastasmuchofan“advantage”ashecouldinthispredicament.Hewasn’twearinghis
braces,butifhecouldgethisleftlegtocooperateenoughnottobuckle,hecould
potentiallyleavehischairinfrontofthetruck,usingthehoodforleverage,thenthe
bodytosupporthisownwhilehegrippedtheluggagerackontheroofofhiscartohelp
pullhimselfalong.Itwouldn’tbefastoreasy,anditwasarisk:ifheslippedorfellor
movedwrong,hecouldlegitimatelyfuckuphisrightleg,whichwasnearlyhealed,and
hehadn’twornhiskneebrace.
Kaiturnedhisheadtogazeoutatthedarkparkinglottowardthelightsofthe
school.Hisonlyoptionsweretogoback,findsomeone—Davidmaybe—topullhiscar
outenoughforhimtogetinsinceitwastoocoldtowaitouthere,orattempthis
acrobaticfeatandhopeforthebest.AshivertorethroughKai’sbodyagain.
“Noguts,noglory,right?”hesaidoutloud,positioninghimselfascloseas
possibletothegapbetweenthetwocarswhilestillensuringhewouldn’thithischair
oncehepulledoutofthespace.Hestaredhardforafewmoreminutes,calculating,then
liftedhisfeetoffthefootrest,onebyone,testinghisleftleg.“WhatthefuckamI
thinking?”
Double-checkingthebrakesonhiswheels(andthathehadhiscarkeysinhis
40
pocket),Kaireachedoutforthetopbarofthecattleguard,usingittopullhimselftohis
feet,tryinghisbestnottobumphisrightlegorleanonittooheavily,prayinghisleftleg
wouldhold.Hiskneewobbledandtriedtobuckle,sohepulledhimselftightertothe
grillofthetruck,usingthebumpertohelpsupporthim,takingafewsecondstocatch
hisbreath.Thenhereachedforthesidemirror,gratefulforhislongarms,managingto
pullhimselfalongthesideofthepickup,halfhoppingandhalfdragginghisleftleg,
grippingtightlytothetruck,prayinghewouldn’tfall.Hesitantly,hereleasedhisgripon
thetruck’smirror,reachingoutforhiscar,holdinghisbreathashefelthimselfstartto
slide.Therainwasn’thelping,makingeverysurfaceslick.Kaihurriedlyshiftedhisright
armtothetruck’smirror,thenhislefttothebarontheroofrackofhiscar.
Hisbodywobbled,andforamoment,hesankdown,hiskneesbeginningto
giveout,leavinghimhalf-hangingbetweenthemirrorofthetruckandtherackofhis
car.Thankfully,becauseofthenarrowspace,hewasabletoanglehiship,leaninginto
thesideofhiscar,whichgavehimthechancetoadjusthisholdonthebaroftheluggage
rackandpullhimselfup.Leaningagainsttheedgeofthedriver’ssidedoor,hemoved
hisotherarmtotherack,bowinghisheadandbreathingheavily.Therainwascoming
downhardernow,buthewasoverheatedfromtheeffort,hisskinthatstrangemixofhot
yetchilledyouonlygetfromexertionincoldweather.Buthewasalmostthere,and
thoughhisleftkneewasscreamingathim,hisrightseemedtobeOK.
Heusedhisgripontheluggagebartopull,slide,andhophiswayahalffoot
downthesideofhiscar,whichwouldgivehimroomenoughtounlockitandopenthe
door.Kaiadjustedhishold,leaningontheroofofthecarsothathisleftforearmwas
bracedagainstthebar,hishandgrippingoneofthesupportstightly.Oncehewassure
hewasassecureashecouldbeinthesituation,hereleasedhislefthand,pullingouthis
keyscarefully,makingsurehehadafirmgrip.Ifhedroppedthemnow,he’dbefucked.
Thankfully,hewasabletogetthecarunlockedonthefirsttrywithoutslipping
down,thoughgettingthedooropenfromthisanglewasalittletrickier.Hemanagedto
pullthehandle,inchingthedooropen.Shovinghiskeysbackinhispocket,Kaithenwas
abletogethishandontheedgeandpryitopenasfarashecouldintheconfinedspace.
Onehandonthetopofthedoor,theotherslidtothetopedgeoftheluggagerack,Kai
wasabletotwistjustenoughtoawkwardlydropintotheseat,hislegsalittletangled.He
pausedforamoment,shivering,hischeekshotbutburningwithchill,hishairplastered
tohisfacefromtherainandsweat,regaininghisbreath.Atleasthisnewlungsdidn’t
reacttothecoldairthewayhisoldoneswouldhave,hethought,relieved.Finally,he
pulledhislegsin,massaginghisleftknee—he’dhavetoiceitbeforebed—relievedhis
rightseemedtobeOK,andhurriedlyturningtheengineandblastingtheheat.
Nowthathewasnolongergrappling,hisbodydecidedshiveringwouldbean
excellentcourseofaction,histeethchattering.Kaiwastemptedtositforamomentin
theenclosedcar,lettingitwarmup,buthischairwasstandingoutinthecoldrain,and
heneededtogethome.Oncehewassurehishandshadstoppedshakingenoughtotrust
them,Kaicarefullyeasedthecarforward,watchingforhiswheelchair.Oncehehad
pulledpastitsafely,heopenedhisdoor,andgrippingthesteeringwheelwithhisright
hand,leanedoverandyankedhischaircloser,sincethewheelswerelocked.Hepopped
themoff,tossingthemonebyone,thentheframe,inthepassenger’sseat.
Hewasexhausted,hisshouldersandarmsburningwithfatigue,soakedand
cold,buthe’ddoneit.Hetriednottothinkoftheironythatifhe’dinvitedReneealong,
shecouldhaveeasilysqueezedthroughandpulledthecarforwardinlessthanfive
minutesinsteadofthenearlyhalf-hourordealithadtakenhim.
41
AsKaiheadedhome,hedecidedtherewasalessonintheresomewhere,buthe
wastootiredtogiveitmuchthought.
42
November2,2000
Kaisatinhiswheelchair,leanedback,readingthroughthestudyguideReneehadcome
upwithfortheirmidterm.Itwasonlyafewdaysaway,andalreadyKaiwasworried.
He’ddonewellonhismakeupwork,butfailedhislastexam,anditwasgoingtotakean
interventionalaJeanned’ArctogethimthroughtheclasswiththeDhe’dneedtomove
ontothesecondsemester.Butthesurgicalmaskwasuncomfortable,distracting.He
lookedup.ThewaitingroomwasfullsinceTuesdaysandThursdayswerealwaysthe
busiestclinicdays.He’dbeputtinghimselfatahugeriskifhedidn’tkeepiton.He
sighed.Justanotherofthelittleinconveniencesofhislifepost-transplant.Buthe
supposedbeingabletobreathewasworththeexchange.
Hehappenedtoglanceupjustastwomorepeoplecameinthedoor.Ashort
Hispanicwomaninher40swithafrail-lookingteenageboyofaboutfourteenalso
wearingasurgicalmask,pullinganoxygencanisterbehindhim.Lookingathimwaslike
staringintoKai’sownpast,andhebeckonedthemover.Theboysmiled,glancedupat
hismomforpermission,thenhurriedover.
AsmilelithiseyesashesankdownintotheemptyseatbesideKai’schair,even
thoughhewasbreathinghard,stillnotusedtotheoxygen,apparently.“You’reKai,
aren’tyou?”
Kainodded.“Iknowit’sinstinctivetobreathethroughyourmouthwhenyou’re
outofbreath,buttrytocloseyourmouthandbreathethroughyournoseinstead.You’ll
recoverfasterwiththeoxygen.”
Thekidobeyed,andsoonhisbreathinghadeasedsubtly,andherelaxedagain,
thoughhestillseemedelatedtomeetKai.“I’mMartin.”
“Nicetomeetyou,Martin.”Kaiofferedhishandandtheyshook,onlytohave
Martin’smotherrushoverandimmediatelychastisehim,commandinghimtostickout
hishandforhertosquirtantibacterialgelintoit.
“YourememberwhatDr.Taylorsaid.Youhavetobecarefulaboutgetting
sick.”
Sotheboywasimmunocompromised,too.ThiscouldbethepatientJonhad
beenstressingaboutbefore,whenKaihadhissevereMLSattack.Thekidlooked
embarrassed;obviously,hesawKaiassomekindofhero—hewasn’tthefirstkidwithFS
who’dseenKaithatway—andnowhismotherhadburstinandmadehimlookbadin
frontofKai.
“She’sright,Martin,”Kaisaid.“Youhavetobeverycareful.Thingsthat
wouldn’tmakeyourmomsickcanmakeusverysick.”
Hismotherwaspulledawayfromherworryforamoment,seemingtoseeKai
forthefirsttime.“Oh,youhavetobeDr.Taylor’sbrother.It’snicetomeetyou.We’ve
heardalotaboutyou.”
Kaiofferedhishand,andshehesitatedinitially,butfinallyacceptedit.
Afterward,sheofferedhimsomeoftheantibacterialgel.Hedidn’twanttotellheritwas
pointlessforhimtouseitrightnow,sincehe’dhavetotouchhiswheelstogettothe
examroom,butheacceptednonetheless,smilingdespitethemask.
“I’mInez,andIsupposeyoumetMartinalready.”
BeforeKaicouldsayanything,Martininterrupted.“Didithurt?”
Kaiblinked,beforefinallyconnectingthedots:MartinwasaskingaboutKai’s
transplant.“Yes.But—”Kaiwasabouttoaddthatnoamountofpainpost-transplant
43
couldhavebeenasbadasthesufferinghe’dbeeninbefore,butitwasobviousMartin
hadn’tbeenonoxygentherapyverylong;hewasonthedownslope,butatthepeakstill
lookingdown.Maybeitwasbetterifhedidn’tseewhatlayaheadofhim.Hopeand
optimismwerejustasimportantasanyothermedicine.“Butnotforlong,”Kaisaid
instead.
“CanIsee?”
“Martin,”Inezscolded.“Leavehimalone.”ShelookedatKai.“I’msorryhe’s
botheringyou.Butyourstorymeansalottohim.ToalltheFSpatients.”
Kainodded.Heknewhedid;healsoknewitwaspossiblethetransplantwasn’t
thecurethey’dbeenhopingfor,butnooneexceptDr.JandKaiknewthat,andKai
plannedtokeepitthatwayaslongaspossible.“It’sallright.I’musedtopeopleasking
mequestions.”Kaimadesurehisstudyguidewassecuredbetweenhislegs,thenused
hishandstoshifthisbodyintheseatsubtly,sohewasangledalittlemoretoward
Martin.“Youwanttoseemyscars?”
KaicouldtellMartinwasbeamingeventhroughthemask.
“OK,butit’llbereallyquick.”Kaihurriedlyliftedhisshirtandfleecepullover,
justlongenoughforMartintogetaquickpeekbeforelettingthefabriccoverhimagain.
“Whoa.”
Kailaughed.
“What’sitlike?Nothavingtroublebreathingallthetime?”
KaifounditdifficulttomeetMartin’seyes.Kaiknewthetransplantcommittee
hadclosedoffFSpatientsfrombeinglisted—Jonrantedaboutitallthetime,andhe’d
beenworkingontryingtochangetheirminds.ButevenifMartincouldbelisted,he
couldwaityearsandpossiblydiebeforeamatchcameup;Kaihadwaitedmorethantwo
yearshimself.Andthen,evenifhematched,hehadtosurvivethesurgeryandthe
immediateaftermath,thefirstfewmonths,thefirstyear.
ButKaididn’twanttolietohim,either.“It’sawesome,”Kaiadmittedfinally,
smiling.“Weird,atfirst.It’sstill...weird,sometimes.Butgenerally,it’sawesome.”
MartinstaredatKaidreamily,asifheweretryingtoimaginewhatlifewithout
aconstantstruggleforairwaslike.Kaiknewhe’dtriedmorethanonce,before,whenhe
wasyounger,andhisdreamshadn’tcomparedtoreality.
“Kai?”
Kaiturnedhisheadtoseethenurse,holdinghischart,beckoninghimin.“I
havetogo,”Kaisaid,adjustinghisbodyinhischair.“Itwasnicemeetingyouboth.I
hopeyoufeelbetter,”Kaisaid,winkingatMartin.“Ifyoueverneedtotalktosomeone
who’sbeenthroughitall,justtellDr.Taylor.I’mhappytodoit.”
“Thankyou,”Inezsaid.
Kaialreadyhadhisvitalstaken,sohe’dpulledhimselfontotheexamtable,andsat,
bracinghimselfwithhishandsoneachsideofhisthighs.Hisleftlegwasspasming,
makinghisheelhitagainstthecabinetofthetableoverandoverandover.Itdidn’thurt,
butthesoundwasirritating,makingithardforhimtotrytorunoverthedatesinhis
mindashestruggledtostudy.Hekeptlosinghisfocus,forgettinghisthoughtsalmostas
soonastheyhithim.
Itdidn’thelpthathismindkeptturningtoMartin.Whatdidpassinghistory
matterwhentherewasagoodchanceMartinwoulddie?Jonhadn’tsaidit,butKai
wasn’tanidiot.ThetransplantcommitteehadtakenachancewithKai,andtheywere
watchinghimcarefullybeforetheyallowedanyoneelsewithFStobelisted.Itwasavery
44
Jon-likethought,butwasitthatfarofftorealizethatifMartin,ifanyotherFSpatient
whomightbesavedbyatransplantdied,itwouldbeessentiallyKai’sfault?
Kaidrummedhisfingersontheedgeofthetable,feelinghisanxietyblooming
intheirtingle.No.Hehadtogethismindoutofthecrazyloopbeforeitwenttoofar.He
triedtomultiplybythreesinhishead.Threetimesthreeisnine.Ninetimesthreeis
twenty-seven.Twenty-seventimesthree....Buthecouldn’tevenfocusonthat;oncehe
gotintotripledigits,whilehetriedtodothemathinhishead,he’dforgetwhathewas
multiplying.Themorehetriedtoconcentrate,themorefrustratedhebecame.Threes.
Multiplicationofthrees.Buthecouldn’trememberwherehewas.Hetriedtostartover.
Threetimesthreeisnine.Ninetimesthreeistwenty-seven.Twenty...
twenty.Twenty....Kaislammedhishandontheexambenchinfrustrationashis
breathingincreasedandhishandsbegantoshake.
Kaistruggledtocalmhisbreathing,tonotgiveintotheanxiety,butitwas
beyondhiscontrol.Hewasgasping,hiseyesshut,hisbodyshakingandspasming,his
mindracingalongwithhisheartlikeamovieonfastforward.
“Kai,”avoicevaguelypiercedtheveilofpanic.“Kai,it’sOK.”
Thevoicewasnearlydrownedoutbythethudofhislegsagainstthetable,the
poundingofbloodinhisears,theharshwheezethatfilledeverydesperatebreath.
Hefeltamaskbeingsecuredtohisface,thenthecold,slightlybitterfamiliarity
ofnebulizedalbuterol.Twohandsrestedreassuringlyonhisshoulders.Thetouchand
themedshelpedstopthepanic;thoughhisbreathstillcameharshlyandhisheartstill
beatasiftryingtofleehischest,hisspasmsandshakingcalmedsome.Heopenedhis
eyes,tryingtotakedeepbreaths,hisbodyresistingtheeffort.
Jon.KaihadexpectedDr.J,oranurse.“Trytorelaxandbreathe,Kai,”Jon
said.“Where’syouranxietymeds?”
Kaipointedtohischair,thoughhisarmtrembled,andhesoondroppedit.
“Pocket.Small.Bag.”Kaipushedhimselfbackjustenoughtoresthisheadagainstthe
wall.Astheanxietybegantodrainaway,sodidKai’senergy,leavinghimexhausted,
feelinguseduplikehedidafteraparticularlyintenseworkout.
Helethiseyesdriftclosed,focusingonhisbreathing,whichhadcalmed,
thoughitwasstillmorelaboredthannormal.
Hestayedlikethatafewminutes,untilhefeltJon’shandsmoothhis,thenlift
themaskaway.
“Here,”Jonsaid,offeringKaiapill.“You’reOK.”
KaitookthepillwithsometapwaterJongavehim,butotherwisebarely
moved.“Jon.”
“Ihadjustfinishedupwithapatientnextdoorandheardsomeoneinherewho
soundedliketheywerestruggling.”
“Ihaven’thad...afullpanicattack...inweeks.”
“Itoldyounottostresssomuchaboutschool.”JonwavedKai’sstudyguide,
whichhadfloatedtothefloorduringtheanxietyattack.
Beforeeitherofthemcouldsayanythingelse,therewasaknockonthedoor,
andDr.Johnsencamein.“Kai?Areyouallright?”
Kainodded.
“Don’tleavewithouttalkingtome,OK?”Jonsigned,lookingatKaiwith
brotherlyconcern.
Kaimanagedanod,hiseyestrackingJonasheleft.
Dr.JtookKai’swrist,frownedashefeltKai’spulse.“Whathappened?”
45
Kaisighed.Losingcontrolofhimselflikethatwasbadenoughwhenhewas
alone,butsomuchworseinpublic.Atleastithadhappenedintherelativeprivacyofthe
examroominsteadofthewaitingroom,infrontofdozensofpeople.InfrontofMartin
andhismother.“Panicattack.”
Dr.JhadslippedapulseoximeteronKai’sfingerandwasobservinghim
closely.“Dr.Millerbeenworkingoutforyou?”
Kainodded.
Dr.JremovedtheoximeterandhelpedKaisitup.“Youhaveanxietyattacks
often?”
“Notlately.Icanusuallystopthembeforetheygetoutofcontrol.ButI’vebeen
reallystressedout.”
“Becauseofschool?”Dr.JfeltKai’sneckandunderhisjawforswollenlymph
nodes.“Ithoughtyoutoldmeyouweredroppingacoupleclasses?”
“Idid.ButI’mfailinghistory.It’ssohardformetorememberthings.”
Dr.Jpulledouthisstethoscope.“You’vespokentoyourprofessor,though,and
youhaveatutor,right?”
“Yeah,andIgetextratimeduringexams,butifIbombthemidterm,it’llbe
almostimpossibleformetopasstheclass.”
“I’msureyou’llbefine,Kai.”Dr.Jpressedtheheadofthestethoscopebetween
hishandstowarmitup.“I’mprettysureyoucandoanythingyousetyourmindto.”Kai
rolledhiseyes,butifDr.Jnoticed,hesaidnothing.“Slow,deepbreathsforme.”
Dr.JlistenedtoKai’slungscarefullyforseveralminutes,movingthe
stethoscopearoundKai’sback,askingKaitoholdhisbreathorbreathenormally,finally
switchingtohischesttolistentohisheartbeforeslippingthebudsoutofhisearsand
drapingthestethoscopearoundhisneck.
“Jongaveyousomealbuteroljustnow?”
Kainodded.
“Ithelp?Whenyouhavetroublebreathingfromtheanxiety?”
Kainoddedagain.
Dr.Jsankdownintothechairatthedesk,scribblingsomenotes.“Andother
thanthat,howhasyourbreathingbeen?”
“Good.”
“Youbeenmakingsuretocoughtwiceaday?”
“Yeah.”
“Doesitseemlikeyou’vebeencoughingupalot?”
Kaishrugged.“Iguessalittlemorethannormal.”
“Anythingnasty?”
“Notreally.It’sallinmybook,”Kaisaid,pointing.Hewasexhausted.Maybe
he’dliedowninJon’sofficeforawhilebeforegoinghome.
Dr.JtookamomenttoreadthroughKai’snotebook,wherehetrackedhis
oxygensaturation,hispeakflow,histemperature,andnotesabouthowhewasfeeling,
includinganythingthatstoodout.
Afterawhile,thedoctorlookedupatKai.“Evenwiththealbuterol,Iheard
somecongestion.Yourtemperatureisnormal,andyou’vebeenfeelingfine?”
Kainodded,buthefeltabitofhisanxietyreturning.
“It’sallright,”Dr.Jsaid,asifsensingKai’stension.“I’mgoingtosendina
nursetotakesomebloodandtrytogetasputumsample,thendoaquickchestx-ray.I’ll
callyouifanyoftheresultspointtorejectionorinfection,butcallmefirstifyoudevelop
46
afever,startfeelingsick,orstartcoughingoutsideyourroutine.Keepaneyeonhow
muchandwhatcoloryoursputumis,andletmeknowifitchanges.OK?”
Kainodded.
“Andyoushouldreallywearyourmedicalalertjewelry,Kai.Iknowitreminds
youofbefore,butparamedicsneedtoknowyou’reimmunocompromised.Andthatway
they’llhavemynumberifyougetbroughtinagain.Allright?”
Again,Kainoddedreluctantly.
“Andwearyourmaskinclass.Iknowit’snotcool,butitcouldsaveyourlife,
OK?”
Jonenteredhisofficeasquietlyashecould,slippingoutofhiswhitecoatandhangingit
onthehookonthebackofhisdoor.KaiwasstretchedoutonJon’scouch,asleep,his
feettwitching,butotherwiselookingpeaceful.Joncrossedtohisdesktocheckhisblood
sugar,thoughhekeptaneyeonhisbrother.Asthetimestretched,Jonfinallysettlingin
togetsomeworkdone,Kaibegantogrowmorerestlessinhissleep,hisspasmsmore
powerful,moaningsubtly.Perhapshewashavinganightmare.
Jonabandonedhisdeskandapproachedthecouch,hesitatingbeforesittingin
Kai’swheelchair.Jonheldouthishandsbutdidn’ttouchKai,sincedoingsosometimes
madehisbrother’spanicworsewhenhefinallywoke.
“Kai,it’sallright.You’resafe.Wakeup.”IttookJonseveralminutesbeforeKai
finallywokesuddenly,hiseyesspringingopen,breathinghard,obviouslyuncertainof
wherehewas.“You’reinmyoffice.You’reOK.”
Kaileanedback,droppinghishead,givinghisbodyachancetocalmdown.
Afterafewminutes,helaidahandonhisrightthigh.“DidIspasmmuchinmysleep?”
“Nottoobad.Howyoufeeling?”
“Honestly?”Kaisaid,pushinghimselfupwithagrunt.“Exhausted.ButI’m
supposedtodropbyLostAppletostudywithRenee.”
“Ifyouwantmyprofessionalopinion,youshouldgohome,takesomeValium,
andsleep.Ifyoupushyourselftoohard,you’reonlygoingtomakeitworse.Youwon’t
dowellonthetestifyou’respasmingandtiredandanxious.”
InsteadofheadingtoLostApple,Kaihaddetouredbacktohisapartment,debating
givingintoJon’sadviceandtakingalong,drug-assistednap.EversinceHalloween,
he’dbeenexhausted,achy,andifhewerehonestwithhimself,notfeelinghisbest.It
waslikelystressoverthemidterm:hismusclespasmshadspikedoverthepastfewdays,
ashadhisanxietyandnightmares.Theseusuallyinvolvedhimshowinguplateforthe
test,orthequestionsbeingwritteninsomeunintelligiblescript.Prettytypicalstuff,but
thefearandpanictheyfilledhimwithwerealmostasintenseasthedreamsthathad
senthimtoDr.Millerinthefirstplace.
Kaipushedintohisbedroom,tohisdresser.Eventhoughhe’dnappedinJon’s
office,hisbodywasbeggingforrest.IfKaihadlearnedanythingoverthepasttwo
months,itwasthathisbodydidn’tliketobepushedtoohard.Thathehadtolistentoit.
Kaipulledonedraweropenfarenoughhecouldreachinandfishoutasmall
boxthatrattledashetookitout.Shuttingthedraweragain,Kairemovedthebox’slid
andexaminedthecontents,stainlesssteelglintinginthelight.HismedicalIDjewelry.
Heextractedasmallbraceletfromthejumble,layingitononehand.Thelinkshadbeen
cut,soitnolongerwasacompletecircle,butKaijoinedtheendsbyholdingthem,
marvelingathowitbarelyencircledthreefingers.Hadhereallybeenthattinyonce?
47
Kaihadbeenwearingthatbraceletwhenhisparentsdied,andhe’dwornit
untilhe’dgrownoutofitanditMs.Evansforciblycutitoff.Kaihadbeggedtokeepit,
butshe’drefused.Theonlyphysicalremnantofhisoldlife,itslosshadbeen
devastating,andKaihadwithdrawnwithinhimself,refusingtoeatorleavehisroomfor
days.Ms.Evanshadbegunsomeseriousthreats—includingadreadednasogastric
feedingtube—whenDavidwokeKaiupinthemiddleofthenightandpressed
somethingintoKai’shand.David,knowinghowmuchitmeanttoKai,hadbrokeninto
roomafterroomuntilhe’dfounditinMs.Evans’sdesk.
Theengravingwaswornaway,becauseKaihadrubbedhisfingersalongit
frequentlyovertheyears,usingitasakindoftalisman.Hestudieditnow,andhecould
justbarelymakeouthisname,asitusedtobe:JosephK.Taylor.Itfeltlikeastranger.
Withasigh,Kaisetitaside,removinganotherbraceletfromthebox.Thisone
wasnewer,larger.Whathe’dwornbeforehistransplant,agiftfromBecca.Apainful
reminderofher,andbefore,buthe’dnevermanagedtogetridofitorpackitaway.He
extractedathirdbracelet,thisoneverydifferentfromtheothers,withaleatherband
andadecorativeplate.New.A"yousurvived"giftfromJon,abelatedbirthdaypresent
tocelebrateKaisurvivinghisfirstmonthpost-transplant.ButKaihadresistedwearing
it;hisscarshecouldnevertakeoff,butthishecould.
Oneitemremainedinthebox:hisfirst-transplant-anniversarygift,alsofrom
Jon.Asetofdogtags,thecaduceussignalingwhattheywere,eachfullyengravedwith
hiscurrentinfoandcontactnumbers."Ifyouwon’twearthebracelet,atleastwear
these,"Jonhadinsisted.Kaisighed,pulledthechainoverhishead,staringathisimage
alongwhileinthemirror.Maybehewasbeingimmature.Irresponsible.Afterall,Jon
woreabraceletsothatifanythinghappenedtohim,paramedicswouldknowhewas
insulin-dependent.
Kaipalmedthetags,stillstudyinghisfaceinthemirror.He’dtextDavid,seeif
hewasavailabletohelpKaistudy.Maybeifsomeonequizzedhiminsignandhe
answeredbackinkind,thematerialwouldstickbetter.AndascomfortableasRenee
couldmakehimfeel,hestillcouldn’tfullyrelaxaroundher,notyet.WithDavid,even
thoughithadbeensolong,hedidn’thavetopretend.
NotlongaftersendingDavidhisinitialmessage,hisphonebuzzed.Morning
workfish.Nowyouneedwhat?(Whichmeant,inEnglish,non-text-speak,“Ionlyhad
workinthemorning.Whatdoyouneed?”)
Stdyuhlpme?Myapt?
Fine.Txtmeyourlivewhere.
Kaismiled.ItwaskindoffreeingnottohavetothinkinpureEnglish,even
whenhewastexting.HehurriedlytextedhisaddressandthencalledReneetoexplain
hewasgoingtotrytostudywithhisfriendinASLandthathe’dseeherinthemorning.
Abouthalfanhourlater,Kaiheardunrelentingpoundingonthefrontdoor,andrushed
toanswer.Davidstoodoutside,ashit-eatinggrinonhisface.
“Somepeoplecouldhearthat,youknow.Thisiswhyyouwerealwaysgetting
introubleatCH.”
DavidjustgrinnedwiderandsqueezedaroundKaitoentertheapartment,
slippingoutofhiscoatandtossingitonthenearestsurface.
Kaisighed,shakinghishead.LookedlikeDavidhadn’tchanged.
DavidwhirledaroundsoKaicouldseehim.“Niceapartment.”
Kaishrugged.“It’smybrother’s;Ijustlivehere.”
48
Davidrolledhiseyes,thenbentdownforaquickhug.Whenhestoodbackup,
hefrowned.“You’resuperstressed.Youlooklikeshit.”
Kaijustshrugged,a“yeah,noshit,that’swhyyou’rehere,”expressiononhis
face,butDavidhadalreadybeelinedforthekitchen;he’dalwayshadavoracious
appetite,especiallyasateenager,andhislasttwoyearsatCH,heatehisownmealplus
mostofKai’s,sincetheMexitilmadeKaitoonauseoustomanagemuch.
Notsurprisingly,Davidwasdiggingaroundthefridgeandcabinetslookingfor
sustenance.Hefinallyturnedaround,frustrated.Hedrewhishanddownintenselyfrom
necktostomach.“I’mstarving.Don’tyouhaveanythingtoeataroundhere?”
“Icancooksomethingreallyquick,butit’dbevegetarian.”
DavidgapedatKai,repeatedthesignforVEGETABLE,thenONLYtomake
surehe’dunderstood,hiseyebrowsraised.“Vegetarian?!”
Kailaughed.“Idon’teatmeatanymorebecauseofmyMLS.Jondoesn’t
either,notathome.”
“You’rekillingme,”Davidsignedmelodramatically,actingoutslowlystarving
todeathaftereatingonlyaseriesofvegetableslikecarrotsandcelery.
Kaishookhishead,rolledbackwardtothedrawerwherehekeptthetakeout
menus,pulledoutastack,andofferedthemtohim,signingone-handed.“Thenorder
something.”
Davidacceptedthemenus,butstaredatKai,hiseyebrowsraised.“You’vebeen
inthehearingworldtoolong.”
Kaiseemedtorealizehisfauxpauxandsighed.“Pickoutwhatyouwant,and
I’llcall.Mytreat.”
Afewminuteslater,DavidsatacrossfromKaiatthetable,eatingabowlofcerealtotide
himselfover,watchinghisfriendplacetheirfoodorder.Itwasstrange,seeingKai’slips
move;atCountyHouse,DavidcouldforgetKaiwashearingmostofthetime,especially
sinceKaineverspokeunlessforcedtothelasttimeDavidhadseenhim.
DavidcouldreadKai’slipsifhewanted,sinceheknew,moreorless,whatKai
hadtobesaying,buttherewasnopoint,soheflippedthroughKai’shistorybook
instead.Kaihadpost-itseverywhere,notesscribbledinKai’sslantingwriting.Mostly
mnemonics,keypeopleanddates.
Glancingup,DavidcouldseehowtiredandstressedKaiwas.Itwasstrange;
Kaihadneverworriedmuchaboutschoolbefore.
“Istillthinkit’sinsaneyouaskedmetohelpyoustudy.”Davidliftedhishand,
palmflat,up,toindicategrowingup,thenpointedtoKai,thenrepeatedlysigned“A”
againsthisleftpalm,whichsuggestedthegrade,saying,“YoualwaysgotallA’s.Me?”
Hepointedtohimself.“FAIL.FAIL.FAIL.”Hisrighthand,palmup,indexandmiddle
fingersup,slidingdownandoffhispalm-uplefthandrepeatedly.
Kailaughed.“BecauseyouweretoobusyFLIRTFLIRTFLIRTingwithallthe
girls.Orcausingtroublefortheteachers.”
Davidshovedsomecerealinhismouth,signingsingle-handedly,“Ihada
reputation.Besides,youwerealwayssmarterthanme.Ioweyouforhelpingme
improvemyEnglish.”
“YougotyourGED,gotintocollege,andgraduated.Notmanykidsfromthe
systemmanagethat.Ican’tevenpasstwoclasses.”
Kai’sfrustrationradiatedoffhimalmostlikeavisibleaura,makingDavid
frown.Theycouldstartstudyingoncethefoodcame.Takingafewmorebitesofcereal,
49
DaviddecidedachangeinsubjectmightdoKaigood.
“WhatareyourThanksgivingplans?”
DavidobservedKai’sleftindexfingertappedhisthumbrapidlyoverandover
andover,asiftryingtoreleasesomeofhisanxiety,andhiseyeswereunfocused,asifhis
mindwaselsewhere.
DavidwavedhishandtotrytogetKai’sattention,butthatdidn’twork,sohe
triedtappingonthetable.Kai’sbreathinghadshifted,hischestmovingmorevisiblyand
harshly,lostinhimself.Finally,DavidclappednearKai’sface.
ThatfinallymadeKaijump,struggletocalmhimself,slow,deepbreaths.David
offeredhishand,sayingnothing,andKaiaccepted.Kainevercomplained,becausethat’s
whoKaiwas,buteversincehe’dreturnedtoCountyHouseafterhisbriefstintwiththe
womanclaimingtobehisaunt,Kaihadn’tbeenthesame.Apparently,theiryearsapart
hadn’tchangedKai’soccasionalboutswithanxiety.
WithoutlettinggoofKai’shand,Davidcontinuedwithhisother,“You’re
stressedbecauseyour‘studypartner’isyourgirlfriend.Ibetyour‘studyingsessions’
lookedlikethis,”Davidsaidashepretendedtomakeoutwithhimself.
KaimanagedalaughandDavidcouldfeelKai’sgriponhishandrelaxinga
little.“She’samazing,”Kaisigned,takinghishandback.“Ican’twaitforyoutomeet
her.”
“Ifshefallsinlovewithmeinstead,don’tblameme.It’shardforawomanto
resistthis,”Davidsignedwithahuge,sillygrin,indicatinghimself.
Kailaughedlongernow,someofthetensiongoingoutofhisshoulders,to
David’srelief.
“Really.Whatareyoudoingfortheholiday?”
DavidwatchedKai’schestexpandashetookadeepbreath.“Jon’sgirlfriend
wantsmetojointhematherfamily’s,but...that’sjustweird.ButJonwon’tgo
withoutme...”Kaishrugged,reachedforhisbook,butDavidplantedhisarmsfirmly
onituntilKaigaveup,glaringathim.
“Cometomyhouse.”
“Yousure?Idon’twanttobeathirdwheel.”
DavidgapedatKai.“Kai,”hesaid,usinghispersonalnamesignforKai,a
modificationofthesignforbrother.“You’remybrother,”Davidsaid,pointingtohis
foreheadbeforefinishingthesign,a“duh”lookonhisface.“Besides,Meganhasathing
forstrays,soyouwon’tbetheonlyonetherebesidesus.”DavidindicatedMegan’s
affinityforthosewithoutfamiliestospendtheholidaywithbyfirstsigningMYHOUSE,
thenusingaclassifierfora“person”(thehandshapefor“D,”indexfingerstandingup)
withhislefthand,movingitaroundinfrontofhiminasemicircle,whileheusedhis
righthandto“pluck”theminthesignforpick/findtowardthespacewherehe’ddrawn
hishouseearlier,asifshewereliterallypluckingstraysupandputtingthemintheir
house.
ThismadeKaichucklefaintly.“Allright.I’lltellJonhecangotohis
girlfriend’sfamily,then.She’llbeelated.”Hefrowned.“WillIbeabletofitinyour
house?”Hetappedhiswheels.
David’sfaceshifted.“Youreallycan’twalkanymore?”
Kaisighedheavily.“Abouttwomonthsago,Ihadareally,reallybadMLS
attack,andIhurtmylegsprettybadly.Ihaveanappointmentintwoweekswithmy
doctor,butIwon’tknowifIcanwalkoutsidePTuntilthen.Evenifheclearsme,I
mightpreferthechairanywayifthere’siceorsnow.Plus,itmakessigningeasier,”Kai
50
finishedwithafaintsmile.
Davidconsideredthisforamoment.Therewasasinglestepleadinguptothe
frontentrance,buthewasn’tsureaboutthedoorwidths.He’dhavetoaskKaior
measure.Hishousewasasinglestory,atleast.ButKaiwouldneverfitintheguest
bathroom,thoughwithafewminorchanges,he’dbefineinthemasterbath.“I’llmake
itwork.Ipromise.”
Kai’sheadjerkedupsuddenly,lookingoverDavid’sshoulder.“Thefood’s
here.”Hestartedtoreachforthemoneyhesetout,butDavidwavedhimoff,signaling
he’dgetit.
Davidjoggedtothedoor,pullingitopen.Atypicaldeliveryguystoodthere,
bundledupagainstthecold,holdinganinsulatedcasewiththeirfood.
Theguybegantotalk,andDavidcaught“Sorry”and“Yourorder”beforethe
mandippedhishead,makingitimpossibleforDavidtokeepreadinghislips.Damn
hearies.Wasitreallysohardtomaintaineyecontact?
Davidtriedtogettheguy’sattention,butfailed,sohefinallywhackedhishand
onthetopofthecase,makingtheguyjump.Davidhadtoforcehissmileaway.He
pointedtohisearandshookhishead,mouthing,Deaf.
Theguy’seyesandmouthwidened,andDavidcaughtmoreapologiesandthe
restwastoomumbled—theman’slipsnotmovingenoughforhimtocatchwhathesaid
—asheacceptedthemoneyandquicklyhandedoverthefood.
Davidsighed,kickingthedoorshutbehindhimashebroughtthefoodtothe
kitchen.Oncehishandswerefree,heaskedKai,“Didyouhearanythingtheguysaid?”
Kaishookhishead.“AllIcouldhearisthewind.Isitreallynastyoutthere?”
Davidnodded.“Smellslikesnow,butIdon’tthinkit’sintheforecasttillthis
weekend.Let’seat,thenwe’llfindouthowlittleIrememberofworldhistory.”
AfewhourslaterandDavidhadmanagedtodevournearlyallofthemassivequantityof
foodhe’dordered,andKaiwasfeelingabitbetteraboutthetest.
“Howareyounotstillskinny?”Davidasked,holdingupthepinkyfingerof
hislefthandwhileheslidhisthumbandindexofhisrightupit,hislipspursedto
emphasizeextremelythin.“Yourappetitehasn’timprovedmuch.”
Kaishrugged.“IknowexactlyhowmanycaloriesIneedtoeat,andImake
sureIgetthose,butunlessit’ssweet,Ilookatfoodlikemymeds.Ineedit,butIdon’t
liketakingit.”
Daviddrewhishand,threecentralfingersstandingupinthe“W”handshape,
slightlybent,acrosshisface.“Weirdo.Anyway,Idon’tknowwhatyou’retalkingabout
withyourmemory.Itseemsfine,andyouknowthematerialprettywell.”
Kaishrugged.“That’sonereasonIinvitedyouover.It’smoreofaproblemfor
meinEnglish,”Kai’srighthandslappedhardonhisleftwristashesigned“English.”
“Maybeafteralltheseyearsmybrainstillhastoworkhardertoprocessitor
something.”
“Englishsucks,butit’safactoflife.So.Tellmeaboutthisgirlofyours.
Renee?”
Kaisighed.“She’samazing.Beautiful,patient,smart,andcrazyaboutme,
whichprobablymakesherinsane.”
Davidlaughed.“Hearing?”
Kainodded.“Butshewantstolearntosign.Forme.”
“Nice.”
51
Kaiheardthefrontdoorunlocking,andamomentlater,Jonemerged,rubbing
hishandoverhishair.“Brr.It’sreallycomingdownoutthere.Mightbeiceinthe
morning.”
KaiinterpretedforDavid’ssake,thensim-commed,“You’rehomeearly.”
“Justforafewhours.”Jonstrippedoffhiswetcoatandmadehiswayintothe
apartment.“Oh.Thetransplantcommitteefinallycavedandnotifiedmetodaythey’ll
reconvene,perhapsnextweek.Theyhaven’tsetadateyet.”JonfinallynoticedDavid.
HetookareflexivestepbackinsurprisewhenDavidshiftedsohecouldseeJontoo.
“Jon,thisismyfriendDavid,”Kaisaid,fingerspellingDavid’snameandthen
givinghisstandardnamesign,Red.“Wegrewuptogether.”Kaihesitated,thenadded,
“HewasmyCHroommate.”
“Oh,”Jonsaid,nodding,surprised.“Nicetomeetyou.”
“Myfiancéeisyourtutor.”
KaiobservedhisbrotherwatchingDavid’ssignswithintenseconcentration,
obviouslyusedtosigningonlywithKaiandMegan.Hemimickedthesignfor“fiancée,”
askingwhatthatmeant.
Davidpatientlyfingerspelledtheword,slowingdownforJon’ssake.
“Oh!Megan,”Jonsaid,gettingitnow,signingMegan’snamesign,avariation
ofsunshine.
Davidnodded,smiling.“Itwasnicemeetingyou,butIshouldgobeforethe
weathergetsworse.Textmelater,”DavidsaidtoKaibeforeleaningdownforahug.
“Thanksforthefood.I’llletmyselfout.”Davidwavedtothemboth,shookJon’shand,
thenheadedforthedoor.
JonsankdownacrossfromKaiafterlockingthedoorbehindDavid.“Howare
youfeeling?”
Honestly,Kai’schestfeltalittletight,butitwastimeforhimtocoughandtake
hismeds,sothatwasprobablyit.Buthisanxietyhadfadedsomewhat.Ithadbeennice,
hangingoutwithDavid,pickingupalmostasifsixyearshadn’tpassed.“Better.Ithink
I’mgoingtodomyroutine,takesomeValium,andgotosleepearly.Davidatemostof
it,buttheremightbesomefoodleftifyouhaven’teaten.”
“Good.Iworryaboutyou,youknow.”
Kaismiledfaintly.“Iknow.DavidinvitedmetospendThanksgivingwithhim
andMegan.It’sDeafiestraydinner,apparently,soyoucangotoVicky’sguilt-free.”
Jongroaned,slippingbackintoEnglish.“Iwaskindofhopingyou’dgo.She
hassevenbrothersandsisters,Kai.Andthey’reallmarriedwithkids.Maybeit’stoo
soonformetothrowmyselfintheviperpit.Imean,we’veonlybeendatingtechnicallya
couplemonths.”
“Butyou’vebeeninlovewitheachotherforyears.Ifitgetsbad,sneakmea
textandI’llcallyou.Youcanfeignahospitalemergency.Youareoncall,aren’tyou?”
Jongrinned.“Thanks.Getsomesleep.I’llbeupawhileifyouneedanything,
workingonmypresentationforthecommitteebeforeheadingbacktothehospital.”
Kaihadstartedtowheelawaybutpaused,madeaslowturn.“ImetMartinin
thewaitingroomtoday.Ihopeyoucanchangetheirminds.Heseemslikeasweetkid.”
Jonsighedheavily.“Heis.”
Kaihadcoughedhimselfforseveralminutes,andhestilldidn’tfeelright.Whathe’d
managedtocoughupwasclear,butextremelythick,bigplugsofmucuslikehehadn’t
hadsincebeforehistransplant,anditworriedhim.Especiallysincehecouldn’tsomuch
52
feelassensehehadmorecongestionthatwouldn’tcomeup.Andthoughhispeakflow
numbersweredecent,hisPO2wasslightlylowerthannormal.Nothingalarming,but
enoughthat,incontext,itwasconcerning.
Kaisatinhisbathroomforseveralminutes,staringathislittlenotebook,trying
todecidewhattodo.Histemperaturewasnormal,buthedefinitelydidn’tfeelnormal.
Hecouldtrysomealbuterolandhopethatwouldopenhimupmoreforasecond
coughing.HecouldaskJontopoundhisbackandseeifthatwouldhelploosenanything
up.Butofcourse,tellingJonthatanythingmightbewrongwouldopenawholemessof
worrythatKaireallydidn’twanttoinvite.
Kaiclosedhiseyesandlistenedtohisbody,focusingonwhathecouldhearand
feel.Asubtle,quietwheezewitheveryexhalation,avagueheavinessinhischesthe
couldn’tlocalize,andadizzyexhaustion,liketheveryairintheroomwereweighinghim
down.
Finally,heopenedhiseyesagain,staringathisimageinthemirrorbriefly.He
lookedaspaleandtiredashefelt.He’dtryplanA,alongwithplentyofsleep,andhope
itwasjustthestressofhismidtermgettingtohim.
53
November3,2000
Kai’seyesopenedblearily.Hewasvaguelyawarethathisalarmwasblaring,andhe
suspectedithadbeensoundingforsometime,yethecouldn’tfindtheenergytoreach
overandshutitoff.Therewasnowayitcouldbemorningalready.Hefeltweighed
down,wornoutasifhehadn’tsleptatall.Disconcertinglythewayhefeltafteranattack.
Tomakethingsworse,breathingtookmoreeffortthanitshould.
Kaimusthavedriftedbackintosleep,becausehewokewithajolt,surprisedto
findJonsittingontheedgeofhisbed,lookingworried.Kai’salarmhadbeensilenced,
andJonhadhishandpressedagainstKai’sforehead.
“Youralarmhadbeengoingoffforthirtyminutes,soIcameintocheckonyou.
Youdon’tlookgood.”
“I’mfine,”Kaiinsisted,pushinghimselfup.“Justtired.”
JonlookedatKai,clearlynotbuyingit.HehandedKaithethermometer.“Take
yourtemperature,atleast.”
Kaisnatchedthethermometerfromhisbrotherandshoveditinhismouth,
holdingitexpertlyunderhistongueasheusedhishandstoshifthisbody,sittingup
straighter.
“Letmelistentoyourlungs,”Jonaskedashereacheduptohelpkeepthe
thermometerinplace.Kaiglaredathim,butJonignoredhim.
Kaiadjustedhisweight,supportinghimselfwithonehand,freeinguphisother
tosign,“No.IsawDr.Jyesterday.I’mfine.”Thethermometerbeeped,andJon
immediatelycheckedit,seemingsurprisedbyitsreading.
“Normal.”
“See.Fine.Now,ifyoudon’tmind,Ihaveamidtermlatertoday,so...”Kai
madeashooinggesture.
Jonfrowned.“Allright.Goodluckonyourtest.Dresswarmly.Andcoveryour
mouth.I’mworkinglatetonight,butcallmeifyouneedto.”
Anhourlater,Kaihadtakenhismeds,showered,andcoughed,andthoughhefelta
littlebetter,he’dgottenevenmoregunkoutthanthenightbefore.Andlikethenight
before,hesensedaheavinesssuggestingmorelurkedinthedepthsofhislungs.Worse,
whathemanagedtocoughupwasthickandincrediblysticky.
Kaihesitated,thenpulledupDr.J’snumberonhisphoneanddialed.He’d
expectedtoleaveamessage,butatthelastmoment,thedoctoranswered.
“Dr.Johnsen.”
“It’sKai.”
“Kai?Idon’thaveallyourresultsyet.YoufeelingOK?”
Kaitookinabreath,whichhitched.Thenheexplainedhisconcerns,hopinghe
wasjustparanoid.
Whenhefinished,Dr.Jwassilentalongwhile.“AndyourPO2hasbeen
down?”
Kaisighed.“Yeah,afewpoints.”
“I’mgoingtocalldownascriptforamphigarol.lwantyoutostarttakingit
again.It’sworthatry.”
“SoI’mnotbeingparanoid.It’sstartedalready.I’mgoingtogetsickagain.”
54
“Wedon’tknowthat,Kai.I’mjustbeingcautious.Comeseemeafteryou’ve
beentakingtheamphigarolforacoupleweeks,unlessanythingchangesbeforethen.
Nebulizetwiceadaywiththealbuteroltohelpyouclearthemucusifyouneedto.”
Thatafternoon,ReneewaswaitingforKaiwithasteamingto-gocupwhenhefinally
emergedfromthestudyroomwherehetookhistests.Shewassmilingathim,looking
beautifulasalways,eventhoughsheworeabaggysweatshirt,herfacemakeup-free,and
herhairpulledbackintoafrizzyponytail.
Heknewhehadtolooktired,becausehewasexhausted,anddespiteDr.J’s
assurances,feltaboutasgoodashehadwhenhe’dwokenupthatmorning.Itdidn’t
helpthathislegshadspasmedallthroughthetest,hisanxietyjustbelowthesurface,
barelykeptincheckbythehydroxyzineandsheerwill.
ButReneerushedupandkissedhimquicklyandsweetly,offeringhimthe
drink.“Hotmilkwithlotsofsugar.Iheardthroughthegrapevineitwasyourfavorite.”
Kaiacceptedthedrinkwithasweet,gratefulsmile,takingahesitantsipbefore
securingitbetweenhislegsandpushingoutofthetutoringoffices.“Thanks,Re,”he
said,afterthey’dgoneawhileinsilence.
“Didthetestgoallright?”Reneeaskedfinally,astheywanderedthroughthe
studentcenter,asifshe’dsenseditwasfinallysafe.
Kailedhertoaloungearea,agroupofcouchesandtablesforstudentsto
gather.Kaiparkedsohewasn’tblockingthroughtrafficandgesturedforReneetosit.
Hesippedthehotdrinkslowly,whichhelpedsettlehisgrumpystomachandeasedthe
tightnessinhischestsome.
“Idon’tthinkIfailed,sothat’ssomething,”Kaisaid,forcingasmile.
ReneecurledupontheseatclosesttoKai,wrappingherarmsaroundoneof
his,layingherheadonhisshoulder.“Iknowyoudidwell,”Reneesaid,squeezinghis
arm.Kaicaughttheconfident“know”andappreciatedhernotdiggingformore.He
didn’twanttothinkabouthistorythisweekend.“Let’sdosomething.”
Kaifinishedhismilkandleanedforwardtosethisdrinkaside.Reneewas
snuggledupbesidehim,clearlynotcaringwhosawthemtogether,wheelchairandall.
ShewasjusthappytobecuddlingwithherboyfriendonaFridayafternoon.Itwasn’t
tooearlytothinkReneethoughtofhimthatway?Didsheevenwanttothinkofhim
thatway?Orwouldhisnoveltyfadeandshedecidehewastoomuchtroubletobother
with?EspeciallyonceshelearnedhisMLSwasonlypartofthepackage?
Asthehydroxyzineworeoff,alltheanxietybegantopourillogicallyoutintohis
increasinglyerraticthoughts.
“Kai.”HefeltRenee’shandsgrippinghiswrists.Whenhadhecoveredhisface
withthem?Andwhenhadhisbreathingbecomeharsher?“Kai,”shesaidagain,
managingtospeakfirmly,yetsoothinglyatthesametime,“thetestisover.Stop
thinkingaboutitandtellmewhatwe’regoingtodotonight.”
“Likewhat?”Heaskedinhisbestnonchalantvoice.Hetriedtotakeslow,even
breaths,hatinghowhisbodygotawayfromhim,howitmadehimfeelthreatenedeven
whenhekneweverythingwasperfectlyfine.Afterall,therewerefarbiggerproblemsin
theworldthanahistorytest,orwhetherornotheandReneewouldlastthesemester.
Andafewdaysofbadcoughingdidn’tmeanhewasn’tcured.KaicouldalmosthearDr.
Miller’svoice,You’rediscountingyourfeelingsagain.Hesighed.Maybeithadbeentoo
soontodropdowntoseeingheronlyonceaweek,asmuchashehatedtoadmitit.
“Idon’tknow...”ReneesqueezedKai’shands,kissedhisknuckles,glancedup
55
athimwithasmile.Itwasan,“I’vegotcha,”momentwithoutbeingfussy.Justwhathe
needed.“WhatwouldyoudotonightifIwasn’taround?”
Kaibreatheddeeply,thentookbackhishandssohecouldusethemtoshifthis
weightinhischair.Hefelthimselfcomingdownabitfromtheanxiety,thoughitstill
hummedinhischest.“Honestly?”
Reneenodded,acceptedachastekiss.
Kaiclungtoheramomentbeforereleasingheragain.“It’snotveryexciting,
butI’dprobablygohomeandsleep.”Hesmiledtiredly.
“Didyoustayuplatestudying?”
Kaistartedtosayno,butrealizedthatmightleavehimopenfortellingher
abouthisanxietyorhis“asthma”—neitherofwhichhewantedtodowhileexhausted
anddesperateforanotherdoseofhydroxyzine,whileinthemiddleofthestudent
center.Instead,hesaid,“Whydon’tyoucomebacktomyplacewithme;I’llmakea
quickdinnerandwecanwatchamovieorsomething?”
ReneestoodbehindKaiashepeeredintocabinets.She’dnoticedhisstressandtension
hadlingeredevenaftertheexamwasover,andthoughshe’dtriedtodistracthimwith
herkissandtouch,he’dbeendistant.She’ddiscoveredKaioftenwithdrew,likeaturtle
intoitsshell,buttoprotecthimselffromwhatshewasn’tcertain.Shejusthadtobe
patientandwaitforthosegloriousmoments,likeonHalloween,whenhiscurtainhad
comedownandhe’dbeendelightfullysillyandsweetandwonderful.
“Well,IguesswiththemidtermIgotalittledistractedanddidn’tgotothe
grocerystore.ButIcangetcreative,ifyoudon’tmindvegetarian.”
“Mymawmawtoldmenevertocomplainwhensomeoneelseisdoingthe
cooking,”Reneesaid,acceptingcansashepulledthemoutofthepantry.Chickpeas,
tomatosauce,crushedtomatoes.
“Canyoucheckthefreezerforspinach?”Kaiaskedashepushedacrossthe
kitchen,leaningforwardtosnagabowlofonionsandpullingoneout.
Reneesetthecansonthecounterandgrabbedapackageoffrozenspinach.
“CanIhelpwithanythingelse?PreferablysomethingthatwillensureIdon’tburndown
theapartmentcomplex?”
Kailaughed.“Youknowhowtochoponions?Ihavetodoitonthetable,soif
youcouldhelpwiththat,it’dbegreat.”Hesettheoniononthecounter,thenpulledout
acuttingboardandaknife,settingthemasideaswell.
“IthinkIcanhandlethat.”ReneestartedpeelingandchoppingwhileKai
bustledaround,takingoutcookware.
“Uh,doyouwantmetomakericeorpastaorsomething?Idon’tusually
bother,becauseit’stoomuchcarbsforJonandIdon’treallycareeitherway,butIcan,
ifyouwant.”Kaisetoutapotandaskillet,thensnaggedatowelandthecanopenerto
startopeningthefood.
“Idon’tevenknowwhatyou’remaking.”
“Uh,”Kaisaid,stretchingtodrainthechickpeasinthesink,“something
Italian-y.”
Reneelaughed,relievedtoseeKaijokingaround.“OK.Youdoknowhowto
cook,right?You’renotjusttryingtoimpressme?”
“Hmm,”Kaisaid,dumpingthechickpeasintoapot,thenstretchingagaintofill
itwithsomewater.Shenoticedtheunmodifiedkitchenmadethingsawkwardforhim,
butlikeeverythinghedid,he’dfiguredouthisownwaytodothings,workingas
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seamlesslyaspossibleunderthecircumstances.“Guessyou’llhavetofindout.”He
winked,setthepotonthestove,andturnediton.“Chickpeastakeforever.This’llsoften
themupwhilewecooktheonions.”
“They’reready,”sheannounced.“ShouldIputtheminabowlorsomething?”
“Nah,justbringthemoverwhenIsay,”Kaisaidashesettheskillettoheat.
“Canyoucookthespinach?Putitinabowlandzapitinthemicrowavethreeminutes.
Wejustwanttogetitdefrosted.I’llfinishcookingitinthepan.”
Reneeobeyed;itfeltnice,cookingtogether,andshenoticedhe’dcontinuedto
relaxashefocusedonpreppingdinner,theexamseeminglyforgotten.Itwasn’tthe
mostexcitingwaytospendaFridaynight,butshewouldn’ttradeitforanything.
Especiallyifitmeantshe’dseehimsmiling.Notoneofhisfakedorforcedgrins,butone
ofhisbeautiful,lopsided,genuinesmilesshelovedseeingsomuch.
“Theonions?”
SheheardthesizzleofhotoilandvaguelygottheimpressionKaihadaskedher
morethanonce.“Oh,coming!”Shecarriedthecuttingboardoverandwatchedashe
slidtheonionsintothepanwithaspatula.
ReneestoodbyasKaibrownedtheonions,thendrainedthechickpeasand
addedthespices,tomatoes,andsauce,coveringitandlettingitsimmerforafew
minutes.Itcouldhavebeenthefactthatshewashungry,butitsmelleddelicious.“So..
.IgrewuphelpingagrandmotherwhocooksbetterthananyoneI’veevermet,andI
stillcanbarelymaketoast.Whotaughtyou?”
Kaipointedtohimself.“Itwassomethingtodoafter...”Kaihesitated.“...I
gotoutofCountyHouse,”Kaifinished,asifhewerespeakingaboutprison.“IfoundI
likedit.”
“Well,Ithinkit’sprettysexy,”Reneesaid.
Kailaughed,liftedthelidtocheckthesauce.“Ithinkwe’rereadyforthe
spinach,ifyou’llbringitover.”
“Plus,I’llnevergohungryaslongasI’mwithyou.”
Thatreallymadehimlaughastheyaddedthefinalingredienttogether.Their
eyesmet,andKaismiledoneofhisrelaxedgrinsbeforelookingawaytostirinthe
spinach.“Letthatheatupabit,”hesaid,coveringitandsettingthespatulaaside.
“So,teachmesomesigns,”Reneesaid,figuringshe’dmakeuseofhertime.
She’dgottensomebooksoutofthelibrary,buthavingKaiteachherworkedsomuch
betterthantryingtointerpretadrawinginabook.
“Cook,”Kaidemonstrated,speakingtheEnglishwordashedidthesign.
Reneeattemptedtoimitate:righthandontopofleft,thenflippeduntilit
returnedbacktorest.
“Music,”Kaisaidandsigned,confusingReneeinitiallyuntilsherealizeditwas
similar,thoughitlookedmorelikewavingthefingersofhisrighthandalonghisleft
forearm.“Somepeopledothosesignsalmostidentically,so,remember,context.”He
repeatedthesign,thistimeonhishand,andshecouldseehowthetwocouldbe
confused.
Shenodded,repeatedthemboth.
“Eat.”Kaitappedhisclosedrighthand,fingersstraight,onhislips.“That
meansfood,too.”
Reneetappedherleftwrist,thenbroughtherhandtoherlips,makingsureto
archherbrows.Kaididn’trespondimmediately,andshebegantodeflate,thinkingshe’d
doneitwrong.
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Butashysmiletwisteditswayontohisface,andheofferedaslightnod,then
signedusingalotofpointingandtheoutlineofsomethingintheair.Abowl?Shecaught
himrepeatingTIMEandEAT,butshewasafraidshehadtoadmitshe’dlosthim.
Sheshookherhead,flickingupherrightindexfinger,indicatingshedidn’t
understand.
Helaughed.“Iwasaskingyoutogrababowl,”hesaid,awkwardlytryingto
matchtheASLtotheEnglishforhersake,thoughitwasclearitdidn’tmatchupvery
well.“InASL,youalwayshavetoidentifywhoyou’retalkingaboutfirst.SoIhaveto
identifyyou,andthewhereandwhatIwantyoutoget,thentellyoutobringittome.
Wecangointothatmorelater.Let’seat.”
Afewminuteslater,theyweresittingdiagonallyfromeachotheratthetable,partaking
ofKai’screation.“Wow,this...isreallygood.”ReneeusedthesignforGOOD,
emphasizingitinthewayshesignedandinherface;she’dnoticedKai’seyesalwayslita
littlemoreforherwhenshewassigning,andshelovedtoseethatsparkle.
Kaichuckled,pickedathisfood,asalways,andforcedhimselftotakeafew
bites.“Chickpeashaveaprettymeatyflavor,butaddingsomeWorcestershiresauce
helps.”Heshrugged.“Iknowit’stechnicallynotavegetarianingredient,butIfigurea
littleanchovywon’tkillme.”
Reneesmiled.“Idon’tthinkI’veeverhadaguycookmedinnerwhowasn’t
relatedtome.”
Kaishruggedagain,tookafewmorereluctantbites.“I’mgladyoulikeit.”
Theyateinsilenceforafewminutes,Reneeunabletoignorehowevenameal
hecookedhimselfKaiapproachedlikeanobligationhewishedhecouldgetoutof.
Finally,Reneefelthercuriositybubbleup,unabletocontainitanylonger.She
attemptedtosignit,hopingshewouldn’tflubittoobadandhemightbemorereceptive.
“Whydoyouhateeatingsomuch?Evenwhenyoucookityourself?”
Kaiwatchedhersigning,smilingfaintly;apparentlyshe’dmadeherselfclear
enough.Heglanceddownathishalf-eatenbowlandshruggedagain.“Woulditsurprise
youifIsaidthat’snotasimpleanswer?”heresponded,sim-commingforhersake.She
noticedhereachedoverforasugarshaker,likethekindyoufoundindiners,and
sprinkledsomeontohisfoodthewaysomeonemightaddparmesan,mixingitup.
Sheshookherhead.“Notatall.I’mbeginningtothinkyourentirelifeconsists
ofanswersyoucangivewithashrug,headshake,ornod,orthatwouldrivalthegreatest
worksofliteratureforcomplexityandlength.”
Thatmadehimsmile,leanback.Nod.
Shelaughed,pointedtothesugar.“Isitbecauseyouhavereallyweirdtastes
andIwouldn’teatitifyouhadcookeditthewayyoulikedit?”
Kai’seyebrowsfurrowed,andhetiltedhisheadasheforcedanothercouple
mouthfuls.Hisactionsweresomeasured,likeachildcountinghisbitesbeforehis
motherwouldgivehimpermissiontoleavethetable.Butthen,maybeheactuallywas
doingthat:musteattwentybitestoday,Reneethoughtwithamusement.
Finally,aftermullingitover,heresponded,“IeatbecauseIhaveto,”and
punctuateditwithashrug.Hedrummedthefingersofhislefthand,hisgazegoing
distant.She’deitherlosthimagain,orhewascalculatingwhattosaynext.Finally,he
said,hisvoicestrangelymeek,“Re,rememberItoldyoutherewasmorethanthechair?”
Shenodded,tryingtosuppressherconfusion.WasKaiactuallygoingto
volunteerinformationwithoutherneedingtoextractitslowlyandpainfullylikea
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stubborntooth?
“I...”Kaiseemedtobestrugglingastohowtoproceed,andhetookanother
couplebitesofhismeal.“Iwanttobehonestwithyouaboutmyself,”hesaid,shiftingto
ASL,asifthatmadeiteasierforhimtogethispointacross.“WhyI’m22-years-oldand
startingcollege.Whyrememberingishard.”Heusedlistingwhenhesigned,pointing
toeachofhisfirsttwofingersbeforeexplainingeach,slowanddeliberate,choosinghis
signscarefullytoensuresheunderstood.Kaihadexplainedlistingwasanimportant
elementofASL,andsincehe’dtoldherthat,she’dobservedhowitleakedintohis
English:firstly,second....
Reneenodded,waitingforhimtocontinue.
Kai’sfingersflutteredintheairinfrontofhim,asifheweretryingtodecide
howtoproceed.Severalquietmomentspassed,Kai’seyesshut,likelydebatinginwardly
howtotellherwhateveritwashewasgoingtoexplain.Butthenhedroppedhishands,
rubbedhischest,hiseyebrowsfurrowing.Hetookafewbreathsthatlookedeffortful.
“Kai?”
“I’ll....Excusemeaminute,”hesaidsuddenly,pushingawayfromthetable,
disappearingbeforeReneecouldsayanythingelse.
Confused,Reneesatatthetable,finishingherfoodbeforefinallydecidingto
makeherselfusefulbyclearingtheirdishes.She’dgatheredmostofthemwhenshe
suddenlyheardKaicoughing.Hard,almostlikehewerechokingonsomething.She
abandonedtheplatesandrushedtohisdoor,pressingherearagainstit.
“Kai?AreyouOK?”
Nothingbutmoreharshcoughing,soherhandwenttohisdoorknob,readyto
turnit.Buttheyweren’tatapointintheirrelationshipwhereshecouldjustburstinto
hisbedroomuninvited,soshewaitedamomentmore,herearspeeled.
“I’mfine.Berightout.”
Hisvoiceseemedstrange,forced,breathy,butmaybehe’djusthadsomething
godownthewrongpipe.Shelistenedawhilelonger,heardhimcoughafewmoretimes,
butforcedherselftoresumehertaskofcleaningup.Shewasinthekitchen,almost
finishedwiththedisheswhensheheardtheminorcreakofhischairasherolledin.He
lookedevenmoretiredthanbefore,hischestandshouldersworkingalittleharderthan
theyshould.Wasithisasthma?Maybehisdistance,tension,she’dseenearlierhadbeen
tiedtohisbreathingratherthanworryoverthetest?Wasthatmaybewhathe’dwanted
totellheraboutbeforehe’drushedintohisbedroom?Buthowdidthattieintohislate
startatcollegeorhismemoryissues?
Shewaitedforanexplanation,buthedidn’tofferone,andshedecidednotto
presshimnow.Ifhewasn’ttellingheranythingvoluntarily,shewouldn’tgetmuchfrom
pokinghim.She’dlearnedthatmuchaboutKai,anyway.
Astheymovedtogetherinsilencearoundthesmallkitchen,puttingthe
leftoversaway,shecouldhearasubtle,audiblewheezeinhisbreath.
WouldbeingwithKaialwaysbethisway?Likeexploringavastbuildingfilled
withsealedrooms,prayingshe’dfindafractionofthemunlockedandopentoher?
Theplayful,relativelyforthcomingmanofHalloweennighthadmorphedback
intothisquiet,reserved,pensiveversionofhimself,likethedarksideofthemoon,
distant,shadowed,hidden.
“IguessIshouldgo.”
“What?”hesaidsuddenly,asifherwordshadsnappedhimoutofatrance.
“No.Stay.I’msorry.”Heofferedasmile,which,thoughtired,appearedgenuine.He
59
signedandspoke,eyebrowsraised,“DoyoulikeOreos?”Abitofthechildshe’d
glimpsedafewdaysagopiercedhisouterbarricades,ashepulledapackageofholiday
cookiesfromoneofthelowercabinets.“IatetheHalloweenones.They’vealready
movedontoChristmas.I’llshare.”Heheldupthepackage,adornedwithaSantaand
snowflakes,depictingthefestivelydyedcookiecenters.Helookedatherwithpuppy
eyes,andshecouldn’tresistasmile.
“Milk?”
“Youdon’tneedmilkforOreos,hesaid,layingthepackageinhislap,“butI’ll
pouryousomeifyouwant.”
“Let’seatthemonthecouch?”
Hebrightenedfurther,followingher.
Shecurledupmuchasshehadtheweekbefore,whenhe’dbroughtherback
hereafterPT,acceptingthecookiesashetransferred,heavinghisbodyoverontothe
cushions,usinghishandstohelpeasehimselfclosertoher.
Hesmiled,pluckedthepackageoutofherlapandtoreitopen,snaggingafew
Oreos,offeringherhispalmforhertotakewhatshewanted.
Sheacceptedacouple,watchinghimwithafaintsmile.Heseemedtobefeeling
better—maybehe’dtakensomemedicineinhisbedroom—ashiseyessparkled.
“Areyouacookie-orfilling-firstOreoeater?”sheasked.
“Filling,”hesaid,twistingseveralopenandusinghisteethtoscrapethered
andgreenfrostingoff.
Shelaughedasheatethefillingoutofhalfadozenbeforemunchingonthe
cookies.
“IcaneatawholepackageinonesittingifI’mnotcareful,”headmittedwitha
slightblush.
“Sosweetsareneverachoretoeat,”Reneesaidwithawink.
Kaishrugged.“Dessertisdifferent,”herespondedinhisusualcrypticmanner.
Helickedafewmorecookies,histonguesearchingforanyremainingfrosting.ThenKai
seemedtorealizewhathewasdoing,blushed,andhurriedlypoppedthecookieinhis
mouth.
Reneeshookherhead,smiled,andtwistedopenhers,alsoeatingthefrosting
first.Heseemedtoapprove.
Theysharedabouthalfthepackage,Kaieatingmostofthem,whenheyawned,
stretched,andsettheOreosaside.Hepushedhisbodyforwardintheseat,usinghis
hands,thenadjustedhislegs,stretchingthemout,reclining,hisheadonthebackofthe
couch.
Shetookhiscueandsnuggleddownbesidehim.
“D’youhaveabigfamily?”heaskedlazily.
Hisquestioncaughtheroffguard,butmaybethefestivecookieshadgotten
himthinkingofChristmasandfamily.Whateveritwas,itmeantmaybehewasrelaxing
again,willingtotalkaboutmorethancookiesandsuperficialthings.
“Yeah.Mymawmawwasoneof13,andmypawpawhadeightbrothersand
sisters.There’salotofus.”
Heheldherclose,andwithherearonhischest,shecouldhearafaintgurgle
witheachbreath,likehehadthebeginningsofachestcold.
“Didyoudreamofhavingabigfamily?”
Kaichuckledfaintly.“Everyorphanimagineswhathavingafamilyislikeat
leastonce.Comeswiththeterritory.”Heyawned.“Mostly,Ijustwishedformybrother
60
back.”
“Youtwowereclose?”
“Mmm.He’seightyearsolder,sohetookcareofme.Idon’treallyremember
myparents,butIrememberJon.”Kaiyawnedagain.“Iusedtoimagineandhopehe’d
comeforme,butlikeakidgrowingoutoffaithinSantaClaus,Ifiguredoutbelievingin
somethingthatwouldneverhappenwasonlyarecipefordisappointment.”
“Kai—”
Kaihalflaughed,halfyawned,thenspokeslowly,sleepily,“Ironically,hedid
comeforme.RightbeforeIagedout.Savedme.”
ReneewantedtoaskwhatKaimeant,buthisbodyhadgoneheavyagainsther,
hisheaddriftingtorestontopofhers,snoringfaintly.He’dfallenasleep,inthemiddle
oftheirconversation,almostwithoutwarning,andshefounditamusinglyendearing.
Shefelthimshiveragainsther,butwhensheextractedherselffromunderhim,
sherealizedhewasstillasleep.Hishandswereicecold,though.Washesick?Orcouldit
behisbloodpressure?Shefelthisface,whichseemedalittlechilled,nothot.Shespied
alargeblanketfoldedandtuckedintothebottomoftheendtable,managingtostretch
andsnagit,thendrapeitoverthemboth.Reneecurledupclosetohimagain,tryingto
usehersmallbodytohelphisgetwarm.She’dlethimrestalittlewhile,thenshe’dhave
toleave,gratefulshe’dfollowedhimoverinherowncarthistime.
Heletoutasmall,achinglyadorablesighofcontentmentandpulledhercloser,
stillsoundasleep.Itwouldn’thurttostayalittlewhile,Reneethought,closinghereyes.
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November4,2000
Reneewokesuddenly,uncertainofwhereshewas,tothesoundofakeyscrapingina
lock.Herheartimmediatelybegantoraceinherchest;Kaiwasstillbesideher,but
soundasleep.Shedebatedwakinghimforamoment,herbreathheld,asshewaitedfor
thedoortoopen.Sheknew,inwardly,shehadnothingtoworryabout—afterall,Kaiwas
righthere,andwhoeverwascominginhadakey,butherbodyhadotherideas,andshe
hadtostruggletokeepherselfcalm.
Finally,someoneemergedthroughtheentrance,atall,lankyfigureshakingout
hishairandslippingoutofalongovercoat.Ashesteppedintothelight,shenoticedthe
whitecoatandtheblondhair.Shehadn’tmethiminperson,yet,butthishadtobeKai’s
brother,Jon.Dr.Taylor.
Heseemedtobemakinghisbestefforttobequietasheenteredthekitchen;
Reneerealizednow,withaquickglancetotheVCR,thatitwasalmostthreeinthe
morning.SheandKaihadbeenasleephours.
Sheheardbeeping,likeJonwasheatingsomethinginthemicrowave,and
decidedtocarefullyslipoutfromKai’sembraceandthewarmthofthecouch.She’dsay
aquickhellotoJon,thenbeonherway.SheneededtobeatLostAppleinfivehours.
Assheapproachedthekitchen,shecouldseeJon’sback,leaningagainstthe
counter,watchingthemicrowave.Sheattemptedtobalancebeingquiet—soasnotto
wakeKai—andloudenoughsoasnottostartleJon.
Shestoodintheentrancetothekitchen,finallyclearingherthroat.He
containedhisjump,butgapedather,shockedandconfused—thoughhelooked
disturbinglylikeKai,onlyolder,heobviouslydidn’thaveKai’sself-controloverhis
emotions.
“I’msorry;Iwastryingnottoscareyou.”
Heblinked.“YoumustbeRenee.”
Shenodded,offeredherhand.Theyshookquickly;Jonclearlywaseitherstill
unsettledbyhersuddenappearanceorhejustdidn’tknowwhattosaytoher.“Kaifell
asleep,andIguessIdid,too,”shesaidinexplanation.“Onthecouch.”
Jonnodded,staredatherawkwardly.
Shegesturedforthedoorwithherthumb.“Ishouldprobablygo.”
Jontookinabreath.“It’sactuallyreallynastyoutthere.Blackice.You’re
welcometostaythenighthere.Youcantakemybed.OrKai’s.Ifhe’sstillsleeping,he
probablywon’twakeupuntilthemorning.”
ReneesmiledatJon’sconsideration.Eventhoughshe’dlivedthroughlast
winterhere,herexperienceindrivinginiceandsnowwasn’textensive.Still,shewasn’t
themostcomfortablewiththeideaofspendingthenightinanapartmentwithtwomen
shebarelyknew.
Themicrowavebeeped,andJonhesitatedamomentbeforereachingforit,
thoughheseemedunsureifheshouldeatornot,asifwaitingforRenee’spermission.It
wascrazyhowmuchalikethetwobrotherslookedandyethowdifferenttheywere,
personalitywise.Kaialwaysseemedincontrolofasituation,carefullycraftingwhatto
sayandguidingtheconversationinthedirectionofhischoosing.Jonseemedto
flounder,likesomeonewhobarelyknewhowtoswimtryingtokeephisheadabove
water.
Reneerecognizedthesmellsofthedinnershe’dhelpKaicookearlier.“It’s
62
good.Don’tletmestopyou,”shesaidfinally.
Jonnoddedandbeganeating,notquitewithrelish,thoughheclearlyenjoyed
hisfoodmorethanhisbrotherdespitethefactthathelookedlikeheweighedatleast
twentypoundsless.“Didhetakehismedicine?Doyouknow?”
Reneeshookherhead.“Idon’t,butIthinkhedid.”
Jonsighed,nodded.Heatequickly,hurriedly,clearlytiredandreadyforsleep
himself.“Icandriveyouhome,ifyouwant,”Jonoffered,thoughshecouldseehewas
exhaustedandonlyofferingtobenice.“Kaicanpickyouupinthemorningandbring
youbacktoyourcar.”
Reneesighed.“Kaiwouldn’tmindifIstayed?”
Jonlookedather,confused,ashepulledazipperedpouchoutofoneofthe
drawers.“KaiwouldbefuriouswithmeifIletyoudrivehomeinthisweather.”She
watchedhimprickhisfingerwithalittledevice—hedidn’tevenflinch—thensqueezethe
bloodoutontoateststrip.“Mybed’sbigger,butKai’sroomiswarmer.Icangetyou
somethingtosleepin.”
Hewentthroughtherestofthemotionsofwhatsheassumedwascheckinghis
bloodsugar,notthinkinganythingaboutinjectinghimselfinfrontofher.Oncehe
finished,hesignaledforhertofollowhim.
Heledhertohisownbedroom,whichwassparselyfurnishedandevenless
decoratedthantherestoftheapartment,pawingthroughafewdrawersbeforehefound
something.ApairofpinkplaidflannelPJs.“Uh,thesepajamasaremygirlfriend’s;
they’llbeabitbig,butprobablyfitbetterthananyofourclothes.”Hepointed.“That’s
mybathroom,ifyouwanttochangeinthere.I’mgoingtogocheckonKai.”
Reneeemergedafewminuteslater;she’drolledupthepantsatthelegsandthewaist,
andtiedtheshirttohelpkeepitinplace.Sheprobablylookedridiculous,butshewas
warm,andshewouldn’thavetoriskgettinginanaccidentoutontheicyroads.Jonwas
repositioningKai,whowasstillsoundasleep,shiftinghimontohisbackandtuckinga
pillowunderhislegsbeforecoveringhimwithanextrablanket.Jon’smovementswere
tender,feelingKai’sforeheadandcheeksandexamininghishandsasifKaiwerehisson
insteadofhisbrother.
“IsheOK?”Reneeaskedinawhisper.
Jonlookedup.Nodded.“Hisbloodpressure’salittlelow,butpositioninghim
likethiswillhelp.He’sreallyout,”Jonsaidwithafaintsmile.“Didyoudecidewhere
youwanttosleep?”Jonasked,standingup.
“Uh,”Reneetoedtheground.“IguessKai’sroom.Ihatetoputyouout
anymorethanIamalready.”
Jon’ssmilebroadened,remindinghermoreofhisbrother,butheshookhis
head.“Allright,well,it’srightthroughthere.Heshouldhavefreshsheetsinhis
bathroom,ifyouwantthem,andhisalarmissetforseven,butyoucanturnitoffifyou
want.”
“That’sperfect.He’llreallybeOKonthecouch?”
Jonlaughed.“Ifhehasn’twokenupyet?Yeah,he’llbefine.”ThenJon
stretched,yawned,andflickedoffmostofthelights,thoughnotallofthem,oddly
enough,Reneeobserved,disappearingintoKai’sroom.
Kai’sbedroomwastidy,butnotasIKEA-catalogneatastherestoftheapartment,orhis
brother’sroom.Thesurfaceofthelowdresserofftoonesidewasdottedwith
63
prescriptionbottles,pens,stickynotepads,smallcrumpledpapers,partiallyempty
bottlesofwaterandsportsdrink.Anoldphotographwastuckedintothecornerofthe
mirror,belowacascadeofpost-itswithnotesscrawledinKai’sslanting,hurried
handwriting.Thingslike,CallJake.Prepare1stDateSun.PickupRx.Apptw/Dr.Mic
[email protected]
Anunmade,extra-longtwinbed,likethekindReneerememberedfromthe
dorm,waspushedupagainstthefarwall,asinglenightstandandlampbesideit,the
shelvesofwhichwerefullofitemsshecouldn’tquiteidentifyatfirstglance.Aninhaler
andanovel—clearlyalibrarybook—layonitssurface.Inthefarcorner,nearthebed,
stoodapairofforearmcrutches,thescuffsonthewallindicatingheoftenleanedthem
there,andKai’sblackkneebrace.Hisleatherbraces,theonesshe’dseenhimwearingin
PT,werenowheretobeseen,perhapsstoredawayintheclosetopposite.Ontheother
wallwasalowbookshelf,sparselyfilledwithwell-wornnovelsandacoupletextbooks.
ShenoticedthecopyofTheVelveteenRabbitKaihadpurchasedtheotherdayatthe
reading.
Butotherthanthesinglephotograph,nothingpersonalizedtheroom.No
mementosorpictures,nophotosordecorations.Itwasclearlylivedin,evidenceofKai’s
presenceeverywhere—includingtheoverflowinghamperbesidethedresser—but
withoutlookingatthenameontheprescriptionbottles,withoutknowingthatbraceand
crutcheswerehis,itcouldeasilyhavebeenanyyoungguy’sroom.ItlookedlikeKai’s
instincttohidewentfartherthanhisreticencetotalktoher.
Sheresistedthetemptationtopryinhisclosetordrawers,ortocheckanyof
theprescriptionbottlesforcluesintoKai’slife,thoughshedidduckintohisbathroom,
figuringmaybehe’dhavesomemouthwashshecoulduseasasubstituteforbrushing
herteeth.
Kai’sbathroomwasabouttwiceaslargeashisbrother’s,thoughotherthanthe
hightoiletpushedclosetothewallandthegrabbarslikeshe’dseeninpublicrestrooms,
itseemedprettystandard,justwithmorespace,obviouslysohecouldmaneuverhis
wheelchairinit.
Likehisbedroom,thebathroomwasimpersonalyetvisiblylivedin,more
prescriptionbottlesscatteredaround—thereseemedlikeanawfullotofthem—along
withseveralinhalersandplasticpiecesshecouldn’tidentifysetcarefullytodryona
towel.Shespottedthemouthwashandpouredsomeintoaplasticcupshepluckedfrom
astackofftotheside.Usingitquickly,shefeltuncomfortablylikeshewasinvading
Kai’scarefullycraftedprivacy.Shesuspectedpartofhisclosingthedooronherearlier,
whenhe’ddisappearedintohisroom,wasasmuchtokeephisdomainprivatefromher
astoshieldherfromwhateveritwashe’dcomeintodo.Takehismedicine,she
presumed.
Sheopenedthelargecabinetnearthedoorwheresheexpectedtofindextra
towelsandsheets,spyingthesestackedneatlyonashelf,butbelowthemshesawboxes
ofmedicalsupplies,somesherecognized,likesurgicalglovesandmasks,andothersshe
didn’t.Furtherconvincedherinstinctsaboutprivacyinvasionwereright,andrealizing
shewasevenmoretiredthanshe’dthought,shedecidedtoforgetaboutchangingthe
sheetsandjustgotosleep.
Reneesighed,flippedoffthelight,andreturnedtohisbed,sinkingdowninto
it,realizingitwascoveredinpillows,likeKaiwassomekindofpillowhoarder.Itmade
thenarrowbedstrangelycomfortable,andtheysmelledreassuringlylikehim,soshe
gatheredthemupintoanestofsorts,pulleduptheblankets,andsoonslippedintoa
64
contentedsleep.
Kaiwokeslowly.Thefirstthingherealizedwashowstiffhewas,hisneckandbacktight.
Heopenedhiseyes,confusedatfirstuntilherealizedhewasonthecouch.He’dspent
theentirenighthere?Herubbedathisneck,workinghisfingersintothemuscleashe
searchedfortheclock.Six-thirtyAM.Ugh,nowonderhewastight.He’dtakenhismeds
whenhe’dsnuckintohisroomtocough,buthadn’tbotheredtostretch.
Heusedthebackofthecouchtopullhimselfupwithagrunt.Hefeltalittle
dizzy,andsuspectedhisbloodpressurehaddippedabit,butheworkedthroughit,
yankingthepillowoutfrombeneathhislegs—hadhedonethat?Leaningforwardas
muchashisbackwouldallowtostretchit.
Reneehadcomeover,they’dhaddinner,thenthey’dsatonthecouchtogether.
Hemusthavefallenasleep.Hadsheleftwithoutwakinghim?Orhadhewokenbut
couldn’tremember?Butifhehad,whyhadn’thegonetohisbed?
Heheardsomeonemovingaroundthekitchenashecontinuedtotrytostretch
himselfloose.Hepulledhislegsoffthecouchonebyone,glancingaroundforhischair.
Itwasn’twhereherememberedleavingit,butthenhecouldn’tremembermuchofthe
nightbefore.Thegoodnewswasotherthanbeingtightandalittlelightheaded,his
chestfeltclearer.Onlyacoupledosesoftheamphigarolandhewasalreadyclearingthe
mucusbetter.Hereachedforahandfuloftissuesandcoughed.Itwasgoodnews,of
course,ashenotedwhathecoughedupwasstillclear,andlesssticky,thoughalsobad:
whatevercausedhisbodytoproducetheabnormalgunkinhislungsthatthe
amphigarolfoughtagainstobviouslyhadn’tbeencuredbythetransplanttheway
everyonehadhoped.
“Kai?”
Kaicoughedafewmoretimes,wipedhismouth,andlookedup.Jonstoodwith
twomugs,offeringhimone.“I’mfine,”Kaisaid,ballinguptheusedtissuesand
acceptingthemug.Hotmilkwithsugar.Hetookafewsips,thentriedtostretchhisback
somemorebyarchinghisshoulders.
Jontookaseatattheotherendofthecouch,sippinghiscoffee.“Shh.Renee’s
asleepinyourroom.”
“What?!”Kaifingerspelledrapidlywithhisfreehandtoexpresshisshock.
“ItwastoodangerousforhertodrivebythetimeIgothome,soIofferedto
letherstay.Youwereasleep.”
Kaigroanedbutsaidnothingelse,rollinghisnecktotrytostretchit.He’dhave
tosneakthroughhisownbedroomjusttousethetoiletortakehismeds.Reneeonly
knewafractionofwhatlifewithhimwaslike.Hewasn’treadyforasleepover,which
madehimfuriouswithJon.Butatthesametime,iftheweatherwasbad,Jonhaddone
therightthingtokeepherhere.IfRenee’ssafetymeantKaihadtodosomeexplaining
soonerratherthanlater,andbeslightlyinconvenienced,thensobeit.Kaisighed
heavily,annoyedhecouldn’tevenreallybemad.
JonseemedtobewaitingforKai’sangrysignedoutburst.
Instead,Kaiattemptedtostretchagain.“Youwererighttoletherstay.I’ve
gottawakeherupsoon,anyway.Shehaswork.”
Jonblinked,alittlesurprised.“Yousore?Ididn’twanttowakeyou...”
Kaisighed.“Icoulduseagoodmassage,”hesaid,smilingfaintly.“ButI’lllive.I
neededthesleep.Ifeelalotbetter.”
Jonnodded.“Good.Iwasworriedaboutyouyesterday.I’mgoingtogeta
65
shower;Ihaveclinicforafewhours,thenI’monthegraveyardagain.”Jonsighed,
rollinghiseyes.Hefinishedhiscoffee,thenrose.“Seeyoulater.”
Afewminuteslater,Kaisnuckintohisroom,tryingtobeasquietaspossible.Reneewas
sprawledinhisbed,lookingadorable,hercurlsafrizzydisasteraroundherhead,
tangledupinthepillowsandblanketsandtheborrowedpajamasseveralsizestoolarge
forher.Man,hehadtopee,nottomentiontakehismorningmeds,butglancingatthe
clock,hisalarmwouldsoundsoon.
Hedebatedforamoment,butfinally,hisbladderwonoutandheshuthimself
inthebathroom.Hisfingerhoveredoverthelock.Kainever,everlockedhimselfina
residentialbathroom.Itwassilly,andhetoldhimselfitwasincasesomething
happened,hisbrotherorsomeoneelsecouldgettohim,butevennow,hecouldn’tbring
himselftoturnthelock.ItwassomethingDr.Millerwouldprobablychastisehimabout,
buttheriskofReneewalkinginonhimfeltlikelessofathreatthanalockeddoor,even
ifitwasofhisownmaking.
Kaihadriggedupaurinaltousesohedidn’thavetotransfertopee.Itwas
meanttoattachtoabag,buthe’dsimplymodifieditsoheputtheendinthebowlso
thatwhilehepeed,itdraineddirectlyintothetoilet.
He’djustfinished,cleaninghisdeviceandhimself,whenheheardhisalarm.
It’dbeaninconvenience,buthecouldtakehismedsinhisroomandletReneehavehis
bathroomforamomenttoshower.Hegatheredeverythingintoabag,includinghis
notebookandpen,setitinhislap,andpushedoutthedoor.
Reneehadmanagedtoshutoffthealarm,andwassittingupinhisbed,her
hairafrazzledmess,lookingsosmall,stillwakingup.Butshesmiledwhenshesawhim.
“Morning.”
“Morning,”hesaid,echoinghersmile.“Ihopeyousleptwell?”
Shenodded,pattingthepillows.“Deceptivelycomfortable.”Shestretched,then
seemedtoremembershewasn’tcompletelydressedandherhairwasamess,pullingthe
blanketshigheraroundherself.“ThiswouldbeawkwardifIweren’twearingsomeone
else’spajamasandsittinginanusurpedbed.”
Hechuckled,feelingawarmthinhisbellyattheideaofReneewakingupinhis
bed,evenifhehadn’tsleptinitwithher.“I’llbethegracioushostandyieldmy
bathroomtoyou.There’stowelsifyou’dliketoshower.Ialsoshouldhavesome
unopenedtoothbrushesinthebottomleftcabinet;Iliketochangethemmonthly,soI
alwayskeepafewextras.Takeyourtime.I’llgomakesomecoffeeforyou,incaseJon
drankitall.”
Reneebeckonedhimclose,soheobeyed,pushingtotheedgeofthebed.She
gotuponherkneesandleanedinforakiss,shortbutdeliciouslysweet.“Thankyoufor
beingagentleman.”
“I’mtheonewhofellasleeponyoulastnight.Sorryaboutthat.”
“Well,you’lljusthavetomakeituptometomorrowforoursurprise‘first’
date.”Shegrinnedandpulledhiminforanotherkissthatmadehimmeltinside.
“You’regoingtoloveit.It’sbingoSundayatthePrairieValleyRetirement
Home.”Herealizedhewassmiling,asillygrin,hislipbetweenhisteeth.
ButReneewasbeamingbackathim.“Ican’twait.”Shewinked,plantedaquick
peckonhischeek,beforehoppingaroundhimanddisappearingintothebathroom.
“You’reinlovewithher,”Jonsignedsingle-handedlyashepouredhimselfyetmore
66
coffeefromthefreshpotKaihadmadeforRenee,fillingalargeto-gocup.
“I’mnot,”Kaisignedquickly,turninghisbackonhisbrothertosignalthe
conversationwasover,openingthefridgetoseeifhehadanythinghecouldmakeher
forbreakfast.
JontappedfirmlyonKai’sshoulder,soKaireluctantlylookedup.“Ithinkshe’s
inlovewithyou,too.”
“Whatever,”Kaisigneddismissively.“Don’tyouhavework?”
“Sheseemsnice,”Jonsaidinawhisper.“Don’tpushheraway.”
KaiglaredatJon,butJononlysmiledandwaved.
“I’llbelateagaintonight.”
“Fallinginlove,maybe,”Kaiconceded.“Butnotlovelove,”Kaisaid,
fingerspellingoneofthe“loves”foremphasis.“Sincewhenareyoutheexpert,
anyway?”
Jonjustsmiled.“Maybethefourofusshouldhavedinner?MaybeonceI’m
backonanormalschedule?”
Kainoddedvaguely,lostinhisthoughts.Jonmightbesociallycluelessat
times,buthewasobservant.Partofwhatmadehimsogoodathisjob.Coulditreallybe
possible?Reneebarelyknewhim,andhebarelyknewher.Jonwasprobablyjust
overeagertoseeKaihappyafterthedisastersofBeccaandNikki.Right?
ReneeslippedintoKai’sbathroom,herclothesfromthenightbeforebundledinher
arms.Shetwistedthelock;shetrustedKaiandhisbrother,butitmadeherfeelalittle
safer.Sheleftherclothesonthesink,thenfishedacoupletowelsoutofthecabinet,
strippingoutofherborrowedPJs.Sheshiveredandrushedtotheshower.
Itwasatubshowersimilartotheoneinherownapartment,butwhenshe
pulledthecurtainaway,shenoticedafewminordifferences.Thefirstwasawhite
plasticchairsetintothetub;ithadhandlesbuiltintotheseat.Next,shespottedtwo
moregrabbars,thenthattheshowerheadhadbeenconvertedtoahandwandand
mountedloweronthewall,soitwaseasilyreachablefromtheseat.Reneehad
wondered,vaguely,howKaishowered.Nowsheknew.
Shereachedinandturnedthewateronhottogetsomesteamgoing,observing
how,likeatypicalman,Kai’sbathproductsconsistedofonlysoapandshampoo.She
sighed,testingherhair.Itnormallytookspecialhairproductstokeepitmanageable;
andabouthalfacupofconditionertopreventitdryingout,especiallyinthewinter.She
couldtakeherchanceswithjustshampoo,orleaveitunwashedandpullitintoabun
andhopenoonewouldnotice.Shetuckeditupnow,twistinghercurlstogether,then
wrappingthemaroundeachotherandpullingtheendthroughtoholdtheminplace.
Shecautiouslysteppedintotheshower,realizing,evenasshortasshewas,it
wouldbeawkwardtryingtostandinfrontoftheshowerchair—whichshewasn’ttoo
keenonmoving—whatifshebrokeit?Andshe’dprobablyhavetoholdthewandto
reallygetgoodcoverage,evenifshedecidednottowashherhair.Yetshewashesitant
tositintheseat,too.EventhoughKaihadgivenherpermissiontouseshisbathroom,it
stillfeltwrong,likeanintimacytheyweren’tquitereadyfor.Ofcoursesheknewhewas
disabled,andthewheelchairdidmakeitprettyobvious,especiallywhenhewas
transferringinandoutofit,hislegssostillwhentheyweren’tspasming,standinginhis
showersuddenlymadeitreal.
She’dassuredhimshedidn’tmindifheneverwalkedagain,butasshefinally
letherselfsinkintotheseat,ithither:hadshereallythoughtthroughwhatbeingwith
67
someonelikeKaiwouldmean?Inonlyacoupleweeks,she’dbespendingThanksgiving
withherfamily,andeveryoneusuallygatheredathermaternalgrandparents’house,
whichhadbeeninthefamilyforgenerations.Itwasalarge,150-year-oldVictorian
house,raisedalmostanentirestoryabovethegroundtokeepitprotectedfromseasonal
floodsandeventheworsthurricane’srains.
Butthatalsomeantsteps.Lotsofsteps.Andmoreinside,sincethebedrooms
wereallonthesecondorthirdfloors.Herparents’house,thehomewhereshe’dgrown
up,wasofasimilardesign.Andthatdidn’tevenaccountfordoorsthatweren’twide
enoughorabathroomtoosmallforhimtomaneuverin.Kaiwasresourceful,ofcourse—
she’dseenitfirsthand,butinventivenesscouldonlytakehimsofar.Therewerethings,
probablyalonglistifsheforcedherselftoreallythinkofthem—thatKaiwouldnotbe
abletodo.
Shereachedforthesoap—plain,unscented,tostartcleaningherselfwhenshe
heardagentleknockonthedoor.“I’mnotdone,”shesaidstupidly;hehadtohearthe
runningwater.
“ImadecoffeeandI’mgoingouttoscrapetheiceoffyourwindshieldaslongas
you’renotblockedin.JustthoughtI’dletyouknow.”
Reneesmileddespiteherself,awarmthfillingherthathadnothingtodowith
thewater.She’djustbeenimaginingKai’slimitations,andyethewasofferingtogoout
inthecoldandprephercarforher.Shewasn’tsureexactlyhowhe’dmanage,butjust
likeinthekitchenyesterday,hehadtohaveasystem.MaybelifewithKaiwouldn’tbe
thesameasitwouldbewithanable-bodiedman,andmaybehe’dhavetofindwork
aroundsanddothingsdifferently,butshecouldn’thidethewayherstomachfelt
wonderfullyknottedupatthethoughtofbeingwithKailongenoughshe’dneedtofind
outwhatallthecomplexitiesofhislifemightbe.
Reneehadbeendistractedallday,gratefulthestorewasn’ttoobusy,unabletostop
thinkingaboutKai.Notonlyabouthimingeneral—hisraregenuinesmiles,thesparkle
inhisblueeyes,therichsoundofhislaughter,thesubtlecleanmalenessofhissmell,
theroughnessofhisskinalonghers.Howniceithadfelt,feelinghisheadleaning
againsthers,hisarmwrappedaroundherastheyslepttogetheronhiscouch.How
strangelywonderfulhisbedhadbeen.Butalsoaboutwhathe’dstartedtotellherbefore
disappearing.Andallthoseprescriptionbottles.Hehadtoldhermorethanoncehis
healthwascomplicated.She’dgivenintotemptationafterhershowerandhadreadthe
labelsonafewofthebottlesinhisbathroom,allofwhichhadapparentlybeento
controlortreathisMLS,plusonewhoseinstructionsread,Takeonetabletuptofour
timesdailyasneededfornauseaandvomiting.Atthatpoint,she’ddecidedshe
shouldn’tpryanymoreandhadresumedgettingdressed.Butthatlastprescriptionhad
madeherwonder:wasthatwhyKaihatedeating?Becauseheoftenfeltsick?Anddidhe
feelthatwaybecauseofhis“complicatedhealth,”orwasitasideeffectofthemyriad
medicineshetook?Maybeshecouldaskhimtomorrow.Ormaybehe’dfinishtellingher
whateveritwashe’dstartedtosay.
Athumpasabookwasthrowndowninfrontofheronthecounterdrewher
outofherrepetitivecycleofthoughts.
“Isthiseverything?”Reneeaskedautomaticallyasshepulledthebookcloserto
ringitup.Shenoticedthetitle,RedefiningSLUT:FemaleSexualityinthe21stCentury.
“So.Howwashe?”Reneelookedupatthevoice,seeingDiane,leaningonthe
counter,armscrossed,eyebrowsraised.
68
“What?”
“Someonedidn’tcomehomelastnight.”
Reneeblinked.
Dianeleanedin.“Anddespitethatsweater,whichIknowyoukeepinyourcar,
you’realsowearingthesameclothesyouworeyesterday.”
Reneeblushedfiercely,eventhoughshehadnoreasonto,gratefulthere
weren’tanycustomersaroundandArtwasinhisoffice.
“I’vebeenwatchingyouforthepastfifteenminutes,andyourlookwasthe
perfectcombinationofdreamyandconfusedandcontemplative,whichscreamed—to
me—thatyouhadsexlastnight.”Dianewasbeamingtriumphantly.
“I’matwork,Diane.Thisistotallynottheplace.”
“Fine.Tellmeallaboutittonight.Butyou’veneverbeenonetonotkissand
tell.”
Reneesighedheavily.“Areyouevenbuyingthis?”Sheheftedthebookinthe
air.
“Justtryingtogetyourattention.Yousaidthisguywasdifferent—“
NowReneewasgettingmad.“Heis.Wedidsleeptogetherlastnight,butnot
thewayyouthink.Wefellasleeponhiscouch,anditwaslateandbadroadconditions
whenIwokeup,soIwasinvitedtostay.Hewasaperfectgentleman.Heevenwentout
andscrapedtheiceoffmywindshieldthismorning.”
DianestudiedRenee,obviouslyskeptical.
“Look,Diane,”Reneesaid.“There’ssomethingabouthimyoushouldknow.
I’vebeenmeaningtotellyou,butthere’sneverbeena‘right’time,andnowseemslike
thewrongtimeforeverything,sowhynot.”Reneepaused,tookadeepbreath.“Heuses
awheelchair.Hecan’twalk.Well,hecan,kindof.It’s...complicated.”Reneefound
herselfsmiling,hugeandsilly.Kaiwassoright.Therewasnosimplewaytoexplainhis
disability.
Diane’smouthopened,hereyesnarrowing.“Wait.Youalwaystalkedabout
howtallheis.Andyouneversaidanythingabout....Andhowcanhebothwalkandnot
walk?It’soneortheother.”
“We’lltalkmorelater,”Reneesaid,stillsmiling,takinganotherpageoutof
Kai’sbookanddirectingtheconversationconfidently.“ButI’mseriousaboutus,andI’m
prettysurehefeelsthesameway.SoI’dappreciateyoursupport.”
Jonjoggedintothepulmonologyoutpatientclinic,hopingtofindVickythereforsome
kissingifnothingelsebeforehisfirstpatientarrived.He’donlymanagedafewhours’
sleep,andhewasonshiftagainthatnight,butthestrongcoffeehe’dconsumedthat
morninghelpedenergizehim,nottomentiontheprospectofseeingVicky,theirfirst
chancetobealonesinceshe’dentertainedhiminhisofficeonHalloweennight.
Herhairwasformedintoalong,thickbraidthatdippedoverhershoulderas
shestoodatthefrontdesk,frowningasshedouble-checkedshe’dpulledtheright
patientfilesforthemorning.Jon’sheartspeditsbeat,anditwasn’tsimplythecaffeine
overload.
“Morning,”Jonsaid,sneakingupbehindherandwrappinghisarmsaround
her,pullingherintoahugagainsthim.
Shegaspedinsurprisebeforelaughing,battinghishandsoffherenoughshe
couldturnaroundanddrapeherarmsaroundhisneck.“Morning,”shesaid,offering
himashortbutdeliciouslysweetkiss.“IneverthoughtI’dactuallylookforwardto
69
Saturday-morningclinicwithyousomuch.IfeellikethisisthefirsttimeI’vebeenable
tospendsometimewithyouinages.”
Jonsighed.“I’msorry.I’mreadyformycrapscheduletobeover,too,butI’d
doitagaintobethereforKai.”Heleanedinforanotherkiss,butVickypulledaway.
“Whataboutme?”
“What?”Jonsaid,hiseyebrowsdippingasheattemptedthekissagain.
Vickyaccepted,butkeptittoapeck.“Wouldyoudoitforme?”
Jondroppedhisgriponher,hishandsfallingtoherhips,confused.“Is
somethingwrong?”IfVickyweresickandhehadbeentoobusytonotice....
Vickylaughedsoftly,asifshecouldseehismindworking,racingfortheworst
scenario,layingahandonhischeek.“No.I’mfine.But...ifsomethingdidhappento
me,andIneededyou.Wouldyoutakeoffweeksofworkforme?”
Maybeitwasalackofsleep,orsimplyhis(acknowledged)limited
understandingsoftheworkingsofthefemalebrain,butJoncouldn’tfigureoutwhy
Vickywasaskinghimthesethings.Couldn’ttheyjustkiss?
Withoutgivinghimachancetoformulatearesponse,Vickypushedhimaway,
turningherbackonhimandgatheringupthestackofpatients’folders.Sheshoved
themintohisarms.“We’rebusythismorning,”shesaidcoollybeforewalkingaround
him.Amomentlater,heheardherofficedoorslamshut.
Shewasangry.Whathadhedonewrong?Jugglingthefilesinhisarms,he
triedtounderstand.Shehadahugefamily—sevenbrothersandsisters,bothparents
andsetsofgrandparents,plusmorecousinsandauntsandunclesthanJoncouldcount.
Kaionlyhadhim.He’dgivehersometimetocooloff,andmakehisapologies,andhope
hecouldgethertoexplainwhathewassupposedtohavesaid.
70
November5,2000
ReneelaughedwhenKaiparkedinfrontoftheJonesvillePublicLibrary.“Ithoughtyou
promisedmearealdate.”
Kaiturnedtoher,smiledoneofhisgenuinesmiles,oneshewasstartingto
believewasreservedjustforher.“Itis,butlikeus,it’snothingconventional.Ifyouhate
it,Ihaveabackupplan.Just...trustme?”
Reneeraisedaneyebrow,chucklingandnodding.Shedecidedtowaitinthe
lingeringwarmthofthecarfornow,watchingasKaipoppedhisdooropenandcarefully
pulledthepiecesofhischairoverandout,listeningtotheclickaseachwheelwasfixed
inplace.Thenhetwisted,grabbedhisbackpackandattachedittothebackofhischair
beforeliftinghisbodyontothecushion,adjustinghislegs.
“Comeon,”hesaid,hittingthelockandshuttingthedoor.“Followme.”
Kaileadherupthewindingrampthatangleduptowardtheentrance,
bypassingthenumeroussteps.Thebuildingwasablandbox,likelyconstructedinthe
1970sbasedonthecolorofthebrick—acreamthatwasinbadneedofpowerwashing—
andtheshapeofthewindows,narrowandmodern(thirtyyearsago).Especiallycoming
fromNewOrleans,wherebuildingshadrealhistory,itwasatravestyofarchitecturein
Renee’smind,thoughshewonderedifanyoneotherthanherevenbotheredtonotice.
Kaicertainlydidn’t,leaningforward,hisshouldersandarmsworkinghardtopropel
himselfuptheramp.ThecoldairbitatRenee’scheeks,andthoughitwasaclearday,
theforecastpromisedthefirstsignificantsnowoftheseasonforlaterthatday.
Kaiheldthedooropenforherashealwaysdid;Reneehadlearnedquicklythat
herepeopleweren’tasovertlypoliteastheywerebackhome.Notnecessarilyrude,per
se,butholdingdoorswasn’tsomethingpeoplegenerallydidforoneanother.She’d
noticedKaididn’tlikeitwhenshediditforhim—eventhoughshediditreflexively—and
wonderedifhissupposedchivalrywaspreemptive;Reneecouldn’tholdthedoorforhim
ifhewasalreadyholdingitforher.Ofcourse,shecouldbeoverthinkingthings,asshe
oftendid,accordingtoDiane.
Shesmiledathimandwalkedthroughintothefoyer,hearingthesoftclickas
Kairolledoverthethresholdbehindher.Withoutaword,hetookoffatabriskpace
throughthemainwalkwayofthelibrary,pastthebankofcomputersononesideand
fictionontheother.Shehadtoadmitshewascurious,althoughshewonderedifallof
thiscouldbesomekindofelaboratejoke.
Kaiturnedrightatperiodicals,cuttingthroughnonfiction,usinghishandson
theshelvestopropelhimselfforwardwheretheywerealittlenarrow,occasionally
glancingbacktomakesureshewasstillfollowinghim.Finally,theyreachedasecluded
backcorner,shieldedfromthemajorityofthelibrarybyrowsofdustyshelvesfilledwith
booksonobscuretopicsthatlookedlikenoonehadevenbotheredtotouchthemin
quitesometime.Hewheeleduptoadoorthatwasmarked“StaffOnly”inboldletters,
andpulledoutacoupleelongatedpiecesofmetal,likestraightenedpaperclips,outofa
zipperedpocketofhiscoat,thenbeganworkingonthelock.
“Whatareyoudoing?”Reneesaidinaharshwhisper,easingcloserandlooking
aroundnervously,certainsomecrotchetylibrarianwouldstumbleontothemandbeat
themhalfwaytodeathwiththethickestvolumeoftheEncyclopediaBritannica.
“Shh.Relax,”hesaidwithoutlookingupfromhiswork.ReneesawKai’shand
jerk,heardaclick,andthedoorcreakedopenfartooloudlyforRenee’scomfort.“Come
71
on,”Kaisaid,pushingin.SheknewKaiwasfullofsecrets,butlockpicking?Another
thingtoaddtoherincreasinglylonglistof“ThingstoAskKaiLater.”
Reluctantly,Reneefollowed,easingthedoorclosedbehindher.“Shouldwebe
inhere?”Reneeaskedcautiously,walkingbehindKai.Theywereinabarelylithallway,
andReneerealizedtherewassomethingmorethanalittlecreepyaboutthissituation.
“Nope,”Kairesponded.“Almostthere.”
Theyreachedanotherdoor,butthisonewasapparentlyunlocked—eitherit
wasleftthatwayorKaihadalreadypickeditearlier—heclearlyhadanagenda—and
pusheditopen.Reneehesitatedbeforefollowinghimin.Sheheardtheflickofaswitch,
thensawsoftlightbegintoappearonebyone,forcinghereyestoadjustasshe
approached.
Candles.
Theroomwasenormous,theceilingatleasttwostorieshigh,apparentlysome
kindofstoragespace,boxesandfurnitureandoldbookspiledaround,thoughsomeone
—presumablyKai—hadclearedaspaceinthecenterandleftaringofcandles—
ensconcedinglass—oneverysurfaceremotelywithinreachfromhiswheelchair.Hewas
nowpushingaround,lightingthem,onebyone.Reneetooktimetostudytheroom,
puzzlingoutwhyKaihadbroughtherhere,whenshenoticedthewindow,barely
illuminatedbywhatremainedofthemeageroverheadlighting.Ithadclearlybeen
walledinandnolongerfacedtheoutside,butitwasgorgeous.Overastoryhigh,old,
withbitsofcoloredglassinabstractdesigns.Thatguidedhereyetoobservetheroom
moreclearly,noticingthewoodencrownmolding—carvedsimplyandgeometrically.
Theceilingwasmoldedplaster,waterstainedinsomeplaces,butthedesignwasstill
visible,drawinghereyetowhatsherealizednowwasakindofbalconythatcircledthe
room,therichwooddriedanddustyfromyearsofneglect,andthesuggestion,behind
themandthestacksofdetritus,similarlyartfulbookshelves.
“Whatisthisplace?”Reneeaskedinwonder,searchingoutotherhidden
detailsshemayhavemissednowthatKai’scandleshadilluminatedmoreofthespace.
Sheheardhisvoicedrawcloserashewheeledtowardher.“Thelibrarywas
builtin1904,byHoratioJones’sson,intheprairiestyle.Itfeaturedlargewindows,high
ceilings,skylights,andopenbalconies,givingplentyofnaturalsunlighttoreadby.But
inthe1970s,thetownvotedtoexpandandremodelthebuilding,andtheoriginal
architecturewaslost,exceptforthisroom.It’sjustusedforstorage,andnooneever
comesinhere,butIrememberedArttellingmeaboutit.Ithoughtyoumightfindit...
interesting.”
Talkaboutatypicalromanticgestures,Reneethought,rememberingtheir
conversationfromtheweekbefore.“Kai...Idon’tknowwhattosay,”shefinally
admitted,lookingdownathim.He’dtakenoffhiscoat,andshesawhewaswearinga
navylong-sleevedT-shirt,looseenoughtohidethescarathisneckandhisshape,but
thesleevesfitcloselyenoughtooutlinethestrongmusclesinhisarms.
Hehidhisfrown,thoughshe’dseenitfleetinglyonhisface.“ItoldyouIhavea
planBifyoudon’tlikethis.”
Reneeshookherhead.“Idon’tlikethis.”
Kainodded,startedtoturn,perhapstosnuffoutthecandles,whenRenee
reachedforward,layingahandonhisarmtostophim.Heglancedupather,hisface
thatpurposefulunreadablemaskshehatedtosee.
“Iloveit,”shesaid,leaningforwardandkissinghimlightlyonthelips,feeling
hissurpriseandrelief.Whenshepulledback,hewassmilingfaintly,almosthesitantly.
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“Really.It’sbizarre,butsweet.Veryyou.”
Kailaughednow,relaxedalittlemore.“Betterthanflowers?”
Reneejoinedhislaughter.“Muchbetter.”
“Iaskedmybrotherandfriendwhattodoandtheybothsaidtakeyouto
dinner,butthatseemedso...normal.Lifewithmewillneverbe‘normal.’Thoughtyou
shouldgetusedtoitearly.”Hegrinned,butevenso,shestillsawthehesitancy,
uncertainty,inhiseyes.
“It’sacrimewhattheydidtothisbuilding.Itmusthavebeensobeautiful.”
“Ineversawtheoriginal,butIimaginedyouofallpeoplewouldappreciate
this.”
Reneefeltthatindescribablepleasantfeelinginherchest,notquitelikethe
momentonarollercoasterwhereyoufindyourselfshootingdownasteepincline,but
close.She’dneverfeltthatwaybefore,butwithKai,itwasbecomingaregularsensation.
Sheleanedforward,kissedhimagain.Reluctantly,shepulledaway.Flashedasmile.
“Didn’tyouknow?Allmyboyfriendsbringmetodustyhiddenroomsonour
dates.”Reneefeltalight,happyfeelingatthewordthathadslippedouteasily—onlya
hintofregretafterward.WouldKaibeannoyedwithherpresumptionofessentially
callinghimherboyfriend?
“Hey,Idustedinhere!”Apparentlynot,Reneerealizedwitharushofrelief.
“Andifso,didyoupresscharges?BecauseIreallydon’tthinkorangeismycolor.”
Reneemanagedasmile,butshecouldn’tquitelaugh,thinkingofJude.She
pushedhimfromhermind.TodaywasaboutKai,andnewbeginnings.“Sowhatdowe
donow?Tellghoststories?”
Kaipushedtooneofthetables,yankedoutaduffle,fromwhichhepulledouta
coupleblankets.“Somethinglikethat,”hesaidwithaplayfulsmile.
ReneehelpedcleartheplatesandtheTupperwareKaihadbroughtfortheirlunchoutof
theway.“Sotheothernightwasn’tafluke.Youreallycancook.”
Kaishrugged.“IhopevegetarianwasOK.Ithoughtofmakingmeatforyou,
butmybrothersaidifyou’regoingtobewithmeyouneedtoacceptmydiet...”
Reneelaughedsoftly.“Itwasdelicious.Evenbetterthantheothernight.”And
itreallywas.SomekindofpotatoandpumpkinandlentilstewshewascertainKaimust
havespentmostofSaturdaycooking."ButcanIaskyousomething?”Sheshutthelast
oftheTupperwareandsetitaside.
Kaishiftedthepillow,rolledontohisstomach,proppinghisheadupwithhis
hands.“Ithinkthat’swhywe’rehere,isn’tit?”
ThememoryoftheantiemeticmedicationReneehadfoundinKai’sbathroom
floatedinthebackofhermind,butshedecidedshe’dputoffaskingaboutitfornow—
shedidn’twanttoruintheirfirstofficialdatebypotentiallyrevealinghowmuchofhis
privacy,hishard-earnedtrust,she’dviolated.Instead,sheaskedanotherdietary
questionshe’dbeencuriousabout,“Youdon’tstrikemeasa‘meatismurder’type.”
“YouwanttoknowwhyIwentveg,”hesaid,shiftingsohewasleaningonone
hand,hisotherarmdrapedacrossthepillow,grippinghiselbow.Helookedsosexylike
that,peaceful,relaxed,thewarmlightofthecandleshighlightingthefaintredishgoldin
hishair.Itstillseemedstrangethewayhislegslaysostillexceptfortheoccasional
minortwitchhebarelyseemedtonotice.
Reneeshrugged,bundledupsomeoftheblanketandcurleduponherside,
facinghim.
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“Mybrotherreadsomestudiesthatshowedthatavegetariandietwas
correlatedwithareducedamountofMLSflareups.Webothfigureditwouldn’thurtfor
metotryit.”
“And?”
“September’smajorattacknotwithstanding,Ithinkit’shelped.”
“Well,Icangetusedtotofuifitmeansyouwon’tbeinpain.”
Kaiblinked,andhisfaceshiftedthroughseveralemotions,rapid-fire,almost
impossibletodistinguishindividually.Ashadeofasmilelingered.“Soyouneverreally
toldmewhatagoodNewOrleansgirlisdoinginnorthernIowa.”Hesaid“NewOrleans”
inafakeaccent,attemptingtoimitatethewayshepronouncedit,anditmadeherlaugh.
Shenoticedhowhehadchangedthesubject,butsheansweredanyway.“Itold
you;JUhasagoodarchitectureprogram.”
“Mmm.AndI’msuretherearegoodprogramsinNewYorkorCaliforniaor
Chicago.”
“Jonesvilleisplentyfarfromhome,anditpissedoffmyparents.Don’tthink
I’mcallousforsayingthis,butsometimesnothavingparentshastobeablessing.”
Kai’sbrowsfurrowedsternly.“Iguesswebothknowalittlesomethingabout
hiding,then.”
Reneerose,pacedbackandforthinfrontofKaiseveralminutes,debating
inwardlybeforespeakingagain.“WhenIwas16,Istarteddatingoneofmybrother’s
friends.Insecret.Hewas21.Incollege.Itwasfun.Excitingatfirst.”Reneehesitated.“I
don’tknowwhyI’mtellingyouthis.”
“Youdon’tneedtotellmeanything,”hesaid,hisvoiceneutral,buthiseyes
weren’t.Shecouldseethatwhatevershewasgoingtotellhim,hewouldn’tjudgeherfor
it.Youcantrustme,theysaid.I’llunderstand.
“Wewere...intimate.Myfirst‘real’boyfriend,”Reneesaidwithasadlaugh.
“Butafterawhile...hestarted...takingme,evenwhenIdidn’twanthimto.”Shewas
almostsurprisedbyhownonchalanthervoicewas,asifsheweretalkingabout
somethingthathadhappenedtosomeoneelse,likearumorshe’dheardwhisperedin
thebackofoneofherclasses.
Kai’seyesdarkened,buthekepthisvoicelevel.“Heforcedhimselfonyou?”
Reneeswallowed,nodded.“WhatwasIgoingtodo,though?”Shewrappedher
armsaroundherself.It’salittlechillyinherewithoutmycoat,Reneetoldherself.“I
wasn’tunderageanymore,anditwasmywordagainsthis,andhecomesfromanold,
wealthyUptownfamily.Whowasgoingtobelievemewhenwe’dhadconsensualsex
before?”
Kaiexhaledsharplythroughhisnosebeforehiseyestrackedbackuptoher.
“Sothat’swhatyou’rerunningfrom?Him?”
Reneesighed,sankdownbesidehim.Shewatchedhimmoveontohisside:
first,byplacinghishandsoneithersideofhishead,asifheweregoingtodopushups,
pushingupandthenwalkinghishandstohelptwisthistorsotillhewasfacingher.
Thenhereacheddowntoadjusthislegs,bendingthemslightlyattheknee.Thewhole
processwasn’teffortless,butKaiwasevidentlyingoodshape,themusclessheknewhe
hadlikelythebyproductofasolidworkoutregimen.Wouldheeverletherseethem?
“Onlymygrandparents,myroommate,andnow,you,knowaboutwhatreally
happenedbetweenus.MyparentskeephopingI’llcometomysensesandmarryhim.”
Reneesighed.“Ijusthadtogetawayfromthat.Fromthem.”
Kaistretchedoutonearm,restinghisheadonhisbicep.“I’daskwhyyoudon’t
74
tellthem,butthatwouldn’tevendojusticetothecliché‘pot:kettle.’”Hereachedoutfor
herhand,andshelethimtakeit.Hiseyesfoundhers.“Iwantedtotakethingsslow
betweenus...physically...anyway.Iwantthistobereal.Idon’twantanother
relationshipthatstartswithsexandturnsintosomethingelselater.Iwant‘something
else’toturnintosex.”Kaisighed,hisfacescrunchedup.“Thatsoundsawful.”
Reneesmiled.“Iknowwhatyoumean.I’dlikethat,too.”
Hesmiled,softandsweet,andbeckonedherclose.Shestretchedoutbeside
him,lettinghimwraphisarmaroundher,herforeheadrestingagainsthischest.
Somehow,inhiswarmembrace,shebelievedhewouldneverletanythingharmher.
“Onequestion,”hesaidafterawhile,hisbreathsoftandwarmonthetopof
herhead.
“Yeah?”
“WhenyousawmeinPT,foundoutthetruthaboutmydisability....Saidyou
stillwantedme....Wasitpartiallybecauseyousawmeasnon-threatening?”
Reneestiffened.
“I’msorry.Ishouldn’thaveasked.”
Butthenshestartedlaughing,pushingawaysoshecouldcoverhermouth.She
triedtostop,butshecouldn’thelpit.“That’sfunny.”
Hiseyebrowsdippedsternlyoverhiseyes,butallshesawinthemwasthat
penetratingsadness,despitetherestofhisfaceremainingrelativelyneutral.“I’mthe
kingoffindinghumorininappropriateplaces,butyou’velostmehere.”
Shesuckedinabreathtogetherselfundercontrol.“Iknewyouwerestrong,
butseeingyouinPTprovedthat.”
NowitwasKai’sturntolaugh.“You’reright;thatisfunny.”
“Really.AndthemoreIgettoknowyou,themoreIrealizeit’snotjustphysical
strength.”ReneeworkedherfingersthroughKai’shair;itfellmidwaypasthisearsnow,
andshetuckedafewstrandstotheside.“Judedidwhathedidtomebecause,
ultimately,he’sacoward.”ShemetKai’seyes.“You’redefinitelynot.”
Kaisighed,pushedhimselfontohisback,notbotheringtoshifthislegs,sohis
pelvisremainedtwisted,likehewashalfwayintoastretchingroutine.Hestaredupward
intothevastshadowsofthemultistoryceiling.“GuessIshouldn’tbesurprisedthis
unconventionaldatetookacompletelyunconventionaldirection,conversation-wise.”
Reneechuckled,settleddownbesidehimagain,tracingafingeralonghischest,
downtohisstomach.“Allright.Howaboutatypicalfirst-datequestion,then?”
“Blue,I’mallergic,andbasketballplayer.”
Reneelaughed.“What?”
“Myfavoritecolor,doIlikeanimals,andwhatIwantedtobewhenIwasakid.
First-dateyenoughforyou?”
Reneeletoutalong,trillinglaugh.“OK,fairenough.Red.Mymomhates
animals,soweneverhadanypets.Architect.”
ItwasKai’sturntolaughnow,richandfull.“Really.Yourpipedreamwhen
youweresixwastobeanarchitect.Notarockstaroranastronaut.”
Reneestuckhertongueoutathim.“Ididn’tknowwhatitwascalledthen,but
yeah.IalwaysknewIwantedtodesignbuildings,evenwhenIwasalittlekid.”
“Soyou’reliterallylivingthedream.”
“Workingonit.”Shereachedover,laidahandonhisthigh,justbelowhiship,
wonderingifhe’dpushheraway.Helookedather,butotherwisedidn’tmove.“What
aboutyou?I’mguessingthebasketballthingdidn’tworkout?”Hercheekssuddenly
75
flushedhotandshepulledherhandaway.“I’msorry.I—”
“It’sallright,Re,”hesaid.Hepushedhimselfup,walkinghishandsuntilhis
torsowasupright.Supportinghimselfwithonehandsplayedonthefloor,heusedthe
othertoadjusthislegs,firstpushingononesoitrotatedoutatthehip,thenreaching
overtostraighteneachuntiltheywerestretchedoutinfrontofhim.Reneenoticedthey
naturallyfelloutwardnow,hisfeetsplayed,sincehewasn’twearinghisbraces.The
moreshewaswithhim,themoresherealizedeverymovementthatanyoneelsewould
doeasilytookhimafewextrasteps;hehadsomecontrolinhiships,butotherwise,his
legsdidn’tmoveunlessitwasbyspasmorhishandsguidingthem.
...Andthemoresherealizedhowmuchshelovedbeingwithhim,watching
himexecuteeachcalculatedmove,thoughheneverseemedtothinkabouthowhe’ddo
something.Shesupposedhe’dhadplentyoftimetolearnhowtomanipulatehisbody.
“Comehere,”hesaid,noddingtohislap.“It’sOK.”
He’dexplainedabouthisinjuredrightleg,butapparentlyitwashealedenough
hecouldtakeherweight.Itmadeherblush,imaginingclimbingintohislapwhenhe
wasinhischair,wrappingherlegsaroundhisbackrestandkissinghimlongandhard
untiltheybothwerepantingforbreath.Sheclimbedoverhislegs,herkneesbent,sitting
onhercalves,herhandsonhisshoulders,lookingintohiseyes.Thecandlelightwas
dimming;soonthey’dhavetoheadback,butfornowshewasgoingtoenjoyhim.
“I’mabigboy.I’mprettysure,shortof‘goodbye,Ineverwanttoseeyou
again,’there’snothingyoucouldsaytomethatwouldhurtmyfeelings.”Heshiftedhis
weightontohisrightarm,liftedhislefttoguidehisfingersalongthesideofherface,
justagraze.Italwaysmadehereyelidsdriftdownwardasthepleasanttinglecoursed
throughher.“Idon’twantyoutobeafraidofbeinghonestwithme.OK?”
Shenodded;formingwordsseemedtobetoochallengingrightnow.She
reflexivelyshiftedinhislap,pressingtheircrotchesclosertogether.Hisarmwobbled,
andhehadtodrophisotherhandtokeephimselfupright.
Heletoutashort,reflexivemoan.“Re.”
Shesmiled,kissedhim,hardandprobing,feelinghissmileandhiswarmth
somewhereelse.Sheagreedwithhimthattheyshouldtakethingsslow,butmakingout
wasstillonthebooks,right?Herlipsdriftedtohischeek,hischin,hisjaw,hisneck,
untilshegottothescarhealwayshid;shecouldbarelyseeit,partiallymaskedbyhis
collar,andshewonderedifsheshouldn’tpressherluck,buthewasbreathingheavily,
hewashardandusinghishandstopushhimselfclosertoher,soshedecidedtotakea
risk.Shekissedtheedgeofit,lickinghisskinjustaboveit,waitingforhimtotenseand
pullaway.Hedidfreezeforaninstant,buthedidn’tstopher.
“Willyoutellmeaboutyourscarsoneday?”
Hesighed.“Yes.Butnottoday,OK?”
Shepulledback,wrappedherarmsaroundhim.“Letmeguess:notfirst-date
material?”Shegrinned,hopinghe’dgetthereference.Itwassomethinghe’dtoldherthe
daythey’dkissedthefirsttime.
Hesmiled,relaxed,sighedagain,thoughthistimeitwassoft,notoneof
frustration.“Yes.Exactly.”
“OK,fairenough.Howaboutanotherfirst-dateyquestion,then.Favorite
movie?”
“Don’thaveone.Haven’treallyseenmanymovies,tobehonest.”
“You’rekidding.YouquotedPrincessBridetometheotherday.”
Helaughed,walkedhishandsbackwards,sunktohiselbows,thendropped
76
downsohewaslyingflatagain.“BecausewhenwefinallygotaVHSplayeratCounty
House,itwasoneoftheonlymovieswehad,andallthegirlswereinlovewithCary
Elwes,sothey’dwatchitoverandover.Plus,itwasoneofthefewfilmsmyroommate
liked,mostlyforthefightingscenes.Icouldprobablyinterpretthatmovieinmysleep.”
“Well,it’soneofmyfavorites,”shesaid,climbingoffandsnugglingupbeside
him.
“AndnowyouhaveyourveryownWestley?ShouldIsay‘Asyouwish’?”His
tonewasslightlysardonic.
“Can’tblameagirlforfallinginlovewithgoldenhairandblueeyes.”
Heturnedhishead,lookingather,incredulous.
Shepusheduponherelbowsoshewasgazingdownathim.“Youreallydon’t
thinkmuchofyourself,doyou?”
“Pleasedon’ttellmeyou’redatingmebecauseI’msomecrippledCaryElwes
fantasy,”hesaidonasigh.“Ineedsomeonefirmlyinreality.Ithoughtyouunderstood
that.”Kaipushedhimselfup,grabbedhiswheelchairandpulleditcloser.Heplantedhis
handsontheseatandleveredhisbodyoffthegroundandintothechair,pushedup
untilhewassittingallthewayintoit.Shesatupontoherkneesasshewatchedhim
placehisfeetonthefootrest,hislegsinertuntilhereleasedthem,atwhichpointhisleft
legbegantojump.Itwassubtle,likethewayyoumightjiggleyourkneewhenyou’re
restless.Itmeanthewasstressed,ortired,orboth.
“Whathappenedto‘nothingyoucansaywillupsetme’?”
Kaisighedheavily.“I’msorry.Youweretryingtocomplimentme,andI...”He
shookhishead.“Insteadofmovies,Ihadbooks.Artusedtoletmeborrowsome.Hewas
theonlyonewhoevercametovisitme.”Kaibent,snatchedoneoftheblanketsand
startedfoldingit.
Reneefollowedhislead,foldinguptheotherblanket.Sherememberedher
briefvisittoCountyHouse,howmuchithadmeanttoKaitomaketheholidayspecial
forthosekids,howtheireyeshadlitupwhenthey’dseenthetwoofthemarrive,the
laughterandthejoyfromsomestore-boughttreatsandafewsimplegames.ItputKai’s
statement,saidflatlyenoughinhisnormal,nonchalantstyle,takeonamuchsadderair.
ArthadapparentlybeentheonlypersoninKai’slifeforhowmanyyears?Ten?Twelve?
Who’dcaredenoughtogoseehim,tobringhim“gifts.”Growingupinahugefamily,
Reneecouldn’tevenbegintoimaginewhatthatmusthavefeltlike.
“That’swhyhewassoreadytodefendyou.”Itcameoutlikearealization
insteadofaquestion.
Kaishrugged,pushedtotheedgeoftheclearedareatogetthebaghe’dpacked
theblanketsin.“MyfavoriteisHamlet.Iknowit’saplay,butI’veneverseenit.”
Reneestoppedhalfwaythroughherfolding.“You’rekidding.”
Heshookhishead,shovedtheblanketintheduffel.
“Well,we’llhavetofixthatandaddafewmoviestoyourrepertoireinthe
process.Maybeseconddate?”
“Maybe.”Heloopedthestrapoverhishead,thenwheeledtowardher,taking
theotherblanket.Shesawthathauntedlookinhiseyes,thoughhetriednottomeether
gaze.“IalsoalwayslikedTheOdysseyandTomJones.AndCountofMonteCristo.”
“Theclassics.”Adventures.Thekindofbooksaboycouldreadandlive
vicariouslythrough,Reneerealized.Shehelpedhimstuffthepillowintothebagandzip
itshut.“IusedtospendmysummerspouringoverartandarchitecturebooksI’dcheck
outfromthemainpubliclibrary.I’madork,Iknow.”
77
“Youreallydidalwaysknowwhatyouwantedtobe,huh,”Kaiobservedinan
indeterminatetone,noticingshewaspackingawaytheirtrashandTupperwareintothe
backpackKaihadbroughtwiththem,sohewentaroundblowingoutthecandlesthat
werestilllit.
“Andyoudidn’t?”
Kailethimselfglidetoastop,hisbacktoher.“AsIsaidbefore,kidslikeme
learnprettyquickdreamingisfutile.It’sbesttotakethingsonedayatatime.”
Reneeapproached,layingahandonhisshoulder.
Heglancedback,carefullyturningaroundinasmoothcircle;shesteppedout
ofhisway.
“Haveyoueverbeenhappy,Kai?”
Helookeddown,away.“I’vehadmoments.AfewIremember,withmy
brother,beforeourparentsdied.Somegoodtimeswithmyroommateormyhighschool
friend.SomewithBecca,inthebeginning.”Heshrugged.“Likeeverythinginmylife,
happinessisrelative.”
Reneeliftedthestrapoverhishead,settingtheduffelaside,thenclimbedinto
hislap,sideways,herlegsdanglingoff,herarmswrappedaroundhisneck.“Iwantto
makeyouhappy,Kai.Reallyhappy.Smilingthatraregenuinesmileofyoursuntilyour
cheekshurt.”
AshadeofthatsmileslippedontoKai’sface.“Asyouwish.”
78
November8,2000
Kaisatinthefrontrowofhishistoryclass,inhiswheelchair,strugglingtoremaincalm,
focusingonthetouchofRenee’shandinhis.Shesatbesidehiminaricketystandalone
deskasshehadeversincethey’dreconnectedviahersurprisePTvisit.He’dinsistedshe
didn’thavetobeuncomfortableorsitrightinthefrontonhisaccount,butshehad
simplysmiledandsaid,“I’llsitonthefloor,orinachairwithoutadesk,ifthat’swhatit
takestositbesideyou.”Andsoshehad,atfirst,sittinginaregularchair,herlegsfolded
up,usingthesurfaceoftheirtextbooktowriteon,untiltheprofessorhadrequesteda
deskbebroughtinforher.
Todaytheygottheresultsoftheirmidterm;sincethetestwasmultiplechoice
andusedabubblesheet,itwasscoredbycomputer,sotheydidn’tneedtowaitfortheir
grades.Kaihaddosedhimselfupwithdrugstotrytocontrolhisanxiety,buthefeltthat
dizzy,detachedfeelingthatsometimesprecededanattack,sohetookslowbreathsand
triedtoremindhimselfitwasjustatest.He’dsurvivedfarworseordealsthanhistory,
afterall.
“I’lladmit,youguysimpressedme,”theteachersaidtothecrowd.Heturnedto
facetheboard,drawingalargenumber105.“Thatwasthehighscore:perfect,plusthe
bonusquestions.Andthelow.”Heturnedbacktotheboard,drawinga22onthe
oppositeside.KaireflexivelysqueezedRenee’shandtighter.Ifthatwashisscore,there
wasnopossiblewayhecouldrecoverfromthatandpassthesemester.Thenthe
professordrewabellcurveconnectingeachnumber,andatthepeak,hedrew75.“But
theclassaveragewasasolid75,whichisjustright.Someofyoudidverywelland
showedsomerealimprovement.”
Next,theprofessorbegancallingoutstudents’namesonebyonesoeach
personcouldcomeforwardandcollecthisorherscoredanswersheet,alongwithacopy
ofthetest,iftheywantedtouseittoseewhichquestionsthey’dmissed.Kaiwasgrateful
forhischosenlastname—Fox—insteadofhisfamilyname—Taylor—becauseitmeant
lessstresswaiting.Atthesametime,italsomeanthe’deitherhavetoputofflookingat
thegradelongerorspendmoretimeinclassagonizingoveritifhedid.
“K.Fox,”theprofessorcalled,andReneehadtotaphimontheshouldertoget
himtosnapbackfromhisthoughts.
Kaipushedtheshortdistancetothefronttable,acceptinghisbubblesheet
fromtheteacher.
“I’dliketospeakwithyouafterclass.”
Kaiswallowed,nodded,andsnaggedacopyofthetestfromthepile,shoving
bothpapersbetweenhislegsandreturningtohisspotnexttoRenee.
Shesmiledathimencouragingly,butdidn’tspeak;theprofessor’svoice
continuedtodroneoutnames.
Kaismoothedoutthepapersinhislap,debatingaboutwhetherornothe
shouldlooknoworlater.Finally,hedecidedhe’dratherknow,andglancedatthe
computer’sprintedscore.
71.
71!
71!Kai’sheartraced.ACminus!Asmilebloomedonhisfaceuntilhis
happinesswashitwiththehammerofrealization.TheprofessorhadaskedtoseeKai
afterclass.DidthatmeanhethoughtKaihadcheated?Buthow?Kaitookthetestina
79
studyroominthetutoringcenter,withaproctor.Though,granted,thewomanhad
spentmostofthetimepretendingtoreadabookwhileactuallystaringatKai’sspasming
legs.
Asifoncue,hiskneesbegantobobasynchronously.Reneelaidherhandon
his,whichhehadsecuringhisrightthigh,asifthatwouldsomehowprotectit,as
ridiculousastheideawas.
Finally,theprofessorfinishedhandingoutthegradedtestsandflippedthrough
acopyoftheanswerkey.“I’mgoingtoreviewsomeofthemostcommonlymissed
questionsfortheremainderofclass,butIencourageyoutogothroughyourownexams
athomeasyouprepareforthefinal,which,letmeremindyou,isonlyfiveweeksaway.”
Heclearedhisthroat.“Thefirstmost-missedquestionwasnumber10,whichasked,
‘WhichcenturywasaffectedbytheBlackPlague?’Thecorrectanswerwas‘D:Allofthe
above,’becausewhilethefourteenthcenturycertainlywasmostimmediatelyaffected,
therepercussionsoftheBlackDeathwentfarbeyondthat.Somearguethateven
modernevents,suchasworldwars,maynothaveoccurredwereitnotforthe
devastationofthe13oos.It’sonereasonwhyit’ssoimportanttostudyhistory-thepast
canhavesignificantramificationsonthefuture,evengenerationslater.”
KaiglancedoveratRenee,whowas,ofcourse,takingnotesoneverythingthe
professorwassaying.HehadtotellherabouthisFS,histransplant.Soon.Itwasn’tfair
tohertotakethisrelationshipmuchfartherwithoutherknowingwhatshewasgetting
herselfinto,andmorethanthat,hedidn’twanttohideitfromher.Pretendingand
hidingwereexhausting:hewantedtobeabletobeopenandhonestandjusthimself
withher.
Shenoticedhimlookingather,droppedherpenandreachedoutforhishand,
offeringasweet,gentlesmile.Hedidn’twanttoloseher,whichhemight,onceshe
realizedhowtrulyfuckeduphisbodywas,butit’dbebetterforthembothtohurtnow
ratherthanlater.
ReneehadpromisedtowaitforKaioutsideuntilhe’dfinishedtalkingtotheirteacher,
agreeingtogobacktohisplacetoreviewthetesttogether.Kaiknewhishandswere
shakingsubtly,andhetriedtofocusonhappythoughtsandnottheswirlofnegative
emotionsthatthreatenedtooverwhelmhimifheletthem.Hehadagoodgradeonhis
midterm,andReneeonlysmiledlikethat,warmandsweet,forhim.Whatever
happenedinthenextfewhours,hehadtorememberthat,atleast.
Finally,theprofessorgesturedforKaitocomeforward,takingaseatatthe
chairbythefronttabletokeepthemmoreateyelevel.ThatmadeKai’spulsespike—
mostpeopledidn’tworryaboutlookingdownathimwhenhewasinthechair,so
makingtheconsciousdecisiontosit....Deepbreath,Kai,hetriedtoassurehimself.
Maybetheprofessorwasjusttired.
“Iwantedtotalktoyouaboutyourtest,”theprofessorsaid,onceKaiwas
parkedacrossfromhim.
Kaiswallowed.IftheteacherthoughtKaicheated,didthatmeanhehadto
retakethetest?Kaiwasn’tsurehecouldgothroughthatagain.
“It’sallright,”theprofessorsaid,asifnoticingKai’sagitation.“Iwantedtotell
yougoodjobontheexam.It’snicetoseeastudentworkinghardandhavinghiseffort
payoff.”
Kailetloosealong,whooshingbreath.
“Thisgradesignificantlybumpsyouupforthesemester.Rightnow,you’re
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passingwithaDminusaverage.Wehaveonemoreregulartest,acouplequizzes,and
thefinal.Aslongasyoupassallthose,you’llbeabletomoveontothenextsemester.”
Theprofessorsmiledencouragingly.“Registrationstartsnextweek;signupformyclass.
Ihaveconfidencethatifyoudowhateveritwasyoudidtoprepareforthemidterm,you
shouldbefine.Andifyouhaveanymajorhealthissuesthatforceyoutomissclassor
anythinglikethat,cometalktomeandwe’llworksomethingout.Allright?”Heoffered
Kaihishand.
“Thankyou,sir,”Kaisaid,shaking.
“Ionlypretendtobeaheartlessbastard.Gottakeepthefreshmanscared,or
theywalkalloveryou,”hesaidwithachuckle.“You’reagoodstudent,Kai.Ilook
forwardtoseeingyouagainnextyear.”
Kairolledintothediningarea,hisbackpackinhislap.Hesetitonthetable,butquickly
abandoneditwhenReneeleanedforwardtokisshisear,makinghimarchhisshoulders
intohertouch.“Congratsonthetest.Iknewyoucoulddoit.”
Heturnedaroundcarefully,pullingherintohislap,caressingherinawaythat
wasbothhungryyetprotective.Hishandsweresolargeonhersmallframe,andit
amazedherhowhistouch,evenwhenhewasn’tspecificallytryingtoarouseher,sether
entirebodyalight.Itwaslikehewastryingtomemorizehereverycurveandanglewith
hisfingertips.Reneesearchedhiseyes.Theywereimpenetrable,disturbinglysadand
distant,despitethewayhewasnowrockingherintohim,immediatelymakingher
breathcomeinpantinggasps.They’dpromisedtogoslow,andsomehow,sheknewhe’d
respectherifsheaskedhimtostop,butshedidn’twantto.Sheonlywantedtoseethat
horriblefearandvacancyleavehiseyes.
“Kai—”shestartedtosay,buthesilencedherprotestwithakiss.
Thiskisswasunlikeanythey’devershared,epicinitsdepthandpassionasKai
kissedherasifitwerehislastchance.Itstretchedforseveralminutes,barelyallowing
eitherofthembreath,makingReneedizzy,thoughshedidn’twantittoend.Henipped
atherlipsandencouragedhertonipback,pressinghercloser,andshecouldfeelso
muchemotioninthewayhegrippedherandmovedhistongueagainsthers,asifhehad
somehowdistilledhimselfintoanessenceandwereattemptingtoemptyitintoher.As
if,throughthiskiss,evenmorethanthoseinthepast,hecouldtellhereveryoneofhis
manysecrets,thestoryofthepastthatoftenhauntedthosebeautifulblueeyes,
transferringhismemoriestohersothatshewouldsharethemwithoutforcinghimto
relivethem.
AndReneewondered—asherheartbeatpainfullyinherchest,hernipples
achinglyhardandherbodyincreasinglydesperatetofeelhiminsideher,alonginglike
shehadn’texperiencedsinceherearlydayswithJude—ifwhathe’dstartedtotellhera
fewnightsagohadanythingtodowiththis.Especiallyasthekisscontinued,stillheated,
yetsomehowbecomingmoredesperate,asifhewouldloseherassoonasitended.
Reneefinallypushedhimawaywithagentlehandonhisshoulder.Hiseyes
werereluctanttoopen,butwhentheydid,thatsadnessstillremained,thoughhetried
toclearitwithblinking.Hestutteredoutanapologythroughpantingbreaths,and
Reneefoundherselfwrappingherarmsaroundhiminahug,herlipsathisear.
“Tellmewhat’swrong,Kai,”shewhispered.
Hegentlyguidedherback,thenoffhislap,lookingupatherwithasigh.His
facewasblank,yethiseyesagaingavehimaway,andshewasn’tsureifhewastryingto
putuphisneutralmaskandfailing.“Weneedtotalk,”hesaidinthetonelessvoice
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Reneehatedevenmorethanthemask.Didhewanttobreakupwithher?Wasthatwhy
he’dkissedherlikehe’dneverdosoagain?Herheartspedupasherbrainracedwith
explanations:ithadonlybeenacoupleweekssinceshe’dwalkedinonhiminPT,but
everythinghadseemedgoodbetweenthem.TheirdateSundayhadbeenuniqueand
perfect.
“OK,”sheforcedherselftosayinacalmvoice.
Heglancedbackatthetable,smoothinghishandanxiouslyonhisthigh.“I
needtostretchfirst.Couldyou...couldyoustartgoingthroughthetest?Seewhich
questionsImissedsowecangooveritlater?Myanswersheetandthequestionsshould
beinmybook.”
Reneeletoutalongbreath,nodded.“Sure.”
Kaismiledather,tired,butnotforced,beforeturninganddisappearinginto
hisbedroom.
ReneeopenedthemainpocketofKai’sbackpack.Asneatastheapartment
was,orevenKai’sroom,hisbagwasaperpetualdisasterofcrumpledpapersmashed
intobooksandnotebooks.Sheshookherheadassheextractedhishistorytext,not
surprisedwhenaflutterofpapersfelloutofit.
Annoyed,shestoopedtocollectthem,gratefulKaihadgivenheratask,
becausewaitingtohearwhatthosedreadedthreewordsinarelationshipmeant—We
needtotalk—weregoingtobeagony.Kaiusuallyneededtostretchintheafternoons,
whichshe’dlearnednotlongafterthey’dreconnected.Butheneverdiditinher
presence,anditusuallytookatleastfifteentothirtyminutes.Maybebecausehetookoff
hisclothes?Nowthatshethoughtaboutit,hedidusuallyreemergewearingsomething
else,comfortableloungingclothesinsteadofthejeansandnewershirtshenormally
woretoclass.
Shefoundthebubblesheetfromthemidtermeasily,butthetestwasmoreofa
challenge.Shepausedwhenshenoticedanessay:Hubris:ANecessaryJourney?The
headingonthefrontpageclearlyindicateditwasfortheirEnglishcompclass,but
Reneecouldn’trecallanyassignmentremotelyclosetothetopicofarrogantpride.And
assheheavedthepacketinherhand,sherealizeditwaslong—muchlongerthantheir
usual2-5pagehomeworkessays.
Shewasabouttostuffitbackinhisbagwiththerestofthemiscellanywhen
shehappenedtoreadtheopeningline:Four-hundred,twenty-threedaysago,a
double-lungtransplantsavedmylife.
Renee’sheadpoppedup,shocked.Double-lungtransplant.Thewordswere
stilltherewhenshelookedagain.Andthenumberofdaysequatedtomorethanayear
ago.Memoriesstartedswirlingbacktoher:Nancy,askingifitwastoosoonforKaitobe
backatschool.ArttellingherKaihad“beenthroughalot.”Kaitalkingaboutsevere
allergiesbutneverquiteadmittingtoasthma.Andallthoseprescriptionbottles.The
scarsshe’dseenglimpsesof,butthathe’dnevertalkabout.Theotherday,whenhe’d
beguntoexplainwhyhewasonlystartingcollegenow.
Reneedidn’tknowmuchaboutmedicine,butatransplantwasabigdeal.It
meanthehadtohavebeenverysick.Possiblyforalongtime.She’dseenpersonal
intereststoriesonthenewsbefore,withgaunt,desperatefacesofpeoplewaitingfora
neworgan.Apparently,despitehispromisestobemoreforthcoming,thepaperinher
handmadeReneerealizehowlittlesheknewKai.
Partofherthoughtsheshouldignoretheessay,waitforKai’sreturn.Maybe
thiswaswhatthe“weneedtotalk”wasabout?Butithurt,adeep,burninginthecenter
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ofherchestthatdroveitswayuptohereyes,tearswantingtospringfromthem,that
Kaicouldwriteaboutthis,thathecouldsharesuchasignificantpartofhislifewith
theirteacher,andnotwithher.
Soshekeptreading.
KaitalkedabouttheGreeks,aboutOdysseusandhowhedefiedthegodsand
waspunished,doomedtoroamtheseasforyearsbeforeeverreturninghome,before
evergettingtolivethelifehe’dalwaysdreamedof.ThenKaicomparedhimselfto
Odysseus,talkingalittleabouthisownlife,growingupanorphan,inagrouphome,sick
allthetime,andhowhecouldrelatetotheill-fatedGreekking.
Therearetimesinlifewhereyoufeelabandonedbythegods,asifany
achievementsyoumakearesolelytheresultofyourownwill.I’mnotpersonallysure
ifthereisaGodorgodsweavingtheweboftheuniverse;basedonmyexperience,I’m
inclinedtowardskepticismratherthanmiracles,ironicasonemayfindthat.Perhaps
thereallessonoftheOdysseyisn’tonlyaboutpridebeingman’sdownfall,butrather
thatsometimes,amanhastoearnwhathegets.WouldOdysseushavebeenas
gratefulforhisfamily,asproudofhisson,ifhe’dreturnedimmediatelyhomeafter
war?
Ispentfartoomuchofmyyoungerchildhoodwonderingwhatmylifewould
havebeenlikeifI’dbeen“normal.”IfIhadn’tbeensick.Disabled.IfI’dgrownupwith
myparentsandsiblingslikeanyotherkid.Wouldsomethingassimpleaspassingthis
classmeanasmuchtome?
AndtherearemomentswhenIwonderifI,likeOdysseus,wasnevermeantto
“comehome.”Theveryactoftransplantationisitsownlevelofhubris,thatmancan
lookinthefaceofnature,muchthewayOdysseusdidtoPoseidon,andsay,“No,not
today.”Therearedays,darkdays,justasOdysseushadalonghisjourney,whenI
thinkImayhavebeenbettergivingin,notacceptingthetransplant,andletting
someoneelsegettheirsecondchance.ButthenIrememberhowhardmybrother
foughtformylife,thatsomeoneelsechosetogivepartofthemselvessothatsomeone
theydidn’tknow,couldneverknow,likeme,couldlive.Thatsomewhereelse,thereare
otherswho,maybe,finallyfoundtheirwaytotheirownIthacas,withanewheartor
liverorkidney.
Renee’seyesfilledassheread,seeingthisintimateinsightintoKai’spsyche
andexperienceshehadn’tyetrevealedtoher.Hiswritingwassogood,sogenuine,
withouttheusualpretenceormaskinghesooftendidinlifebyreflex.Butshealsocried
forherself,forthehurtshefeltathavingtoreadabouthisliferatherthanhearingit
fromhisownlips.Couldshebelievethathewantedherwhenheobviouslydidn’ttrust
herenoughtosharesuchanimportantdetailofhislife?
It’strite,butmyjourneyisn’tquiteover;insomeways,it’sonlybegunthese
pasteightmonths,asI’msuddenlyfacedwithaworldofstrangeandforeign
possibilities.LikeOdysseusfinallycominghomeyethavingtofightforhiscrownand
hisfamily,Itoo,mustfindmywayinthisnewworld.Itisn’talwayseasy,andIstill
oftencursethegods—whodoesn’t?—butI’malive.Ican.Hubrisgotmehere,justlike
Odysseus.
Ijusthavetohope,whenthefinallinesofmystoryaresung,thatitwillall
havebeenworthit.
Reneewasbawlingasshefinishedtheessay,skimmingthroughthehalfpage
ofcommentstheirprofessorhadleftinredink,praisingKaiforhiswritingtalent,forhis
hubrisincomparinghimselftoOdysseus,andhiscourageforfinallybeinghonestinhis
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work.
A+++.ThisisoneofthefinestpiecesofwritingIhaveeverreadinallmy
yearsofteachingfreshmancomposition.I’mnotencouragingyoutopurposefullyskip
classorassignments,butthisisthepiecethatprovestomeyou’vemasteredthisclass
anddeserveanA.ComeseemesometimeasI’dliketodiscussusingthisasasampleto
encouragefuturestudents.
Reneewasstillcrying,clutchingthepaperinherhands,whenthecreakofKai’s
chaircaughtherbysurprise.Shelookedupthroughherveiloftears,notcaringwhether
hewasmadatherforreadingit.
Hisexpression,unsurprisingly,wasdifficulttointerpret,aswashistone.“Isee
youreadmyEnglishcompmakeuppaper.”
“Howcouldyoutellourprofessorallthis,butnotme?”Reneesaidinaquiet
voice,notbotheringtowipeawayhertears.
Kaisaidnothing,hisfingertipsfidgetingonhisrims,hisheadlowered,hiding
hiseyes.
“Itoldyouthemostsecretthingaboutmylife,”Reneesobbed.“AboutJude.
Andyoucouldn’ttellmeyoualmostdiedlastyear?”Shetossedthepagesathim,feeling
sick,likeDianehadbeenrightallalong,thatReneehadputhertrustinamanwhoused
herandbetrayedher.
Hepushedcloser,thepapercrumplingunderhiswheels,stoppingwhentheir
kneestouched.Hehesitatedamoment,thenpulledoffhisshirt.
Hisbodywasperfectfromthewaistup,evenbetterthanshe’dimagined,long
andlean,gentlysculpted,hispaleskinoutliningthemusclesbeneath.Buttheperfection
wasmarredbynumerousscars—theprominentsternalscar,andmorebeneathhispecs,
onhisabdomen,andtheoneathisneck.Asimplechainnecklacewithseveraldogtags
restedagainsthischest,andashebreathed,theyshifted,andshenoticedthered
caduceus.She’dneverseentheminreallife,butshe’dspottheadseverytimeshewent
tothepharmacy.Medicalalertjewelry,soparamedicswouldbeawareofhiscondition
immediately,evenifhewereunconscious.Thethoughtmadeherstomachlurch.Even
morethanthescars,somehowthenecklacemadeeverythingreal:Kaihadanother
person’slungsinsidehimnow,andtheyweretheonlythingthathadkepthimalivethe
pastyear.Theonlyreasonsheandhehadevenbeenabletomeet.
“Theysplitmysternumhere,”hesaidclinically,slidinghisfingeralongthe
scar,“andalsowentinhere,andhere,”headded,pointingtothescarsbeneathhispecs.
“Triedtoreconnectthenerves.This,”hepointedtoafaintscaronhisabdomen,“was
wheremyfeedingtubewas.Andthis,”hesaidwithanervousintakeofair,pointingto
hisneck,“iswhereIhadatubeinmytracheathatconnectedtoamachinethatkeptme
breathing.”
Renee’sangermelted,seeingthetensioninthosefantasticshoulders,thefear
hedidn’ttrytohideinhisblueeyes.Suddenly,thehauntedlook,thekiss,ofearlierall
madesense.Kaiwasterrified—ofwhat?Thatshewouldchangehermindaboutthem?
Whateverthecase,heheldhimselfstiffly,likeachildbracinghimselfforthebelt.It
madeherstomachache.
Reneereachedoutforhim,pullingherfingersbackwhenhereflexivelyshirked
fromhertouch,butthenforcedhimselftorelax,noddingsubtlytosignalitwasOK.She
letherselfexplorehim,touchhisbareskinbelowtheneckandabovethewristlikehe’d
neverletherbefore,tillatlastshereachedthecircularpuckeredscarjustnorthofhis
clavicle.
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“Doesithurt?”sheasked,herfingershesitatingaboveit.
“No,”hesaidwithabobofhisAdam’sapple.“It’sjust...ugly.Itfreakspeople
out.”
Reneeshookherhead,delicatelytracingtheoutlineofthescar.“Notme.
Nothingaboutyoudoes.Ithoughtyouknewthatalready.”
Kaibroughthishanduptoherforearm,ghostinghisownfingersalongher
skin.“Iwantedtotellyousomanytimes,”Kaisaid.“Itried.Theothernight.”Hesighed.
“Butthere’sneverexactlyagoodmomenttosay,‘Oh,hey,Ialmostdiedlastyear,but
thenIgotsomedeadguy’slungs,soI’mgood.’”
Reneecuppedhischeek.“Kai.Youdon’thavetodothatwithme.”
Helaughed,buthiseyesbetrayedawariness.“What?”
“Hide.Pretend.”
Kaibreathedinandoutafewtimesbeforefinallymeetinghereyes;hiswere
open,deepblue,filledwiththatpiercingsadnessshesawfartoooften.“Mylifehas
taughtmethatwheneversomethinggoodhappens,somethingbadalmostalways
follows.Youmakemehappy,Re,and...that...”Heswallowed,lookedaway.“Terrifies
me.”
Reneesankintohislap,wrappedherarmsaroundhim,layingherheadonhis
shoulder.“Didyouthinkifyoutoldmeaboutthis,”shesaid,guidingafingeralonghis
sternalscar,“Iwouldchangemymindaboutyou?”
Kaiheldhertighteragainsthim,butdidn’trespond.
“Isyourbrothercominghomeanytimesoon?”
Kai’sbreathhitchedamoment,asifsurprisedbyherquestion.“Today’shis
firstfullnightoffindays.He’swithVicky.”
Reneenodded,kissedhisneck,thenclimbedbackoff.“Comeon,”shesaid,
leadinghimtohisroom.“We’llstudylater.”
Kai’sroomlookedthesameasithadafewdaysearlier,thoughhisbedwasneatly
unmade,thesheetsfoldeddownattheendandhispillowcollectionstackedofftothe
side,outoftheway.Sheturnedtofacethedoorandsawhimwheelinslowly,still
shirtless,hisfacevacant.Hepausedinthemiddleoftheroom,asifwaitingforher
prompt.SoReneesettleddownontheedgeofhisbed,pattingthespacebesideher.
Wordlessly,heapproached,aligninghischairandquicklyheavinghisbodyout
ofitandontothemattress.Asheadjustedhisposition,shenoticedhisrightlegwas
bobbing,butheignoredit.Reneetookoneofhishands,kissedhisknuckles,thengaveit
areassuringsqueeze.
“Soeverythingintheessayistrue?”
Kaitookalong,slowbreath.Nodded.
TheessayhadtoldKai’shistory:achildhoodspentstrugglingforair,the
pneumoniasthathadultimatelydestroyedhislungs,andhislongjourneytowardwhere
hewasrightnow,sittingbesideher,desperatelytryingtomaintainhiscalmthoughshe
couldseehisemotionsstrugglingtobursttheseams.
“Andthestoryaboutyour21stbirthday?”
Kailoweredhiseyes.Nodded.
Intheessay,Kaihadexplained,My21stbirthdaywasonlysixweeksbefore
mytransplant,butofcourse,atthetime,noneofusknewthat.Weallfigureditwould
bemylast.Ispentmostofmytimeeitherasleepordruggedthoselastfewweeks,but
mybrothermadesureIwasawakeforatleastpartofthatday,tryinghisbesttobe
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cheerfulformysake.WheneverhevisitedmeandIwasconscious,he’dalwaysremind
methat“todaycouldbetheday,”andhowhemanagedtohidethefearandsadness
fromhiseyesIknowhehadtohavefeltsurprisesmestill.Perhapsthatwasthedoctor
inhim.
Hebroughtmeapieceofcake—arealpieceofcake,notonefromthehospital
cafeteria,becauseheknewhowmuchIlikedsweets,andIremember—thoughhow,I’m
nothonestlysure,asmostofthefinaldaysareablur—howmuchthatseemingly
innocentdessertmademewanttocry.
Formyfirstfewmonthswithmytracheostomy—atubeinmyneck,connected
toamachinethathelpedmebreathe—Iwasstillstrongenoughandmylungshealthy
enoughIusedavalvethatenabledmetosmellandtastefood,soIcouldstillswallow
andspeak.Byaboutsixmonthsbeforemytransplant,Icouldnolongertoleratethe
valve,evenforshortperiodsoftime,becauseitmadebreathingsomuchharder.Itried
aspecialkindoftubenext,withholesinitthatwouldatleastletmehavealimited
senseofsmellandsomespeech,butswallowingwasdifficult,andsoonIgotafeeding
tubeinmystomachandstoppedeatingbymouthentirely.
ByJune,mybirthmonth,Icouldn’tgetenoughventilation—adoctor’sfancy
wayofsayingtheamountofoxygengettingintomylungs—withthespecialtube.SoI
haditreplacedwithasolidonethatfitsnuginsidemytracheawithaballoon.Theless
airthatleakedfromit,themorethatgotintomyfailinglungs,themoreoxygenthat
madeitswayintomyblood.Butthechangemeantmysenseoftasteandsmellwere
gone.Completely,sinceairdidn’tgoupintomymouthandnose.Icouldalsonolonger
speak.Atall.Forseveralweeksbeforemybrotherpresentedmewithmybirthday
cake,Ihadbeenunabletosmell,taste,ortalk,andthoughIknowhedidn’tmakethe
gesturewithmalice,itfeltthatway.
Especiallywhenwetriedtoadjusttheballoonthatheldmytubeinplacejust
enoughsoIcouldsmell,maybeeventasteatinypieceofmybirthdaytreat,andI
almostpassedoutfromalackofoxygen.
Soitwasmorethanthecakeitselfthathadmebattlingtearsthatday—but
whatitrepresented.LikeOdysseus’shopeofseeinghishomeoncemore,tantalizingly
closeandyetimpossiblyfar,somethingIbelievedI’dneverexperienceagain.That
cakewasmyfuture,comingfromaworldoutsidethehospital,apartfromdoctorsand
nursesandnever-endingdaysofwaiting.
AfutureIcouldn’ttakein.Couldn’ttaste.Couldn’tsmell.Couldn’texperience.
Asunrealasaphotograph,yetfrustratinglymaterial.
Evenafterourfailedattempttogetmetotasteandsmellmycake,Irefusedto
letmyselfbreakdowninfrontofmybrother.Whohadsungmehappybirthday
anyway,andinsistedImakeawish,eventhoughwecouldn’thavecandlesandI
couldn’thaveblownthemoutevenifwehad.Howdesperatelyhe’dtried,asmiserable
andhopelessasitwas,tomakethedayspecialforme.
Whileotherguyscelebratetheir21stgettingdrunkwiththeirfriends,Ispent
mineinahospitalbed,staringatapieceofcake,asugaryreminderofdeath.
“Whatdidyouwishfor?”
Kaitookinaharshbreath,shookhishead.Theobviousanswerwouldhave
beentofindamatchandfinallygetatransplant,butifKaididn’tofferthatreply,
perhapsitmeanthiswishhadbeendarker.HadKaiwishedfordeath?Thethoughtsent
achillthroughRenee’sveins,butshedidherbesttonodandleavethetopicalonefor
now.
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ReneegaveKaiamoment,finallysqueezinghishand.“Soyourmemory
problems...?”
Kainodded.“Notenoughoxygentomybrain,”hesaid,pointingtohishead,
tryingtosmilewryly,butfailing.“Allthingsconsidered,I’mlucky,”hesaidwithashrug.
“AndIusedtobeworse.Icouldhardlyfollowaconversationatfirst.”Kaipickedatthe
sheets,hisfocusonhisfingersinsteadofher.“Itwasreallyfrustrating.Sometimes,I’d
havetostopalmostmidsentence,becauseitwaslikethethoughtsdisappearedassoon
asIformedthem.Likeoneofthosepeoplewhostumblesthroughajokebutcan’t
rememberthepunchline.”
“Wow,”Reneesaid,smoothinghisskinwithherthumb.“It’shardlynoticeable
now.”
Kaishrugged.“Partofmyrehabaftermytransplantwascognitive.Plus,I’ve
learnedsometricksandcanhideitmostofthetime.IfI’minterrupted,though,there’s
usuallyagoodchancewhateverIwasgoingtosayisgoneforever.”Hissmilelooked
painful.“ThoughI’msureyou’llseemoreofitthelongeryou’rewithme.”Hisvoice
trailedoffonthoselastfewwords.
“Andthecoughing?Theothernight.”
Kaiinhaled.“Becauseofthetransplant,mylungsdon’tclearontheirownvery
well,soIhavetoforcemyselftocoughatleasttwiceaday,togetallthegunkout.”
“Butyou’reOKnow,right?BackonIthaca,battlefoughtandwon.Timeto
claimPenelope?”Reneeofferedherowngrin.
Kailetoutashort,sharpsoundthatcouldhavebeenalaugh,buthecovered
hisfacewithhishandsanddidn’trespondforalongtime,breathingslowanddeepinto
hispalms,hisheaddipped.Whathadshesaidwrong?Reneewondered.Shegavehim
sometime,smoothinghisshoulderuntilfinallyheinhaledsharplyandlethishandsfall
away.
“Theselungsarehealthy,butIhavetotakemedicine,ontime,twiceaday,
everyday,probablyfortherestofmylife,topreventmyimmunesystemfromattacking
them.But...”Kaitookinabreath.“Thatmakesmemoresusceptibletogettingsick
withthingsnormalpeopledon’tneedtoworryabout.I’vebeenlucky,but...Ireally
shouldwearamaskwhenI’maroundalotofpeopleinaconfinedspace,likeclass,andI
haven’t...Ihaven’tbeendoingthat.”
“Kai...”
“I’malreadyenoughofafreak.AndthenImetyou....”Heshookhishead.
ReneetuggedonKai’shandtomakehimlookather.“Kai,promisemeyou’ll
protectyourself.I’llwearamask,too,ifyouwant.Insolidarity.”Reneefeltafull,
brilliantsmilepeelacrossherface,butitfadedwhenKai’seyesblinkedrapidlyandhe
turnedhisheadinsteadofreturningthegrin.Whatwasshedoingwrong?
“There’smore,”hesaidinalow,quietvoice,notmeetinghereyes.“Evenwith
thedrugs,evenifI’mcareful,mybodycanstillrejectmylungs.Icanstillgetsick.Andif
thathappens...I’llgetverysick.”Kaiextractedhishandfromhertouchsohecould
pullhimselffartherbackonthebed,hisbackagainstthewall.Hislegswerejittering
withminorspasms,andtheyresistedhisattemptstobendthemashepulledthem
towardhischest,huggingthemclose.“Ican’ttellyouhowlong....”Kaiswallowed.
“Youcan’tplanyourfuturewithsomeonelikeme,andIunderstandifthisisalltoo
much.”
“Oh,Kai,”shesaid,climbingontoherkneesandwalkingclosertohim.He
wouldn’tmeethereyes,sosheliftedhischinandkissedhim,warmandwonderful,deep
87
andpure,andshefeltafireinsideherigniteasitalwaysdidwhenshewaswithhim.
“Doyourememberthefortuneyougottheothernight,whenyoubroughtmebackhere
fortwentyquestions?”
Hesighed,aharsh,defeatedsound,shookhishead.
“Itsaid,‘Thefutureiswhatyoumakeit.’Theotherday,whenIspentthenight
here,Irealizedthatthingswillbedifferent.Maybemoredifficult,beingwithyou,butI
don’tcare.WhatgoodiseasyifI’mnothappy?Andbeingwithyoumakesmefeelalive.”
Sheheardhimswallowthickly.“Icoulddie,Re,”hesaidinavoicesoquietshe
barelyheardit.
“AndsocouldI.”
Thatgarneredafaintlaugh,andhefinallylookedupather,eyesglossy,
pushinghislegsdown,straighteningtheminfrontofhim.Whowashetryingto
protect?Her,orhimself?“Evenwiththetransplant,Isometimeshavetroublebreathing.
Imighthaveyears,butImightnot.”Kai’sbreathhitched,andhepulledherintohislap,
huggingherclose,hisheadonhershoulder,lipsnearherear.Awaytohidehisface,
perhaps,thoughsheheardtheemotioninhisvoice.“Iwantyou,Re.I’vewantedyou
sincethemomentIsawyouthatfirstdayofclass.Butifyoucan’tdothis,ifyoudon’t
wanttodothis,Igetit.Justtellmenow,please?BecauseIcouldn’thandlefallingin
lovewithyouandlosingyouwhenwhatI’mtalkingaboutbecomesmorethanjusttalk.I
can’t...Ican’tgothroughthatagain.”
Reneeheardthe“again”clearly,andherheartcrumbled.Therewasastory
here,oneKaihadleftoutofhispaper,perhapsinvolvinghisex,butnowwasn’tthetime
toprobehimforit.Perhapsshe’dweaselitoutofJonatsomepoint.Reneetriedtopush
himaway,butheclungcloselytoher.
“I’mmessedup,Re.Somessedup,”hesaid,hisvoicesmall.
“It’sOK,”Reneesaid,pressingherselfagainsthim,smoothinghisstrongback,
feelingthesubtlejerkofhisshouldersindicatinghewascrying,thoughhewastrying
desperatelytohideit.God,hisexmusthavebeenhorrible,Reneethought,doingher
besttocomforthimwithhertouch.“Itoldyou.Messeduptogether.Allright?I’minthis
gameaslongasyouwantme.”
“Staywithme,”hesaid,hisvoicetiny,almostfrightened.“Please.”Hefinally
pulledawaytolookather,hiseyesrimmedwithred,soterrifiedandlostandsad.
Shenodded,smoothedhishairoutofhisface.“I’mnotgoinganywhere.”She
kissedhimlightlyonhislips,tastingsalt,thenofferedhimasmile,heldhischinto
ensurehewouldn’thideagain.“I’mabiggirl,too,OK?There’salmostnothingyoucan
tellmethatwillmakemethinklessofyou.Idon’twantyoutobeafraidofbeinghonest
withme.”
Hecrackedasmilethen.“Youstealingmylines,now?”
“IknowI’mlittle,andIlookdelicate,butI’mstrong.Letmebestrongforyou,
OK?”
Kainodded.
Reneepulledoffherownshirt,hesitatedamoment,butleftherbrainplace,
notquitereadytobethatnakedwithKaiyet.Shebroughthishandstoherribs,where
theymovedslowly,reverently,beforehepulledhercloseforanotherkiss.Thisonewas
sweet,slow,tender,makingtimestutterandstall.ShewonderedifKaihadintendedher
tofindandreadhismakeupessay,becauseclearly,morethananyotherrevelationhe’d
sharedwithher,thetruthabouthisscarswasthehardestpieceforhimtoshare.
Finally,hepulledaway,smilingfaintly,someofthedarknessfadedfromhis
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eyes.Helightlyteasedherbreasts,fingersgrazingoverhernipples,makinghergasp,
beforeeasilyliftingheroffhislapandsettingheraside.Confusedatfirst,shesawhim
pushhimselfontohisside,lyingdown,arranginghislegsandbeckoningherintohis
arms.Shesnaggedablankettocoverthem,snugglingbesidehim.
Theyheldeachotherlikethisforalongwhile,Renee’sforeheadrestingagainst
hischest,andshefoundherearstuningtothesoundofhisbreath,slow,regular,justa
tadnoisierthanherown,ifshereallyfocusedonhearingthenuances.Shecouldstillfeel
thesubtletwitchofhislegs,buthewascalmer,morerelaxed,andshehopedshehad
helpedhistensionseepaway.
“Youknow,whenJude...did...whathedid...tome,Ididn’tleavehim
rightaway.I...”Reneesuckedinabreath.“Ithought,atfirst,hewasright,whenhe
toldmeIwasacocktease,andthatIowedhim,andthatIcouldn’thavesexwithhim
formonthsandthenchangemymind.”Reneelaughed.“Ican’tbelieveI’mhalfnaked
withaman,tellinghimthis.”
Kai’shandslidalongherside,finallyrestingatherwaist,histouchalmost
reverential.“Igetit.”Shefelthimtakeinadeepbreath.“MyexabandonedmewhenI
wasdying,”hesaidinalevel,butlowvoice.“Istillwafflebetweenknowingshe’sabitch
andthinkingitwasmyownfault.Ihatemyscars,especiallythisone,”hesaid,bringing
herfingerstohisthroat,whereshefelttheunnaturalindentation,“becausetheymake
methinkofher,ofhowstupidIwas.Ofthelookonherfacewhenshefinallyshowedup,
weeksaftermytransplant,andsawthisscar.”
Reneekissedhischest.“IneverthoughtI’dfindamanwhocouldunderstand
whathappenedbetweenmeandJude.WhyIstayedwithhim,whyIdidn’tsay
anything.”Shesmiled.“Youweretotallyworththewait.”
Jonwaslookingathisfirstcoupledaysoffinnearlytwoweeksofmostlynightshifts,
makingupforthetimehetookofftobewithKai,andhewaseagertospendthem—
preferablynaked—inbedwithVicky.Jonhadn’tfeltthishornysincehewasateenager;
withhisshitschedulelately,theyhadn’tseeneachotheroutsideworkintendays,andit
hadbeenoveraweeksinceVickyhadsnuckhimaquickieinhisofficewhilehewason
break.Jonwasmorethanwillingtoputasidesleepandfoodtofuckheragain.
Vickyopenedthedoor,andbeforeshecouldgetawordout,hegrabbedher,
buryinghistonguedownherthroat,shuttingthedoorwithakickofhisfoot,then
pressingherupagainstit.Heshimmiedoutofhiscoat,tossingitaside,kissingher
hungrily,onehandimmediatelyfondlingherbreast,theothercaressingherhipashe
groundagainsther.Shegaspedandsighedandleanedintohim,butwhenhereachedto
unbuttonherjeansshepushedhimaway.
“Weneedtotalk.”
Wordsnomaneverwantstohearfromhiswoman,especiallywhenhe’sso
hardithurts.They’dmadeupaftertheminifightSaturdaymorning;shewasn’tstill
angryaboutthat,wasshe?Sheknewhecouldbecluelesssometimes.Wasshemad
becausetheyhadn’tseeneachothermuchlately?“Vic,Iwon’tbeonthishorrible
scheduleforever.Justanotherweek,andthenI’mbacktomyusual.AndI’mon-callfor
Thanksgiving,butIdon’thavetobeon-site—”
Vickyturnedherbacktohim,crossedtoherlivingroom.“That’snotwhatthis
isabout,Jon.”
Jonpulledhisfingersthroughhishairasheslowlyfollowedher.Ashis
erectionfaded,hisexhaustionsurged.Lessthantwomonthstogether,andshehad
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alreadyapparentlydecidedtheywereamistake.Hesankintothecouchoppositeher,
tryingandfailingtoreadherface.
“Whydidyougointopeds?”
Certainlynotthenextthinghe’dexpectedtocomeoutofhermouth.“What?”
“Youcouldhavedonejustthreeyears,specializedinadultpulmonology.
Instead,youcamehere,didfive,soyoucouldtreatchildren,too.Why?”
Jonshookhishead,rubbedhiseyes.Hewastootiredforgamesandcouldn’t
followVicky’slogic,soheansweredtruthfully.“IknewIwasinterestedprimarilyin
cysticfibrosisandsevereasthma,bothofwhichlargelyaffectchildren.”Heshrugged,
hopingVickywouldrevealwhatshewasobviouslyfishingfor.
“Soitwasacademic.”
Jonpulledathishair,sighingloudly.“Vic,whatisthisabout?”
“Justtellme.”
“Whydoesitmatter?”
“BecauseIneedtoknow.”
Jongrithisteeth.“Youknowwhy.”
Vickystaredhimdown.“Ineedtohearyousayit.”
“BecauseIthoughtmybrotherhaddiedofanasthmaattackwhenhewassixyears-old.BecauseIcouldn’tdoanythingforhim.Ispentmorethanadecadethinking
aboutthatmoment,abouthowIshouldhavebeenabletodosomething.Someone
shouldhavebeenabletodosomething.Becausenochildshoulddiethatway.”
Vickyfoldedherarmstightlyacrossherchest,shakingherhead.Butwhenshe
spoke,hervoicewasflat.“It’salwaysaboutKai.”
MaybeitwasJon’sexhaustionorsexualfrustration,buthelethisanger
explodeout.“Whenwewerekids,ItookcareofKaimostofthetime,becauseourmom
was...unavailable,andourdadwasworking.”Jonjabbedhischestwithafingerwith
eachpunctuated“I”ashespoke.“Iwastheonewhostayedupwithhimnightswhenhe
couldn’tbreathe.Iwastheonewhotaughthimtosignandhelpedhimtowalk.Iheld
himwhenhecried,whenhewashurtingorscared.Isatwithhiminthehospital
wheneverIcould.”Jonrose,pacedrestlessly.“Soyes.ItstartedoutaboutKai,butit
becamemorethanthat,because,asIrememberyoutellingme,Iunderstandwhatthose
parentsaregoingthrough.AndifIcanmakelifebetterforthemandtheirchildren,then
Iwill.”Jonfacedher,hisownarmsfoldedtightlyonhischest.“Whatthefuckisthisall
about,anyway,Vicky?Ifyoudon’twanttoseemeanymore,fine,butdon’tyoufucking
questionwhyIdowhatIdo.”
Vickystaredathimalongmoment,herfaceunreadable,beforefinallyrisingso
theyweremoreateyelevel.“I’mpregnant,Jon,”shesaidinalowvoice.
Jonfelthiskneesstarttobuckleandhehadtoquicklyadjusthisfeetsothathe
sankbackintothesofainsteadofthefloor.“What?How?”
Vickyjoinedhim,sittingalittlecloser,herkneestouchinghis.“Ifyoudon’t
knowhow,thenIthinkyouneedyourmedicallicenserevoked.”Itwasajoke,butshe
didn’tsmile.
Jonswallowed,allofhisangerhavingcompletelyevaporated.“You’re...
sure?”
Vickynodded.“MyOB-GYNsaysI’maboutsevenweeks.”
Jonshifted,pulledVickytowardhim.Sheturnedsoherbackwastohischest,
herheadreclinedagainsthisshoulder,cradlinghisarmsaroundher.
“Jon...I’mbringingthispregnancytoterm.Butifyoudon’twanttodothis
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withme,I’lllookintoadop—”
“No,”Jonsaidfirmly,squeezingherwrists.“No,I’minthiswithyou.”He
kissedthetopofherhead.“I’mnotsureI’mreadyforalittlewhitechapel,but....A
baby.”Hesmiledagainstthetopofherhead.“I’lldothiswithyou,Vic.Ifyouwantit.”
Shenodded.“Ido.”Shedippedherheadbacksoshecouldattempttolookup
athim.“Jon,I’vewantedmorethanafriendshipwithyouforyears,butyouwerewith
Jenny,andthenKaigotsick....Itwasnevertherighttime.”
Jonthoughtaboutitforamoment,squeezedhertight.Jonhadalwaysthought
Vickywasunattainable,partiallybecauseoftheiragedifference,andthesepastfew
weeksmadehimrealizemorethaneverhowmuchofamistakeJennyhadbeen.“Me
too.”
“Justpromiseme,”Vickysaid,pullingaway,turningagaintofacehim.
“Anything.”
Shelaidahandononeshoulder.“You’llputourchildfirst.Kai’sanadult;he
doesn’tneedafather.Butourbabydoes.”
Jonsmiledfaintly,nodded.Hegentlycradledhercheeksandpulledhercloser,
kissingherdeep,passionately,buttender.“Kaiwillalwaysbeimportanttome,”Jon
said,staringintohereyestoshowhissincerity,“butyouandthisbaby...”Hesighed
softly,laidhishandonVicky’sstomach.“Numberonepriority.”Theysmiledtogether,
touchedforeheads,andthoughtheprospectofbeingafatherwasfrightening,italso
madehimfeelwarmandlightinside.
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November11,2000
Dianeopenedthedoor,takinginthemaninthewheelchairsittinginfrontofher.He
wasshockinglyhandsome,withadefinedjawandlong,slopingnose,brilliantblueeyes
andgoldenhairthatfelllooselyabouthisface,cascadingoverhisears.
“YoumustbeDiane.”
Shenodded,steppedasidesohecouldcomein.
Thedoorwasatightfitforhischair,sohepulledhimselfinwithhishandson
thedoorframe.
“AndyoumustbetheinfamousKai,”Dianesaid,closingandlockingthedoor
behindhim.
“Uhoh.NowIwonderwhatRenee’sbeentellingyouaboutme,”hesaidashe
slippedoutofhiscoat,flashingasmilethatwouldweakenthekneesofnearlyany
woman.
Dianelaughed,takinghisjacketandhangingitupforhim.HeworealongsleevedT-shirtbeneatharegularonethat,thoughloose,couldn’thidewhathadtobe
incrediblearmsandshoulders.
“Reneehadtoruntothestoretopickupafewthingslastminute,butshe
shouldbebacksoon.CanIgetyouanything?”
“I’mgood,thanks.”
Dianestoodawkwardly,pattingherthighabsently,lookingaroundasif
thinkingwhattosay,tryingtoavoidstaringathiswheelchairorhislegs.Despitethe
wheels,hewasincrediblyattractive;she’dgiveReneethat.ButeventhoughReneehad
satDianedownandexplainedtheessentialsofthe“complicated”KaiFox,soDiane
wouldknowwhattoexpectandpotentiallygetonboardwithit,nowthathewassitting
infrontofher,shewasn’tsurewhattosayordo.Dianehadneverknownadisabled
personbefore,andnowsuddenlyherbestfriendwasdatingone.AndDiane’s
personalityalreadycameoffasabit...Dianewouldsay“honest,”butmostpeople
mightsay“abrasive.”It’sonereasonsheandReneemadesuchagoodpair:Renee’s
sweetnessbalancedoutDiane’sacerbicpersonality,whereasDiane’sassertiveness
balancedRenee’soccasionaltimidity.
“So...”Dianesaid,bouncingonherkneesalittle,restless.Thenshenoticed
oneofhislegswasspasmingmildly,andrememberedReneehadexplainedaboutthat
anddecidedmaybeshedidn’twanttomakehimseemselfconscious,soshestopped.
God.Shewasoverthinking,likeRenee,whichDianeneverdid,andthiswasn’tevenher
ownboyfriend.ButhewasthefirstmanthatReneehadexpressedareal,healthy
interestin—well,ifyoucouldcountweeksofdesperatefailedstalkinguntiltheyfinally
rekindled“healthy.”UnlesshesentDiane’s“assholealarm”blaring,shedidn’twantto
doanythingtojeopardizewhatcouldbeagoodrelationshipforRenee,evenifDiane
couldn’tunderstandthewholedisabledpartoftheequation.
“So...”heechoedher.Washesmiling?Didhefindheruncharacteristic
uncertaintyamusing?WhoknewwhatReneehadtoldhim.“Doyouwanttosit?”
Hisquestioncaughtherbysurprise.Wasitrudeforhertostandwhenhewas
sitting?Reneehadn’tsaidanythingaboutthat,butthen,Reneewassoshort,itprobably
didn’tmattermuch.Dammit.Moreoverthinking.
Helaughednow,lowandrich.“Justthoughtyoumightwanttobemore
comfortablewhilewewaitforRenee?”
92
Dianenoddedandledthewaytowardthesectionofthemainroomwherethey
hadapairofcouchesandtheirsmallTVandVCR.Shewalkedaroundthecoffeetable
andsunkintoherfavoritespot.She’dalreadysettledinwhensherealizedhiswheelchair
couldn’tfitbetweenthetableandthesofas.Shit.
“Oh.Sorry—”
“It’sfine,”hesaidwithasmile,pullinguptotheedgeoftheplushcarpetthat
definedthespace.“I’llmovethetablelater.”
Thoughshe’dalreadyobservedhisupperbodyseemedfitandstrong,the
statementstillseemedjarring.Shetookabreath.
“You’reavisualartmajor?”Hisrightfootwasspasmingmorevisuallynow,
jitteringlikehe’dhadtoomuchcoffee,althoughReneehadexplaineditwascompletely
involuntary.Hepressedhishandonhisknee,butotherwiseignoredit,soshedidher
besttodosoaswell.
“Yup.Istartedoffinarchitecturebutdidn’tlast,”Dianesaidwithalaugh.“I
dabbleinallmediumsandformsbutIreallylikesculpture,especiallyworkingwith
metal.”Sherelaxedalittle,andthenshiftedinherseat.“Yourwheelchairhassomenice
linestoit.AndIcouldprobablypaintitforyou,ifyouwanted.Theframe,Imean.”
Heglanceddown,seeminglyoutofreflex,andwhenhelookedbackup,she
caughtaflashofembarrassmentbeforehehidit.
“Sorry,”Dianesaid,thoughshewasn’treally.“Reneedidn’twarnyouaboutmy
footandmouthdisease?”
Heshookhishead,smiling.“It’sfine.Somehow,though,Igetafeelingyou
weren’thopingtogetmealonesowecouldtalkaboutmetallurgy.”Hismusclespasms
hadquieted,soheusedhishandstopushhisbodyup,adjustinghisweight.“Askorsay
anythingyouwant.”
Therewasonequestionshehad,whichshe’dattemptedtobroachwithRenee
butnevermanagedtoactuallyask.Itwasn’texactlythemostPCthingtosay,buthe
seemedtobeinvitinghertospeakfreely.“So...Reneetoldmealittleabout...you,”
shesaiddelicately,buthergazesettledonhislegsandthelookinhiseyestoldherhe
caughthermeaning.“Butit’sjustyourlegs...thatdon’twork,right?”Sheraisedher
eyebrows.
Hewasleanedback,lookingather,hislipspursed,obviouslyholdingbacka
smile,buthesaidnothing.Evidently,heknewwherethiswasgoingandwasn’tgoingto
makeiteasierforher.
“Iknowit’snoneofmybusiness,butRenee’shadproblemswithguystaking..
.advantage...ofherbefore.Iknowshelikesyou,butI’dgetifshepickedyoubecause
—”
KaiheldupahandandDianeworriedthatshe’dsteppedinit.“Yes,my
plumbingworks,andyes,IknowaboutJude.Reneetoldme,butthat’snotwhyshe’s
datingme.”
Dianefeltherownblushthistime.“Wait.ReneetoldyouaboutJude?About—”
Kai’ssmilefadedtoclenchedteeth.“Howherapedher?”Hiseyesflashedwith
anger.Hetookadeepbreath,blinked,relaxed.“That’swhyItoldherit’sOKtotake
thingsslow,ifthat’swhatsheneeds.”
“Really?”
“Really.”
“I’msorry,”Dianesaid,sincerelythistime.“It’sjust...Renee’sdatedsome
realusers,andthewayyoualwaysseemedtopullthesedisappearingacts,Ijust—”
93
“It’sfine.You’relookingoutforyourfriend.Renee’sluckytohavesomeonelike
you.”Kaishiftedhisweightagain.
Dianeshrugged.“IthinkI’mmoreluckytohaveherkeepingmeoutof
trouble.”
Kailaughed.God,wasitpossiblehewasactuallyareallyniceguy?AndRenee
musttrusthimifshetoldhimaboutJude.Onlyahandfulofpeopleknewthatsecret.
Thefrontdooropeninginterruptedtheirconversation,Reneepoppingher
headin,carryingseveralsacksofgroceries.“I’mback!”
KaiwasathersidebeforeDianehadevenstoodup.“Anythingelseinthecar?”
“Nope,thisiseverything.Justsomesnacksandthemovies,”Reneesaid,
smilingasKaiacceptedmostofthebags,carefullyarrangingtheminhislapsothey
wouldn’tfallandfollowinghertothekitchen.
Hewasgoingtohelpherputthegroceriesaway?Dianecouldhardlybelieve
hereyes.ThelastguyReneedatedwouldcomeover,crashonthecouch,puttinghis
dirtyshoeseverywhere,leavehisbeerbottlesalloverforReneetocleanup,andusually
eatDiane’sfood.Renee,Godblessher,wouldalwaysoffertopayDianetomakeupfor
it,butDianewasgratefulthatrelationship—ifshecouldevencallitthat—hadn’tlasted.
Dianestartedforthekitchen,hesitatinginthedoorway,watchingReneeand
KaiinteractastheyworkedtogethertoputawayRenee’spurchases,smilingandflirting
andlaughingandhappy.Dianesawthewaytheylookedateachother:itwas
nauseatinglyHallmark-greeting-cardsappy,butDianewasrelieved.Reneedeserved
someonewhogenuinelycaredabouther—andKai’sreactionwhenJudehadcomeupin
theconversationindicatedhedid—andwhowouldtreatherright.Dianedidn’tthinkshe
coulddealwiththewheelchair,butifitdidn’tbotherRenee,thenmorepowertoher,
right?
Dianeclearedherthroatwhenitwascleartheyweretoolostineachotherto
noticeherstandingthere.“Uh,I’mgoingtoheadout.Youtwohavefun.”
Kaiusedtheedgeofthecabinettohelphimturnaroundinthetightspace.
“Oh,Diane,Idon’twanttokickyouout—”
Sheheldupherhand,snaggedherpursefromtheoppositecounter.“Ihavea
sculptureprojectduesoonanyway;thestudioshouldbeempty.Perfecttimetogetsome
workdone.”Shesmiledandwaved.SheseemedtorememberReneementioninga
brother.Mightbeworthinvestigating.“Don’twaitupforme,”sheaddedwithawink
beforeheadingoutthedoor.
“ThanksfortheGatorade,”Kaisaid,snaggingabottle,twistingoffthecapandtakinga
longdrink.“Butyoudidn’thaveto.”
Reneeshrugged,leanedforwardandstoleaquickpeck.“Iwantedto.Doyou
eatpopcorn?”
“I’lleatsomeifyoumakesome,butyoudon’tneedtoworryaboutme.”
“You’resoeasy,”Reneesaid,openingoneoftheboxesshe’dbrought,
extractingabag,andstickingitinthemicrowave.
Kailaughed.“Imakeupforitwithbeingcomplicatedinjustabouteveryother
sense.”
Reneepulledherselfuponthecountersoshewassittingonit,thenpopped
openacabinetandfishedoutalargeplasticbowl.
Kaicouldn’thelpnastythoughtsofwhathecoulddotoher,sittingonthe
counterwhilehewasinhischair,buthequicklypushedthemaside,acceptingthebowl
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andhelpingherdown.
“SowhatdidyouandDianetalkaboutwhileIwasgone?"Reneetookbackthe
bowlandsetitaside."Imadeherpromisenottoembarrassme.”
“Nothing,”Kaisaid,takinganothersipofhisdrink.“Wejustchitchatted.”
“Uhhuh.What’dshesay?”
Kaishrugged,shookhishead.
Reneedroppedashoulder.“OhGod,sheaskedifyourdickworks,didn’tshe?”
Kailaughed.“Shemayhave.”
Reneeturnedscarlet.“OhGod.I’msosorry.”
“It’sfine,Re.Shejustwantedtomakesuremyintentionsweregood.”
Reneenibbledherlowerlipandtracedalinealonghisjawwithasinglefinger,
makinghiscockimmediatelyspringtoattention.
“Notifyoukeepdoingthat,”hesaid,onlyhalfjoking.
Shegrinned,tooktheGatoradefromhimandsetitonthecounter.Thenshe
climbedinhislapandkissedhim,deep,probing,intense,makinghimsmileandmoan
intohermouth,grippinghercloser,desperatetofeelheragainsthim,fleshtoflesh.He
hadn’thadsexinovertwomonths,andnowthatReneeknewabouthistransplant,he
hadnothing—physicalanyway—tohidefromheranymore.Still,they’donlybeen
officiallytogetheracoupleweeks,andrippingherclothesoffandeatingheroutinthe
kitchenfollowedbyherfuckinghiminhischairwasn’texactly“takingthingsslow.”
Thesoundofpopcornpoppingbegantofade,andthemicrowavebeeped,but
shecontinuedtokisshim,ignoringit,grippinghisshouldersandmakinghimcrazy.
“Ow.”Reneepulledaway,lookeddown.Kai’srightkneewasjumping.
Fuck,notnow.“Sorry....”Hislegandfoothadspasmedalittleearlier,but
thencalmed,andhe’dhopedhe’dhaveapeacefulnight,otherthanhistightback.
Reneeusedhisshoulderstosupportherselfassheclimbedoff.Hercheeks
weredelightfullyflushed,andthenecklineofhersweaterhaddippedoverhershoulder,
exposingherpaleskinthatKaidesperatelywantedtolickandnibbleashemovedhis
waylower.Notjackingoffbeforecomingoverwasapparentlyahugemistake.Andnow
hisfootwasspasmingagain,too.Nothingreallypainful,justannoying.Heplaceda
handonhisknee,totrytomakeitlessobvious,andalsototrytokeephisthighfrom
movingtoomuch.Hewasmakinggoodprogresswithhisrecovery,andhedidn’twant
tosetthingsback,evenifthesespasmsweren’tparticularlyviolent.
Reneehadn’tcommented,emptyingthepopcornintothebowlbutkeepingan
eyeonhiminherperipheralvision.Finally,shesaid,“Can—canIdoanything?”
Hesmiledfaintly.“It’lleitherpassinaminute,orgetworse.I’msorryifIhurt
you.”
“No,”shesaid,shakingherhead.“Yousurprisedmemorethananything.”
“Let’sgosit,”hesaid.
“Notyet,”shesaid,suddenly,leavingthepopcorninthekitchen.“Weshould
seeifyoufitinmybathroombeforewegettoocozy,right?”
“It’sfine,Re.I’llfiguresomethingout.Goodthingaboutdrinkingsomuch
Gatoradeisthebottlesreallycomeinhandy.Ialwayskeepafewwithme.”Hecringed.
“Sorry.Toomuchinformation.”
Reneejustshookherhead.“Tryitforme?”Shetuckedhershouldersup,toeing
thegroundwithherfoot,andtherewasprobablynothingshecouldhaveaskedofhimin
thatmomentthathewouldn’thavesaid‘yes’to.
Henoddedwithaslightsmileandfollowedher;ifherbathroomwasanything
95
likeJon’s,therewasnowayhe’dfit,butReneewasnewtolifewithsomeoneinachair,
andsomelessonshadtobelearnedbyseeinghowheliterallycouldnotfitinmostsmall
bathrooms.
ThefirstthingKainoticedwasinsteadofhavingatraditionaldoor,theroom
hadtwosmalleronesthatpulledopenandlaidflatagainstthewall,givinghimthefull
widthoftheframetoenter,withnohugeawkwarddoortoworkaround.Itcouldhave
beenhisimagination,buttheysmelledfreshlypainted.Thesecondwasthatthe
bathroom,thoughsmall,wasorientedinawaythathecouldactuallyfitinside;the
bathtub/showeronhisleft,perpendiculartothedoor,whichdeterminedthedepthof
theroom,asmallsinkinfrontofhim,andofftohisright,thetoilet.
Kaiblinked.Itwasn’toffset,butitwasn’tthetypicallow,residentialcommode
likeJonhadinhisbathroom,butonemorelikeKai’s,high,easiertotransferto.And
grabbarshadbeeninstalledalongthewall.Kaipushedcloser;itwouldn’tbeassimple
touseaswhathehadathome,butitwasfarbetterthanpassable.Withoutaword,he
driftedovertotheshower—nowherealizedthebathmatsthatReneemustnormally
havehadonthefloorhadbeenremovedandlaydrapedoverthetub—andpulledback
thecurtain.
Ashowerseatidenticaltohisownwassetinthetub,thoughpushedabit
fartherback,andtheshowerheadhadbeenconvertedtoahandwand,withabaseforit
attheusualheight,aswellasabitlower.Kaifelthisheartbeatingfasterinhischest,
andhewasn’tsureifitwereasignofanimpendingpanicattackorasurgeofexcitement
thateverythingReneehadpromisedhimafewdaysago—“I’minthisgameaslongas
youwantme”—wasmorethanmerewords.
Carefully,heturnedaroundinthetightspace;Reneestoodinthedoorway,
anxiouslyawaitinghisreaction.“It’sabitearly,but...MerryChristmas.”
Kaifounditastruggletofindwords,orevensigns,torespond.“Idon’tknow..
.whattosay.”Nikkihadnevermadeanyaccommodationsforhim,andthoughBecca
had,likeeverythingwithher,theycamewithstrings.Heavystrings.
Reneesmiledshyly.“AfterIspentthenightatyourplace,Istartedthinking,
and....”Sheshrugged,toedthefloorsomemore.“Iwantyoutobecomfortablehere.
I’mseriousaboutus,andIhavethree-plusyearsofschoolleft,andDianeandIreally
lovethisapartment....”
Kaiglidedcloser,reachingupforonehand.“Thankyou,”hesaid,notableto
saymore;therewasnowayhecouldconveyinEnglishwhatthisgesturemeanttohim,
inmorethanpracticalterms,andRenee’sASLwasn’tremotelygoodenough.“But...
how?Youstayedatourplaceonlyaweekago.”
Reneegrinnednow,aconfident,elatedsmile.“ItalkedtoTroy,whoputmein
touchwiththeoccupationaltherapistpeople,whoadvisedmeonwhattodo,andDiane
helpedmeconvinceourlandlord.Shecanbeverypersuasivewhensheneedstobe.”
Kaifeltaneasy,relaxedsmileslipontohisface.“CanIborrowher?I’vebeen
tryingtogetourstoputinaroll-undersinkformonths.”
Reneelaughed.God,shewassobeautifulwhenshelookedathimlikethatit
madehischesthurt.“Soyoulikeit?”
Henodded.
“Iknowwe’retakingthingsslow,butthisway,ifyouneedtospendthenight...
.”Hereyestwinkled.
KaipulledhishandsalongRenee’ssides,slidinghisthumbsunderthehemof
hersweater,teasingherbareskin.Shedidn’tstophim,sohecontinued,workinghisway
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underhershirttoherbreasts,searchingouthernipplestotease.Kaicaressedherfor
severalminutes,growingachinglyhardagain,pressingteasingkissespunctuatedby
playfullicksonherbelly,atasteofwhatelseshecouldhaveifshe’dlethim.
“Wecouldtryouttheshower,”hesaid.“I’llmakeitworthyourwhile.”
Shesighed,hereyesfellclosedforamomentashecontinuedtofondleher
breasts,fingertipscirclingtauntnipples,andhehopedshe’dsayyes.Maybehe’deven
feelherhandsonhiscock,strokinghim....
ButReneepushedhisarmsawayandsteppedback,outofthebathroom.Her
facewasstillflushedfrompassion,buthereyesbetrayedher.Shewasscared.“Iwantto
...”shesaid,almostapologetically.“But...Ican’t.I’msorry.”Shepulledhersweater
down,coveringherselfasmuchaspossible.“Onthecouchoreveninthebedit’dbeone
thing....Butinthebathroom...I’dfeel...trapped.”Reneebitherlip.“Iknowit
doesn’tmakeanysense....”
“Iunderstand,Re,”Kaisaid.Morethanyou’lleverknow,hethought.“I
shouldn’thavepushedyou.Weagreedtoslow.Let’swatchthemovies.”Heofferedhera
smile,butthoughshenodded,shestillseemedshellshocked.
Kaifollowedherouttothelivingroom,surprisedtofindthecoffeetablehad
beenmoved,pushedagainstthewallbesidetheTV,givinghimspacetogettoeither
couch,ifhewanted.Heshookhishead.Dianemusthavedoneitbeforesheleft,whilehe
wastoobusydroolingoverReneeinthekitchen.Partofhimwasgrateful;thetablewas
longandprobablyheavy,andhadbeensittingonaplushrug,whichwouldhavemade
movingitfromhischaircomplicatedandtimeconsuming.Especiallysincehisbackwas
actingup.
Renee’sapartmentwasrelativelyaccessible,thefloorofthemainroomand
kitchennottoodissimilartothatinhisownapartment,butthefurniturewasn’t
arrangedwithawheelchairinmind,severalthickrugslikethisoneplacedaroundthe
floor.
Heleaneddowntorolluptherugenoughhedidn’thavetofightwithittoget
tothecouch,transferringtotheonefacingtheTV.HenoticedReneemovedquietly,her
cheerfulmoodevaporated,anditfelteerilylikelookinginsomekindofdistorted
mirror.IsthiswhatReneeexperiencedsomanytimeswhenhe’dwithdrawnreflexively
insidehimselfasmemoriesofthepastsurfacedtohaunthim?
SheseemedtobestrugglingwithgettingtheVCRtoacceptthetape,cursingto
herselfinfrustration.
“Re,comehere.Forgetaboutthatfornow.Ithinkweshouldtalk.”
Sheobeyed,risingandjoininghimonthecouch.“I’msorry,”shesaidinathick
butsmallvoice.“I’veruinedeverything,haven’tI?”
“Ofcoursenot,”Kaisaid,takinghertinyhandandcradlingitinoneofhis.
“Itrustyou,”shesaid,thoughshewouldn’tlookup.“Butwhatifwestart
something,andthe‘devilgetsinyou’asmymawmawwouldsay,andyoucan’tstop
yourself?”
Kaigrithisteeth,darknessswirlinginhiseyes,butheswalloweditdown;he
didn’twantReneetothinkhisangerwasdirectedather.“Re,”hesaid,givingherhanda
gentletugtotrytogethertolookathim.“DoIwantyou?Yes.Doyoumakemehorny
asfuck?Yes.WouldIhesitateaminute,ifyousaidyouwantedtohavesexwithme,to
kissandlickandtoucheverysquareinchofyourbodybeforeslippinginsideyouuntil
webothcame?No.”Kaiduckedtotrytolookupandfindhereyes,hiddenamongthe
shadowscastbyhercascadingcurls.“ButwillIeverdoanythingyoudon’twantmeto
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do?No.Youcanalwaystellmetostop.Whetherwe’refullydressedorhalfwaythrough
thefullact.Youhavearighttochangeyourmind.Always.”Hetriedtotugonheragain
togethertolookup,butshepulledaway.“Re,pleaselookatme.”
Finally,afterseveralminutes,shedid.Shewasn’tcrying,buthereyeswere
glossyandrimmedwithred.
“I’llbefrustrated,ofcourseIwillbe,”Kaisaid,tryingtosmiletoreassureher.
“Butnothingafewminutesinthatadaptedbathroomofyourscan’tfix.”Hetuckeda
curlbehindherear.“Iwillneverbeangrybecauseyoudecideyou’renotready.”He
openedhisarms,hopingshe’dacceptahug.
Afteramomentofhesitation,shedid,buthesoonfelthercryingintohis
shoulder,hersmallbodyjerkingagainsthislargerone,loudsobsthatrackedherpetite
frame.
“WasItooDeafiejustnow?Tooblunt?”
“No,”Reneemumbled,butshedidn’tsaymore,continuingtoweepinhisarms.
Kaiheldher,surprisedbyhowmuchithurt,aphysicalachehecouldn't
localize,tohearandfeelhercryingandnotknowhowtofixit,howtomakeitbetterfor
her.
Finally,Reneepulledback,wipedhereyeswiththesideofherhand.“I’m
sorry,”shesaid.“I’mnotusuallylikethis.”
Kaishookhisheadandsweptafewstraytearsawaywiththepadofhisthumb.
“Noconsequencesfortellingmetostop.Ipromise.”Hesmiled.“LikeIsaid,Imightbe
frustrated,butthatsortofcomeswiththeterritoryofhavingaYchromosome.”
Thatfinallymadehercrackasmile.
“Whydon’tyougogetthepopcornandourdrinksfromthekitchen,andI’llget
themoviestarted.YoucanpretendeverycharacterwhodiesisJude,especiallyifit’s
painful.”Hesmiled,hopingthatwouldcheerherup.
Shelaughedfaintly,andhereyessoftened.Shesmoothedherhandalonghis
hair,finallybringinghimcloseintoashortkiss.“Thankyou,”shemurmured.Whenshe
pulledback,shelookedlikeshewasreadytocryagain,butsheshookherhead,perhaps
inresponsetohisworriedlook.“I’llbeOK.You’llholdmeandwe’lllaughatMelGibson
andI’llbefine.”
Kainodded,watchedherleave,andknewthatifheevermetthisJude,he’dkill
himformakingthebeautifulrayofsunshinethatwasRenee—hisnicknameforherso
fitting—darkenthewayitjusthad.No,killinghimwouldbetookind.Castration,
perhaps,Kaithoughtevilly.Andinhischair,hewasattheperfectheight,too.
Vickysatatthekitchenislandofherchildhoodhome,watchinghermother,Margaret,
rolloutyetanothersheetofsugarcookiedough.
“Ma,isn’titalittleearlyforChristmascookies?It’snotevenThanksgivingyet.”
“Bah.It’snevertooearlyforsugarsnowmen.”Hermomgrabbedhercookie
cuttersandexpertlywenttowork,turningtheblankdoughintodozensoftiny
snowmen,snowflakes,andotherholidayshapesinminutes.
“So,Ma,”Vickysaidalittlehesitantly,sprayingPamonacouplecookiesheets,
“rememberItoldyouIwasseeingsomeone?ThatImightbringhimtoThanksgiving
dinner?”
“Mmm,”Margaretmuttered,noddingathankyouasshebeganlayingthe
cookiesoutoneachtray.“Thedoctor,right?Dr.Tyler?”
“Taylor,Ma.”
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“Samedifference.Gettheoven,willyou?”
Vickysighedandrose,pullingopentheovenMargarethadindicatedsoher
mothercouldshovethecookiesinside.Hermom’skitchenhadfourovens—twosetsof
doubles—whichmighthavebeenoverkillinanormalhome,butwitheightchildrenand
legionsofotherrelatives,allfourwerewellused.
Beforesittingbackdown,Vickywenttothefridgeforabeer.Fromthewaythis
conversationwasgoingalready,shewasgoingtoneedit.Shehadoneinherhandwhen
sheheardhermother.
“Yourfatherwillwonderwhyheonlyhasfivebeersleftinsteadofsix,”
Margaretnoted,cleaningherworkspacesoshecouldrolloutstillmoredough.
Vickyblinked,thefridgestillopen,assherealized,Shit.Can’tdrinkwhileI’m
pregnant.Reluctantly,shereplacedthebeerandgrabbedsomejuiceinstead,probably
stockedforthenumerousgrandkidswhoshuffledinandoutofthehouse.“You’reright,”
Vickysaidasshereturnedtoherseat.
Margaretstaredathersuspiciouslyforamoment,probablywonderingwhy
Vickybackeddownsoeasily,thoughshesaidnothing.
“HisnameisJon,andwe’reserious.”
“Areyousureit’sagoodideatodatesomeoneyouworkwith?Remember...
oh,whatwashisname...Todd?”
“Terry.Andthatwasnursingschool.Iwasstillgettingover....Anyway,thisis
different.”
“DoyouthinkIshoulddothreeturkeysthisyear,ortwoturkeysandaham?Or
maybejustthebreast.Iwasreadinginamagazinethedarkmeatreallyisn’tgoodfor
you,andyourfather—”
“Ma.I’mtryingtotalktoyou.”
“I’mlistening.”Shesearchedthroughafewdrawersbeforepullingoutsome
morecookiecutters,thesemorefallthemed.“See,nottooearlyforthese,Ihope,”
Margaretsaid,asiftryingtoproveherearlierpoint.“MaybeIshoulddotwoturkeysand
twohams.Everyoneseemstopreferthehamleftovers.”
Vickysighed.“Jonisdiabetic,OK?Sohe’snotgoingtobeeatingtoomany
starchesorcarbsorsweets.”
Margaretnodded,thoughbythewaysheseemeddistractedbyhertask,Vicky
figuredithadnothingtodowithwhatshejustsaid.
“I’mtellingyouthissoyou’renotoffendedwhenhedoesn’teatmuchordrink
anyalcohol.Hisbloodsugarcanbehardtoregulatesometimes.”
MargaretlookedatVickywithasourfrown.“YouandyoursisterVictoria—”
“I’mVictoria,Ma.”
Margaretrolledhereyes,wipedherhandsandstartedsettingupcoolingracks.
“Victoria,Veronica,whatever.Youtwoarealwaystalkingdowntome.JustbecauseI
didn’tgotocollegeandstayedhomewithyoukids,youthinkIdon’tknowanything
abouttheworld.”Sheslippedonapairofovenmitts,pullingoutfinishedcookies.“I’ll
tellyousomething,”Margaretsaid,pointingaspatulaatherdaughter,“I’velearned
moreaboutlifefromraisingeightchildrenthananyonecouldteachyouinschool.
Whichyoumightknowifyouwereamother.”Itwasalowblow,andevenMargaret
seemedtorealizeit.“Vicky—”
Vickyblinkedfuriously,tookafewdeepbreaths.Itwouldbesoeasytojusttell
hermomthetruth,butsheknewalltoowellthetruthdidn’talwayssetyoufuckingfree.
Soinstead,Vickysmiled,shookherhead,dismissingit.
99
Margaretfrowned,butseemedtoaccepttheeasyout,continuingasiftheslip
hadn’thappened.“Anyway,Iknowallaboutthat.Vincent’soldest,Emily,wasjust
diagnosed.Poorthing.Hastoprickherfingerallthetimeandtakethesehorribleshots
severaltimesaday.”
“It’snotthatbad,Ma.Jon’sbeenatypeIdiabeticsincehewasseven.”
“He’llbefine,”Margaretcontinued,asifVickyhadn’tspoken,scoopingcookies
ontothecoolingracks.“I’mmakingasugar-freeversionofeverythinganywaysince
Valerieisonadiet.OrisitVivian?”Margaretwavedahandintheair.“Bah.Doesn’t
matter;oneofyougirlsisalwaysdietinganyway.”
Vickysighed.Itwasobviousherpointwasn’tgettingacrossnomatterwhatshe
said.“JonandIareserious,Ma,”Vickyrepeated.“Andhe’snotusedtoabigfamily,so.
..just...benicetohim,OK?”
“I’malwaysnice,”Margaretsaid,scoopingmorecookiesontobakingsheets.
“BringhimsomeofthesewhenI’mdone.Youcantakesomeundecoratedonessothey
don’thaveasmuchsugar.”
Vickyhadtoresistafullfacepalm.
Kaiwashurting.Reneecouldtell,eventhoughhedidn'tcomplain.Heshiftedhisweight
everytenminutesitseemed,occasionallylinkinghishandsandstretchinghislongarms
aboveorinfrontofhim,likehisbackwastight.Theyhadstruggledatfirsttofinda
positionthatwascomfortableforbothofthem,especiallysinceKaididn'twantRenee
lyingonhislegsfortoolong,sincehewasstillhavingmildspasms,andheneeded
somethingtosupporthisback.Finally,they'dsettledforKaisittingwithhislegsout,
feetproppedontheseatofhiswheelchair,Reneeleaningagainsthim,hisarmholding
herclose.Kaihadn'tspokenfurtheraboutherbreakdown,buteverythingfromtheway
heheldhertohisoccasionalsurreptitiousconcernedglancessuggestedheunderstood,
anditwasOK.Ifanyotherguyhadpromisedheritwasalwaysfinetostop,shewould
havetakenitasamereplatitude.AvariationontheThreeLittleLies:“It’llonlyhurtfor
aminute,”“I’llonlysticktheheadin,”and“Iwon’tcomeinyourmouth.”
ButKaimeantit.Kaimightstrugglewithfulldisclosureattimes,anddespite
hisrecentopenness,sheknewsomuchmorestilllaylockedawayinhisfortress.Still,
Artwasright:Kaihadakindheart,andshebelievedhe'dneverhurtherintentionally.
Thefactthathe'dbeenwillingtolethergoifshethoughthis“complicatedhealth”was
morethanshecouldhandledespitehisobviousattractiontohermeantalot.Whatwas
theoldsaying?Ifyoulovesomeone,youhavetobewillingtosetthemfree?
“‘There'srosemary,that’sforremembrance.Prayyou,love,remember.And
thereispansies.That’sforthoughts,’”KaisaidalongwiththeactressplayingOphelia.
“Youhavethewholeplaymemorized,don'tyou?”
“Notallofit,”hesaid.“ButIhavereaditanobscenenumberoftimes.”He
shiftedhisweightaswellashecouldwithherbesidehim,tryingtostretchhisback
again,lettingoutafaintgrunt.HerinstinctwastoaskifhewasOK,butshedidn’twant
toseemlikeshewashovering.Shehadn’tknownKailong,butsheknewhimwell
enoughhe’dtellherifheneededtocallitanight.“Andnoweveryonestartsdying.”
They’dreachedthepartoftheplaywherethecharactersbegantodie,starting
withPolonius,killedmymistake,thenOphelia,drowningherself,andproceedingfrom
theretothefinalclimacticswordfightbetweenHamletandLaertes.
“I’mgoingtochangemynameagain.ToLaertes.Whatdoyouthink?”He
fingerspelledit,holdinghisarmoutinfrontofhim,andshecouldjustbarelymakeit
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outinthelightfromthetelevision.“Hmm.Kai’saloteasier.”Shefelthimlaughsubtly.
“Youdon’tlooklikea‘Laertes.’”
“AndIlooklikea‘Kai’?IthinkI’malittleblond.”
Reneelaughed,foundhishandandcaresseditwithhers.Shelovedhislong,
unusualfingers,thetipsroundedontheends,whichhe’dexplainedwasaresultofhis
lungdisease.“Well,Ilove‘Kai.’”Shefroze,herheartsuddenlytheonlysoundshecould
hear.Thathadmeantsomethingtotallydifferentinherhead.ButKaijustsqueezedher,
andsheletherselfrelax.“Didyoupickit,whenyouchangedyourname?”Sheheldher
breath,rememberinghowangryhe’dgottenthelasttimeshe’daskedaboutwhyhislast
namewasdifferentfromhisbrother’s.Ofcourse,thatwasalongtimeago,whenthey’d
barelyknowneachother.Alothadchangedbetweenthemsince.
Shefelthimtakeinadeepbreath.“No,Kaiwasalwaysmyname,itjustwasn’t
alwaysmyfirstname,”hereplied,seeminglynoangerinhisvoice.Andhewasn’ttrying
tospeakinthatdreadeddefensivemonotoneeither.Hewasjustansweringthequestion.
Perhaps,ifshedidn’tpushhim,he’drevealsomethingnewabouthimself.
Kaishiftedhisweightagain,justasthegraveyardscenebegan,andhe
interruptedtheirconversationtoquotethefamousmonologuealongwithMelGibson.
“‘Alas,poorYorick!Iknewhim,Horatio,afellowofinfinitejest,ofmostexcellentfancy.
Hehathbornemeonhisbackathousandtimes,andnow,howabhorredinmy
imaginationitis!Mygorgerisesatit.HerehungthoselipsthatIhavekissedIknownot
howoft.—Wherebeyourgibesnow?Yourgambols?Yoursongs?Yourflashesof
merrimentthatwerewonttosetthetableonaroar?Notonenowtomockyourown
grinning?’”Kaigrewquietamoment,beforecontinuing,“‘Alexanderdied,Alexander
wasburied,Alexanderreturnethtodust,thedustisearth,ofearthwemakeloam—and
whyofthatloam,wheretohewasconverted,mighttheynotstopabeerbarrel?
ImperiousCaesar,deadandturnedtoclay,/Mightstopaholetokeepthewind
away./Oh,thatthatearth,whichkepttheworldinawe,/Shouldpatchawallt'expelthe
winter’sflaw!’”Kaisighed,andtheywatchedtherestofthemovieinsilence,Kai
interruptingafewmoretimestoquotelines—shereallydidn’tbelievehedidn’tknow
theentireplaybyheart.
Finally,whenithadfinished,sheturnedinhisarmsenoughshecouldjust
makeouthisface,lovingthewayhecradledher.“So.What’dyouthink?”
“Itwaskindofweirdtoseeitperformedafteralltheseyearsofjustreadingit.
Itmadeitmorerealsomehow,andyetless.”Hisgazewasfaraway,though,andshe
wonderedwhathewasthinking.
“Pennyforyourthoughts?”
Helaughed,squeezedher.“Forme,Ithinkyou’llneedmorethanapenny.”He
tookinabreath.“Justthinkingofhowficklelifeis.Howonemoment,someonecanbe
there,smilingandlaughingandalive,andthen...”Heshrugged.“Eventhegreatest
menallbecomedust,asHamletpointsout.”
“Buttheyliveoninourmemories.Inmore...literalways,”shesaid,layinga
handonhischest.
Kailookeddown,hisbreathhitched.
“Wouldyoueverwanttomeetthefamilyof...”
Kaishookhishead.“Idon’tthinkIcould.WhatwouldIevensaytothem?”Kai
sighed.“Ididn’twishforthis,”Kaisaidinalowvoice,drawingafingerdownhischest.
“Onmy21stbirthday.”
Reneesatuponherkneessoshecouldseehimbetter,butshedidn’tsay
101
anything,justreachedupandtuckedsomehairbehindhisear.
Herolledhisneck,stretchingit,beforeofferingaslimsmile.“Howdoyouwish
forsomeoneelsetodiesoyouwon’t?”Andthat,Reneerealized,probablysaidmore
aboutKaithanathousandotherwordspossiblycould.
Hiseyesmethersforalongmomentbeforeheletoutaforcedlaugh.“Well,
I’vegotintrospectiveandbroodydown,andI’mprettycrazy.MaybeIshouldchangemy
nametoHamletinstead?ThenIcouldbe‘boundedinanutshellandcountmyselfthe
kingofinfinitespace,wereitnotthatIhavebaddreams.’”Hefrowned,buttherewasa
bitofasparkleinhiseyes,andshewonderedifheweretryingtomakelightofthe
situationforhersakeorhis.Perhapsabitofboth.
Shedecidedtoplayalong.“Allright,Hamlet,”shesaidwithasmile.“What’s
yourrealfirstname?”
“Kaiismyrealfirstname.Ichangedit,legally.”
Shestuckhertongueout,thenstoleaquickkissthatlefthimsmiling.
“Joseph,”hesaidbeforeshecouldaskagain.
“Hmm.YourlifestoryisveryOldTestamenty.Howfitting.”
Kairolledhiseyes,buthewassmilingather.Itamazedherhowopenhewas
beingwithheraboutthis,andawaveofhappinessfilledher.“Myparentshadathing
forsimple,Biblicalnames,apparently:Jon,Joseph,Sara.”Reneenoticedthementionof
asister.Kaihadtoldheritwasonlyhimandhisbrotherleft.Didthatmeanhe’dlost
trackofher,orwasshealsodeceased?“MybirthnamewasJosephKaiTaylor.
AccordingtoJon,myfatherwantedKai,butmymotherdidn’t,soitwasacompromise.”
“Soyou’reKaiJosephFoxnow.”Reneeguessed.
Henodded.
“MymiddlenameisMarie.Notveryexciting.It’safamilyname.Mymom’s
nameisMarie,andmymawmaw’smiddlenameisMarie,too.Etc.,etc.”
“Ithinkit’saprettyname,”hesaid,gesturingherincloseforakiss.Itstarted
outsweet,butquicklygrewheated,pullingherintohislap,hishandspalmingherass
androckingherintohim.Hewantedher.Andshewantedhim,too,but....
Shepushedhimaway,andheimmediatelystopped,releasinghisgrip,justas
he’dpromised,thoughahazeoflusthoveredinhiseyes.“I’msorry.”
Heshookhishead.“It’sOK,”hesaid,buthewasbreathingheavily.“Youjust
drivemecrazy.”Hepulledhercloseandplayfullynippedatherear,lickingtheskinjust
behindthelobe,makingherinsidesexplode.FuckJude.Fuckhimforruiningthisfor
her.
“Itrustyou,Kai,really,it’sjust—”
Kailaidalongfingeronherlips,justforaninstant,tosilenceher.“Awise
persononcetoldmeyoucantellanarachnophobeaspiderwon’thurthim,buthecan’t
helppanickingeverytimeheseesone.”Hecuppedhercheek,lookingdirectlyintoher
eyes;inthedimlight,hisbrilliantblueiriseslookedalmostindigo.“TrustmethatIdo
understand,anditisOK.Whenyou’reready,you’reready.Untilthen,I’lldoeverything
youfeelcomfortablewith,includingthis.”Heclosedhiseyesandbroughtherclosein
anotherheartbeat-stealingkiss.
Butthekissendedabruptlywhenshefelthislegspasmbeneathher.She
climbedoffhimandwatchedasKailinkedhishandsabovehisheadandattemptedto
stretchhisback,grimacing.
“ImayhavetotakearaincheckontheBranaghfilm,Re.”
“Youhurting?”
102
Hesmiledfaintly.“I'mfine,Ijustdon'tthinkI'llmakeitthroughanotherthree
hours.”
Reneesnakedherhandbetweenhisbackandthecouch,workingherfingers
intothetautmuscle.“You'resotight.”
“Yeah.Myback'salwaysstiffattheendoftheday,butit'sbeingparticularly
stubborntonight.”
Shenudgedhim.“Scootforward.”
“Re—”
Sheshushedhim,pushingonhisshouldersuntilhesighedgood-naturedlyand
shiftedhisfeetoffhischair,pushingitaside.Thenhegrippedtheedgeofthesofatopull
hisbodyforward.Despitehisdownplayingit,hemovedstiffly,hisbacklockedpretty
tightfromatleastthemidpointdown.Heattemptedtoarchit,pressinghishandsdown
whiledippinghisneckback,buthedidn'tmanagemuchofastretch.Reneerose,
balancinginthecushionsuntilsheclimbedbehindhim,nearlyfallingover.
Helaughed.“ShouldIask?”
“Shh,”shesaidwithagiggle,settlingdownbehindhim,sittingonthetopofthe
couch.ReneeplacedherhandsonKai'sshoulders,encouraginghimtoleanforward.
Thenshedugakneeinhislowerback,herfootbracedagainstthecouch,attemptingto
relaxtheworstofhisknots.
Hegroaned,handsgrippingtightonthecushionedge.
“AmIhurtingyou?”
“OhGod,no.Don'tstop.”
Reneelaughed,adjustedherbalancetouseherotherknee.Shedidthatfor
severalminutes,thenshiftedsoshecoulduseherelbowsonhisupperback,alternating
thatwithfingersstrugglingtorelievethetension.“God,Kai,I'mnotstrongenoughfor
this,”shefinallyadmittedwithalaugh,embracinghimandplantingakissnearhisear.
“Ididn'tthinkyouwouldbe,butthankyou.”
Shecollapsedontothecouch,onherback,herlegsinhislap.Helookedoverat
her,smilinghisrelaxedgrin,thoughtheworrylinesnearhiseyesbetrayedhisbackhurt
morethanhewaswillingtoadmit.
“Ishouldgo,”hesaidwithobviousreluctance.
“ButIhaveyoutrapped!”shesaidteasingly,wrappingherlegsaroundhis
waist.
“You'vedefinitelyensnaredme,”Kaisaidwithawarmsmile.“Thiswasfun,”he
added,carefullypushingheroffhislapandsnagginghischair.“Evenifitwasour
typicallyunconventionaleveningofconversation.”
“Doyoureallyhavetoleave?”Reneepulledherselfup,linkingahandinoneof
his.
Asifinanswer,Kai'srightlegkickedoutsuddenly,makinghimhissandpull
hishandback,grippinghisthigh.“Ihavetotakesomethingbeforethisgetsworse.I
don'twanttoriskhurtingmyself,andit'snotsafeformetodriveonthemuscle
relaxants.”
Reneepouted,butnodded.
IttookKaiacoupleattemptstomakethetransfer,andReneecouldseehewas
sweating,hisfootbobbing.Shesuspectedhewasfeelingmorespasmsshecouldn't
necessarilysee.
“Youcouldspendthenight,”sheofferedweakly.“Ihaveaqueenbed.”
Hebeckonedherinforaquickkiss,lookingdeeplyintohereyesashereplied,
103
“Webothknowyou'renotreadyforthat.Andthat'sOK.”Hesmiled,buttherewasa
wearinessinhiseyesnow.“Plus,youdon'twanttosleepwithmewhenI'mlikethis.I'll
squirmandfidgetandshiftandkickuntilthemedsknockmeout,andthenI'llprobably
stretchoutandtotallytakeoverthemattress.”Hewinked,nippedatherlipsplayfully
beforepullingback.“I'llcallyoutomorrow.MaybewecantryBranaghindaylight.”
“Kai,”shesaidasshefollowedhimtowardthefrontdoor.
Hestopped,slowlydriftedaroundtofaceher.“Yeah?”
“Thankyou,”shesaidinasmallvoice.“I’veneverhadanything...likethis...
before,”shesaid,notsurehowelsetoputit.
Hissmilesweetened.“Meeither.”
Afewminuteslater,Reneewatched,huddledinherdoorwayasKaiwheelied
throughtheslightaccumulationofnewsnowonhiswaytohiscar.Shesighed,smiled
whenhewavedtoheroncehe’dfreeduphishands,andresistedchasingafterhiminthe
coldandwetforanotherwonderfulkiss.
104
Flashback:June15-21,1996
Note:Thisepisodetakesaslightlydifferentformatinthatitencompassesmorethana
singleday,butratherafewdaysfromaweek.It'salsoaflashback,jumpingbackin
timefouryearsfromthecurrentstoryline.
Jonstoodinthedoorwayofthedeceasedpatientsrecordsroominthebasementof
JonesvilleMemorialHospital,passinghishandoverhiscloselybuzzedhair,another
failedattempttocurehimselfofthehabitofpullinghisfingersthroughit.Theroomwas
adisasterofboxesstackedhaphazardlyamidstancientfilingcabinetscoatedwithdust.
Anasthmaattackwaitingtohappen,hethought,sneezingintohiselbow.Asecond
sneezeechoedhis.
“Tellmewhatwe'redoingdownhere?”VictoriaGregory,thenurse-turned
officemanagerfortheoutpatientclinicandhispartnerincrime.Shehadherlonghair
twistedupintosomekindofcomplexbraidthatmadeherstrikinglyattractive.Heloved
thewayherlockscascadedlooselyoverhershouldersandontoherback,andhad
thoughthe'dmissthemoncetheyweretuckedaway.Buttheintricacyoftheknotsof
hairseemedafittingmirrorofVictoria.Ifonlyhewereolder,shemightactuallyshow
morethanapassinginterestintheawkwardDoogieHowser.Buthehurriedlydismissed
thethought.At25,nearlyeveryonewasolderthanhimanyway.Thestoryofhislife.
“Itoldyouyoudidn'tneedtohelpme,”Jonsaid,wadingintothemire.
“Theywouldn'tbuythestolenkeysstory.IfI'mgoingtopotentiallylosemyjob
overthis,Imightaswellbefullycomplicit.”
Jonsighed.
“LookforrecordsfromOctober1984.LastnameTaylor.”Hestruggledwithhis
firstdrawer,whichhadrustedshut.
“Ah,thisispersonal,”Vickynoted,checkingboxes.“Whoarewelookingfor?”
“Mybrother,”Jonsaidcoolly,puttinghistrainingtowork.
“Andwhy?1984wasalongtimeago.”
Notlongenough,Jonthought.“Eitherhelpme,ordon't.”
“Yougoingtotellmewhywe'rebothriskingourcareersdownhereinthedust
andmold?Areyouheirtoasecretfamilyfortuneandyouneedproofofyourbrother’s
deathinordertoclaimit?”
Jonignoredher,slamminghisdrawershutalittlemoreforcefullythan
necessary.
Theyspenthourscombingthroughfiles,andthoughVickyhadbeenchattyat
first,she’dquicklypickeduponJon’ssilenceandlefthimalone.Itwasgettingtothe
pointwhereJonwasthinkingofcallingitquitsforthedaywhenshecalledout.
“Ifoundit.Ithink.Thelabel’spartiallywornoff;it’seitherSeptember,
October,November,orDecember1984.”
AsJonapproached,hesawherglancingthroughsomeofthefiles,andhehad
toswallowdowntheswirlofemotion.
Vickyreadaloudfromtwoofthefiles.“BryanJ.Taylor,DOA.09/30/84.Ann
P.Taylor,timeofdeath,11:34PM,09/30/84.”Shelookedup,andJon’sfacemusthave
answeredherquestion.“Yourparents?”
Jonnodded,puthishandoutforthefiles.Hedidn’twantVickyreadingthem.
105
Hewasn’tsureifhecould,either,buthe’drathermakethechoicethanhearmoreofher
recitingfactsaboutthegruesomeaccidentthathadclaimedhisparents’livesand
changedhisforever.
Sheofferedthemwithoutargument.Hisfather’sfilewasslim,butitappeared
asifasignificantchunkoftheboxhadbeendedicatedtohismother’s.JonletVicky
handhimthefilebox,whichhesetasidefornow.
“There’snootherTaylorhere,andI’mprettysurethisistheonlyboxforthat
month.MusthavebeenSeptemberbasedonthedatesofdeathonallthesefiles.”
“WeneedtofindOctober.”
Vickynoddedandcontinuedsearching.“Whathappened?”
“Caraccident,”Jonrepliedsimply,flashinghispenlightonthelabelsofastack
ofboxes.Nothingseemedtobeinanyorder.Itwasgoingtotakedays,maybeweeks,to
findKai’sfile.
“OhmyGod.You’rethatJonTaylor.”
Jonfrozetemporarily,butkeptscanningforthecorrectbox.
“Iwasasophomoreincollege.Thestorywasalloverthenewsandthepapers.
Theyoungcouplewhowaskilledbyadrunkdriver,andthethreechildrentheyleft
behind.”
Jonpulledopenedanunlabeledboxandsortedthroughit,checkingdates.“I
wasfourteen.MybrotherandIwereseparatedfromoursister.Hehadanasthma
attack,andwewereforciblyseparatednotlongafterthat.Ineedtofindhisfile.”
“Why?”
Jonsighedinfrustration;thisboxwasfrom1976.Hedecidedtotryanotherset
offilingcabinetsagain.“Closure,allright?Ijustwanttofindhisrecords.Idon’twantto
talk.”
Vickyheldupherhandsinsurrenderassheapproachedtohelphimcheckthe
oppositeendofthedrawerhehadopened.“Whatwashisname?”
“Joseph,”Jonsaidinaquietvoice.“JosephTaylor.”
Severalmorehourslater,andthey’dcomeupempty.They’dfinallylocatedtheboxfor
October1984,butKai’sfilewasn’tinit,andsearchingasmanyoftherecordssincethen
hadn’tturnedupanyanswerseither.Atleastnotonhim.
Jonwassortingthroughaboxfromonlyfiveyearsago,atthispointwondering
ifKaihadn’tdiedin1984afterall,andmaybehewouldfindhimhere.Thelastname
Taylorcaughthiseye,andhepulledthefilewithoutreadingthefirstname,flippingit
open.Hisstomachfellintohisfeet.
SaraP.Taylor.DOB05/12/80.DOD07/11/91.
“Jon?”Wadingthroughdustyrecordsforhourshadawayofdropping
formalities;Ms.Gregoryhadquicklybecome“Vicky,”andDr.Taylor,“Jon.”Jonhadto
admithelikedhearinghisfirstnamefromVicky’slips.
“Mysister,”Jonsaidinaquietvoice,scanningthefile.“Complicationsofacute
lymphocyticleukemia,apparently.Onlyafewyearsago.Imayhavebeenabletosave
herlife.”Jonletthathangintheairamoment,sinkingdownontoastackofboxesto
preventhimselffromcollapsingontothefloor.
“Youdon’tknowthat,”Vickyassuredhim,takingthefileandperchingbeside
him,afriendlyhandonhisarm.“Youmaynothavebeenamatch.Shemayhavedied
anyway.”
Jonnoddedvaguelyasrealityhithim:Kaiwasdead.Sarawasdead.
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Hewasalone.
Hiseyesbegantowater,butheblinked,wipingthemonhissleeve.“God,this
dustiskillingme,”hesaidquickly,crossingtheroomandimmediatelydivinginto
anotherstackoffiles,thoughitwashardtoreadlabelsthroughmistedvision.
“Maybehe’sstillalive,”Vickyventured.“Ormaybehewentbyanothername?”
Jonwipedhisfaceagain,composedhimself.“Likehewasadopted?”
Vickyshrugged.“Hewassixwhenyourparentsdied.Thatwaswhat,twelve
yearsago?It’spossible.”
Jonleanedagainstthecabinet;hiseyeswereredanditchyfromallthedust
andmold,andhewasexhausted.He’duseduphisonlydayoffinweeksforasearchthat
hadn’tyieldedmuchexcepttoremindhimhowalonehereallywas.“Ifhe’snotdead,
andhehasn’tleftJonesville,thenmaybethepulmonologyrecordswillhelp.”
Vickystartedtobackaway,shakingherhead.“Oh,no.”
“Please.Ifhe’snotdead...ifhe’salive,youhavetohelpmefindhim.”
Shesighedheavily.“Fine.I’lldosomediscreetdigging.Youknowthiswouldbe
aloteasierifyoujustaskedDr.MacDonald,right?”
Jonrubbedthetopofhishead.“Justdomethisfavor,please.Idon’twant
anyonetoknowaboutthis.Idon’twantthemtoquestionwhyI’menrolledinthe
fellowshipprogramhere.”
“Fine,”Vickysaid,slammingadrawershutandwavingtowardthedoor.“But
you’rebuyingmedinneranddrinksfirst.”
VickyhadsuggestedalittledivecalledTheIowan,theclosestthingtoasportsbar
Jonesvillehad.Theyweresittingtogetherinabackbooth,Vickysippingfromabottleof
beerwhileJonstudiedthemenu.
“Soyouareoldenoughtodrink,right?”
Jonglaredather.“Funny.”
Shelaughed.“I’msorry.”Jonhadexplainedhedidn’treallydrinkalcoholwhen
she’dinsistedhejoinherinabottleofbeerortwo.“Isitbecauseofyourparents?”Vicky
asked,suddenlyfeelingawfulfornotconsideringthefactsooner.
Jonshookhishead.“I’mdiabetic.It’seasierformetomanagemybloodsugar
withoutbringingalcoholintotheequation.”
“Oh,”Vickysaid,notsurewhatelsetosay.
Jonlaughed,foldedthemenu.“Itisn’tcatching.”
HadJonjustmadeajoke?Shehadn’tknownhimlong,buthewasincredibly
serious,seeminglyallthetime.He’dfinishedhisfirstyearofhisfellowshipearly,
transferringintoJonesville’sprogrambutshowingupbeforehissecondyearofficially
startedtomeetthestaffandgetsettled.Hewasbothbrilliantanddriven,thetypeofguy
Vickyprobablywouldhaveloathedwhenshewasinschool,butnowthatshewasalittle
olderandwiserfoundshockinglyattractive.
Vickyfoundherselfsmiling.Ashoutechoedfromthegroupgatheredatthe
bar;apparentlytheteamatbathadhitatripleplay.“Doyoulikebaseball?”
Jonshrugged.“Neverbeenintosports.Mydad,though,helovedbasketball.I
eventriedtoplayit,forhim,but...”Jonshrugged.“Iwasn’tmuchofanathlete.”
Vickysippedherbeer.“Mydadandbrothers...hugesportsfans.Football,
basketball,baseball,hockey,younameit.Ilikefootballwellenough,butnothingnearly
borderingonfanatical.”
Theirwaitressarrivedtotaketheirorders,andVickyorderedanotherbeer.It
107
probablywasn’tagoodideatogetdrunktonight,notwithJon,butshesupposedshe
couldregretitlater.
Jonhadgonequiet,pretendingtowatchoneoftheTVs,thoughshesuspected
hewasreallylostinhisthoughts.
“Soyoubecameadoctorbecauseofyourbrother?”sheasked,thebeer
looseningherlips,thoughsheimmediatelyregrettedthequestion.Sofar,they’davoided
talkingabouttheirdayintherecordsroom,andhowheavilynotfindinganyevidenceof
hisbrotherhadweighedonJon.
Jonnodded,butthenheshrugged.“Yes,butIknewitwaswhatIwanted
beforehewasborn.Iwasalwayshangingoutinthelibrary,readingbooksaboutscience
andmedicine.Iwantedtoknowexactlyhowthebodyworked,asfarbackasIcan
remember.”
Vickylaughed.“You’readorable.”
Jonflushed,adeepredcoloringhispaleskinfromcollarbonetocrown.“Iwas
diagnosedwithtypeIdiabeteswhenIwasseven,notlongbeforemybrotherwasborn,
butI’dsuspectedthatIhaditawhilebeforethat.”
Vickystaredathim.“Youdiagnosedyourself.Whenyouwereinfirstgrade.”
Jonshrugged.“Itjusttookawhiletogetmyparentstobelievemeandgetme
tested.Itwas...atoughtimeforthem,”Jonadmitted.“Notaneasypregnancy,”he
addedhesitantly.
VickysawashadowfalloverJon’sfaceanddecidedachangeofsubjectmight
help.“IknewIdidn’twanttobealawyeroranaccountantoranythinglikethat,”Vicky
said,“andIdidn’tthinkIwassmartenoughformedicalschool—”
“Idon’tbelievethat.”
Vickyshrugged.“Nearlytwelveyearsofschoolwasn’treallyfeasibleformeat
thetimeanyway,”sheaddedquietly.
“That’swhyIdiditinnine,”Jonsaidwithagrin.Despitethefactthathewas
probablythesmartestpersonsheknew,andtheyoungestpersoninthepulmonology
department(barringacouplenurses-in-training),hewasshockinglyhumble,comments
likethiscomingoffintendedasajokeathisexpenseratherthanabrag.
“Anyway,itdidn’ttakemelongtorealizeIdidn’treallylikebeinganurse,”
Vickylaughed,finishingherbeerandsignalingforanother.“Ilikemypaperwork,”she
addedwithanod.
Jonsmiledthen,afull,brilliantflashofteeththatlithisgrayeyesandliftedthe
seeminglyperpetualwearinessfromhisface.Inthatmoment,henolongerlookedtired
orjaded,butverymuchthe25-year-oldkidhewas.
Vickysighed.Askedthequestionshenormallywouldhaveputoff,becauseshe
couldn’tstandthatsmileandhowmuchitmadeherwanthim.“WhatwillyoudoifI
can’tfindhim?”Shedidn’tneedtospecifywho“him”was.
Jonletoutaharshbreath,managingafaintsmile,apaleimitationofhis
previousgrin,whentheirwaitressappearedwiththeirorders,settingaplateinfrontof
eachofthemandanotherbeerforVicky.“Lookintothesystem,hopetheydon’tfightme
toomuch.Orphanages,grouphomes,etc.They’llhavetohavesomerecordofhim,a
trailIcanfollow,evenifhewasadopted,evenifhewasmovedtoanothercity.”Jonslid
hisburgeroffthebun,cuttingituplikeasteak.“I’llfindhim,whathappenedtohim,”
hesaiddeterminedly.“Hopefullybeforemysecondyearofficiallystarts.”
ItwasaweekbeforeVickypulledJonasideoneday,intoheroffice.“There’snosignof
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yourbrother,eitherasalivingpatientoradeceasedone.AtleastthatIcanfind.No
JosephTaylors,JTaylors,orJKTaylorswithanythingclosetoyourbrother’sbirthdate
inanyofourfiles.”
Jonrubbedthetopofhishead,enragedthathecouldn’tpullhisfingers
throughittorelievesomefrustration.“Hehastobethere.”
“Ifheis,it’sunderadifferentname.”
Jonshookhishead.“Ifhewasadopted,andchangedhisname,I’llhavetopray
therecordsweren’tsealed,orI’llneverfindKai.”Jonsighedheavily,sinkingintothe
couch.
“Whatdidyousay?”
Jonshookhishead.“Imayneverknowwhathappenedtomybrother.”
Vickydrewcloser,yankingJon’schintomakehimlookather.
“Hey.Whatthehell?”Jonsaid,jerkingback.
“Ican’tbelieveIdidn’tseeitbefore.MyGod.”
“What?”Jonsnapped.
“Yourbrotherdidchangehisname,”Vickysaid,rushingtoherdesk.She
grabbedasheetofpaper,alistofpatientsofsomekind.“Rightthere,”shesaid,pointing
tooneofthenames.
“KaiFox.”Jon’svoicefaltered.
“HowmanyKaiscouldtherebewhoarepatientshere?Ishedeaf?”
“Mute.”
“YousaidhisnamewasJoseph.”
“Itwas.Hislegalname.ButhealwayswentbyKai.Inevermentionedit,
becauseIdidn’texpect...”Jonlookedup,hiseyessurprisinglyglossy.“OhGod.This
meanshe’salive.”
Vickynodded.“Ihaven’tbeenworkingthisjobthatlong,butthere’saboy.
Abouteighteen.Deaf,Ialwaysthought,sinceheneverspokeandDr.Johnsenalways
hadaninterpreterforhim—”
“He’sDr.Johnsen’spatient?”
Vickynoddedagain.“Idon’tknowhownoneofussawtheresemblance.Iguess
theagegap—thehairandeyesaredifferent,especiallywithyourscutthewayitis.And
hisdisability.Differentlastname.Noneofuseverthoughttwiceaboutit.”
“Hewasadopted,then?Ishehappy?”
Vickyshrugged.“Idon’treallyknowhim.Moreofhim.I’veseenhiminthe
waitingroom,orheadinginandoutoftheexamrooms.Hedoesn’ttalk,soitwasn’tlike
wecouldhaveaconversation.Healwayslooks...”Sheshookherhead,asifchanging
hermind.
“Tellme,please.”
Shesighed.“Sosad.Idon’tknowifI’veeverseenhimsmile.”
Jonfrowned.TheKaiherememberedwasalwaysahappychild,despite
everythinghewentthroughwithhisbreathingandhisMLS.“Ineedtofindhim.Page
mewhenyouhavehiscurrentaddress.”
Kailayinhisbed,aloneinhisroom,ashehadbeenfornearlytwoyears,staringupat
theceiling.Hiships,back,andlegshurt,andhisbreathingwasn’tgoodtoday.It
probablydidn’thelpthatforthepastmonthhe’dbeenreservinghismedications:taking
onlyapuffinsteadoftwofromhisinhalers,cuttinghispillsinhalvesandhidingtherest
inoneofhissecretcaches.Hehadafewdollarssquirreledaway,buttheywouldn’tbuy
109
himmorethanasandwich.Toobadnoneoftheorderlieswouldplaypokerwithhim
anymore.AndthoughMs.Evanshadhelpedhimapplyforbenefits,hecouldn’tcounton
receivinganythingimmediately.
Ms.EvanshadofferedtohelpKaiapplyforaspotinoneofthestate’sadult
grouphomes,thoughshe’dwarnedhimhewouldprobablyfallinbetweenthecracks:
sickenoughtoapplybecauseofhissevereasthma,butnotreallydisabledenoughhe’d
getoneofthelimitedspots.Notthathereallywantedtospendtherestofhislifeinan
institutionanyway.
Kaitookafewlaboredbreaths,hiseyestracingthefamiliarcracksandspotsin
theceiling.He’dbreatheeasierifhesatup,butpassingoutheldacertainallureand
escape.Artdidn’thavethebudgetforanotheremployee,evenparttime,andnooneelse
wasinterestedinhiringasickly,gimpykidfreshoutofhighschoolwhostillstruggledto
beunderstoodsometimes.
Kai’sbirthdaywasonlyaweekaway,whichmeanthe’dbekickedoutofthe
onlyrealhomehe’dknownforthelasttwelveyears.Withnomeansofsupportandno
wheretogo.Jake,whowasstartingcollegesoon,hadofferedtoletKaicrashathis
mom’shouseforthesummer,butafterthat,Kaiwasonhisown.
Kaihadneverbeentruly“onhisown”hiswholelife.
Evenwithoutthepracticalproblems,thethoughtalonewasterrifying,andhe
hatedthathefeltthatway.Kaididn’trelishbecomingoneofthosecrazycrippledguys
withashaggybeardanddreadlocks,beggingforchangeonstreetcorners.
Aknockonhisdoorpulledhimfromhisthoughts,andhepushedhimselfup
whenitedgedopen.Frankie,aboyofabouttwelvewithdiplegicCPwho’dbeena
residentfornearlythreeyears.HealsolookeduptoKai,asridiculousasthatwas.
FrankiepulledhimselfintoKai’sroomwithhisforearmcrutches,hisbody
swayingwitheachstep,untilhesankintotheotherbed.David’sbed.Kaididn’tlike
anyonesittingthere,buthewastootiredtomanageEnglish.Besides,itwasdifficultfor
Frankietosignandstayupright;sittingfreeduphishands.
Kaipushedhimselfupfarther,sohecouldsign.“What?”
Frankiewasn’tfluentbyanystretch,buthe’dpickedupenoughthatKaicould
conversewithhimsimplywithoutspeaking.
Frankieslippedoutofhiscrutches,layingthemagainstthebed.“There’sa
manheretoseeyou.”
Oh,itwasSaturday?VisitingDay.Sincegraduation,Kai’sdayshadbegunto
blurtogether.NotthatKaieverhadmanyvisitors.Jakehaddroppedinonceortwice
duringhighschool,buthaddeterminedCHtotallydepressing(Kaicouldn’targuethere)
andnevercomeback,occasionallyhelpingKaisneakoutforadayathishouseinstead.
Artwouldstopbyfromtimetotime,usuallywithbooks,butitwasunlikelyhe’dshow
upthisearlyonabusySaturday,especiallysocloseto“kickingoutday.”Davidhad
poppedinaboutonceeverysixweeksafteragingout,butafterafewmonths(anda
promisehe’dcomebackforKai),he’dneverreturned.Kaihadlearnedearlynottotake
muchstockinpromises.Fromanyone.Evenhis“brother.”
Still,aflickeroftheforeignemotionhopeflutteredup.Birthdays,exceptfor
one’s18th,passedunnotedatCountyHouse.ButDavidandKaihadalwayscelebrated
eachother’sintheirownway.DavidhadtoknowKai’s18thwasinafewdays.Maybe
he’dkepthispromiseafterall.
“Who?”Kaiasked,thumbonhischin,indexfingerout,wiggling,eyebrows
furrowed.
110
“Idon’tknow.”
Kaisighedheavily.Hehadn’tplannedtodomuchbutlieinbedfeelingsorry
forhimself,sohehadn’tbotheredwithhisbraces.Hewouldn’tnow,either.Notfor
somestranger.Kaipushedhimselftotheedgeofthebed,liftinghislegsoffthemattress.
HenoticedFrankiewastryingtogethisattention,sohelookedup.
“Maybeyouwonthelottery.”
KaiwatchedFrankie’sclumsyfingerspelling,thensighed.“Youneedtobe18
toplaythelottery.Besides,itdoesn’tworkthatway.”Kaigrabbedhiscrutchesfrom
theirspotbesidehisbed,leaningagainstthewall.“Youdon’tknowbecauseyoudidn’t
seehim,oryoudon’tknowbecauseyoudon’trecognizehim?"
IttookamomentforFrankietounderstandKai,andwhenhedid,hesaid,
“Oh!”Outloud,continuinginEnglish,“Ididn’tgetagoodlook.”
Kaisighed,leveredhimselftohisfeet.Mightaswellgetthisoverwith.
Kaicrutchedtowardthecommonroom,hisstepsechoedbyFrankie,whowas
followinghimlikealostpuppy.Thedinofconversation,theoccasiongiggleorcackleof
laughter,trickledouttowardthem.Kaiwassosickofthisplace,andallthesestupidkids
whostillbelievedthattherewasanyoneouttherewhogavetwoshitsaboutthem.Kids
likeFrankie.
Kailingerednearthesidedoorway,surveyingtheroom,searchingforhis
visitor.HiseyesfoundMrs.Jimenez,whosedaughterJuliahadbeenaresidentforsix
yearsnow,sincesheapparentlycouldn’taffordtocareforher.Oratleastthat’swhat
Juliabelieved.Next,hesawtheYoungs,areligiouscouplewhovisitedonceamonth
tryingtoconvertthekidsfor“protectionoftheireternalsouls,”thoughKaididn’tsee
themlininguptoadoptanyone.Last,hespiedacryingyoungwoman,standingoffto
thesidebesideatoddlerinoneofthosestrollerwheelchairs,talkingtotheWarden.
Anothersurrenderinthemaking.Atleastthatgirlwouldbetooyoungtorememberher
parentsandhersiblings,ifshehadany.Itwaseasier.Betterthatway.
ThenKaispottedGeorge,oneofJMH’sstaffASLinterpreters.Itwasunlikely
he’ddroppedbytovisitKai,whichmeantsomeonehadhiredhim,freelance,tofacilitate
thevisit.DavidandJakedidn’tneedaninterpreter,andArthadalwaysmanagedwell
enoughwithoutone.
ThenKaisawhim.Themysteriousman.Tall,thin,blondhairbuzzedcloseto
hishead,grayeyessearchingtheroom.Itwasimpossible,yetwhoelsecouldthisman
be?Theresemblance,thefactthatthismanhadtobeinhismid-tolate20s,was
impossibletoignore.Aftertwelveyears,hadJonfinallycomeforhim?
Kai’sshockmadehimmisjudgehisnextstep,andhenearlyfell,anorderly
rushinguptohelp.ButKai’sglaremadethemanchangehismindasKairegainedhis
balance.
Hestood,watchingtheinterpreterandtheunknownmaninteract,hismind
swirlingwithemotionsandthoughts.ItwasgoodGeorgewasheretospeakforhim,
becausetherewasnowayhe’dmanageEnglishrightnow.
GeorgeledJontoatable,gesturingforhimtosit.Jonobeyed,surprisedbyhownervous
hewas,hisexcitementtemperedwithshame.Kaihadlivedtwelveyearsinthishorrible
place?Whyhadn’tJontriedtofindhimsooner?CertainlyKaiwouldwonderthesame
thing.MaybeKaiwouldn’tevenagreetotalktohim.
GeorgesatbesideJon,butturnedtofacehimslightly.“I’mhereasa
communicationfacilitator,OK?ThatmeansIamethicallyobligatedtobeaneutral
111
medium.I’mnotheretogivemyopinionsonanything,simplyinterpret.I’llsithere,and
he’llsitacrossfromus,whichwillmakeitasseamlessaspossible.Don’tlookatmeor
talktome.Justtalktohimlikeyouwouldanyoneelseandthinkofmeasthe‘voice’for
bothofyou.”
Jonpassedhishandoverhisheadafewtimes.God,whythefuckdidhecuthis
hair?
“Don’tsay,‘tellhim’or‘don’tinterpretthat,’becauseIwillinterpreteverything
yousay.Doyouunderstand?”
Jonnodded.
GeorgespottedKaiinthecrowdandwavedhimover.
JonwatchedasKaiusedhisforearmcrutchestomaneuverhiswayaround
tablesandwheelchairsandpeople.Heseemedtowalkfairlywell,allthingsconsidered,
butthewayhereliedonthesticksmeantKai’sMLSstillbotheredhim.Jonwondered
howmuch.God,they’dlostsomanyyears.
Next,JonnoticedhowfrailKailooked.Tall,butgangly,hisskinpale;perhaps
hehadn’thithisfinalgrowthspurtyet.Jonhadn’treallyhithisuntilacoupleyears
earlier.AndthoughJonhadfilledout,hewasstillthinforhisheight.Kai’shairhadalso
lightenedtoashockinggoldenblond,fallinginachaoticmess,framingafacethatno
longerhadthesoftlinesofaboy,butthemoreangularfeaturesofaman,ahintoffacial
haironhischinandcheekswhenthelighthititjustright.
Onethingthathadn’tchanged:Kai’seyes,stillthatpiercingoceanicbluethat
hadlenthimhisname.
Kaistoppedinfrontofthetable,smiledatGeorge,butignoredJonasheuseda
crutchtiptopullthechairout,glaringdaggersatanorderlywho’dsteppedforwardto
help.Sofar,Kai’sbodylanguagewasn’tagoodsignthatthiswouldgowell.
Kaisettledintheseat,leaninghissticksonthetable,honinghisglareagainat
thesameorderlywhenheattemptedtotouchthem.Kaiadjustedhislegswithhishands
andstaredatJonforafewminutesbeforeglancingoveratGeorgeandsigning
something:aone-handedflickofhishandonhischest,middlefingertouching,then
somethinginacircleinfrontofhimJoncouldn’tmakeoutasmorethanablurof
fingers,Kai’sfacialexpressionschangingwitheachsign.Georgesignedback,
uninterpreted,afewthings,thenseemedtoberedirectingKaitohispurpose.Kaihadto
knowGeorge;perhapshewasaskinghowhewasandnowGeorgewastryingtoremind
Kaihewashereonajob.
KaiobviouslyseemedmoreinterestedintalkingtoGeorgethantoJon.
Suddenly,Jonhatedevenmorethathe’dlethissignlanguageskillslapseandwither.
“Eitheroneofyoucanstartwheneveryou’reready,”Georgebothsignedand
spoke.
Jonhadrehearsedsomanythingshe’dwantedtosaytoKaioncetheyfinally
satdowntogether,butnoneofthemcametohimnowthathewasseatedinfrontofhis
brother,someonehe’dmournedforovertenyears.“Kai,it’sJon.Yourbrother.”
Kaididn’trespondimmediately,butJondidobservethatKai’sbreathdidn’t
comeeasily,hisneckandshouldersworkingharderthantheyshould,thoughKaididn’t
showinhisfaceanydiscomfort;itwasobvioushewasusedtoneedingtobreathethis
way,anditmadeJonfrownreflexively.
“Whatdidyouexpect?”Kaisignedangrily,apparentlyinreactiontoJon’s
frown;George’svoiceconveyedbitternessinhistone.“Aunicorn?Orperhapsthegold
attheendoftherainbow?”Kai’sfacialexpressionsshowedmockjoy,whichagain,
112
Georgeconveyedinhistone.Apparentlysarcasmexistedjustaswellinsignlanguageas
itdidinEnglish.
“Iexpectedtofindyourdeathcertificate,”Jonsaidinaquietvoice.
KaiwatchedGeorge’sinterpretation,hiseyesnarrowing,beforeglancingover
atJon,studyinghim.Finally,hesignedandGeorgeinterpreted,“Well,hereIam,alive
andkicking.Sorrytodisappoint.Andthekickingisn’tusuallyvoluntary,sowatch
yourshins.”Morebitterness.Jonsupposedhedeservedit.
“I’msorry,”Jonsaid,notsurewhatelsetosay.
Kai’snostrilsflared.“Twelveyears.Youdidn’tthinktolookformeatall
duringthattime?Iwouldhavelookedforyou.Itried,asbestasIcould,andthenI
gaveup,becausedreamsarenothingbutvainfantasy.”
Jonblinked,glancedatGeorge.DidKaijustquoteShakespearetohim,insign?
“It’srudenottolookataDeafpersonwhenyou’rehavingaconversation,”
Georgeexplained,signingsomething,thoughJonsuspecteditwasn’twhathehadsaid
inEnglish,perhapssimplyaheadsuptoKaitoremindhimthatJondidn’tknowthe
“rulesofengagement.”
Kaislammedhishandonthetable,makingJonjump,butitalsomadehim
lookbackatKai,whowasobviouslyevenmoreangrythanbefore.Hegesturedwithtwo
fingers,pointingfromJontohisowneyes.“Lookatmewhenyoutalk.It’sbadenough
youdon’tknowsign.”
Jonrepeatedthesignhe’dseenGeorgeuseearlierwheninterpretinghis
apology.“Sorry.”
Kaisnorted.“Whyareyouhere?”
Jonblinked,stoppedhimselfatthelastsecondfromlookingatGeorge.“Tosee
you.OnceIfoundoutyouwerestillalive,Icamestraighthere.”
“No.Why,afteralltheseyears,didyoutrytofindmenow?Whyareyouhere
inJonesville?”
“IstartedmyfellowshipinDesMoines,butheardaboutthedualprogramhere
atJMHsoItransferred.Istartmysecondyearofficiallynextmonth.”
Kai’seyesnarrowed.Heseemedtobewaitingforsomething.
“Doyouhaveplansforafterthe26th?Dotheyforceyoutoleaveimmediately,
ordotheygiveyouafewdays?”
Kaiblinked,andhisangryfacadeseemedtochipandfalter.“Wehavetoleave
byeightAMthatmorning.”
“Doyouhavesomewheretostay?Ajob?”
Kailookedaway,andJonwonderedifthatwasrude,too,orifitsimply
expressedshamethewayitwouldinaregularhearingconversation?
KaifinallylookedbackupatJon.“I’mnotgoinghomewithyou.”Ithurtto
hearGeorge’svoiceasheinterpretedthosewords.Itwasn’texactlythatJonhad
expectedanenthusiasticreunion,Kaielatedtoseehim,buthe’dhopedforalittleless
distrust.“HowdoIevenknowyou’rereallymybrother?”
ThatsurprisedJon,andhewasn’tsurewhattosay.Howcouldhe“prove”who
hewas?Hefishedinhispocket,pulledouthisJMHID,offeringittoKai.
Kaistudiedit,glancingupfromthepictureatJonlikeanimmigrationagent
verifyinghisidentity.“You’readoctor?”
Jonnodded.“I’mworkingonmypulmonologyfellowship.”
KaistaredatJon,appraisinghim,thenfingerspelledsomethingbackto
George,whointerpreted,“Pulmonology?”
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Jonnodded.
“That’showyoufoundme.”HepushedtheIDbackacrossthetable.
“Yes.Ihaven’tbeenherelong,orIwouldhavefoundyousooner.”
Kaihelduphishand,whichJoneasilyunderstoodasa“shutup”gesture.
“WhatdidIdressupastheHalloweenbeforeourparentsdied?”
Jonblinked,andcouldn’thelpglancingoveratGeorgebeforereturninghis
gazetoKai.“What?”
“TheHalloweenbeforeourparentsdied,youtookmetrick-or-treating.What
didIwear?”
Jonsighed.HerememberedeverythingaboutKai’sfirstsixyearsvividly;the
curseontheothersideofthecointhatwastheblessingofaneideticmemory.Itwas
Kai’sfirstandonly(sofarasJonknew)opportunitytogooutonHalloween,hishealth
andwalkingfinallygoodenoughthattheirfatherhadallowedthenightout.Kaihad
beenecstatic,andtheirfamilyhadeventakenararetriptoOmaha—totheBigCity—for
adaytopickoutacostume.Kaihadselectedonebasedonhisfavoritesuperheroatthe
time,TheHulk,becausehewasbigandstronganddidn’tneedtotalktogethispoint
across.Ashappyasthatshoppingdaywas,thememory,andallthatfollowed—including
Kai’smonth-longhospitalstaylaterthatyearfrompneumonia—madeitbittersweet.
“TheIncredibleHulk!”Jonsigned,doinghisbesttoimitate,frommemory,the
signsKaihadinventedasachild.
Kaiblinkedfuriously,andhischintrembledbeforehegrithisteeth,hisjaw
visiblyworking.“Whyareyouhere?Whatdoyouwantfromme?”Kai’ssigninghad
lostitsharsh,almostviolentedge,andGeorgeechoedthisinhissoftertone.
“IknowIcan’tmakeupforthelasttwelveyears,butmaybeyoucanletmetry?
Ihaven’tsignedaleaseanywhereyet.Wecouldgetatwobedroom,andyoucanstay
withme.Gotoschoolorworkorwhateveritisyouwanttodo.Wecangettoknoweach
otheragain.”
Kaibreatheduneasilyinandoutforseverallongmomentsbeforefinally
signing,“Ineedtothinkaboutit.”ThenhelookedatGeorge.“George,canyougiveus
fiveminutes?”
“Yousure?”Georgeasked,bothsigningandspeaking,seeminglytalkingto
bothofthem.
Jonwasn’tsurewhatKai’splanwas,buthenodded,andGeorgerose,letting
thembothknowhewouldn’tbefariftheyneededhimagain.
KaislouchednowthatGeorgewasgone,drumminghisfingersonthetable
overandoverandoverinanannoyingrhythm.“Youreallywantwhat?”Kaisaid,with
hisvoice,toJon’sgreatamazement,evenifhispronunciationwasalittlesoft,hisfinal
consonantsnotascrispastheycouldbe,his“L’s”and“R’s”soundingsimilar.
JonwassoshockedhecouldhardlyprocesswhatKaihadasked.“Youcan
talk?!”
“Sinceagefourteen,”Kaisaidinthesameaccent.“Idon’tlike.”
Jonwasdumbfounded.“SoIdidn’tneedGeorge?”
Kaishookhishead.“Iprefersign.Moreeasy.Don’tneedthink.”Kaiseemedto
betalkinginakindofhybridgrammarofASLandEnglish,fromwhatJoncouldrecall
ofit.AsifsensingthewayJon’smindwasworking,Kaiadded,“Schoolallyeargood
English.Hard.Think.Think.Think.Here,vacation.Break.”
Jonblinked.
“Youforgetsign,butIneedlearntalkEnglish.”
114
“Ithoughtyouweredead,Kai.Signingremindedmetoomuchofyou.I’m
sorry.”
Kaiwaveditoff,literally.
“You’vebeenherethewholetime?”
Kaihesitatedbeforefinallynodding.Hetookinabreath.“Youwereadopted.”
Kaispokeslowly,inproperEnglishthistime,focusingonhispronunciation,thestop
betweenthe“p”and“t”of“adopted”harsh,asifhehadtofocusonarticulatingthe
sounds.Kai’sinflectionwasflat,butbasedonhisbodylanguageoftheirearlier
interpretedconversation,Jonsuspecteditwasn’taquestion.
“Yes.Anolderman.Hepaidformyschoolsohecouldshowmeofflikea
trainedmonkey,butitgotmehere.”
Kaiblinked,hisexpressionunreadable.“Youabandonedme.”Hehesitated
beforethe“ed”of“abandon,”asifrememberingthetensemarkeratthelastmoment,
hishandreflexivelywavingbackward,theASLindicationof“past.”
“Theydruggedmeanddraggedmeaway.”JonnoticedKai’sconfusion;
perhapsthetwowordssoundedtoosimilar?“Itriedtostaywithyou,buttheywouldn’t
letme.WhenIfoughtthem,theyknockedmeout.Iwokeupandnoonewouldtellme
whathappenedtoyou.Ithought.Iassumed.Youhadtobedead.”
Kaitookthisin,hisblankmaskfadingonlyslightlyontheedges,thoughitwas
stilldifficulttoread.Jonwasn’tsureifhepreferredtheangerorthis;atleastwiththe
anger,heknewwhatKaiwasthinking.
“Ididn’tlookforyousoonerbecauseIwasinschool,nowherenearhere.And..
.Iwasafraid.TheselasttwelveyearsIheldoutathreadofhopethatmaybeyouwere
stillalive,andmaybe,unconsciously,IknewthatthemomentIsawitinblackand
white,thatyouhad...died....”
Kaiblinked,butdidn’tsayorsignanything.
“Saraisdead,”Jonsaid,shockedathowitjustcameout,harshandbluntand
sudden.
Kaileanedback;someofhismaskslipped.
“Leukemia,fiveyearsago.”
Kaiswallowedbutsaidnothing.
“We’reallwehaveleft,Kai.Ifyouhavesomewheretogowhenyouturn
eighteen,fine.Iwon’tstopyou.Butifyoudon’t...”Jonshookhishead.“IwishIcould
takeyouawayfromthisplacerightnow.Today.”
Kailaughed,aharshsound.Eventhoughhe’dspokenseveralsentences,itstill
feltstrangeforJontohearhisbrother’slaughter,whichhadalwaysbeensilent.“Iam
notapuppy.Youcan’tpaya$10licensefeeandtakemehome.”JonnoticedKaiwas
attemptingtouseproperEnglishgrammarandpronunciationnow,thoughhestruggled
with“license.”
“ThenI’llcomegetyouonyourbirthday.We’llfindanapartmentthatworks
forbothofus.I’llgetyouacar—”
“Drivehow?Idon’tknow,”Kaisaid,slippingonhisgrammar,thoughhekept
hisconsonantsabnormallysharp.
“Thenyoucanlearn.”
Kaiseemedtorelax,asparkleappearinginhiseyesforthefirsttimesincehe’d
walkedintotheroom.Hehesitatedforamoment,asiftryingtoformulatetheEnglishin
hishead,beforespeaking.“CouldIhaveawheelchair?OneIdon’tneedshare?”Kai
wasn’texcitedbytheprospectofhisownroomorevenhisowncar,buttheideaof
115
havingawheelchairalltohimself.Didthatmeanhedidn’thaveonehere?Thathehad
tosharewiththeotherchildren?
“Ofcourse,”Jonsaid.“Wecangoandhaveyoumeasuredsoyoucangetone
thatfitsyouperfect,inanycoloryouwant.”
Kaibeamedthen,andforaninstant,Joncaughtaglimpseofthechildhe
rememberedbeforeKaiforcedthesmileaway,replacingitwithskepticism.“Youwant
whatfromme?”Kaiaskedagain.“Ihavemoneynone.”
“Idon’tneedmoney.Justtoknowyou,”Jonsaid,hidinghisexasperationat
Kai’scontinuedlackoftrust.HehadnoideawhatKai’slifehadbeenliketheselast
twelveyearstomakehimsoleeryofacceptinghelporgifts,evenfromhisownbrother.
Kaihelduphislefthandwiththreefingers—thumb,index,andmiddle—
outstretched,pointingtooneatatimeashespoke.“Idon’tbreathegood.Idon’twalk
good.Idon’ttalkgood—unlessItryhardhard,”Kaisaid,thefinalstoponhis“don’ts”
particularlyharsh.“Youwilllearnsign?”Kaihadtopausetomakesureheaddedthe
inflectionattheend,thoughhisraisedeyebrowsgaveawaythatitwasaquestion.
“Yes,”Jonsaid.“Iwillhelpyoufindajob,ifthat’swhatyouwant.Iwillhelp
yougetintocollege,ifthat’swhatyouwant.Iwanttomakeupforourlostyears.That’s
theonlythingthatIwantfromyou.”JonsighedatKai’scontinueddoubt.“Andyoucan
alwayschangeyourmindlater.Whatdoyousay?Brothersagain?”Jonfinishedinsign,
hopinghegotitright,straininghismemory.
Kai’sfaceflickeredinabriefsmile,repeatedJon’ssignwhilenodding.
“Brothersagain.”
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November17,2000
Kaiansweredthedoor,rollingbackwardstogiveReneespacetoenter.Hewassmiling,
thatsmileshe’dcometolearnwashers,becauseheonlyeverflasheditwhenhewas
lookingather.Itwasn’ttoobroadortoopinched,justalittleteethshowing,andslightly
lopsided,anditusuallywentwithakindoffar-off,mistylookinhiseyes.Henibbledhis
lip.
“Sowhat’sgoingon?”Sheunzippedhercoatandhungitononeofthehooksat
wheelchairheightnearthedoor,alsoveryconvenientlyplacedforsomeoneaspetiteas
shewas.
“Uh,IhavesomethingIwanttoshowyou,”Kaisaid,suddenlynervous,rapidly
doinga180andpushingtowardthehallway.Reneefollowedafewstepsbehind,
watchedasKaiwheeledtothekitchentable,pulledoutoneofthechairs,andarrangedit
soitwasfacingoutward.Hegesturedforhertosit.
Reneelookedathim,perplexed,butobeyed.
Kaipushedtowardhertilltheirkneestouched,anditmadeherstomachdance.
“Just...justwaithere,OK?I’ll...I’llberightout.”Redhadcreptuphisneck,andhe
smiledanothernewsmile,thisoneslimandshy,beforehurryingintohisbedroom.
Nervouswasn’tnormallyanemotionKaistruggledwith.Anxiety,yes,butnervousness?
Hepushedtohisdresserandscannedtheprescriptionbottlesuntilhefoundtheonehe
waslookingfor,tappingoutahydroxyzineintohispalmandswallowingitdry.Justin
case.Heclosedhiseyes,tookafewsteadyingbreaths.Hisbodywastellinghimno!,his
heartracing,hisstomachknotting,butifhedidn’tlistentoit,herememberedhow
excitedhewasandhowmuchhewantedReneetobetheonetosharethismomentwith
him.
Swallowing,Kaiwheeledtothedoor,openingitjustacrack.Thenheangledhis
chaircarefully,setthebrakes,andusedhishandstopushhimselfforwardontheseat.
Hecouldfeelhisbodywantingtopanic,butthehydroxyzineworkedquickly,andhe
focusedhardonhisbreathing,oneachminortaskashedidthem,forcinghisbrainaway
fromtheanxiety,asDr.Millerhadcoachedhim.Healsokeptinmindhowexcitedand
happyhewas,pushingawaythenegativefeelings.
Oncehisfeetwereonthefloor,inposition,Kaireachedforhiscrutches,angled
againstthewallnearby,slippinghisarmsintothem.Heopenedandclosedhisfistsa
fewtimesonthegrips,tookadeepbreath,thenplacedthetipsandheavedhiswaytohis
feet.Heshiftedhisweightuntilheheardhisleftbracelock,thenagaintouseonecrutch
tiptopushthedooropentherestoftheway.Evenwiththemedicineandthemental
prep,hefeltlikehewasgoingtothrowuphisracingheart.ItwasonethingforReneeto
seehimwalkingwithoutthesticks,anotherforhertoseehiminthechair,butthe
crutcheschangedeverything.Theywereliketwogiantyellowhighlighterstrokesonhis
abnormalgait.
She’sseenyouontheparallelbars,walkingworsethanthis,Kaireminded
himselfashetookhisfirstfewstepsoutofhisroomandintothemainareaofthe
apartment.Carefullyplantingeachcrutch,negotiatinghisrightlegforward,whichstill
draggedalittle,waitingfortheposteriorlockathiskneetoengage,thenrotatinghis
bodytohisrightsidetohelphisleftfootclearthefloor,partiallyusingthecrutchesto
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pullhislockedleftlegforward.
HelookeduptoseeRenee’sexpression,butitwasunreadable,andhisanxiety
spiked,heldbackonlybythedrug.Hestoodinthedoortothehall,leaningonhis
crutches,moderatinghisbreathinganddesperatelytryingtomaintainhisneutralmask
asReneeroseandwalkedtowardhim.Shereachedout,smoothedonehandoverthe
tensemuscleofaforearm,thendippedherheadbacktolookupathim,smiling,since
evenwiththeslightlean,hewasnearlyafootandahalftallerthanher.
Shegentlyarchedherbrows,thendrewherhandoverherforeheadinthesign
for“forget.”Shepointedathim,thenstoodontiptoesasshegesturedintheairto
indicate“reallytall,"shiftingherfacialexpressiontoemphasizeherpoint.She’dsaid,in
ASL,“Iforgothowtallyouare.”
Itwaslikeshe’dstuckaneedleintotheballoonofhisanxiety,immediately
burstingit,leavingroomforahostofotheremotionstocomerushingin,allbattlingfor
expression.“Mydoctorjustclearedmeyesterday....Iwantedyoutobethefirst...”
Reneesmiledupathim,asked,strictlywithherbodylanguage,ifshecouldhug
him.Henodded,hisownsmileappearingasshethreadedherarmsbetweenhisandhis
body,wrappingthemaroundhiswaist.Hertouchimmediatelyrelaxedhim,comforted
himinawayhehadn’tevenrealizedhe’dneededuntilhefeltit.Perhapsbecauseshe
justacceptedhim.NotunlikeNikki,yetnotquitelikeher,either.
“Ifthishadneverhappened,thatwouldhavebeenOK,”shesaid,lookingup,
hereyessincere.“ButI’mhappyforyou,Kai.AndI’mreallygladyouchosetoshareit
withmelikethis.”
Kailetoutalongbreath.“Ican’twalktoofarorstandtoolong,but...doyou
wanttogosomewhere?SomewhereIcouldn’tgointhechair?”
“Sure,”shesaidwithaplayfulhalfsmile,slippingonehandpartiallyintohis
pocket.
“Youdon’tmind?PeoplestarewhenI’minthechair,butlikethistheygape.
Andthey’llbestaringatyou,too.Ifitmakesyouuncomfortable...”
“Iwaitedweeksjusttotalktoyouagain.Youthinkacouplecrutchesaregoing
toscaremeoff?”
Kaishiftedhisweight,freeingupanarm.Hedroppeditoutofthecrutchsohe
couldpullReneeclosertohiminabriefhug.“I’mgladyou’resopersistent,becauseI’m
anidiot.”
Reneechuckled.“Icouldatoldyouthat.ButIstillloveyou.”KaifeltRenee
stiffen,thenclearherthroat.“Uh,youknowwhatImean.”Butshedidn’tletgo,andKai
realizedhearingthatword,fromRenee,wasn’tterrifying.
Itwaswonderful.
EventhoughKaihadwarnedher,andshe'dbeenoutwithhimbefore,inhischair,the
lookshegarneredamazedher.Pity.Curiosity.Disgust.Andhe'dbeenright:shegot
them,too,thoughherswereslightlydifferent.Confusion.Appreciation.Skepticism.Like
peopleweretryingtoworkouthermotivationforbeingwithhim.Sheforcedherselfto
ignorethegapersandfocusonKai.Hedidn'tmovequicklyoreasily,buthedidhavehis
ownquirkyrhythm,andshelovedthewayhishandsandarmslookedastheysupported
hisweightwitheachcrutch.Itwasanadjustment,again,tohisheight,andsherealized
partofhermissedthechair.Butsheknewwhatahugemilestonethiswas,howmuchit
meanttohim,andherinsidesstillbuzzedwiththefactthathe'dwantedhertobethe
firsttoseehimwalkingagain,outsideofPT.Shelovedhisquietdetermination,and
118
realizednomatterwhattheironlookersmightthinkofher,they'dneverguesswhatshe
wasreallyfeeling.Pride.Attraction.Affection.
Shehadexpectedthingstobealittleawkwardforhimwithbothhands
occupiedastheywerebythecrutches,butapparently,eventhoughshehadneverseen
himusingthembefore,itdidn’tmeantheywerenewtohim.Attheticketcounter,he
simplyadjustedhisweight,slippedoutofonecrutch,leaningitagainstthesurface,and
reachedbackforhiswallet,managingtoextractthemoneyfromitsinglehanded.He’d
handleddoorssimilarlysmoothly,atleastfromherperspective,standingofftotheleft,
droppinghisarmoutofitscrutchandpullingitopen,sometimesusingthecrutchto
pushthedooropenfartherbeforeplantingthetipbackontheground.Shewassurehe’d
managebyhimself,butyearsofindoctrinationbyhergrandmothermeantshecouldn’t
resistholdingitforhimoncehegotitopen.
Thetheaterwaspacked,andReneewasgratefulthey’doptedtoseeRequiem
foraDream,amorecerebralfilmthathadbeenoutamonthinsteadofthenight’s
blockbusterrelease,The6thDay.Kaihadconfessedhedidn’tlikecrowds,especially
nowthathewasimmunocompromised,andthoughhe’dwornascarftocoverhismouth
andnose,hehopedhewouldn’thavetowearitorthesurgicalmaskhe’dbroughtiftheir
showingwasmostlyempty.
Evenwithoutthemask,though,mostpeopleseemedtogiveKaiawideberth,
asifhewerecontagious.Asifthey’dsomehowcatch“crippled.”Reneecouldn’thelp
rollinghereyes.
“IthinkIcancountthenumberoftimesI’vegonetothemoviesononehand,”
Kaisaid,standingjustinsidethedoorway,lookingaround.“WithoutusingASL,”he
addedwithagrinshecouldseeasasparkleinhiseyes.
“Well,consideringwhatpassesfor‘qualitycinematicentertainment’lately,I
don’tthinkyou’vemissedmuch.”Reneeangledhernecktolookupathimwithherown
grin.
Henudgedhischintowardtheconcessions.“Youwantanything?I’mafraid
you’llhavetocarryityourself,but...”Heofferedaslightshrug.
“I’mgood,”shesaid,layingherhandlightlyontopofoneofhis,whichgripped
thehandleofhiscrutchtightly.“ButIdon’tmindcarryinganythingifyouwant
something.”
Kaiendedupgettingsomewaterandaboxofcandy—Reneehadlearnedprettyquickly
thatKaihadasweettooththesizeofMt.Rushmore,anditwassomethingabouthim
shefoundenormouslyendearing.Heviewedeatingasachore,butputsomethingsugary
infrontofhim,andhiseyeswouldlightuplikeachild’s.Infact,themoreshewaswith
Kai,themoresherealizedhewasalmostliketwodifferentpeople:whohewasinfront
ofstrangersorthosehedidn’tknowwell,andthepersonhewaswithfriendsandfamily
—withher.Atfirst,heseemedquiet,reserved,distant,cold,butinreality,hewassmart
andfunny,moresensitivethanhewaswillingtoadmit,andsweetasthetreatsheloved.
Theyenteredthetheaterfortheirmovie,oneofthemid-sizedones,witha
flightofgentlyslopingstairsoneachsideoftherowsofseats.Itwasempty,savefora
fewpeopleuptowardtheback,sincethey’darrivedextraearlyfortheshow.Ifyou’re
withme,you’llgetusedtoshowingupearlyforeverything,heexplained.Itmakes
thingseasier,givesmetimetofigureouthoworifIcangetinsomewhere.
“Takethisoffforme?”Kaiasked,holdinghischinup.
Renee’seyebrowsfurrowed.“Areyousure?”
119
“Ifitgetsmorecrowded,I’llputonamask.Ipromise,”Kaisaid.“Butthisis
hot.”
Shechuckled,stoodontiptoetocarefullyunwindthescarffromaroundhis
face.Heshookhishead,tossinghishaireverywhere,makingherlaugh.
“Ah,that’sbetter.Thanks.”
Shefollowedhimpastthefrontrowsofseats,towardthetieredseating,nearly
bumpingintohimwhenhepausedatthefootofthestairs,asifhavingsecondthoughts.
Shehuggedhimquicklyfrombehind.“Idon’tmindthefrontrowifyou’renotuptoit.”
“No,Ineedto...wanttodothis.”Heseemedtobeassessingthepath,asif
planninghowhe’dtackleit.Finally,hesaid,“Goaheadofme.IfIfall—whichIshouldn’t
—Idon’twanttohurtyou.Andthatwayyoucansitdownwithouthavingtoclimbover
me.”
“MaybeI’dlikethat,”Reneeteased,thenflushedred.
Kaismiledslyly,hislipspressedtogether,butsaidnothing,waitingforherto
hopupafewstairs.
“Howfar?”
“Uh,givemeacouplestepsandI’llletyouknow.”
Reneenodded,waitingpatiently.
Thestepswerewideandclosetogetherinheight,givingKairoomtoplacehis
crutchescarefully,usingthemtohelppulleachlegup,oneatatime.Hemanagedhis
rightfairlyeasily,buthisleftwasmoreofachallenge,sinceitdidn’tbend.Butlike
everythingReneehadobservedthisevening,Kaihandledit,readjustinghiscrutches
andrightfootuntilhegottheanglesuchhecouldpullhisleftlegup.Hisfaceshowed
hisobviousconcentration,butonceheclearedastep,he’dlookupandsmileather,a
versionofhersmile,withahintofthatshyonehe’dshownherearlier.
Itcontinuedtosurpriseherhowsexyhewas,nomatterwhathewasdoing.
Whetheritwassomethingassimpleassittingbesideher,reading,hisgoldenhairfalling
inhisfaceashebentoverabook,orworkinghard,ashewasnow,atsomething
everyoneelse—evenshe—tookforgranted—herheartbeatalittlefaster,doingitsmini
tangoinherchest.Sherealized,eventhoughshe’donlyknownhimsinceAugust,and
onlyreallygottentoknowhimoverthepastfewweeks,thateverythingshewasfeeling
aboutKaicouldbecondensedintooneshortword.Love.Ithadleakedoutearlierby
mistake,butshehadn’treallyregrettedit.Thelight,bubblyfeelinginherstomach
whenevershewasnearhim.Knowingshewantedtobewithhimnomatterwhathewas
doing.RealizinghowbadlyshewasgoingtomisshimnextweekwhileshewasinNew
Orleansfortheholiday.
Halfwayupthestepstothefourthrowhepaused,notquitebreathinghard,but
obviouslytired,leaningheavieronhiscrutches.Henudgedhischintowardtherow.“Go
aheadandsit.Ithinkthisisgoodenough.”Heflashedasmile,butitdidn’tlast.
Sheobeyed,easingintotherow,butnottakingaseatyet,watchingashe
leanedforwardslightly,pushinghardagainstthefloorwithhiscrutchestopullhisleft
legupthefinalstep.Thenheshiftedhiscrutches,twistinghistorsoandtakinga
cautiousangledstepwithhisrightlegsoheturnedafewdegrees,paused.Hisfeetwere
nowatstrangeangles,nearlyperpendiculartoeachother,hislefttoespointedtoward
hisrightheel.Heplantedhiscrutchesonebyone,againpullinghisbodytoshifthisleft
leg.Kaihadpositionedhimselfataboutathirty-degreeangletotherow,facingthe
front.Heeasedonecrutch,thenhisrightfootintotherow,thenfollowedwiththeother
crutch,usinghisupperbodytogethisleftleginplace.Thenheadjustedhisweight,
120
shiftingittohisleftcrutch,andslippedoutofhisright.
“Takeit,”hesaid,offeringittoher.
Shedid,surprisedathowcoolthemetalfeltinherhands,waitingforhimto
finish,figuringifheneededherhelphe’daskforit,likehehadjustnowwiththecrutch.
Kaicastaquickglanceoverhisshouldertocheckhisposition,hislefthand
grippingtightlyonitshandle,hisknuckleswhite.Hetwisted,bending,hisrighthand
reachingbackforthearmrest.Itwasaprecariousmoment,hisrightlegunlocked,andif
heweregoingtofall,it’dbenow.Buthedidn’t,bracinghimselfonthearmrestwithhis
righthand,usingthatarmtopullhisbodytowardtheseat.Oncehewaspartiallysecure
there,hereleasedhisgriponhisleftcrutchhandleinfavoroftheotherarmrest,finally
sinkingintotheseatwithasigh.Hisrightlegwasbent,buthisleftlaystraight,sticking
outintotheaisle.Heremovedhissecondcrutch,stooditbetweenhislegstemporarily,
thecuffbalancedagainstthebackofthenextrowofseats,thenfoundthereleaseforhis
leftknee,unlockingthebrace.Hepulledonhisjeanstomaneuverhislegoutofthepath
ofthestairs,thenofferedReneehissecondcrutch.
Kaiblewoutaharshbreath,smiledather.“Couldyouputthatbesideyou?
Justleanthemtogether,orputthemontopoftheseatsifnooneneedstositthere.”He
unzippedhiscoatandhurriedlypulleditoff;hischeekswereflushedandhehadtobe
hot,butsheknewhe’dadjustedhiscuffsbeforehe’dlefttoaccommodatehisjacket.For
thatandotherreasons,itwaseasierforhimtowaituntilhewassittingtoremoveit.He
watchedherpositionhiscrutches.“Don’tletthemfall,ifyoucan.”
Reneecarefullycheckedthattheyweresecure,addinginherowncoatandhis
scarftohelpkeeptheminplace.“Idon’tblameyou;thisflooriskindofsticky.”
Kailaughedlightly,thengrabbedthearmrestsagaintofurtheradjusthisbody,
pausingtomanipulatealegwhenitwouldcatch.Probablyastrapofhisbraceonthelip
oftheseat.“Whoeverinventedfoldingseatsobviouslydidn’thaveanythingwrongwith
hislegsorarms.”Heleanedbackandsighed,buthehadafaintsmileonhisface.“Life
withmewillneverbeboring,I’llpromiseyouthat.”Heusedhishandstostretchhislegs
outasfarasthespacewouldallow,grinnedwhensheofferedhimhisbottleofwater.
“I’mgoingtomissyounextweek,”hesaid,openingthebottle.
Shewatchedhimtakealongdrink,watchinghisAdam’sapplebobashe
swallowed,eagertoleanforwardandkisshisneck.“I’mgoingtomissyou,too.”
Hesmiled,sethiswaterinthecupholder,andstartedmassaginghishands,
workinghisfingersintothepalmofhisoppositehand,thentheknuckles,flexinghis
fingers.Shewonderedifhehurtafterallthatcrutching,butshetreasuredthisquiet
momentwithhim,sittingtogether,thewayhe’dglanceoveratherfleetinglyandflasha
quicksmilebeforelookingbackdownathishands.ItoccurredtoReneethatshedidn’t
justlovetobewithhim,shewasproud.Itwasastrangefeeling,sincewiththeguysshe
usuallydated,shealwaysfeltmorelikeanaccessorythanagirlfriend,astatussymbol,a
cuteface.Kainevermadeherfeellikethat—notthatshedidn’tthinkhefoundher
beautiful;sheknewhedid.Instead,shefeltmorelikeequals,partners.Kainever
assumedwhatshewasthinking,whatshewantedwaswhathewanted.Itwasevident
thestaresdidn’tfazehim,buthe’dbeencognizantthattheymightbotherher.She’d
bravetheharshestlookstospendtimewithhim,butthefactthathe’dconsideredher
feelingsanddesiresmeantsomething.Mostguysshe’dbeenwithbeforedraggedher
along,notevenawareshemightthinkotherwise.LikeJude.
Renee’sthoughtswereinterruptedasagroupofguysabouttheiragewandered
in,laughingandtalkingandwhackingeachotherastheyjoked,joggingupthestairs.
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Theydidn’tlookliketheRequiemforaDreamtype,andshewonderedifThe6thDay
wassoldoutandthey’dheardtherewassexandnudityinthisfilm.Whentheyreached
thefourthrow,theystopped,staredatKai,apparentlywaitingforhimtogetup.
ReneesawKailetoutalongbreathbeforetiltinghisheaduptolookatthe
threeguys.“Look,it’snoteasyformetostandupandsitbackdown,socouldyougo
around?”
Thethreedudesglancedateachother,whisperingastheynoticedKai’s
crutches,thehintofmetalandplasticathisankle,peekingoutfromthebottomofhis
pants.Theonewhoseemedtobetheleaderrolledhisshoulders,crackedhisneckashe
nudgedittowardthefrontofthetheater.“Cripseatsaredownthere.”
“Yes,”Kaisaid,“andtheysuck.Goaround.Orsitinanotherrow.Don’tbea
jerk.”
“Ohyeah?”theleadersaid,lookingtohisfriendswitha“watchthis”look,then
leaningforwardandgrabbingKai’sshirt.“Who’sbeingthejerkhere?”
Kai’seyesdroppedtotheguy’shands,butotherwise,hedidn’tmove.“Don’t
touchme,”hesaid,hisvoicelevel,thoughthethreatwasclear.
“Wait.Irecognizeyou,”theleadersaid,stillgrippingKai’sshirt.
ReneenoticedKai’seyesnarrow,hislipspresstogether,butotherwise,hewas
outwardlycompletelycalm.
“You’rethatlittlespazzyretardedkid.Kyle?”Theleaderlaughed,turnedtohis
friendsandstartedspeakinginamockingaccent,imitatingadeaformentally
handicappedperson’sspeech.“Ooh,lookatme!I’mgoingtothemovies!Oohboy!”The
leadercontinuedtomockKaitohisfriends,laughing,andhedidn’tnoticewhenKai
reachedup,grabbedeachwrist,pressinghisthumbsintotheflesh,forcingthejokerto
letgowithahowlofpain.
“Isaid,don’tbeajerk,”Kaihissed,shovinghimbackintohisbuddies,whohad
toscrambletocatcheachothertopreventallthreeofthemfromtumblingdownthe
stairsinaheap.
Kaiclosedhiseyes,tookafewbreaths,thenturnedtoRenee,offeringaslim
smile.“YouOK?”
Reneelookedathimasifhewerecrazy,thinking,AmIOK?AreyouOK?,but
instead,shejustnodded.
“Good,”hesaidwithhisownnod,puttinghisarmsup,linkinghisfingersand
stretchinghisbackandshoulders.
Reneewatchedasthethreepunkscollectedthemselves,walkingaroundtothe
othersetofstairs,castingsurreptitiousglancesatKaiwhilewhisperingtoeachother.
Finally,Kailoweredhisarms,sighedcradledhisneck,.“Incaseitwasn’t
alreadyobvious,Iwenttohighschoolwiththoseguys.Iusedtobesmallandscrawny,
andIwasjustlearningtospeak,soIhadaweirdaccent.Plus,sometimes,especially
whenIwasnervousorstressed,mybrainwouldgetconfusedandI’dtalkinakindof
oralASL,whichsoundslikebrokenEnglish....Anyway,withthecrutchesandspasms
andallthat,let’sjustsayIwasn’texactlythehomecomingking.”
Reshiftedinherseatsoshewasalmostsittingsideways,tookoneofhisarms
andhuggedit.“Well,Ilikeyoujustthewayyouare,”shesaid,smiling.Thenshepulled
backtosign,kissingherfistandcastingitdownward,“LOVEA-S-L.”
Kaibeamed.“YOULEARN-FAST.”
Shegiggled.“Ihaveagoodteacher,”shesaidwhilesigning,“YOUGOOD
TEACHER.”
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Reneewaspracticallydancingassheledthewayoutofthetheater.Despitethedarkness
ofthefilm,shewasdelightfullyhappy,spinningaroundeveryfewfeettosmilebroadly
backathim,clearlyenjoyingtheirtimetogether.Shedidn’tseemtocarethatpeople
staredortauntedhim—insteadofbeingembarrassedbytheharassmentofhisformer
highschoolclassmates,she’dsimplyhuggedhisarmthroughoutmostofthefilm,
occasionallyglancingathimwiththisenrapturedlookhecouldn’tbelievewasreserved
forhim.
“Oh,Kai,canwe,please?”shesquealedasshepointedtoaphotobooth,
rushinguptoit.
Hejoinedher,staringatit.Itwasabadideaforsomanyreasons.Themost
obviousbeingwhoknewhowmanygermsthethingharbored,andsecond,thebooth
wastinyandcramped,noteasyforamanhissizetosqueezehimselfintoevenifhewere
ablebodied.ButRenee’seyeswerefilledwithsuchpurechildlikeexuberancehedidn’t
thinkhecouldstandtodisappointher.
“Imean,uh,ifyouthinkyoucanmanage,”shesaid,deflating,apparently
readingthehesitationinhiseyes.
Hesighed,thoughhekeptitsoft.“Icanmanage,”hesaid,offeringherasweet
smile.“Foryou.”Hetookamomenttoassessthesituation,shiftinghisweighttoone
crutchsohecoulddrophishandoutofhisotherandpullthecurtaintotheside.The
spacewassmall,butthatcouldpotentiallybeanadvantage.Hestudiedtheanglesone
moretimebeforeslippingoutofonecrutchcompletely.“Holdthis.”
Hemadesurehewasbalancedonhisleftside,thenusedhisfreehandtohelp
lifthisrightfootforward,intothebooth.Hebracedhishandonthewall,usingthatand
hisleftcrutchtohelppullhimselfinanddownontothebench.Hetookamomentto
catchhisbreathbeforeslippingoutofhisleftcrutchandguidinghisotherlegin,
unlockingthebrace.
Reneepeekedin,beamingpuresunshineraysofhappiness,acceptinghis
secondcrutch,sincetheredidn'tappeartobeanyroomforhimtoleantheminthe
booth.Hewatchedherproppingthemagainsttheoutsidewall,whichmadehim
nervous.
Perhapsshesensedhisanxiety,soshesmiled.“Nooneisgoingtotakethem,
Kai.We’llonlybeafewminutes.”
Ofcourse,Reneehadnowaytoknowthathadhappenedtohimbefore,more
thanonce,andwithhishighschool“buddies”possiblystilllooseinthetheater,perhaps
bentonrevengeafterhehumiliatedthem....ButReneewasright.Itwasonlyafew
minutes,andhedidn’treallyhaveachoice.
“Just...anglethemsoIcanseethetipsbelowthecurtain.Please.”
Anotherwomanmighthaveprotested,oraccusedhimofbeingparanoid,but
onelookinRenee’seyestoldhimthatsheunderstood,andsoinsteadofleavingthem
outside,sheclimbedin,carefullysandwichingthembetweenthefrontandbackwalls,
angled,thetipsunderthebench.SinceKaiwassotall,theyjustbarelyfit,anditmeant
theyblockedthedoorway,buttheywereinside,andwiththecurtaindrawnback,would
beimpossibletofilchsurreptitiously.
Hecouldn’tbegintoexpressthereliefthatsweptoverhim,butthankfully,he
didn’thaveto.Shesimplykissedhim,refusingtolethimpayforthephotos.“Theywere
myideaafterall.”
Shesettledintohislap,andheheldherwaistassheaddedmoneytothe
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machine.“Ready?”Shelaughedandkissedhimonthecheekjustasthecamerastarted
clickingaway,andhelookedather,andshelookedathim,andtheybothsmiledashe
realizedasbigapainastheboothwas,itwasworthit,toseehersmilingathimlike
that.
“So,whatdidyouthinkofthemovie?”Kaiasked.Theyweresettledinaquietback
cornerofTheChippedMug,thelittlecoffeeshopnearcampuswherethey’dmetway
backatthebeginningofthesemestersoReneecouldgiveKaiacopyofhernotes.Itfelt
likeforeverago,eventhoughithadonlybeenafewmonths.
“Itwas...intense,”Reneehedged,sippinghercoffee.Shewascurledupina
chair,herfeettuckedup,butKaisatacrossfromher,hislonglegsstretchedout,
slouchedslightly,lookingtired,hiscrutchesleaningagainstthewallwithineasyreach,
hiscoatandscarfinhislap.Initially,he’doptedforahotchocolate,butafterasecond’s
contemplationhadchangedittoherbaltea.He’dexplainedthatcaffeinemadehim
jittery(eveninsmallamounts),andthatformostofhislifehe’dtakenadrug—
theophylline—thatwasrelatedtocaffeine,soitwasdangeroustocombinethem.Asa
result,he’dgrownupnotdrinkinganythingcaffeinated,andeventhoughtechnicallyhe
coulddrinkthosethingsnow,itwaspartiallyhabitandpartiallynotlikingthewaythe
drugmadehimfeel—restlessandagitated.
Kailaughed.“Itakeityouneverreadthebook.”
“Andyouhave,ofcourse.”
Kaishrugged.“Acoupletimes.It’sprettybrilliantlycrafted.”
Reneesmiled.“Sotellmeaboutit,ProfessorFox,becausehonestly,Iwaslost
inthechaos.”
Kaichuckled.“Basically,it’sacommentontheidealoftheAmericandream,
andhowallthesecharactersweretryingtoachieveit,butinsteadofdoingsothrough
hardworkandsacrifice,theyeachtookdrugsasashortcut.Andthat,ofcourse,ledto
theirdownfalls.”
“Wow,”Reneesaid,sittingupalittlestraighter.“Ineverwouldhavegotten
that.”
Kaishrugged.“GrowingupDeaf,Idon’tknowmuchaboutmusic,buta
‘requiem’isasongforthedead.SothebookisbasicallysayinghowtheAmericandream
isdead.It’samyththatcan’tbeachieved.Atleastthat’smyinterpretationofit,andyou
probablyalreadyknowmycynicmeterisprettyhigh.”
Reneeletthissinkinamoment.“Wow,”shesaidagainwhennootherwords
wouldcometoher.“Thattotallyputsthemovieinanewlight.Remindmetomakesure
Itakemyrequiredlitcoursewithyou.”
Kaismiledshyly,visiblyuncomfortablewiththepraise,arareshowofemotion
henormallywouldhavehid.“Jon’sthesmartbrother.I’mthehandsomeone,”hesaid
withaself-mockinggrin,tryingtotakecontroloftheconversationagainandmaking
light.
“Youarehandsome,”Reneesaidwithaflirtatioussmile.“Butyou’realsosmart,
Kai.Likeyourmakeuppaper.Icouldneverhavewrittenanythinglikethat.”
Hisfacetwitched,likehecouldn’tdecideonanemotion,beforehidingitinhis
cupashesippedsometea.
“You’realsoprettyawesome,thewayyouhandledthosejerksinthetheater.”
Kaishrugged.
“Really.Youwereallninjacool.”
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ThatmadeKailaugh,asudden,sharpsound.“Inhighschool,Ididbreaka
guy’snosewithmycrutchesonce.”
Reneerolledhereyes,butshewassmiling,wishingshewerecloser,layingher
headononeofhisstrongshoulders.“Idon’tthinkI’dbelievethatcomingfromanyone
elsebutyou.”Reneeshiftedinherseat,sethercoffeeaside,thenattemptedtosign,
fingerspellingthelastword,sinceshedidn’tknowthesignforit,“Youmakemefeel
safe.”
Kaismiledfaintly,butsweetly,demonstratingthesignfor“safe”:armscrossed
atthewristinfrontofhisbody,thenbreakingapart,awayfromhim.
“SINCELONGTIMEIDON’TFEELSAME,”Reneesigned,hopingthatmeant
whatshe’dintended:shehadn’tfeltlikethat—safe—inalongtime.Notlikeshedidwith
Kai.
ApparentlyitwasenoughKaiunderstoodher.“I’msorry.”Hesethisdrink
aside,thencontinued,allinsign,slowingdownforhersake,“It’ssilly,butyoumakeme
feelsafe,too.”Hisshysmilereappearedagain.
Renee’sheartswelled,notonlybecauseshe’dunderstoodhim,butbecauseof
whathesaid.
ReneeclutchedKai’scrutchesashepropelledhimselfintoherapartment,lettingthe
momentumtakehimintoaslightglidebeforeexecutingasmoothturntofaceher,
smiling.“Afterallthatwalking,thisfeelswonderful,”hesaid,spinningaroundonce,
makingReneelaugh.“Yousureyouwantmetospendthenight?”
Shenodded,approachinghim,takingoneofhishandsandplacingitonher
hip.
Kaicheckedhereyesbeforelettinghispalmslidealonghercurves,uptoward
herbreasts,thendowntoherass.
“Iwantyoutostay,”shesaid,hervoicebreathyashecaressedher,thoughhe
wascautious,keepinghishandsontopofherclothes,watchinghereyesforanysignof
panicorfear.“IwanttospendeverylastminuteIcanwithyou.”Hervoicehitchedashe
teasedhernipples.Hewouldn’tpushher,butoh,God,ifhecouldtouchher,tasteher,
havehertouchhim....
Hiscockstrainedagainsthisjeans.He’dtakenhismedsearlier,buthestillhad
hisbraceson,thoughhe’dsettleforaquickhandjobatthispoint.Anythingtolessen
thechanceReneemightchangehermind.
“Diane’salreadygonehome,sowehavetheplacetoourselves,”Reneeadded,
squirmingbeneathhistouch,herfacedelightfullyflushed,herlipspursedandhead
tiltedbackjustabit.
“Mmm,”hesaid,drawinghercloser,spreadingherlegssoshestoodoverhis,
liftingthehemofhersweatertoexposeherpalebelly,plantingkissesthere.“Letme
makeyoufeelgood,Re,”Kaisaidbetweenkisses.
Shedidn’trespondimmediately,butoneofherhandsfistedhishairandshe
archedintohistouchasheteasedlower,onehandsupportingher,theotherstilltickling
atoneofhernipples.
Sheletoutasighandpulledaway,soheimmediatelystopped,hisheadfoggy,
hiscockandballsaching,butheforcedhimselftofocus.He’dmadeherapromise,and
evenifitdrovehiminsanewithfrustratedlust,he’dkeepit.
“Wedon’thavetodoanythingexceptsleep,”hesaidwhenhecouldn’treadher
face.
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Shenodded,leadinghimtowardherbedroom.Hefollowed.
Renee’sbedroomwasmoreorlesswhatyou’dexpectfora19-year-oldcollege
girl,femininebutpracticalandtidy.Asmalldeskandaqueen-sizedbeddominatedthe
room,butKainoticedacouplerugsrolledupandstackedinafarcorner—she’dgiven
thisthought.Thatwasgood,becausehedidn’twanthertofreakoutandshutdownon
himasshehadtheothernight,eveniftheydidjustsleeptogether.
Shelaidhiscrutchesagainstthewall,thenapproachedhim,tuggingathis
shirt.Hesmiled,reachedbackandpulleditoverhishead,lovingthewayhereyeslitup
withappreciationandlustatthesightofhisbarechest.Lovinghowhedidn’tneedto
hideitfromheranymore.
Shedraggedafingeralonghisshoulderandcollarbone,usingittoliftupthe
chainofhismedicalIDjewelry.“Doyousleepwiththis?”
Kainodded.Hedidn’tliketo,butnotwearingitwhilehewassleepingdefeated
thepurpose.Hisbreathingshiftedassheteasedhisskin,followingthechain,tracinghis
scars.“Re,mybraces—”
Sheshushedhimwithakiss,leaningforward,ahandslidingoverhisthigh,not
quitereachinghiscrotch,butclose,makinghimmelt,hisbreathingquickandfast.Her
fingerscurledalongthetopstrapofhisbraces,bunchingthefabricofhisjeans.Kissing
himmorehungrily,pullingalong,lowmoanfromsomewheredeepinhischest.
Finally,shesteppedback,smiling,lookingalmostrelieved,whichconfusedhis
lust-addledbraininitiallyuntilherealizedshemightbegladJudewasn’truining
anotherchanceforthemtobetogether.Shepattedthebed.
Takingthisashiscue,Kaipulledhimselfontoit;nottheeasiestfeatsinceit
washigherthanhewasusedtoandthemattresssoft,buthemanaged,finally.He
noticedReneewaswatchingasshebegantoshylyslipoffhershoes.
Hesmiledather,thenproceededtoremovehisownshoes,relievedwhenshe
acceptedthemandsetthemaside,outoftheway.Herfingersmayhavelingeredalittle
longerthannecessaryonthefootplate,tracingupalonghisfoottowardhisankle.
Normally,hedidn’tlikehisfeettobetouched;theyspasmedreallyeasily,thearch
particularlypainful,buthedidn’twanttosayanythingtoruinthemood.Shewasn’tjust
OKwiththehardware;likehisscars,sheacceptedandmaybeevenloved(ascrazyas
thatwas!)thembecausetheywerepartofwhohewas.
Onceshewasbackwithinhisreach,hepulledherclose,forcefully,butsureto
gripherlooseenoughshecouldescapeifshewantedto.Yes,hewantedtofuckher,the
primalpartofhisbrainraging,butmorethanthat,hewantedtomakethisgoodforher,
toforevereraseanymemoriesofthemanwhohadhurther.Tomakehersighandmoan
withpleasureuntilshelookedoverathimthroughhalf-liddedeyes,acontent,satisfied
smileonherface.
Tomakeherfeelsafe.
Sohekissedher,losinghimselfinhermouth,hertonguestilltastingfaintlyof
coffee.Afterafewminutes,hegentlybrokethekiss,placingapeckonhernose,his
thumbsmoothinghercheek.
“I’llneedtimetotakeoffmybraces,”Kairemindedher.“Andwewon’tdo
anythingyouaren’tcomfortablewith.”
Reneenoddedagain,steppedback,andadorably,snaggedsomepajamasoutof
herclosetanddisappearedintothebathroom.Kaiwasn’tsureifshewasgivinghim
spaceorifsheneededitherself,buthedidn’twastetoomuchtimethinkingaboutit,
slippinghisjeansoffonehipatatime,slidingthemdowntohisknees.Hereachedinto
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hisboxersandgavehishard,leakingcockafewquicktugs,grazingthepalmofhishand
overthehead.IfReneewantedtokeepthingsrelativelyplatonic,hewasgoingtoneeda
fewminutesfirst.Hegroanedashereturnedtohistask,reachingdowntoyankoffhis
pantstherestoftheway.
Heheardwaterrunninginthebathroom,likeshewasbrushingherteeth,ashe
hurriedlyworkedtoundothemyriadstrapsthatkepteachleginplace.Leatherwasa
painintheass,butitfitbetterandwasmorecomfortablethanVelcroandplastic,
especiallyaroundhisbadleftknee.Hewasgratefultobewalkingagain,buthehad
becomealittlespoiledbytherelativelybrace-freepastfewweeks.
Soon,he’dfreedhislegs,straighteningandlockingeachbracebeforeleaning
themagainstthewall,notfarfromwhereReneehadlefthiscrutches.ThankGodfor
longarms.
Hisfeetwerespasmingasherolledoffhisbracesocks,asifinprotestofhaving
usedthemallevening,andReneestillhadn’treemerged,sohepulledhimselfbackand
beganhisstretchingroutine.
Reneestaredatherselfinthemirrorforalongtime,waterdrippingfromherchin.She’d
wantedthis,plannedforit,even,butwasshereallyready?Inhermind,theideaof
havingsexwithKaiforthefirsttimebeforesheleftforThanksgivingwouldbealovely
waytokeephimwithher—inamannerofspeaking—allweeklong.He’dbeenexactly
whatshe’dneededlastweek,whenshe’dwantedhim,desperately,yettheshadowof
Judehadlefthersobbinginhisarms.Howhestopped,cold,likethrowingonan
emergencybrake,attheslightesthintofhesitationorfearfromher.Andhistouchwas
sowonderful—nottheharsh,impatientgripofJudeorsomeoftheothermenshe’dbeen
with,butinstead,delicate,tender,loving.
Still,thewayhiseyesdarkenedwithlustsetherpulseracing,andnotdueto
arousal.ShetrustedKaionanintellectuallevel,butstill...herbodydidn’t.
Reneedriedherfaceandstareddownherreflectiononelasttime.They'd
nappedtogethermorethanonce,andshe'devenbeenOKlyingskintoskin,both
shirtless.Maybeitwastoosoonforsexsex,butthatdidn’tmeantheycouldn’tfool
around.AndtheprospectofseeingKaitotallynaked....Which,sherealized,meanta
lot.Heworehisclothesinasizetoobigtohidehisbody,andhe’donlybaredhischestto
heraftergreatreluctance,asasignoftrust.Reneesmiled,builtuphercourage,and
adjustedthestrapsofthenegligeeshe’dpickedoutforthepurpose.Totallyimpractical
foramid-NovemberIowannight,butthatjustmeantshe’dhavetoclingclosertoKaito
keepwarm.
Reneeeasedbackintothebedroom.Kailayonhisside,partiallyunderthe
covers,hischestrisingandfallinginslow,evenbreaths.Asshedrewnearer,shecould
seehiseyeswereshut,hisgoldenlashesflutteringendearingly,hislipspursed.
Shecouldn’thelptheflareofdisappointmentthathitherassheshutoffallbut
hernightstandlightandclimbedinontheoppositesideofthebed.Buthiseyesopened
whenhefeltthemattressshift,smilingasweet,iftiredgrin.Lopsided.“Her”smile.
“Sleepy?”
Henodded.“Walkingishardwork,”hesaid,reachingforher.“ButIcanstay
upalittlelongerifyouwanttoplay.”
Shelaughed,anyuneaseshehadmeltingaway.Kaistillhadhisboxerson,but
otherwise,wascompletelyfreeofclothing,lookingmorerelaxedthanshe’deverseen
himbefore.Comfortable,liketheyslepttogethereverynightinsteadofthisbeingtheir
127
firsttime.
Sheknee-walkedcloser,sinkingdownontohercalves,smoothingherhand
alongtheangleofhiship,ontohisthigh.Shecouldn’texplainwhyshefoundthe
stillnessofhislegs—exceptfortheoccasionalminorinvoluntarytwitch—soarousing.
MaybebecauseitwasKai,andsheloved—yes,loved—everythingabouthim.Shedanced
herhandinward,towardtheflapofhisboxers.
Herfingersslippedinside,gentlyteasingtheskinofhiscock,makingitjerk
andhimsigh.Heusedhishandstoshifthisbodysohelayonhisback,hislegsspreadto
giveheraccess,pullingherhandtohimagain,rubbinghimnowthroughthefabricof
hisunderwear.
“Ishouldtakecareofyoufirst,”hesaid,hiswordshalting.“IfIcome,I’llfall
asleep.”
Reneegiggled,strokedhimafewmoretimesbeforemovingbackonthebed.
Hepushedhimselfupsohewassittingagain,thenbackagainsttheheadboard.
Heremovedhisboxers,firstbypressingupononesidetolifthiship,yankingthefabric
down,thenrepeatingfortheotherside.Shehelpedhimslidethemofftherestofthe
way,lovingthefeelofhislonglegs,coatedinalightdustingofhair,beneathherpalms;
thewayhesighedsoftlyasshedidthis.
“Ilovehowtallyouare,”Reneesaid,almosttoherself.
Hechuckledsoftly,pulledoneofhislegsupwithhishandssoshecouldease
hisboxersoffcompletely.
Itwasstrange,yetoddlyerotictohelphimsliphisunderwearovereachfoot,
moreobviousnowthaneverthatKaihadnocontroloverthem.Hehadbeautifulfeet,
too:large,butnarrow,withlongtoesthatcurledslightly,whethernaturallyorfrom
spasmsthatheldthemthere,shewasn’tsure.Tossinghisboxersaside,Reneecarefully
seteachfootdown,givingintotheurgetosmoothherhandsoverthebridgeofeach.
Herthumbssnakedunderhisarches,andshecouldfeeltensionthere,thoughshekept
hertouchlight.Hisfacebetrayednothing,buthiseyesheldawarinessbarelyshrouded
byhisobviousarousal,hisbreathingrapid.
HiscockwascompletelydifferentfromJude’s,theskinapalepinkonlyslightly
darkerthanhisbody,perfectlyproportionaltohistall,slimframe:long,butnottoo
thick,uncut,restingagainsttheangleofhiship,thebasecoveredinanestofdarkgold
hair.She’dneverseensomeoneasblondasKaicompletelynakedbefore,andshefound
herselftransfixed.Hereallywasblondeverywhere.Shelickedherlipsunconsciously.
Shecouldhardlybelievehewasofferingtotakecareofherbeforehimself.Judehad
neverreallycaredaboutherpleasure.
“Whatdoyoulike?”heasked,beckoninghercloser.
Shefeltherselfblush.“I...likewhenyoutouchme,”shesaid,embarrassedto
saymore.
Kaiguidedherintohislap,havingherstraddleonethigh.“GoodthingIlike
touchingyou.”Heghostedhislipsalongherarm,hisfingersdancingoverherexposed
skin,makinghertingle.Hishandsroamedtoherhair,smoothingthecurlsbetweenhis
fingers.Hedidsogently,reverently,asifhewereconsciousthatunlikestraighthair,
pullingthemthroughwouldbepainfulanddestroytheirintegrity.Hisbreathwashot
againsttheedgeofherribs.“Iloveyourhair,”hewhispered.
Hishandlingeredinhercurlsbeforearchingdownherneck,herchest,her
stomach,herthighs,histouchleavingafireinitswake.Kaieasedthesmoothfabricof
hernightgownupandoverherlegs,higher,higher,exposingherbelly,thenherbreasts,
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bendingforwardtokissandlickherskin.“Saystopanytimeyouwantmeto,andIwill,”
heremindedheragain,beforeslidinghernegligeeofftherestoftheway,leavingher
exposed.
Hiseyesflashedwithhunger,whichmadeherpulserace,butshedidn’tstop
him.Sheremindedherselfshewantedthis,thatKaiwouldn’thurther.Kaipressedher
closer,blowinghotbreathonhernipplebeforetakingitinhismouth,rollingitonhis
tongue,thensuckingsoftly.
Sheletoutashortwhimper,grippinghisshoulder,hereyesfallingshutasshe
sankintothepleasure.Whilehismouthfocusedononebreast,hishandfoundthe
other,andsoonshewasmoaningandwrithingagainsthim,desperateformore
sensation.
Hechuckled,butthengroanedwhenherhandwrappedaroundhiscock,
slidingupanddowntheskin.Hepulledbacksohecouldspeak,“Oh,Re,thatfeelsso
good.”Heletherstrokehimawhile,butthenhepulledherhandawayandliftedheroff
hislap.Gesturingforhertolieonherside,hesoonmimickedherpose.Hiscockhad
grownevenharderandlarger,theforeskinstretchedaroundtheshaftnow,thehead,
deeplyflushed,unmasked,beadsofprecomecollectingonthetip.Fullyerect,hewas
muchlongerthanJude;suddenly,helookedenormousandterrifying,andaflareof
panicovertookher.Reneepressedherhandsagainsthischest,desperatetokeephim
away,thoughsheknew,evenwithoutbeingabletoreallymovehislegs,hecouldeasily
takeherifhewantedto.
“Notinsideme.Nottoday.I’mnotready,”shesaidinarush.
“Shh,”hesaid,slidinghishandalongherarmtocalmher.“Iknow.Justmy
fingers,ifthat’sOK?You’lllikeit.”
Reneefeltherselfshudder.ButKai’shandsweregrounding,tenderlystroking
theskinofhersideandhip,givingherachancetodecide.Shefoundhiseyes,sawhim
smilefaintlyather,knewhiswordsweren’thollow.“OK,”shesaidinasmallvoice,
spreadingherlegsforhim.
Kaispokesoftlytoherashearrangedhercarefully,onelegbetweenhis,sothat
ifshebucked,she’drubagainsthiscock,herchestcloseenoughtohismouthhecould
resumehisattentiontohernipples.Hekissedtheskinbetweenherbreasts,cradlingher
bodyfirmlybuttenderly.Sheletoutasoftsigh,andhelaughedintoherskin,which
drewupgoosebumpsandtightenedhernipples,makingherdesperate.
“More,”shefoundherselfdemanding.
Withoutaword,Kaitookanippleinhismouth,andassoonasshefeltthe
moistheatofhistongueonherbreasts,shebegansinkingawayagain,lettingouta
moanofpleasurewhenshefelthisfingersfirsttease,thengentlyslipinsideher.She
workedherleghardintohim,lovingthepressureofhiscockagainstherandhisfingers
insideher,histhumbticklingherclitwhilehistonguelavedhernipple.Shewasfloating,
moreintunewithherbodythanshe’deverfeltbefore,andyetsomehowapartfromit,
tightnesscoilinginherbelly.Hisfingersmovedfasterashenibbledgentlyonher
nipple.Justwhenshethoughtshe’dburst,herorgasmhither,powerfulandloud,a
screamshewouldneverhaverecognizedasherownescapingherlips,leavingher
bonelessandtremblingonthebedbesidehim.Butheheldherfirmlyinhisarms,and
thoughitwaslikefalling,shefeltsecure.Safe.
Herleg,whereshe’dbeenpressingintohim,washotandsticky,butwhenshe
managedtorecoverherself,sherealizedhe’dtakenhisarmsoffher.Onehandwas
slidingoverhislength,hisheadback,reachingforhisownorgasm.She’dneverwatched
129
aguytouchhimselfbefore,andhonestly,ifsomeonehadaskedherifshe’dlikeit,she
wouldhaverespondedwithadisgustedandfirm“No!”ButKaiwassohotrightnow,
long,leanbodystretchedoutonherbed,eyesclosed,pullingonhiscock,theskin
slidingwithhismovements.
Shesawhisstomachjerking;hewasclose,soshepushedhishandawayand
struggledtomimichim,focusingonthehead.Hewaswatchingher,amixtureof
amazementandarousalinhiseyes,hishandonhisbelly.Shesqueezedthetip
experimentallyandhiswholebodyseemedtojerkasheletoutalowgroanthat
immediatelymadeherwetagain.
“Don’tstop;I’msoclose,”Kaibegged,hiseyestightlyshutnow.
Shesmiled,pulledherthumbovertheslit,whichdrewoutawhinebeforeshe
pumpedharderafewmoretimes.Herarmwassore,butshewantedtobetheoneto
makehimcome,togivehimpleasurethewayhehadforher.
Shetwistedhergripasshepassedoverthetiponce,twice,threetimes.That
seemedtopushhimovertheedge,becausesuddenly,hegrunted,hisbodygrewstiff,his
skinfromcollarbonetocrownbreakingoutinaflush,hismouthdroppingopen,almost
insurprise.Withafewjerkingspasms,heshotoverherhandandontohischestand
stomach,one,two,three,four,fivejetsofcome,untilheletoutawhooshofairandgrew
still.God,hewasstrangelybeautifulwhenhecame.
“Oh,fuck,Re.Ineededthat.Thankyou.”
Itsurprisedherhowincrediblyturnedonshewas,watchinghimlyingthere,
whitepoolingonhisstomach,hiseyesstrugglingtostayopen,ahandwithhislong
fingersrestingonhisbelly,hiscockstillhalfhardbetweenhislegs.
Shereachedoverforatissue,thenwipedthembothclean,notresistingthe
urgetoplanttender,wetkissesoverhisbellyandchest,asiftomarkwhereeachsplash
ofcomehadbeen.Herkissesmadehimshiverandsigh,andwhenshe’dpausebetween
eachtoglanceupathisface,she’dseehiseyeshalf-lidded,smiling,sweetandsated.Yet
anothersmileshe’dneverseenbefore,andperhapsanewfavorite.Hisskinwaswarm
andsalty,hisnaturalscentstrong,mixedwithsexandmusk,hisusual“clean”smellof
soapjustbelowthesurface.Shetraileduptohisclavicles,teasinglicksandtinypecks
tracingtheoutlineofbonethatledtothescarhehatedsomuch.Justbesideit,she
suckedgently,andhearchedintohertouchsubtly,lettingoutaforeignsoundof
shockedpleasure.
Shechuckledwithsatisfactionandsnuggledupbesidehim,drapingalegover
oneofhisasshecontinuedtokisshim,enjoyinghowhelethisheadlolltoonesideto
exposemoreofhisnecktoherministrations.Shepaused,shockedwhenshefelthislegs
spasmingactivelyagainsther.
Beforeshecouldsayanything,heexplained,“Comingsometimessetsoff
spasms,butit’sworthit,”hesaid,hisvoiceheavywithsleep,rollinghisnecksohecould
smileupather.Sweet,content,asifhehadeverythinghecouldpossiblywantrighthere
infrontofhim.Heblinked,andforamomentshesawthatbeautifulgazeshadowbefore
hislidsfell.Hewasexhausted.
ButReneecouldn’tsleepjustyet,hermindracing.Lyingnakedinherbed,in
thesemidarkness,withamanwhomshe’djusthadsexwith(evenifwasn’tsexsex)
shouldhaveleftherfeelinghollow,empty,guilty,used,andamyriadofothernegative
emotions.Instead,shefeltsurprisinglypeaceful.Content.Theonlydamperonitthe
fierceacheinherchestofhowterriblyshe’dmissKaioverthenextweek.Ofhowmuch
shelovedlyinghereinhisembrace,secureandwarm.
130
Shestoleaquickkiss,savoringthetasteofhismouthnow,beforegatheringthe
coversandwrappingthembothup,turningontheheatedblanketanddrapingherself
overhim,needingtobeasclosetohimaspossible.
“Whatareyougoingtodothisweek?”sheaskedhim.
Hedidn’tanswerrightaway,andforamoment,shefearedhe’dfallenasleep.
Butfinally,hereplied,hisvoiceslowanddrowsy,“Takeyoutotheairporttomorrow,
thengoswimming.MyfirsttimesinceIhurtmyleg.”
“Ididn’tknowyouswam.”
Hechuckled,whichturnedintoayawn.“Thissexybodydoesn’tcomefree.”
Sheknewhewasbeingselfdeprecating,butshecouldn’thelpsmoothingher
handfromhiskneeuphisthigh,ontohisbelly,stoppingjustatthebaseofhissternal
scar.Hislegswerecoatedindarkgoldenhair,buthischestwasalmosthairless,andhis
armshadonlyafaintdustingofhairsoblonditwasnearlyinvisible.“Iknowyoudon’t
thinkso,butyouaresexy.Iloveyourlonglegs,yourbelly,yourarms,yourhair,your
eyes,yourscars....”
Hemadeastrangesound,likeastifledlaugh,likehewasgoingtosay
somethingelsesardonicbutstoppedhimself.Instead,hecontinued,asifhehadn’tbeen
interrupted,thoughhissentenceswereabbreviated,likeatelegram,punctuatedby
yawns,“David’sonTuesday,seeifIfitinhishouse.TimewithJon,andmaybemy
friendJake.Nothingtooexciting,”hesaid,hisvoicefading.“HopeDeafThanksgiving
won’thavetoomanypeople.Don’twantwearmaskallday.”Kaisighed,nudgedher
awaysohecouldshiftontohisside,reachingdowntoadjusthislegs.
Reneekissedhischest,drewtheblanketsupcloseraroundthem.“Myfamily
hasadressingcontesteveryyear.”
Kailaughed,alowchuckle.“Likeafashioncontest?”
NowitwasRenee’sturntolaugh.“No.Cooking.Dressingisstuffing.Butnotin
aturkey.Abunchofmyfamilymembersmaketheirownrecipeandthenweallvotefor
thebestone.”
Kaipulledhercloser.Shecouldfeelhislegsstilltwitchingsubtly,thoughthey
hadbeguntocalm.“Stuffingdifferentkind?Didn’tknow.”Itsurprisedherhowmuch
shelovedthesoundofhisvoicewhenhewassleepy,hisgrammargrowingstrangeand
hispronunciationbecominglesscrisp,softer.
“Oh,everykindyoucanpossiblyimagine.DressingisabigdealinNew
Orleans.”Shesighed.“I’dmakeyousome,butIdon’treallywanttoberesponsiblefor
thenextbiohazarddisaster.”
Hedidn’tlaugh,andsherealized,tuningintothesoundofhisbreath,notquite
asnore,thathe’dfallenasleep.Shelaughedtoherselfathowhecouldfallasleepso
abruptly.Hislegskickedsubtly,andsoshewrappedherownaroundhistohelpstill
them.
“Icouldgetusedtothis,”shewhispered.
Hecouldhavetakenher,anytime,buthehadn’t.Sheknew,basedonhowhard
he’dcome,howbadlyhe’dwantedher,buthe’dbeenwillingtostop,justashe’d
promised.Andhehadn’tfuckedher,thewayJudeorothershad.Hehadmadeloveto
her,aphraseshe’dalwaysfoundsillyandincomprehensible.Itwasstrangetothinkthe
“L”wordsosoon,buttonight—thathadbeenlove—she’dfeltit—andsheknewbythe
wayheheldherandlookedatherthathe’dfeltit,too.
131
November18,2000
Jonsatonthefloor,apileofcoloredblocksinfrontofhim,Kaisittingontheotherside
ofthepile,watchingJonintentlywiththosebrightblueeyes.
Jonpickeduponeoftheblocks,showingittoKaiwithonehandwhilehe
signedwiththeother.“COLOR?”
Kaismiledhistoddlergrinandwavedhislittlehandintheair.“BLUE!”
Jonsmiled,nodded.“GOOD.”Kaireachedoutfortheblock,soJonoffereditto
him.
Kaiwavedtheblueblockintheair,tappedhischinwithhisbentmiddlefinger.
“FAVORITE.”
Jon’ssmilebroadenedasheselectedanotherfromthegroup.“COLORRED?”
Jonasked,tryingtorememberwhathe’dread,aboutraisingyoureyebrowstosignala
yes/noquestion.
Kaishookhishead,theblueblockstillinonehand.“YELLOW,”hesigned,
pointing.
“Yes.That’sright.”Jonpushedthepiletothesidetoclearsomefloorspace,
thenlaidoutanassortmentofblocksonthefloor.“GREEN.WHICH?”
Kaistudiedtheblocksforamomentbeforepickingthecorrectone,then
lookingupforJon’sapproval,burstingintoahugegrinwhenherealizedhewasright.
“Comehere,”Jonsigned,openinghisarms.
Kaicouldwalk,kindof,withbracesandawalker,butthatwasnewtohim.
Instead,Kaistillpreferredtocrawlonhisbelly,usinghisarmstoshimmyalongthe
floorlikeasoldier,sincehecoulddososurprisinglyquickly.Oncehegotcloser,Jon
scoopedhimup,holdinghiminhislapandgivinghimabighug,plantingakissonthe
topofhisbrother’shead.KaihuggedJontoobeforepullingbacksohecouldsign.
“LOVEYOU.”
“SAME.”
Suddenly,therumbleofthegaragesounded,andKaistartedpattingJon’s
shoulderimpatiently,beaming.“Daddy!Daddy’shome!”
Jonlaughed,cradledKaicloser,andpushedhiswaytohisfeet,stillcarrying
hisbrother.DespitethefactthatKai’shealthhadbeendramaticallybetterthepastyear,
hewasstilltiny,inonlythetenthpercentileforhisage,lookingmorelikeanovergrown
babythanathree-year-old.JonshiftedKaiinhisarmssohisbrothercouldseebetter
whentheirfatherentered,KaipracticallyvibratingwithexcitementwhenBryanwalked
inthedoor,lookingexhausted.
ButBryanbrighteneduponseeinghissons,smilingandsigning
enthusiasticallytoKai,“MYFAVORITEBOY.WHO?”
Kaipointedtohimself,wavinghisarmsforBryantotakehim,andJonknewif
Kaicouldhave,he’dbesquealing.BryanacceptedKai,gaveJonafirmpatonthe
shoulderandanod,beforehuggingKaitightandkissinghim.
“TODAYYOULEARNWHAT?”BryanaskedKai,single-handedly.Bryanonly
knewalittlesignlanguage,butheseemedtomastermoreofiteveryday,doinghisbest
totalktoKaiinitasmuchaspossible.
“Colorpractice.Allcorrect,”Kaisignedproudlywithafirmnod.
“Dad,”Jonsaid,usinghisvoiceforthefirsttimeinawhile.
BryankissedKaiagainandshiftedhimontohisside,doinghisbesttopay
132
attentiontoJon,too.
“Heknowsallhiscolors,thealphabet,basicshapesandanimals.He’ssmart,
Dad.I’vebeenreadingaboutCP,andIdon’tthink—”JonwasinterruptedbyAnn,his
mother,burstingsuddenlyintotheroom.
“Yousaidyouwereworkinglatetonight!”
Jonwatchedhisfathercontainhissigh,cradleKaiagainsthim,whohadlaid
hisheadonhisfather’sshoulderandlookedreadyforanap.“BosssaidI’vebeendoing
toomuchovertime,sohesentmehome.FiguredIcouldspendsometimewithmy
family.”BryanrockedKaiinhisarms,twistingatthehipbackandforth,backandforth.
Kailookedespeciallysmallintheirfather’sembrace,sinceBryanwassuchalargeman,
andJonwonderedifhe’deverbethatbig.Hewastallforhisage,almostthetallestin
hisclass,butdefinitelyscrawny,thoughBryanpromisedJonthatwouldchangewhen
hegotolder.
“Youmeanspendtimewithyoursons.”
Thistime,Bryandidsigh.“LasttimeIchecked,mysonsweremyfamily.”
Anngroanedinannoyedfrustration,stompedaway,andamomentlater,Kai
jumpedwhenthemasterbedroomdoorslammedshutloudly.
“Dad,Idon’tthinktheyhaveKai’sdiagnosisright.Idon’tthinkheevenhas
cerebralpalsy—”
“Later,Jon.”Itwasalways“later.”“OK?I’msorry.”HehandedKaiback,who
resistedthetransferinitially,clingingtohisfather’sshirt.“Shh.Kai,it’sOK.Jonwill
takecareofyou.I’llberightback.”HekissedKaiagain,whofinallyreleasedhisgrip,
acceptingJon’sembrace.
“Talktomomatleast,please?”Jonbegged.
Bryannodded,squeezedJon’sshoulderagain,anddisappearedintohis
bedroom.
JoncarriedKaitothekitchen.“HUNGRY?”
Kaishookhishead.Kaiwasneverhungry.
JonsighedandhelpedKaiintohishighchair,whichtheystillusedbecausehe
wassosmall,andstartedpreppingsomethingthatmaybeKaiwouldswallowandkeep
down.HewassittinginfrontofKaiafewminuteslater,tryingtoconvinceKaitoeata
fewbitesofmashedchickenandapplesauce,whentheirparentsfightingbecameloud
enoughtoleakthroughthethinwalls.
“Thisisdifferent,Bryan!”
“How?WetalkedaboutsendingKaitothathomeinCouncilBluffs,butthat
wasbeforewethoughthe’deverbreatheonhisown.”
“He’stoomuchformetohandle.You’renothereallday.Youdon’thaveto
dealwithhim.”
“Forgivemeforworkingmyassoff!AllIaskisforyoutotakecareofmy
childrenandmyhouse,andyoucan’tevendothat!Jonis11,goestoschoolfulltime,
andhedoesmorearoundherethanyou.”
“That’snotfair.That’snotfair!You’reinvalidatingmeandyouknowthe
doctorsaid—”
“Soyouonlylistentothedoctorwhenitworksinyourfavor.”
“I’mjustsayingconsiderit.Thisplace—CountyHouse—it’sclose.Wecould
visithim—”
“No.Nofuckingway.”
“He’snotgoingtogetbetter.He’snevergoingtowalkonhisown.He’snever
133
goingtotalk.Hemightevenneedtogobackonthebreathingmachine.He’sgoingto
needsomeonetotakecareofhimfortherestofhislife.”
Jonwasn’tsurehowmuchEnglishKaiunderstood,butJonknew,despite
commonassumptions—andhiscurrentdiagnosis,diplegicspasticcerebralpalsywith
mentalretardation—Kaiwasn’tstupid.Hehadtoknow,evenifhecouldn’tfully
comprehendeverythingtheirparentsweresaying,thattheywerefightingabouthim.
Afterall,AnnandBryanfoughtconstantly,andKaiwasarecurringtopic.
“MommyDaddyfight,”Kaisaid,frowningdeeply.
“Iknow.Threemorebites,thenI’llreadyouastory.”
Kaismiledandscoopedsomefoodintohismouth,gettingmostofitonhis
face.
Despitethefactthattheirparentswerestillfighting,Jonlaughed.“Youneedto
getitinyourmouth,”Jonsaidaloud,thenopenedhismouthandpointedinside.
“Remembertoswallow,”Jonadded,gesturingonhisthroatanddoinganexaggerated
swallow.Kaihadneededtherapytolearnhowtoeatandswallow;onedoctorsaiditwas
becauseofhisCP,another,becausehe’dbeenonarespiratorandfeedingtubeforso
longduringhisfirsttwoyears.
“He’smyson,Ann!I’mnotsendinghimanywhere!”
JonheardacrashthatmadeKaijumpandbegintocry.SoundedlikeAnnwas
throwingthings.Again.Hesighed,gaveuponfeedingKaianymore,andpulledhimout
ofthehighchair.“Shh,shh,”Joncooed,cradlingKaiclose,hopinghecouldcalmhim
beforehistearsturnedtowheezes.
“Oh,butyouwouldsendmeaway?”
“Ifyou’regoingtoactlikeacrazybitch—”
Anothercrash,thistimelouder,andKaitrembledinJon’sarms,cryingmore
intensely,hisbreathbeginningtoskipandjerk,soJonmaneuveredtowardtheirshared
bedroomsohecouldgetanebulizertreatmentready,speakingsoftlyandencouragingly
toKaithewholetime.
“It’sOK,Kai.You’resafe.I’llkeepyousafe.Always.”
Jon’seyesshotopeninthedark,breathingheavily,strugglingtogethisbearings.He
pushedhimselfup,finallyrecognizingVicky’ssleepingformbesidehimastheremnants
ofhisdreamfadedintoreality.HewasinVicky’sbed.He’dspentthenight.
Theclockindicateditwasjustaftertwo.Jonsighed,shovedhishandthrough
hishair.GlancingatVickyonelasttime,knowinghewouldn’tbeabletosleepanymore,
hesilentlypushedhimselfoutofbedandslippedintothemainroom,headingforthe
kitchen.Maybeacupofteawouldsettlehismind.
Jonpacedrestlessly,though,ashewaitedforthewatertoboil.Jonhadn’t
dreamedaboutKaiasachild,ortheirparents,inyears,buteversinceVickyhadbroken
thenewsofherpregnancy,thedreamshadhithimnearlyeverytimeheclosedhiseyes.
Passionate,hatefulfightsbetweenhisparentshe’dforcedhimselftoforget
untilnow.ThankGodKaihadnorecollectionofthem.Howironicthathe’dendedupat
CountyHouseanyway.
Vickyslowlycreptintothelivingroom.ShecouldseeJon,sittingonthecouch,hishead
back,eitherasleeporstaringattheceiling.Shehoped,asshedrewcloser,hehadfallen
asleepagain,butsheknewbetter.Jonrarelymanagedmorethanafewhours’restat
once,butinthepastcoupleweeks,thingshadbeenworse.Atfirst,he’dinsisteditwas
134
merelythathisbodyclockwasmessedupfromhiserraticworkschedule,butfinally
he’dadmittedthetruth.
Shelaidagentlehandonhisshoulder.Hiseyesopened,buthe’dbeenawake.
Shecouldtellbyhowalerthewas.“Thedreamsagain?”
Jonswallowed,nodded.
Vickysunkdownontothecouchbesidehim,offeringherarms.Hesettledinto
themwithawearysigh.“You’renotlikeyourmom,”Vickyassuredhim.“Ifthat’swhat
you’reworriedabout.Ifanyone,you’remorelikeyourfather.”
Joncradledherarmsaroundhim.“Whatif...whatifourbabyisn’thealthy?”
Jon’svoicewasawhisper,barelyaudible.“TheinheritanceofFSandMLSisunknown,
andIdon’tknowenoughofmyfamily’shistory—”
Vickyshushedhimwithakissonhiscrown.“You’llloveourchildnomatter
what.Iknowthat.Forhissake,we’lljusthavetohopehe’shealthy.That’sallwecando.
There’snouseworryingaboutpossibilitiesthatmaynotevencometopass.You’lldrive
yourselfinsane.”Shekissedhistemple,theshellofhisear.Iloveyou,shethought,but
shekeptthewordstoherself.Itwasn’ttherighttime.Still,shefeltjoythatJonsankinto
herembrace,cherishinghercomfort,acceptinghersupport.
Helaughedhollowly.“Youknow,I’vetalkedwithyoumoreaboutmyparents
thanIhavewithKai?”Jonsighed.“Ijust...hedoesn’trememberthem.Atall.Hisonly
memoriesarethosethatI’vesharedwithhim.Idon’twanthimtohaveanotherburden.
Ourfatherlovedhim,butourmother...”
Jontrembled,andshewasn’tsureifitwasfromcoldoraremnantofhis
dream.
“Let’sgobacktobed,”Vickysaid,kissinghistempleagain.“I’llseewhatIcan
doabouthelpingyoufallbackasleep,”shewhispered,voicehotinhisear.
Reneewokebeforeheralarm.Thebedsidelightwasstillon,andshecouldhearafaint,
wheezysnorefrombesideher.Turninginthebed,shesawKai,sprawledonhisside,his
legstangledawkwardlyinthesheets,apparentlydeepasleep.Shewatchedhimforafew
minutes,hisblondlashesflutteringsubtly,hisskinsopaleandsmoothoverthemuscles
ofhisshoulder.Howcouldhenotseehowhandsomehewas?Howsexy?Eventhescars
onlyenhancedhisbeauty,shethought.
Heshifted,justslightly,butitwasenoughtosendalockofhairfromthetopof
hisheadacrosshisface,andshewasn’tabletoresisttheurgetonudgeitaway,thetips
ofherfingersjustbarelygrazinghisforehead.Hemurmured,almostahum,andshe
heardhisbreathingchange,then,withaslowkindofblink,hiseyesopened.Fora
fractionofasecond,hewasconfused,butwhenrecognitionhit,asleepy,contented
smileliftedhischeeks.
“Morning.”
“Morning,”heechoed.Hisvoicewasscratchy.Heblinkedlazily.“Time?”
“Earlystill,”Reneesaid,tracingafingeroverthearchofhisshoulder.
Heshivered.“God,Re,”hesaid,hisvoiceabreathywhisper.
Shesmiled,satisfiedattheeffectshewashavingonhim,draggingherfinger
downhisarm,ontohisribs,towardhiswaist.
Hesighed,asmall,satisfiedsound.Hiseyesstruggledtotraceherpathbefore
givingupandliftingtohers,deepblueinthedimlight.Hesignedsomething,
awkwardly,withonehand,andshewasn’tsureifshewouldhaveunderstooditevenif
hissigninghadbeentextbook,hispostureperfect.
135
Heletoutafaintlaugh,coughed,recovered,thenlookedbackatherwiththat
samelovestruckexpressionsheneverwouldhavebelievedwouldbealookarealperson
couldgiveanother.“Youmakeitallworthit.”
Sheshookherhead,eyebrowsfurrowed.
Kaishiftedenoughtotracehisownfingeronherskin,bringupdelightful
gooseflesh;shecouldspendallday,allweek,allyearlyinginbedwithhimifhe’dtouch
herandlookatherlikethis.“Doyouknowthesong‘GodBlessTheBrokenRoad’?”
Reneearchedhershouldersashedraggedhisfingeralongherneck,but
managedaheadshake.“IthoughtyouwereDeaf.”
Kaichuckled.“JonboughtmeaCDplayer,andmusic,when....”Hecleared
histhroat.“IlistenedtoalotofmusicwhenIwaswaitingformytransplant.Ihadn’t
hadmuchexposuretoitbeforethat.”
Kaipulledherclosertohim,andshelethim;theywrappedtheirarmsaround
eachother,warmbodies,bareskinpressedtobareskin.Shefelthisarousalbetween
them,buthedidn’tpushhertowardsex;hesimplycradledher,secure,asifshewerethe
mostpreciousthinghehadeverheld.
“You’renotgoingtomakemesing,areyou?”Hechuckled,coughedagain,and
plantedakissonthetopofherhead.
“AndifIaskedyouto,wouldyou?”
Shefelthiswarmbreathonherscalp,likehewassavoringherscent.“I’ddo
anythingforyou,Re.”
Despitewhatthey’ddonethenightbefore,Reneehadn’tbeenquitereadyforsharingthe
shower.Truetohischaracter,Kaihadn’tpushedher,andafterusingthebathroom
quickly,hadyieldedittoheronthepromiseofcoffeeandbreakfastwhenshefinished.It
seemedsounfair,shethought,asshepulledonhertravelingclothes—layerssoshe
wouldn’tmeltwhenshearrivedinthemuchmoretemperateclimateofNewOrleansin
afewhours—thatrightwheneverythingbetweenthemseemedtohavereachedthis
pinnacleofperfection,shehadtoleave.Sevendays—anentireweek—withoutKai
seemedlikeaneternity.
Whensheemerged,thearomaoffresh-brewedcoffeeandeggshithernose.
Kaiwasatthestove,hischairangledsohecouldseethepanhewascookingin.
“Coffee’sready,”hesaidwithoutlookingawayfromthefood,“andeggs’llbe
donesoon.Couldyougrabsomeplates?Ididn’tputmybraceson.”
Reneekissedhistemple,thensqueezedaroundhimforplates.
“Oh,andIhopescrambledisOK?Ican’teatundercookedeggs.ButIcanmake
othersforyou,ifyouwant?”
“Ifyoucook,Ieat,”Reneesaid,handinghimtheplatesandthenmovingto
pourherselfsomecoffee.“You’llseeI’mnotapickyeater.”
Afewminuteslater,theywereseatedatthetable,andReneenoticedwith
warmsurprisethatKaiatehisentireportionofeggseasily,insteadofhisusualforced
manner.“So,tellmeaboutthatsong—thebrokenroadone.”
Kaiflushed,redfromcollartocrown.
“Whathappenedto‘asyouwish’?”sheteased.
“OK,”hesaidreluctantly,shyly.“Just.Don’tlaugh.”Kaidippedhishead,and
hesang,hisvoicescratchyandlow,notmuchtunetoit,“‘IthinkoftheyearsI’vespent
justpassingthrough/I’dliketohavethembackagain,andgivethemalltoyou./Butyou
justsmileandtakemyhand/you’vebeenthereandyouunderstand/it’sallpartofa
136
granderplanthatiscomingtrue.”Kailiftedhiseyesjustenoughtomeethers,thoughhe
wasstillflushed,andhishandstrembledsuddenlyashecontinued,“Buteverylonglost
dreamhasledmetowhereyouare/otherswhobrokemyheart,theywerelikenorthern
stars/pointingmeonmywayintoyourlovingarms/ThismuchIknowistrue/Godbless
thebrokenroad/thatledmestraighttoyou.”
“Kai...”Itwastheonlywordshecouldmanage.
Heloweredhisheadagain,pushedsomehairoutofhisface.“It’sstupid;I
shouldneverhavebroughtitup.AndIcan’tsing.”
Reneerosequickly,crossedtohim,andpressedherlipstohisinapassionate
kiss.Shecaughthimoffguard,andhetriedtopullawayinitially,butfinally,hedove
intoit,holdingherface,pouringhimselfintothekissinawaythatmadeherachefor
him.Sheclimbedintohislap,andsoonhewassmoothinghishandsovereverypartof
her,thetwoofthemsuddenlydesperateforeachother.
“DoIneedtosingmoreoften?”hesaidwithalasciviousglintinhiseyes.
Reneehummedhappily,rubbingKai’scrotchwithherpalm.“Wehavetimeto
gobacktobed.”
“Hmm,”Kaisaid,kissingRenee’sneck.“I’mnotsureifwedo.I’vegotabetter
idea.”Kaipushedeverythingonthetabletotheside,thenliftedReneeontoitssurface.
“What—whatareyoudoing?”Reneesaidwithagiggle.
Hegrinned,startedtoundothebuttonandzipperonherpants.
“Kai?”
“Doyoutrustme?”
Afterlastnight,afterthismorning,whenhecouldhavetakenherandhe
didn’t?“Yes.”
Kailiftedherwithonearm,usedtheothertopullherpantiesandjeansdown.
Hisbreathinghadincreased,andhelickedhislips.“Stopstillapplies,justsayit
wheneveryouneedto.”Thenhepushedherback,gentlybutfirmly,andguidedher
closer,heranklesonhisshoulders.Shecouldfeelhisbreath,deliciouslywarmonher
barethighs.“ButIdon’tthinkyou’llwantmeto.”
Withoutwarning,shesuddenlyfelthismouth,hotandwetinaplaceshenever,
everimaginedamouthwouldbe.Andthenwhathadtobehistonguebegantomove,
andKaiwassoright.Sheneverwantedhimtostop.
Shegotlostinthesensation,notevenentirelysurewhathewasdoing,but
lovingeveryminuteofit.Whenshefinallyclimaxedwithanotherloudscream—she’d
neverscreamedduringsexbefore—shelaythere,tremblingandboneless,hereyelids
fightingtoclose.
Kaichuckled,kissedeachthighbeforehelpinghereaseherpantiesandjeans
backup.“I’vebeendreamingoftastingyouforweeks,”Kaisaid,lickinghislips.
Shefeltalittledizzyasshesatonthetable,lookingdownathim,onehand
helpingtopropherupwhiletheothermassagedhiscrotch.Hiseyeswerehungry,butit
didn’tfrightenher,becausetherewasasoftnesstohim,too.Noman—especiallyJude—
hadtreatedherthewayKaidid—withlove,withreverence.Shesighedsoftly,still
blissfulfromorgasm.“WhatcanIdoforyou?”Shelaughedandclappedherhandover
hermouth.“OhGod,I’llneverbeabletosaythatatLostApplewithoutthinkingdirty
thoughts.”
SheheardmorethansawKaiunbuttonandunziphisjeansandpullhimself
out,longandhardjustasshe’drememberedfromthenightbefore,thetipseeping.“It
won’ttakemuch,”hesaid,“ifyoutouchme.”
137
Shehoppedoffthetable,stoodbesidehim,reachedoutandfingeredthetip,
spreadingthestickinessoverit,slidinghisforeskinoutoftheway.Hemoaned,andshe
couldseehowbadlyhewantedtostrokehimself,hishandsgrippinghisthighs,buthe
washoldingback,hopingshewouldfinishhiminstead.Hewatchedherassheteased
him,afingerglidingoverhisslit,thesubtlestwhineapleaformore.
“Canyouthrust?”sheasked,herheartbeginningtorace.
Helookedather,confused.
“IfI...”Shelickedherlips,glanceddownward.“Youwon’tforceme?”
Kaifinallyseemedtogethermeaning.“Iwouldlovetofeelyourmouthonme.
Ifyou’recomfortablewiththat.Iwon’thurtyou.”Hewasbreathingheavily,holding
himselfwithonehand,squeezingoccasionallywithjusthisthumb,moreprecome
beedingatthetip.Thehungerwasstillthere,butsowashissincerity.Shewasshocked
byhowmuchshewantedtodothis,tokisshimtherejustashehadkissedher,andit
feltespeciallynaughtysincehewassittinginhischair,fullydressed.Ifshedidthis,
she’dprobablyneverbeabletolookathiminhiswheelchairwithoutblushing.
“Re.Ifyoudon’twanttodothis,youdon’thaveto.I’llbeOK.Really.”
Withoutanotherword,shesnaggedachair,pulleditclose,andsat,perchedon
theedge.Sheplantedherhandsonhisthighsandleanedin.Hesmelledmusky,salty,so
deliciouslymale,butit’dbeenalongtimesinceshe’ddonethis,longersinceshe’d
wantedto,soshestuckhertongueouttentatively,lickinghisslit.
Hegroanedandshefelthimshudder,thengaspwhenshetookjusthisheadin,
hertongueexploringtheshapeofit,teasingaroundhisforeskin,feelinghowsoftthe
skinwas,howitgavegentlywhenshesucked.Sodifferentthantheshaft,hardandfirm
inherhandasshehelditinplace.Inthebackofhermind,avoicescreamedthatany
momenthe’dgrabherhair,tanglingandpullingandpushingherontohimuntilhefilled
herthroat,stealingherbreathandmakinghergagandpanic,buthedidn’ttouchher.
Hetriedtoformwordsasshegainedconfidenceandtookmoreofhimintoher
mouth,feelinghimgrowagainsthertongue,thecrownbumpingagainstherpalate,but
allthatescapedhislipsweregruntsandgroansandhisses,eachsignalingwhenshedid
somethinghelikedinparticular.Whensheswirledhertonguearoundthehead,once,
twice,suckingwithamediumamountofpressure,shefinallyfelthishandonher
shoulder.Pressingherawayurgently.
“Re...I’mgonna...”
Shepoppedoffjustintime,feelinghiswarmthexplodeoverherchin,barely
abletocatchitwithherhands.
“Re,shit—”Kaicouldbarelyspeak,wrappinghishandovertheheadofhisdick
ashisbodycontinuedtojerk,thefinaledgeofhisorgasm.
Shewaslaughing,wipingherface,hopingshewouldn’thaveaMonica
Lewinksymomentandneedtochangehershirt.
Kai’sstomachjerkedoncemore,andthenhewentstill.Hislegsdidn’tspasm
thistime,liketheyhadthenightbefore.Hisheadlolledback,hisdicksoftening,leaving
atrailofwhitefromtiptothepuddleinhishand.“Thankyou,”hemanaged.
Reneesmiled,grabbingsomenapkinsforeachofthem.“Ilikedthat,”Renee
said,surprised.
Kaichuckledashecleanedhishand,tuckedhimselfbackin.“I’llneversayno
tothat,”hesaidwithagrin.Thenheseemedtospotthetimeonthemicrowaveacross
theroom.Sighingheavily,headded.“Gowashup.Weneedtoheadoutinafew
minutes.”
138
Sheleanedforwardandmethiminashortkiss,whichhedeepened,ahand
cradlingherface.Helickedherlips,asifsavoringhertastebeforeleaningback,andshe
triedtomemorizethelookinhiseyesinthatmomentsothatshewouldn’tforgetitover
thenextweek.
Reneehadherfeetfoldedupontheseat,bobbinganddancingtotheChristmasmix
tapeshe’dbeggedKaitoletherplayashedrovehertotheairport.When“Christmas
Don’tBeLate”cameon,shesquealedandturneditup,singingalong.
Kairaisedasingleeyebrow.“Whatthehellisthat?”
“Christmasmusic.”
Heclearedhisthroat,awordlessindicationthatheranswerwasn’twhathewas
lookingfor.
“It’sTheChipmunks!”
Heglancedather,sideways,foralongmoment.
Shesighed,turnedthevolumedown.“TheChipmunks,”shesaidagain,with
emphasis,asifthatwasalltheexplanationneeded,butwhenKaionlysighed,shewas
forcedtoelaborate.“Itwasthisshowabouttheseanthropomorphicchipmunkswho
sang.Alvin,Theodore,and...Simon.AndAlvinwasalwaysgettingintotrouble,so
theiradoptivefather,whowasahumanman,wasalwaysyelling,‘ALVIN!’”
Kainoddedslowly,hisfaceshowinghowoddhefoundthewholeconcept.
“Iguesswhenyoutrytoexplainit,itdoessoundalittleinsane.”
“Well,Ialreadyknowyou’reinsane;youlikeme.”
Renee’seyebrowsdipped.“Kai—”
Kaishrugged,lookedoverjustforaninstant,flashingasmile.Hisbody
languagesaidthatwasajoke,butReneeknewitwasn’t.Notreally.
“Iguessyoudidn’twatchmanycartoonsgrowingup?”
Kaishookhishead.“Notreally.Davidonlylikedtheonesthathadalotof
slapstick,youknow,stuffyoudidn’tneedtoheartounderstand?AndmyEnglishwasn’t
goodenoughtointerpretsomethinglikethatwhenIwasthatyoung.Notthatwehad
controlovertheTVanyway.”
Forseveralminutes,Reneewatchedthepatchy,snow-coveredfarmspassby
thewindow.“AreyougoingtoCountyHouseforThanksgiving?”
Shecouldalmostfeelthetensioninthecarratchetup,andwhensheturned
herhead,shesawKaigrippedthewheelmorestiffly.
“Sorry.Nevermind.Stupidquestion.”Shestartedtoreachforthevolume
knob,toturnthemusicbackup,buthereachedoverforonlyasecondtostopherbefore
lettinghisrighthandreturntothehandcontrols.
Kailetoutalongsigh,nibbledhislip;sherealizeditwasahabithedidwhen
hewasthinking,butnotjustaboutanything.No,heonlybithisliplikethatwhenhe
wasworkingthroughsomeofhisinnerdemons.Rightnow,sheknewhewasdebating
aboutwhetherhewasgoingtobehonestwithher,ortellashadeofthetruth,enoughto
satisfyherfornow,ordeflectherandartfullychangethesubject.Itamazedherhowwell
shecouldreadhimalready.
Finally,hereplied,“Thanksgivinghasalwaysbeenadifficultholidayforme.”
Shewatchedhisfingersshiftonthesteeringwheel,anotherhabitofhis.Hishandsand
fingerswereoftenrestless,asiftheyweresousedtobeingusedforconversationthat
whentheyweren’t,theystillfelttheneedtomove.Buttherewasadifferencebetween
hisnaturalfidgetingandtheanxiouswayhe’dpickathisshirtordrumonhispushrims
139
orsqueezethesteeringwheel.“Insomeways,worsethanChristmas,”Kaiaddedwitha
longsigh.
Reneewantedtoreachoverandsqueezehishand,butshecouldn’t,notwhile
hewasdriving,soshewatchedhiminstead,waitingforhimtoelaborate,moreofthe
sameblandsceneryflyingpast,whitewithpatchesofyellowishgrasspushingthrough.
Anoldbarn,fallinginonitself.Alone,lonelylookingcow,itsredandwhitecoatthickto
keepoutwinter’schill.
Kaiinhaledsharplythroughhisnose,bithislipagain.Squeezedthesteering
wheel.“ThelastThanksgivingbeforemyparentsdied...Igotverysick.Iwasinthe
hospitalalongtime.Thepastfouryears,onceIreunitedwithJon....Ispentevery
singleoneeitherinthehospital,orrecoveringfrombeinginthehospital.”Hewinced,
butitwasmoreanexpressionofsadnessthanpain.Hebithislowerliphard.Renee
couldhardlybelievehewasbeingsoforthcoming.“Andtheyearsinbetween,atCounty
House?ThanksgivingalwaysremindedmeofeverythingIdidn’thave.Didn’tthinkI’d
everhave.”
Reneeopenedhermouth,butwhatwouldshesay?Whatcouldshepossiblysay
tothat?
Kai’seyeswerefixedfirmlyontheroadaheadofthem.“Icouldgobackto
CountyHouseanyotherdayoftheyear,butnotonThanksgiving.Neveron
Thanksgiving.”
TheCalhounCountyMunicipalAirportwaslaughablysmall:abuildingjustlarge
enoughtocontaintwocheck-incounters,asinglesecuritylane,andatinywaitingarea.
Thebaggageclaimwasnomorethanamodifiedgaragedoor,theattendantsonone
side,handingyourbagthroughitasyouwaitedontheother.Thegateledstraightonto
thetarmac,whereyouwalkedafewfeetuptothesmallEmbraerjetthatwouldtakeyou
toChicagoandthenontoyourfinaldestination.
Onlyoneairlineflewintotheairport,onlyacoupletimesaday,andonly
betweenJonesvilleandChicago.Ifyouwantedtogoanywhereelse,youcouldchartera
privateplane,ordrivetwo-and-a-halfhourstoOmaha,thenearestmajorairport.
Butwiththeuniversity,andthehospital,andthesmallamountofoilinthe
county,thetinyairportkeptbusyenough.
Kaipulledintooneofthehandicappedspots,putthecarinpark,andundidhis
seatbelt.AfterhisstupidrevelationaboutThanksgiving,thingshadbeenquiet,but
strainedfortherestofthedrive.Hefeltlikeheshouldsaysomething,maybemakea
joke,tellherhehadn’tbeenserious,butReneeknewhimwellenoughatthispointthat
nomatterhowconvincinghemightbetoanyoneelse,she’dseerightthroughhim.
Reneespokebeforehecouldthinkofwhattosay.“Ididn’tknow,”shesaidina
lowvoice,reachinguptocradlehischeek.“Icouldcancelmyflight.Stayhere.Idon’t
mind.”
Kaicouldn’thidehissurprise.“Re.Youcan’tdothat.”
“Whynot?”
Hesmiled,tookherhandsinhis.“Youdohaveafamilytogohometo,”Kai
explained,hisstomachdoingastrangeknottingthingthatfeltlikepartofthestartofan
anxietyattack,butheknewitwasn’t.Well,atleasthedidn’tthinkitwas.Hecouldn’t
believeReneewaswillingtochangeherplans—notseehergrandmother,whomKai
knewReneemissedterribly—justforhim.Theonlypersonwhohadeverchangedtheir
lifearoundforKaiwasJon.
140
Reneenodded,butshe’dwithdrawnintoherself,ahabitKairecognizedeerily
well.“Jude’llbethere,too.”
Kaisighed,squeezedherhandtight,butnottootight,rememberinghowsmall
anddelicateherhandswere.“Gohome.Seeyourfamily.Butifhehurtsyouinanyway.
..”Kai’seyesflashedangerhestruggledtocontrol.“Callme.Callme,andIwillgetmy
crippledassonaplane,flydownthereandkickhisass.”
Reneelaughed,anditwarmedKai’sheart,turninghisstomach’sknotinto
butterflies.
“RememberItoldyouIbrokeaguy’snosewithmycrutchesonce?Thatwas
withshitty,cheapones.NowIhavegood,stronger,solidsticksthatcouldprobablydoa
lotmoredamagebeforetheybreak.”Kaismiledfaintly,teasedacurlbyhercheek.
“You’llbeOK.I’ll...”Hecursedhimselfinwardlyforthehesitation.“...beOK.”He
pulledherclose,kissedher,cherishingthetasteofherlipgloss,coveringthesubtle
naturalsweetnessofherlips,hertonguethatstilltastedfaintlyofcoffee.Heleanedhis
foreheadagainsthers,sighedsoftly.“Doyouneedhelpwithyourbag?”
Sheshookagainsthim,clearlynotwantingtogojustasmuchashewantedto
keepherthere.“No.Nopointinyougoingthroughallthetrouble,especiallysincethat
airportissoclaustrophobic.Ionlyhaveacarry-on.”Shepulledback,reachedintoher
bagandtookoutthesheetofphotosfromthenightbefore,benttheminhalf,and
carefullytoreattheseam.“Here.Twoforyouandtwoforme,”shesaidwithasmile,
offeringhimonehalf.
Kaistaredatthepictures.Inthefirst,theywerekissing,Reneeperchedonhis
lap,andhecouldseethesweetsmileoneachoftheirfacesthatbroughtonetohisown,
now.Inthesecond,theywerelaughing,KaigrippingRenee’swaistassheleanedaway
asifhewereticklingher,herheadjustbarelyinframe,hercurlsblurringontheedges.
Kaiwaslookingatherinsteadofthecamera,eyesbright,shouldersrelaxed.Itwas
strangetoseehimselflikethis.Otherthanschoolphotos(whichofcourse,therewasno
onetoeverorderany),Kaihadn’tseenmanyphotographsofhimself.Helooked...so
happy.
“Thanks,Re,”Kaisaid,tuckingthephotosintohisdash.“Youshouldgo.”
Shesighed,leanedforwardforanotherquickkissthathitthesideofhismouth.
“I’llcallyou.”Shepushedthecardooropenandthecoldshockedthemboth.“AndI’ll
bringyoubeignetmix!”
Kailaughed,wavingassheskippedtowardtheterminal,twistinginhisseatto
watchuntilshedisappearedinside.Acrushingweighthithimnext—forthepastfew
weeks,they’dseeneachotheralmosteverysingleday.Hewouldneveradmititto
anyone,butgoinganentireweekwithoutherseemedridiculouslydaunting.
Hesighed,resecuringhisseatbeltandstaringatthephotos.HowhadRenee
wormedherwayintohisheartsoquickly?And,aswonderfulasthingswerebetween
themrightnow,whatwasgoingtohappenoncesherealizedtheguywhoofferedtobeat
theshitoutofherex—andhewould—wasfrequentlyparalyzedbyanxietyattacks?
Withtheholidaycomingupandallthelongnightshiftshe’dbeenworkingoverthepast
month,Jonhaddecidedtotakethedayoff.Noclinicvisits,nothing.Itfeltstrangeat
first,butwhenKaisuggestedJonjoinhimatthepool—itwasKai’sfirsttimesince
beforehisinjury—Jonaccepted.Hewasn’tmuchofaswimmer,butit’dbegoodto
spendsometimewithKai.Jonfeltlikehe’dhardlyseenhisbrotherlately,betweenhis
workscheduleandKaispendinganincreasingamountoftimewithRenee.
141
TheYwasclosedtoday,soKaihadtakenthemtotheJUathleticcomplex,
whichwas“somuchbetter,anyway,”Kaiexplained.Kaihadhisduffleinhislap,the
strapoverhishead,makingJonfeelalittleawkwardashefollowedKaiintothefoyer.It
wasearly,andtheSaturdayofaweek-longholidaybreak,soitwasprettyempty.Ahead,
Joncouldseeabored-lookinggirlreadingabooklazilyinasinglebooth,theothersall
silentandempty.KaistoppedJonandspunaround,lookingup.
“OK,so,technicallythisisforstudentsonly,so,here’swhatwe’regoingtodo.”
Kaipulledthestrapoffandofferedittohisbrother.“Takethis.Thenpushmetoward
thedesk.”
Jonacceptedthebag,whichwasalotheavierthanitlooked,gapingatKai.
“Pushyou?”
“Yes.Justafewfeet.Playalong,allright?”
“Kai...”
“Disabilitymakesmostpeopleuncomfortable.Themoredisabledyouseem,
themoreuncomfortablenormalsare.DavidandIusedtodostufflikethisallthetime.
Mostlyjusttofuckwithpeople.”Kaigrinned.
“Kai!”
Kailaughed,dippedhisheadbacksohecouldseeJon’sfacebetterashespun
around.“Ibetyou’veneverevenreturnedalibrarybooklate,haveyou?”Heshookhis
head.“Push.”
Jonobeyed.ItfeltwrongtotouchthebackofKai’schairwhenKaiwas
perfectlyhealthy,evenonhisbrother’scommand.Becauseofthelowback,Jonhadto
bendforward,givinghimachancetowhisperinhisear.“IsthiswhyIneverdoanything
withyou?”
Kaijustshrugged,sayingnothingastheydrewcloser.
Thegirldidn’tlookupfromherbookastheyapproached.“ID,”shesaid
mechanically.
“Mybag,”KaisaidinathickaccentthatJonhadn’theardKaiuseinyears,not
sincethey’dfirstreconnected,whenKaistillhadtoconcentrateonarticulatinghis
words,especiallythefinalconsonants.
Thismadethegirldropherbook,gapeatKai.Jonwishedhecouldseehis
brother’sface,butthegirlthenlookedathim,atthestrapofthebagacrosshischest,
obviouslyexpectant.JonsteppedawayfromKaisohewouldn’twhackhimwiththebag
asheshiftedit,findingKai’sstudentIDinthesidepocketandhandingitover.The
womanlookedatit,thenupatJon,waiting.
“Andyours?”
JonturnedtoKai,sinceobviouslyhisbrotherhadaplan.“Uh,Idon’thave
one?”
“Thisfacilityisforstudentsonly.Ican’tletyouinwithoutanID,”shesaidin
monotone,obviouslyrecitingsomethingshe’dmemorizedoutofamanualofguidelines
somewhere.ButsheneverstoppedstaringatKai.
“Hehelpme,”Kaisaidinthatsameaccent.“Heyouneedallowin.”Inaddition
totheinarticulatepronunciation,Kaiwaslettinghiswordsblurtogether,sothatlast
sentencesoundedmorelike,“Heeyuneelouin.”Itdidn’thelpthatKaiwasthrowingin
hisoddASLgrammarnow,too,whichhadfrustratedJontonoendwhenthey’dfirst
reconnected,especiallysinceKaihadbeenperfectlycapableofproperEnglish.
ThegirlblinkedatKai,thenglancedupatJon,clearlynotunderstandingwhat
thehellKaiwassaying.Foramoment,thegirlseemedtobeinwardlydebatingabout
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whethersheshouldpressharderforclarificationorjustendherobviousdiscomfortand
violateprotocolbylettingthembothin.
“Allright,”shesaid,swipingKai’scardandthenenteringsomethinginthe
computertobypassthesystem,“butifyou’regoingtoaccompanyhimregularly,you
needtogetyourowncard.Comebackaftertheholidayandtalktothemanager,”she
said,directingeverythingtoJoninsteadofKai,handingKai’scardbacktoJon.“I’llbuzz
thesideopensoyoucanpushhimthrough.”
“Thankyou,”Kaisaid,waitingforJontopushhimagain.
Jonresistedshakinghishead,anddidso,pushingKaiuntiltheywerethrough
andoutofthesightofthedeskgirl.
“Stop,stop,”Kaisaidinhisregularvoice.
Jonimmediatelyletgo,standingtohisfullheight,walkingaroundsohecould
seeKaibetter.“Youareimpossible.”
Kaishrugged,helduphishandforhisbag.“Itworked,didn’tit?”
Jonoffloadedthebagwithsomerelief.Kaiwasright;hereallyneededtogetin
bettershape.It’dbegoodforhiscirculation,andconsideringhe’dalreadylivedasa
diabeticforovertwentyyears,thatmightnotbeabadidea.“Ijustcan’tbelievetheway
shestaredatyou.”
Kaigrinned.“Thataccentneverfails.Iwasmockedrelentlesslyforyears
becauseofit.ImightaswelluseittomyadvantagewhenIcan.WhydoyouthinkI
pulleditonyouwhenyoufirstshowedupfouryearsago?”
JonfollowedasKaipushedtowardthelockerrooms.“Youwerefakingthat?”
Kailaughed.“Fakingissuchaharshword.No,backthenitstilltookalotof
consciousefforttospeakarticulately.AllIhadtodowasbelazy,andtheaccentcame
naturally.Atthetime,Iwasn’tsureyetifyouwereworththeeffort.”Kaidisappeared
intothelockerroombeforeJoncouldquestionhimaboutthat.Jonrememberedthe
initialbitternessandhostilityhe’dfaced,confrontingKaiforthefirsttimeaftermore
thanadecadeapart,butheneverreallyimaginedKaihadseenthingsthatway.More
proofthatJonreallydidn’tknowwhatthoselostyearsofKai’slifehadbeenlike.
BythetimeJonfoundhisbrother,Kaihadalreadytransferredoutofhischairontoa
benchandwaspullingoffhisclothes,revealingthestrangesuithe’devidentlyputonat
home.JonhadneverseenKaiactuallyinit,thesuitcoveringhischestandback,going
downtojustabovehisknees,revealinghispowerfularms.Kailookedlikeanathlete,
andJonwondered,ifthingshadbeendifferent,ifmaybehecouldhavebeen.Jon
hesitated,pullingoffhisownshirt,knowinghowgaunthewas.Vickywasright;he
neededtotakebettercareofhimself,especiallyifalittleJonorVickywouldbehere
soon.KaiusedtobeeventhinnerthanJon.IfKaicouldbulkup,maybeJoncould,too.
“Here,”Kaisaid,tossingsomethingJon’sway.“It’smyoldone.Itmightbea
littlebig,buttheadvantageofthisstylesuitisitwon’tfalloff.”
Jonhelditup:asuitjustlikeKai’s,onlythefabricwasalittlefadedfromuse.
“It’sclean,Jon.”
“I’lllookridiculous.”
Kailaughedashetossedhisclothesinhisbag.“Yes,youwill.Ifyoudecideyou
wanttodothiswithmeregularly,I’llorderyousomethingdifferent,inyoursize.Butfor
now,littlebrothergetstogivebigbrotherhand-me-downs!”Kaistuffedhisbaginhis
locker,thenbeganstretchinghislegsonthebench.
AsJonstruggledwiththeskin-clingingspandex—orwhateverfuturistic
143
materialthissuitwasmadeoutof—herealizedwhyKaiputitonathome.Hemanaged
tofinallygetitup,shiftinghisweight,pullingatthefabricbetweenhislegs—hedidnot
likethewayitfeltthere—strugglingtoreachbehindhimtozipitup.
HeheardKailaugh,shifthislegs.“Sitdown.”Jonobeyed,andamomentlater,
heardandfeltthezipasKaiobligedhim.“There.Youshouldstretch,butyoucandoit
outthere.Comeon.”Kaigrabbedacouplethingsoutofhislockerbeforeshuttingand
lockingit,transferringbacktohischairandleadingthewayouttothepool.
TheheavyscentofchlorinehitKai’snostrilsimmediatelyastheyapproachedthepool.
Thatsmell,thesubtlesquelchhistiresmadeonthewettiles,theechoofsplashesinthe
largeroom,theheavinessofthehumidity:itallblendedtogetherintopurehappiness.
KaihadworriedMicovicwouldneverclearhimtoswimagain,andhe’dhonestly
wonderedifpartofwhatmadethelastcouplemonthssohardwashisinabilitytodive
intothepoolandswimuntiltherewasnothingbuthisbodyandthedimrushofwaterin
hisearsashepushedhimselflapafterlap.
Kaistoppedattheedgeofapairofemptylanes,pullingonhiscapand
adjustinghisgoggles.HenoticedJonhesitate,grippingtheirtowelstohisbodyand
lookingaroundnervously.“Youdoknowhowtoswim,right?”
“Thebasics,”Jonsaid,thoughhestillseemedtense.
Kaiangledhisheadtolookupathisbrother.“Look,youdon’tneedtodothisif
youdon’twantto.Ijustthoughtitmightbefun.”
Jonactuallylaughed.“Thiscomingfromtheguywhowouldprobablysee
skydivingasfun.”
Kaipulledclosertothelane,lockedhiswheels,andloweredhimselftothe
floor.“Therearealotworsewaystodie,”hesaidwithashrug,tyinghispullbuoytohis
legs.
JonjoinedKaionthefloor,sittingcrosslegged,layingthetowelsontheseatof
Kai’schair.“What’sthat?”
“Ithelpsmekeepmylegsafloatinthewater.Makesiteasierformetousemy
upperbodywithouthavingtoworryaboutthem.”
Jonsuddenlylookedincrediblysad,andKai,foramoment,gotatasteofhis
ownmedicine,uncertainwhathadcausedthesuddenshiftinhisbrother’sface.
“What?”
Jonshookhishead,smiledfaintly.“It’sjust...I’mrealizinghowlittleIreally
knowyou.Justinthelasthalfhour,IfeellikeI’velearnedmoreaboutyouthan...”
Kaisighed.“Jon,let’sjustswim.OK?I’llraceyoutotheend?Howabout,every
lapyouwin,yougettoaskmesomething.Fair?”
JoneyedKaithroughnarrowedvision,asifseeingthroughhim.Kaimight
havebeenrestrictedfromusingthepoolforthelasteightweeks,butthatdidn’tmeanhe
wasoutofshape.HewasprettyconfidenthecouldbeatJoneverytimewithouteven
trying.AndJonapparentlyknewthat.
Kaiputonhisgoggles,pulledhislegsintothewater,thenloweredhimselfinto
thepool.“Bestthingaboutswimming?Notalking!”Kaisaidwithagrin,takingoffdown
thelane,feelinglikehewasflying.
Jonhadexhaustedhimselfafteronlyahundredyardsorso—hereallyneededtogetin
bettershape—sohe'dspentpartofhistimehangingoutintheshallows,sittingonthe
edge,watchingKai.JonknewtherewasnowayKaicouldhavehadformallessons,and
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heprimarilyusedhisupperbody,buthemovedsosmoothlyandpowerfullythroughthe
water.JoncouldseeasKaimadelapafterlap,onlypausingtoturn(sincehecouldn’t
flipturn)whyswimmingmeantsomuchtohim.
Inthewater,hewasjustlikeanyoneelse.Walkingandtalkingweren’t
important.Jonwondered,didspeakingclearlystillrequireeffort?JonknewKai
sometimesslippedintoASLgrammarwhenhewastiredorsickormad.Thatdaythey’d
reconnected,whenKaihadfirstrevealedhecouldspeak,hissentenceshadbeen
awkward,hispronunciationrough,andhe’dneededtothinkandtalkslowlywhenever
heputforththeefforttouseproperlypronouncedandgrammaticallysoundEnglish.
Andhe’dbeenfuriouswithJonforforgettinghowtosign,forforcinghimtospeak.It
hadneveroccurredtoJonthatatleastpartofthereasonKaihatedEnglishsomuchwas
becausehe’dbeenridiculedforhisspeechproblems.
AwaveofguiltcrashedintoJon.Howselfishhadhebeen,nothiringanASL
tutoruntilnow?HowmanytimeshadKaiperhapswantedtotalktohim,butwas
dissuadedbythelanguagebarrier?Jonrecalled,afewmonthsearlier,howKaihad
broachedthesubjectofRenee,explainingitwaseasierforhimtodiscussthetopicin
sign.Jonhadn’treallyappreciatedwhatthatmeant.
Jon’sthoughtswereinterruptedwhenKai’sheadpoppedupabovethewater,
hispullbuoyinonehand,hisothergrippingthewall.Hewasbeaming.“Ifuckinglove
theselungs,”hesaid,breathinghard,tossingthebuoyonthewallandpullingoffhis
gogglesandcap.
Jonsmiled,butheknewitwastaintedbyhisthoughts.
Kai’sfaceflickeredforamicrosecondbeforeslippingbackintohissmile.“Did
youevenswimatall?Ionlydidhalfmysettoday.”
Jonshrugged.
Kaipushedhisstuffaside,turnedaroundsohisbackwastothewall,then
leveredhisbodyoutofthewaterandontotheflooraseffortlesslyashebreathedwith
hisnewlungs.Jonwasn’tabouttoadmitthatwithouthislegstohelppushhimselfout,
hewouldhavestruggled.
Kaiwasalreadywipingoffexcesswaterandbeginningtostretchhisupper
body,hislegsdanglinginthewater,onebobbingwithminorspasms.Jon’sinstinctwas
toaskifKaiwasOK,butnothingaboutKaisuggestedhewasinpain,soJonheldhis
tongue.
“Icanseewhyyoulovethepool,”Jontriedinstead.“Youswimlikeafish.”
Kailaughed,glancedoverhisshoulder,thenplantedhispalmsbehindhimto
pullhislegsoutofthewater.“Yeah,agimpyfish.”ButherolledhiseyesatJon'sfrown.
“Whendidyoulearntoswim?Ineverasked.IguessIdidn’treallythink—”
Kaishookhishead,stillsmiling,ashebegantostretch.Thespasmsinhisleg
hadquieted,atleastsotheywerenolongervisible.“What,didyouthinkIdoggy
paddledfor40lapseachweek?Troytaughtmesomebasics.WhenIwasakid,during
someofmyworstMLSflareups,he’dworkwithmeinthepool.Ithelpedalot.Allowed
metodevelopcontrolwhereIhadit,strengthenthosemuscles,stretch.”
Kaibentforward,stretchinghisback,reachingforhistoes,holdingitfor
severalsecondsbeforereleasingandpushinghistorsobackup.“Inhighschool,the
districtwouldn’tletmeparticipateinPE,butIwasrequiredtotakeit.Itriedtopetition
themtoletmetakeswimming,buttheysaidIwastoomuchofaliability.”
Jonwasn’tsurewhattosay,sohemerelywatchedKaistretch.
“Idon’tknowwhatthebigdealwas.IfIdrowned,it’snotliketherewasanyone
145
tosuethem.”
Kaispokematter-of-factly,continuingtostretchhisbody;clearly,his
nonchalancewasn’tafacade.Kai’sbluntnessfromhisDeafupbringinghadfadedover
theyears,butitstillcamethroughoccasionally.Andknowingthatdidn’tmakeithurt
anyless,hearingabouthisbrotherbeingalone,havingsomethingKaiclearlyloved
takenfromhim.
“What'swrong?”
Jonsighed,shookhishead.“Ijusthavealotonmymind.”
Kaididn’tseemtobuyit,butheletitgofornow,pullinghischaircloserand
spreadingoneofthetowelsoverit.Hegrippedtheseatandawheeltoleverhimselfinto
it.Heusedhishandstoplacehisfeetonthefootrest,thentohelpsettlehisbodyfully
backintheseat.Heleanedforward,armsonhisknees,bentinhalf,meetingJon'seyes,
sinceJonhadn’tyetstood.
“Ithinkit’dbegoodforyoutoswimwithme,butthisisaguilt-freezone.The
pointofswimmingistoshutoffyourmind.”Kaileanedback,grippedhisleftwheelfor
stabilitywhileofferinghisrighthandtohelppullJontohisfeet.
Jonsmiledfaintly.Thenthewordsspilledoutbeforeheevenrealizedhe’d
spoken.“Vicky’spregnant.”
Kaiblinked,buthecontrolledhisemotions,asusual,carefullycraftinghis
response.“Wow,Jon....Congratulations.”
“Shejustfoundout.She’snotduetillJune.We’renottellinganyoneyet....”
“I’mgoodatkeepingsecrets,Jon.”
Jonnodded,letoutabreath.“Youreallywouldn’tmindifIcamewithyoueach
Saturday?”
Kaismiled.“Icanevenchangemyroutinetoworkaroundyourclinichoursif
youwant.I’llseeaboutgettingyouapassforhere,sowedon'tneedtoworryaboutthe
YMCAswimlessons.”
JonfollowedKaibacktowardthelockerroom.“You—you’ddothat?”
KailaughedasheheldthedooropenforJon.“You'verearrangedyourentire
lifeforme,morethanonce.IthinkIcanchangeonesmallthing.It’s...fun,spending
timewithyou.Beingbrothers.”
Jon’sbrowsfurrowed.“Youknow,whenthebaby’sborn...things’llhaveto
change.Betweenus.”
Joncaughtafleetingdarkness,maybeevenpanic,inKai’seyesbeforeKai
shookhisheadandplasteredonabrightsmile.“Ofcourseitwill.It’llbereallyhardfor
thebaby,knowinghisuncleissomuchbetterlookingthanhisfather.Buthe’llgetover
it.”Kaiwinkedandpoweredintothelockerroom,disappearingbetweentherows.
KaifollowedJonintotheJonesvilleDiner,whichwasdecentlybusy,thefamiliarscents
ofgreaseandcoffeefillingtheair.Kaihadn’tvisitedthedinersinceNikkihadlefthim,
whichmeantithadbeennearlytwomonths.Despitehisoccasionalpiecraving,Kai
hadn’tbeenabletobringhimselftodropin,sinceitheldmemoriesofbothBeccaand
Nikki,whichhungintheairasthickasthearomaoffood.
ButJonhadapparentlybeenfeelingsentimental—afterall,theirfirstmeal
togetheronKai’s18thbirthdayhadbeenhere,whenthetwoofthemwereonlyhours
intoreconcilingtheirnewsituation.Kai,stilldesperatetodiscoverJon’struemotivation
behindhisseemingbenevolence,andJon,frustratedandconfusedathowmuchKaihad
changedinthetwelveyearsthey’dbeenapart.
146
Kaisaidnothingasawaitresshedidn’trecognizeguidedthemtoatable,taking
achairawayforhimsohecouldslideinacrossfromhisbrother.Thetwoofthem
studiedthemenuinsilence.Kairarelyateanythingotherthanpiehere,butheknew
Jonwouldinsistonamorenutritiouschoice,sohescannedforsomethingvegetarian
thatheknewhisstomachcouldhandle.
AsurreptitiousglancetoldKaiJonwasn’tactuallylookingatthemenu,butlost
inhisthoughts.PerhapshewasregrettingtellingKaiaboutVicky’spregnancy.Perhaps
hewasregrettingthepregnancy.Kaidecidedhewouldn’tpointouttheironythatJon
hadlecturedKaimorethanonceabout“safesex.”Kairemindedhimselftomakesurehe
hadsomecondomsinhisbagforwhenReneegotback.Maybeitwouldbeawhile
beforeshewasreadyforvaginalsex,butKaifigureditprobablywasbestnottotakeany
chanceseitherway.
KaiwasdebatingsayingsomethingwhenMargeswungbythetable,looking
happyandrelievedtoseeKai.“Oh,hon,Iwasbeginningtoworryaboutyou.Howlong
hasitbeen?”
Kaishrugged,noticedJonwasworkingevenhardertofakeprofoundinterest
inhismenu.
“I’msorryaboutNikki,”shesaidsincerely.“Theusual?Pieofthedayis
pumpkin.”
“Marge,thisismybrother,Jon.Jon,Marge.Thisisherdiner,essentially.”
Margewavedalargehanddismissively,butKaicouldseehowthecompliment
hadpleasedher.“WhatcanIgetyouboys?”
“Coffeeandchefsalad,”Jonsaidbrusquely.Kaiwaitedasecondtoolongto
placehisownorder,promptingJontoask,“DoIneedtoorderforyou?”
Dejavu,Kaithought,thoughofcourseJonwouldn’torderhimabacon
cheeseburger,nowthathewasavegetarian.KaigaveMargehismostwinningsmile.
“Hotmilk,”Kaisaid.“AndI’mtoldIneedtoeatmylunchlikeagoodboybeforeIcan
havepie,”Kaiaddedsardonically.“Grilledcheese,nofries.”
“Noproblem,hon,”Margesaidwithalaugh.“I’llberightbackwithyour
drinks.”
KaiwaitedforMargetoleavebeforeleaningbackinhiswheelchairand
studyingJoninawaythatmadehisbrothershiftuncomfortablyinhisseat.
“What?”
“SowhatareyourplanswithVicky?”
JonstaredatKaiblankly.
“Sinceshe’s...”Kaiwavedahandintheairbeforefinallysigning“pregnant,”
butinawaythatmeantitwasunexpected.
Jonfrowneddeeply,butquicklyturneditintoasmilewhenMargereturned
withamugofmilkforKaiandacarafetopourcoffeeforJon.
“Food’llbeoutinabit.Youhollerifyouneedanything.”
Jonreachedforhiscoffeelikeajunkiegrabbinghislastfixandtookafew
tentativesips.“Idon’tknow.Wehaven’tevensaidthe‘L’word.”
Kaifrownedforafractionofasecondbeforepressinghislipstogetherto
controlhisexpression.“Youdon’twantthebaby?”
Jonshookhishead.Sighed.“Idowantthebaby.But...ItoldVickyIdidn’t
wanttogetmarried.”
“Andshe’sfinewiththat?”Kaicouldn’thidethescepticisminhisface.
“Supposedly,”Jonmuttered.Helookedmiserable,butbeforeKaicouldsayor
147
signanythingelse,Joncontinued,“Shesaidshe’llputthebabyupforadoptionifI’m
notinthiswithher,andIwon’tletthathappen.”
Ah,sothatexplainedalot.Jonclearlywasn’treadytobeafather—arealfather,
notthesurrogatehe’dbeentoKaiforsomanyyears—buthewouldn’triskhischild
goingthroughthesystem,either.Kaididn’tblamehim.Hecouldbarelytakecareof
himself,butKaiwouldbewillingtotakethekidinpersonallyifitwouldmeana“real”
familyinsteadoffosterandgrouphomes.
“You’llneedtomoveintogether,”Kaisignedsingle-handed,addingsugarto
hismilk,playinghisfavoriteroleofdisaffectedperfectly.
Jonsighed,shrugged.“Probably.”
Kaibithislip,triedtosmileandmasktheuneaseinhiseyesaseverythingsank
in.“I’veneverlivedalone.”Itwasridiculous,buthefelthisanxietyflaringup,his
fingerstwitching.Hedebatedreachingintohisbagforhispillboxandtakinga
hydroxyzine,butthere’dbenowaytohidethatfromJon.Woulditbebettertoadmit
thethoughtoflivingalone,orJonleavinghim,asstupidandoutrageousasitwas,
terrifiedhim?OrriskhavingapanicattackinthemiddleoftheSaturdaylunchcrowd?
Thethoughtofthatfatemadehisheartratespikeandhisbreathingbecomeuneven,
sweatbreakingoutonhishairline.
“Takeyourmeds,”Jonsaidinacalmvoice.“It’sallright.”
Kai’shandsweregoingnumb,sohesimplynodded,shiftedhisbodyinhis
chairandsnatchedouthispillcase.Hesetitonthetableforamoment,takingafew
slowbreathsandtryingtocalculatesquarerootsinhisheadtogivehisshakingachance
toeaseenoughhewouldn’tsendtabletsflyingallovertheplace.
Thepillsrattledinthebox,andhefinallyfelthisbrother’shandsonhis,
pluckingahydroxyzineoutandpressingitintoKai’sfingers,whichweretremblingso
badlyittookKaiseveraltriestogetthetablettohismouth.
Kaiswallowedthepillquickly,closinghiseyesandtryingnottothinkhow
muchhehatedhimselfinthismoment,becauseitwouldonlymakethingsworse.He
couldfeelhimselfbeingpulledclosertowardpanicattackthancalm,afull-bodytremor
rackinghisframe,andthethreatofhavingoneinpubliconlymadetherushtowardfull
crazyaccelerate.Hecouldbeelineforthebathroom,butrightnowthethoughtofan
enclosedspacemadetheterrorsurge.
Peoplewerestaringnow,probably,thoughhehadhiseyestightlyshut.Staring
morethannormal,whisperingtoeachotheraboutthecrazyguyinthewheelchair.
Kaicouldn’tbreathe.Hecouldn’tbreathe.Hetriedtotakedeepbreaths,buthis
handswerenumbandhisheadwasbuzzingandhecouldn’tseemtogetenoughair.His
shouldersroseandfellwitheachdesperate,shallowbreath,andpartofhimprayedhe’d
passoutbecauseatleastthatwouldbeanescape.
“Kai.Kai.You’reOK.”Jon’svoice,andhishandonKai’sshoulder.
Thepullofunconsciousnesswasalluring,hisbreathingslowingtothepointat
whichKaihadtoconsciouslyremembertobreatheinandout.
“Staywithme,Kai.Comeon.Deepbreaths.”JonhadahandonKai’schest,
wascoaxinghimtobreatheinandoutwithgentlepushesonhissternum,thewayhe’d
learnedtobreatheonhisownagainafterhistransplant.Slowly,Kaifeltthetensionseep
away,andbreathingbecamelesseffort,thoughhischestwasstilltightandfogginess
remained.Hisbodyfeltheavy,usedup.Rightnow,eventhoughhekneweverythingin
therestauranthadcometoasuddenstoptowatchthefreakshow,hedidn’tcare.He
justwantedtogohomeandsleep.
148
“Theambulanceisonitsway.”Anothervoice.Marge.Kaiwasbentovernow,
hisforeheadrestingonhisknees.Hecouldhearthemurmurofcuriousvoicesaround
him,butittooktoomuchefforttotrytoparseanyofthemout.
HedidhearJonsaysomething,maybeinassenttoMarge,andsmoothKai’s
back.Kaiwantedtotellhimhewasfine,thathejustneededtogohome,buthefeltso
incrediblydrained,hewasn’tevensureifhecouldspeak.
Joncroucheddownbesidehim,whisperinginhisear.“LettheEMTsevaluate
you,andifyourvitalsareOK,Iwon’tletthemtakeyou.”
KaiturnedhisheadenoughJoncouldseetherelievedlookinhiseyes.
ThenJonmayhaveaskedMargetopacktheirlunches—includingafewslices
ofpie—togo—asifthey’dsimplydecidedtoleaveearlyanditwasnobigdeal.Inthat
moment,asashamedandexhaustedashewas,Kaicouldn’thavelovedhisbrother
more.
Renee’sjourneyhadbeenlongandtiring.TheflightfromJonesvilletoChicagohadbeen
uneventful,butbadweatherhaddelayedherdeparturefromO’Hare,sothatwhenshe
finallytoucheddowninNewOrleans,shecouldn’tbemoregrateful.Still,partofher
wishedKaiwerebesideher,flashingthatlopsidedgrin,lookingincrediblyoutofplace
withhistall,blond,Midwesternlooks,yetnotcaringaslongashewaswithher.
Checkingherphone,shesawshedidn’thaveanynewtextsfromhim,andshecouldn’t
helpaflareofdisappointment.Shesenthimaquickmessagetolethimknowshe’d
arrivedinNewOrleanssafeandsound,andsecretlyhopedshe’dgetareplyrightaway.
Shesighedsoftlywhenshedidn’tandremindedherselfthatKaihadsaidhehadplansto
keepprettybusyoverthebreak,andknewthey’dtalksoon.
Astheplanetaxiedtothegate,shewonderedagain,asshehadabouthowhe
showered,whattravelingwouldbelikeforhim.Sheknewhe’dneverreallyleft
Jonesville,andthathe’dneverbeenonaplanebefore.ReneewonderedhowKaiwould
getontheplane,andwherethey’dputhischairorcrutches?Wouldnothavingthem
handymakeKainervous?Heneversaidanythingaboutitoutright,butshe’dseenhis
facepalethenightbefore,whenthey’dgottenintothephotoboothtogetherandshe’d
startedtoleavehiscrutchesoutside,outofhisreach.Andshe’drecognizedthelookof
immenserelief,too,whenshe’dmanagedtofittheminsidetheboothwiththem.
Shehadneverreallythoughtaboutituntilthatmoment,becauseheseemedso
laidbackandcomfortablewithhisdisabilitymostofthetime,thathereallydidrelyon
hiscrutchesorhischairforhisindependence.Itwasstrange,butbeingwithKaimade
hersimultaneouslymoreawareofhisdisabilityandyet,itwaseasytoforgetabouthis
MLS,too,whenhislegsweren’tspasming.
Reneepuzzledoverthisquandaryasshegatheredherbagandfiledoutofthe
plane,noticinganairlineemployeewaitingimpatientlywithoneofthoselarge,bulky
airportwheelchairs,probablytoassistanoldladyReneehadnoticedonherwayoffthe
plane.Thewheelchair,whichshewouldn’thavethoughttwiceaboutbeforeKai,looked
souglyandawkward,likecomparinganold70sstationwagontoabrand-new,sleek
sportscar.IfKaitraveledwithher,wouldhehavetoleavehiswheelchairathomeand
useoneofthose?SheimaginedKaiwouldbehorrifiedifhecouldn’tbringhischairwith
him,andshedidn’tliketheimageshehadofKaihavingtomaneuveraroundinabulky,
heavychair.
Reneepushedthethoughtsfromhermindfornow.Shewashome;asshedrew
awayfromthegatestowardsecurityandtheticketingarea,shecouldalreadysmellthe
149
familiarhumidity.OnethingaboutNewOrleansReneelovedwasnomatterhowmuch
youmighthavechanged—andoverthepastfewmonths,Reneecertainlyhad—the
CrescentCityalwaysstayedthesame.
Reneehadhardlyemergedfromthesecureterminalareawhenasquealofjoy
metherears.Shelookeduptoseehergrandparentsandyoungerbrotherwaitingforher
nearoneoftheshops,hermawmawEvangelinerushinguptoherlikeshewasatwentyyear-oldgirlfriendinsteadofawomaninher70s.Evangelinewrappedherarmsaround
Renee,squeezingalltheairout.
“Oh,hon,Imissedyou,”shesaidinhersoft,liltingaccentthatalsomeant
“home.”
“Imissedyou,too,MawMaw,”Reneeechoed,squeezingback.“Itoldy’allyou
didn’tneedtopark!”
“That’swhatIsaid,too,butyouknowyourmawmaw.”Anthony,Renee’s
grandfather,steppedforwardandofferedherhisownhug.“Missedyou,too.”
Reneefinallyextractedherselffromhergrandparents,tiltingherheadatLuc,
whosmiledhisfoxygrin.“Andyou?”
“Ugh,anythingtogetawayfromtheparentalsandJPforawhile.”
Reneesizedupherlittlebrother.Hewasfifteennow,startingtoshedhis
boyishlooksandbecomeaman,thoughhetookaftertheirmotherandEvangeline,
lookingmorelikeRenee’sfraternaltwinthantheirolderbrother,JP,whohadplayed
footballinhighschoolandcollege.Lucwasshort,notmuchtallerthanReneeand
Evangeline,narrow,andrailthin,withlarge,captivatinghazel-greeneyesanddarkcurly
hair(justlikeRenee’s)thatfellchaoticallyintohisface,coveringoneeye.Luc’shairhad
alwaysbeenafightingpointbetweenhimandtheirparents:Luclikeditlonger,thecurls
freeandwild;theirparents—especiallytheirfather—preferreditclippedshortenoughto
maskthemalmostentirely.
Sheteasedhimbyplayingwithhisbangs.“HowhaveMomandDadnotkilled
youforthis?”Shelaughed.Luchadalwaysbeenbeautiful,confusedforagirlwhenhe
wasyounger,despitehismother’sattemptstodresshimasboyishlyasshecould.His
facewasmoreovalthanRenee’s,andhehadalarge,French-Romannose,unlikeher
smallerone,butabrilliantsmilewithfull,poutinglipsandlong,thickeyelashes.The
hairwasn’ttheonlysurprise:hewaswearingafitted,paint-splatteredT-shirtandtight,
low-slungjeanswithleatherflipflopsthatscreamed“artstudent”farlouderthanthe
polosandkhakistheirbrotherhadalwaysfavored.
Lucshrugged,pushedsomeofhishairoffhisforeheadonlyforittoslideright
back.“Itoldthemit’smyhairandI’llwearithowIwant,orI’dmoveinwithMawMaw
andPawPaw.”Heflashedhissmileagain,whichmadeReneelaugh.Thenhepulledher
intoatighthug.“Missedya,sis.”
TheirmotherhadsufferedterriblyfromEmptyNestSyndromeevenbefore
Reneehadleft,sinceJPwasherfavorite,soshecouldseeMariegivingLucmore
leniencyifitmeantkeepingherbabyalittlelonger.Perhapsthatexplainedwhythey’d
finallyallowedhimtogotoNOCCA.
Lucshoulderedherbag,eventhoughitwasn’treallyheavyandhewasn’tmuch
biggerthanher,threwhisarmaroundherandstartedfollowingtheirgrandfather
towardtheexit.Anthonywasn’tknownforhispatience,andevenasReneeandLuchad
reconnected,hadbeeninchingawayasanot-so-subtlesignaltohurryup.
“Ididn’tthinkit’dbesohardbeingjustmeandthem,youknow?Butit’snot
likeJPisn’talwaysaroundanyway,andwithoutyoutobufferus...”
150
Returnedandawkwardlyplacedakissonherbrother’scheek,surprisedtofeel
itwasrough.WhenhadLucstartedshaving?Shestillrememberedhimasalittlekid,
histoothlessgrins,followinghereverywhere.
ReneepulledawayfromLuclongenoughtotakeoffhercoatandenjoythe
balmylateNovemberweather:inthe60s,withasoftbreeze.“I’mguessingJPisn’tabig
fanofyournewlook.”
Lucgruntedastheycarefullycrossedtraffictowardtheparkinglot.“Yeah,
everytimeheseesmehetellsmeIshouldstopdressinglikeafuckingfaggot.”
Reneefrownedandsqueezedherbrother’sfreehand.
“Hedoesn’tlikeitwhenIglareathimandsnapbackwith,‘Iboughtthislook
because“stuckupasshole”wassoldout.’”
Reneewasstrugglingnottolaugh.“Ohmygod.Youreallytoldhimthat?”
Lucshrugged.
“Andyou’renotlimping?”
Lucshruggedagain,flashedhissmile.“Thecarisclose.YouknowPawPaw.
He’lldrivearoundforhalfanhourtillhegetsthespotrightinfront.”
“Iheardthat!”Anthonycalledout.
EvangelinecameupandsqueezedReneeagain.“Oh,I’msogladyoucould
makeithome.Howaboutwestopforpo-boysontheway?”
Reneecouldfeelherselfdrooling.Shehadn’thadashrimppo-boyinmonths.
Infact,shehadn’thadanyseafoodinmonths.Whathadshebeenthinking,goingto
schoolintheMidwest,sofarfromacoast?“Thatwouldbeawesome,MawMaw.”
They’dstoppedatatotaldiveofaplaceonTchoupitoulas,huddledaroundatablewith
theirfriesandpo-boys.Therestaurantwasdarkanddingy,butthefoodwasfantastic,
anditwasanotherreminderofhomeandhowmuchshe’dmissedit.
“Sotellmeaboutthisboyofyours,”Evangelinesaidinawaythatsuggested
she’dbeendyingtoasksinceReneelanded.
Reneefeltherselfsmiling,andshepulledthephotosoutofherwallet,where
she’dfoldedthemcarefully.Inthefirstone,Reneewasstaringatthecamera,smiling,
butKaiwaslookingatherinstead,totallysmitten,flashinghislopsidedgrin.Shelooked
sosmallinhislap,andevensitting,eveninthecroppedshotofthephotobooth,itwas
clearhowtallhewas.Thesecondpicture,theywerebothlookingatthecamera,Kai’s
armswrappedsecurelyaroundher,theirheadsleanedagainsteachother,smiling,Kai’s
blueeyesbrightandshiningandhappy.
“Ohmystars,”Evangelinesaid,holdingthephotoclosesoshecouldseeit
betterinthedimlight.“He’sevenhandsomerthanyoudescribed,sugar.”
Reneefeltherselfblush,butshewassmilingproudly.Thephotosmadethe
rounds.Evangelineseemedreluctanttopartwithit.Anthonystudieditlikeitwasthis
year’staxes,asifhecoulddeterminewhatkindofmanKaiwasfromtwo2x1”photos.
Lucgotthephotoslast,andshenoticedhiseyeswidenslightly,andheunconsciously
lickedhisbottomlipbeforetakinginabreath,asifrememberinghewasn’talone.
“Howtallishe?Youlooksotiny.”
“Iamtiny,”Reneesaid,laughing,takingthephotosback.“Butheistall,even
foroverthere,whereeveryoneisagiant,”Reneesaidproudly.“Idon’tknowhowtall,
butthetopofmyheadhitshimabouthere,”shesaid,pointingafewinchesabovethe
centerofherchest.
“Oversixfoot,”Anthonysaidtonooneinparticular.
151
“Oh,definitely,”Reneesaidasshefelthergrandmothersnaggingthephotos
fromherforanotherlook.
“Hiseyesaresoblue.Isitatrickofthelight?”
Reneesighed,nibbledonafry.“No.They’reevenprettierinperson.This
incredibleaquamarine,likethecoloroftheCaribbeansea.”
Evangelinesmiled.“Hetreatsyouwell?”Hereyebrowswereraised,hergaze
prying.Reneeheardtheunsaidwords.UnlikeJude?
Reneetiltedherhead,rememberingthatmorning,Kai’slargehandsholding
herinplacewhilehistongue,warmandwet....Sheflushedagain.“Yeah,hedoes,”she
saidinakindofdreamyvoice.
“ReneeandKaisittinginatree,K-I-S-S-I-N-G...”Lucsing-songed.
Evangelinesqueezedherhand,finallyrelinquishingthephotos,ignoringLuc.
“That’sallthatmatters,then,”shesaidwithawink.“Icantellhecaresaboutyou.
Remindsmeofthewayyourpawpawusedtolookatme.”
Anthonypromptlystuffedhisfacewithsomeofhispo-boy,butheglancedover
atEvangeline,andReneesawabitofthatsamelook.MaybesheandKaiwouldbelike
themsomeday,thoughReneedidwonderifKaiwouldliveintooldage.She’ddecided
shewouldn’tthinkaboutthat,butitdidpopintoherheadeverynowandthen.Kaihad
beenadamantingettinghertounderstandthattherewerenoguaranteesforhislife
expectancy,butshehadmeantitwhenshe’dtoldhimthatshedidn’tcare.She’drather
haveayearwithKaithannothing.
Evangelinesqueezedherhandagain,smilingknowingly.“Youmisshim?”
Reneecouldn’tdenyit.“Yeah.He’s...incredible,MawMaw.Ican’twaitfor
youtomeethim.”Shedidn’tmentionhowdifficultthatcouldpotentiallybe,butshe
knewshedidn’twanttoleaveNewOrleanswithouttellingatleasthermawmawabout
Kai’shealthanddisability.
Meganwasworkinginthekitchenwhensheheardstomping,andthen,whenshedidn’t
immediatelyrespondtothat,aharshlyloud,inarticulateshout.Shesighed,rolledher
eyes,andwipedherhandsoffonherapron.ShelovedDavid,butpatiencewasdefinitely
notoneofhisdefiningcharacteristics.
Shefoundhimstandingoutsidetheirbedroomdoor.Shelookedathim,her
eyesandfaceclearlyconveyingherannoyance.
Hegrabbedherhandandpulledherintotheirroom,towardtheirbathroom.
He’dreplacedthedoorframesohecouldhangawiderdoor,andnowhepointedtoit,
thenleanedtoonesideforemphasis.“Doesitlookcrookedtoyou?”
Isn’tthatwhatlevelsarefor?shethought,butinstead,shesigned,“Looks
fine.”
Hefrowned,staringatitafewmoments,beforebendingdowntodigout
anotherlevel.Hestoodontiptoes,placingitthere,studyingitforawhile.
Shetappedhimontheshoulder,butheignoredher,focusedonhiswork.She
tappedhimagain,harder.
Thistime,heturnedaround,andthistime,hewastheonewhowasannoyed.
“Ineedtogetthisdone.”
Megansighed.“You’vebeenusingeveryscrapoffreetimeyouhaveonthis
bathroom.AndI’minthekitchentryingtofindsomethingvegetariantoserve
Thursday.”
Davidshrugged,turnedaroundandwalkedintothebathroom,Deafiefor
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conversationisover.
Megansighedloudly,almostagruntoffrustration,andfollowedhim.Pulling
onhisshoulder.
Davidfinallyturnedaround,andthoughhelookedmad,shesawwhatshe’d
suspected,thatveilheputupwhenhewastryingtolookdisaffectedbutwas,infact,
afraidofwhereshewastakingtheconversation.
“I’vebeengivingyouspaceaboutthis,butobviously,ifIdon’tpushyou....
What’sthedealwithyouandKai?Becausemyimaginationhasbeenrunningwild.”
Davidblinkedather.Actuallyblushed.“God,it’snothinglikethat!”Hesighed,
perchedonthecounter.“KaiandI...”Davidshrugged.
“Youdon’tcallsomeone‘brother’fornoreason.”
Davidclosedhiseyesamoment,tookadeepbreath,thenbroughthishandsto
hischest.“EverythingItoldyouistrue.Wedidgotoschooltogether.Wedidlose
touch.ButwhatIdidn’ttellyouis...Kaiwasmyroommate.AtCH.Fortenyears.”
Meganfeltawaveofreliefwashoverher.She’dconcoctedallkindsofcrazy
ideasinhermind.Andnotthatshe’deverdoubtedherfiancé’ssexualitybefore,but
honestly,she’dneverseenDavidactthewayhehadaboutKai,andwithnoother
explanation....Sheleanedincloseforaquickkiss,beforepullingback.Davidstill
lookedworried,andMegancouldn’tseewhy.SheknewDaviddidn’tliketotalkabout
thegrouphomewherehe’dspentmostofhischildhood,butthereseemedtobemore
here.
“Whynottellmefromthestart?”
Davidglancedoverathistoolbag,sittinginonecornerofthebathroom,
obviouslywantingtobreakeyecontactsohecouldendthediscussion,butinstead,he
said,“BecauseneitherofustalkaboutCH.Andit’simpossibletotalkaboutour
friendshipwithoutbringingCHup.”
Meganwaswillingtoleaveitatthat,buthereachedoutforhertogetherto
stay.
Helookedatheralongwhile,studyingherfaceasifinwardlydebatingwhether
heshouldexplain.“NooneatCHsigned.Noone.”David’seyesboredintohers,trying
toconveythesignificanceofthestatement.“IwasaloneforayearbeforeKaicame.Kai
wastheonlyoneIcouldtalktooutsideofschoolfortenyears.Tenyears.”Davidbit
hislip.“Youcan’tpossiblyunderstandwhatthatwaslike.That’swhyhe’smybrother.”
Davidrose,grabbedhistools,anddisappeared,clearlyneedingspace.
Itwashisway.Meganhatedthatwhenhewasupsetheoftenchosetodealwith
thingsonhisowninsteadofturningtoher,butshe’dacceptedshewouldn’tchangehim,
soshelethimgo.Still,hisfinalwordshauntedher.Davidnevertalkedabouthis
childhood,andshe’dnevergivenitmuchthought.TheDeafcommunitywassoclose
knit,she’dpresumedDavid,asaffableashewas,musthavehadalotoffriends.
ShehadneverreallystoppedtothinkhowdifferentDavid’sexperiencemust
havebeen.Insteadofgrowingupinthedormswiththerestofthekids,he’dlived
elsewhere,withnoonewhospokehislanguage.NooneexceptKai.
Davidwasright:evengrowingupastheonlyhearingpersoninaDeaffamily,
shecouldn’tbegintoimaginehowisolatingthatmusthavefelt.
DavidwasDeafwithacapital“D,”andthoughheoftencomplainedaboutthe
hearingworld,hewasproudofwhohewas.Thiswasthefirsttimeshe’dreallyseenany
kindoflegitimatechinkinDavid’sDeafPridearmor.
Suddenly,David’sbehaviorsinceHalloweenmadesense:hiselationatseeing
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Kaiagain,hiswillingnesstopickupandgowhenKaineededhim,hisdeterminationto
maketheirhouseworkforhim.
Meganwanderedbackintothekitchen,whereshe’dbeenmidwaythrough
testingoutafewvegetarianrecipesfortheholidaywhenshespiedanoteonthecounter.
Neednails.Loveyou.MeganknewDavidhadenoughnailstobuildabridge,inevery
shapeandsize,butsheacceptedthenoteashiswayofmakingalegitimateexcusefor
hisescape.
Loveyou,too,shethought,blowingakisstothenote.
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November21,2000
Dr.MillerwatchedKaiconfidentlyrollintotheroom,offeringasmileatthereceptionist
insteadofascowlassheheldthedooropenforhim.Hecarefullymaneuveredtothe
couchwhereheusuallysat,transferringquicklyandrelativelyeffortlessly.Hislegmust
benearlyhealed,shethought,observingashegrippedtheedgeofthecouchwithone
hand,thenusedhisothertoadjusthiswheelchairbeforepullinghislegsonebyone
untiltheyrestedonthecushion,allowinghimtostretchout.
Hesatlikethatamoment,asifdecidingifhewerecomfortable,frowned,then
shiftedhisweight,handsplantedoneithersideofhisbody,pushingupasheglanced
aroundtheroom.Dr.Millerhadthecouch,thearmchairwhereshenormallysat,then
twootherchairs,notonlytogivepatientsanoption,buttoprovideadditionalseating
forfamiliesorcouples,orontheoccasionwhereshe’drecommendaclientbringaguest.
Kaiindicatedthetwootherchairs.“Doeitherofthoserecline?”
Dr.Millernodded,pointedtotheleatherchairthatservedasthirdbasetothe
couch’ssecondandherhomeplate.Kaitransferredbacktohiswheelchairandpushed
theshortdistancetotherecliner,lockinghiswheels.Heliftedhisfeetoffthefootplate,
plantedonehandonthecushion,theothergrippingtheedgeofhisseatnearthewheel,
andstartedtolifthisbody.Butthereclinerspunwhenitwasn’topen,andtheaction
madeitturnawaysohehadtoreactquicklytosinkbackintohiswheelchairandnotget
dumpedonthefloor.Hegruntedinfrustration,adjustedhispositioningandgripsafew
times,butwasn’tabletomanageit.Finally,helookedatDr.Miller.
“Couldyou?”Henudgedhischintowardthetopoftherecliner.
Dr.Millerrose,grippedthetoptosteadyitwithhiscue.
“Just.Don’tletitmove,”hesaid,asheplantedonehandalittlefartherbackon
therecliner’scushion,heavinghisbodyupandontotheedge,quicklygrippingthe
armrestssinceeventhoughDr.Millerkeptthechairfromrotating,itstillwobbleda
littlewithhisweight.Hesighed.“Don’tletgoyet,”hecommanded,beforeusinghisfirm
griptohelpsettlehimselfbackintheseat.Headjustedhislegsuntiltheywerestraight,
leanedovertoshifthiswheelchairoutoftheway.“OK,thanks,”hesaidashepulledthe
leverontheside,usinghishandstohelppresshisbodybackenoughtoaidthe
mechanisminopeningthereclinerfully.AsDr.Millerretookherseat,hefinished
adjustinghisbody,settlingituntilhewascomfortable,lettingoutalongsigh.“Igotthe
all-clearfrommyorthopedistonwalkingFriday.Myhipsandbackarekillingme,”he
saidasifinexplanation.
Dr.Millernodded;Kainormallydidn’texplainhimselfunlesssheprompted
him(sometimesrepeatedly),andheneveraskedforhelp,either.Shewasn’tsureifit
wassimplyherlimitedcontactwithhim,orifitwereasignofimprovement.Allowing
himselftorelyonothers—emotionally,atleast—wascertainlysomethingKaistruggled
with.
“That’sgoodnews,then,right?”
Kailinkedhishandsandpushedupabovehishead,stretchinghisshoulders
andupperback.“Yeah,thoughit’spossibleImightneverbeabletogowithoutthe
crutchesagain.”Kaishrugged,leanedbackintherecliner,almostasifhewerereadyto
takeanap.
“Doesthatbotheryou?”
Kaithoughtaboutitalongtime.“Onacertainlevel,Iguess.Iworkedso
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fuckinghardaftermytransplantsoIwouldn’tneedthem,andI’mrightbacktosquare
one.”Kaisighedandpulledbothhandsthroughhishair.“ButI’mwalking,andIdon’t
havemuchmorepainthannormal,soI’mnotgoingtocomplain.PlusRewas
surprisinglycoolaboutit,”Kaiadded,asmallbesottedsmileslippingontohisfaceas
soonashementionedhiscurrentgirlfriend’sname.
Initially,Dr.MillerhadfrownedonKaistartinganewrelationshipsosoon
afterhislast,encouraginghimtofocusonschoolandworkingthroughhisanxiety,butit
hadbecomeclearprettyquicklythatthisnewgirlwasgoodforhim.Withher
encouragementandsupport,Kaihadbeenslowlybreakingoutofhisshell,andwitha
fewexceptions—likehisstressabouthishistorymidterm—hisanxietyhadbeenbetter
managed,too.
“Sothenyou’vebeengoodsinceIsawyoulastweek?”
Kaitookinalongbreath.“Friday,Iwentoutwithmycrutchesforthefirsttime
inalongtime.”
Dr.MillernoticedthatKaididn’tseemnearlyasrestlessashenormallywas
duringsessions,makinganote.Perhapsthat,morethananything,wasasignof
improvement.
“WithRenee,”Kaiadded.“Iwantedhertobethefirsttoseemewalkingagain,
plus...”Kaishovedhissleevesup,thenpulledthembackdown,givinghishands
somethingtodo.Stillalittlerestless,then.Maybeshe’dthoughttoosoon.“Itwaskind
ofatest,”Kaiadmitted.
“Atest?”Dr.Millerwrotethatdown.ItwasinterestingtohearKaisaythat;
victimsofabuseoftentestedtheirfriendsandlovers,consciouslyornot,tryingtosee
howmuchtheotherpersoncouldtakebeforetheyfinallyabandonedthem.
Kaiscratchedthesideofhisnose.“Re’sbeencoolwitheverything—sheeven
redidherbathroomforme—”
“Soyoutoldmelastweek.”
“Butthecrutchesareprettyobvious,andIguess...Ijustneededtoknowhow
OKwithallofthis,”Kaiwavedhishandoverhimself,extendingthecircletohis
wheelchair,parkedandemptynearby,“shereallywas.Youknow?It’seasytosayyou’re
finewithsomethingintheory,butinpractice...”
Dr.Millerjottedafewnotes.“Anddidshepass?”
Thatsamesmileagain,onethatsomehowmanagedtoseemsonaturalandyet
looksoforeignonKai’sface.“Yeah.Withflyingcolors.”
“That’sgood,right?”
Kai’ssmilebroadened,andhenodded.Thenheblushed.“Wehadsex,too.Not
vaginalsex,notyet,but...”Kaihadspokenabit,attheirlastcouplemeetings,about
Renee’spastandhowthataffectedherissueswithintimacy,howKaiwaswillingtowait
butwasgettingimpatientdespiteeverythinghe’dtoldher.
“Butit’sasignoftrust.Shetrustsyounottohurther.”
Kainodded.“It’s...alittleweird,youknow?I’musedtobeingtheonewith
trustissues.”Helaughed,butitwasanervous,self-conscioussound,andshenoticedhis
fingerswanderingforsomethingtooccupythem.
Dr.Millerkeptsilent:onethingshe’dlearnedrelativelyearlyinhertraining
waswhennottotalk.
“Ispentthenight.Wesharedherbed,andhadsexagaininthemorning.”Kai’s
smilewasstillpresent,butfading,andDr.Millernoticedthedipinhisbrowsthat
suggestedthehintofworry.“ShesaysImakeherfeelsafe.”Kaididn’tbothertohidehis
156
frown.That,perhaps,wascertainlyasignofhisimprovement,oratleastasignalthathe
reallywascomfortablewithhernow.
“Andthat’sbad?”
Kaisighed,closedhiseyes.Hewasquietforseveralmoments,andshe
recognizedhewasdoingbreathingexercisestotrytocalmhimself.Finally,heopened
hiseyesagain,andthoughheseemedoutwardlycalm,worrywasvisibleinhiseyes.“I
willkeephersafefromeverythingIcan,”headmitted.“ButIcan’tkeephersafefrom
me.”
Dr.Millerliftedhernotepadtohideherfrown,pretendingshewassimply
shiftingherweightinherchairanddidn’twanttodropit.“Noonecankeepanyonesafe
fromeverything,Kai.We’vetalkedaboutthis.”
Kainoddedreluctantly.“Iknow.Ijustkeepwaitingfortheother...”His
eyebrowsscrunchedup.“Foottodrop?”
“Shoe.Waitingfortheothershoetodrop.”
Kaifrowned.Shrugged.“Englishidiomsmakenosense.”Herolledhisneck.
“Anyway,everythingisgreatrightnow,butIkeepexpectingReneetowakeupone
morningandrealizehowfuckedupIam,”hesaidwithatwistedsmile.“Andshedoesn’t
evenknowaboutthecrazypart.”
“Kai—”
“Iknow,Iknow,that’sabadword.”
“It’sjustnotconducivetoyourtherapytokeepcallingyourselfcrazy.Ithas
negativeconnotations.Andforsomeonelikeyou,whoseanxietycomeslargelyfrom
yourfearofexposingyourselfemotionallytoothers—”
“Yeah,yeah,Igetit,”Kaisaidpetulantly,poppinganindexfingerup
reflexively,theASLfor“understand,”Dr.Millerhadlearned.Then,inclassicKai
fashion,hechangedthesubject.“IhadapanicattackinpubliconSaturday.”
Dr.Millerpursedherlips,tookinadeepbreath,andscribbledafewnotes,
includingaremindertogobacktothesubjectofKaiworryingaboutprotectingRenee
fromhimselfandhiscontinuedfixationontheword“crazy”todescribehimself.She
noddedtoindicateheshouldelaborate.
“Jonknockeduphisgirlfriend,”Kaisaidafteralongsilenceinwhichhe
evidentlyattemptedtocontrolhisanxiety,hisbreathingconsciouslyslowanddeep,as
wellasfigureouthowtoproceed.
“Andthisupsetyou?”
Kaibithislip—hard—ashethought.
“Kai.”
Immediately,hereleasedit,testinghislipwithhistongue—Dr.Millercouldn’t
see,butshesuspectedhe’ddrawnblood—beforeshiftinghisweightintherecliner.
Perhapsitwastimetodigintoher“Kaidrawer”asshe’dcometocallit,andgivehim
somepropstoplaywithsohisanxietywouldn’tspikeandtoensurehewouldn’thurt
himself.
“Imean,I’mhappyforhim,really.Jondeservesafamilyofhisown,but...”
Kaispokerapidly,almostwithouttakingabreath.
“Kai.Deepbreaths.Comeon.”Dr.MillerledKaithroughseveralminutesof
focused,relaxedbreathinguntilshecouldseethetensionleavehisneckandshoulders.
“It’sstupid,”Kaifinallyadmitted.Dr.Milleropenedhermouthtoprotest,but
Kaispokefirst.“Iknow,that’sabadword,too.”Hesighed,smoothedahandoverhis
face.“Jonisgoingtomoveout;it’sinevitable.AndI’mscared.Scaredofhowthings’ll
157
change.Scaredofbeingalone.”
Dr.Millercouldsee,despiteKai’sbestefforts,hewasheadingtowardapanic
attack,fast.Shecontinuedtotalktohimasshewenttoherdesktogethimadoseof
hydroxyzine.“Kai,Iwantyoutofocusonmyvoice,tofollowmetothatpeacefulplacein
yourmind.”
“Ican’t,”Kaisaid,hisvoicewobbling.
“Whycan’tyou?”Dr.Milleraskedcalmly,grabbingabottleofwaterfromher
minifridgeandapproachingKai.
Kaihadhiseyestightlyshut.“BecauseallIcanseeinmyheadisme,sick,
alone.ThemoreItrynottoseeit,themoreIdo.”
“Here,”Dr.Millersaid,pressingthepillandthebottleinKai’shands.“Take
this.Thentellmewhyyou’realoneinyourheadrightnow.”
Kaidutifullyobeyed,hisfingersimmediatelyreachingtopeelthelabeloffthe
bottle.Theywereshaking,though.“BecauseRewillleaveassoonasIgetsick.Because
she’sdisgustedorscaredorboth.”
“ButReneepassedyourtest.Youstillthinkshe’llboltatthefirstsignof
trouble?”
Kaihuggedhimselftight,whetherforcomfortorasawaytotrytostophis
trembling,Dr.Millerwasn’tsure.“Everyoneelsehas.”
Dr.Millerdecidedtoleavethatfornow.“AndJon?Youthinkjustbecausehe
becomesafatherthatyouwon’tmattertohimanymore?Evenafterallhe’sdonefor
you?”
Kaimovedhisheadinawaythatwasn’tquiteanodbutnotashakeeither,
almostasifhecouldn’tdecidehowtorespond.“He’llneedtoputVickyandhischild
first.It’swhatyou’resupposedtodo.Idon’tblamehim.”
“Butitstillbothersyou.”
Kainoddedfirmly,squeezedhimselfmoretightly.
“Areyouafraidofdying?”
ThequestioncaughtKaioffguard,andsomeofhisbuildingtensioneased.It
wasatopicthey’dskirtedaroundwheneverthesubjectofKai’slifepre-transplantcame
up,orthetransplantitself,buttheyhadn’treallyevergottenintoit,partiallybecause
Kaialwaysseemedtofindawaytoartfullyguidetheconversationawayintosomething
thatwaspertinentenoughDr.Millerletitgo.
Finally,heshookhishead.“No,”hesaid,buthehesitated,asiftherewere
more,orhewasn’tquiteascertainofhisanswerashewantedhertobelieve.
“Kai?”
Kai’sfingersfumbledagainwiththeflimsylabel—itwasagenericbrand,sothe
paperandgluewerecheapandresistedeasyremoval.“I’mnotafraidofdying.I’mafraid
ofdyingalone.”Kaisaiditina,“There,areyouhappy?”kindofway,andthoughhe
triedforafewmoresecondstokeephisrelativecalm,hesoonburstintotears.“Fuck.”
“It’sallright,Kai.Tellmewhatyou’refeelingrightnow.”
Kaicriedforafewminutes,coveringhisface,hisshouldersheaving,before
finallyreplying,hiswordsmuffledbutrapid,“Scared.Ashamed.Panicked.Foolish.I
can’tstopcrying.”
“That’sOK,Kai.We’vebeenthroughthisbefore.Cryingcanbeahealthywayto
releaseyouremotions.”
“Cryingmakesmefeelworse.”
“Why?”
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“BecauseIshouldn’tbecrying.”Dr.Millermadeafewnotesabouthowmuch
Kairagedagainsttearsinparticular,suspectingtherewasmoregoingonthanmerely
hisdislikeatshowingemotionagainsthiswill.Itwasdefinitelysomethingsheneededto
exploremore.
“Why?”
“Whatareyou,afuckingthree-year-old?”Kaisnapped.
“Kai.”
Hetookafewminutestoregulatehisbreathing.Wipedhiseyesonhissleeves.
“Ihavearighttoexpressmyfeelings.Myfeelingsarereal.It’sOKformetoexpressmy
feelings.”Kairepeatedthisafewtimes,takingdeepbreathsbetweeneach.Itwasa
mantraDr.MillerhadencouragedKaitoadopttoremindhimselfnottobeafraidofhis
emotions.
“Sothenewsofthepregnancywaswhyyouhadthepanicattacktheother
day?”
Kainodded.Hewasn’tsobbinganymore,thoughafewstraytearsstilltraced
downhischeeks.“Ithitmesofast.Oneminute,we’rewaitingforourlunch,justtalking
aboutthesituation,andthenIrealizehe’llneedtomoveout,andboom.NextthingI
know,theonlysoundinthedinerismyraggedbreathingandcricketschirpingas
everyonestares,aghast,wonderingifthecrazycrippledguyisgoingtopassoutordieor
somethingequallyentertaining.”
Dr.MillerstifledafrownatKai’susualself-deprecating,sardonicphrasing,and
instead,asked,“Anddidyou?”
Kailaughed.“Ifthisishell,kudostotheguywiththetailandhorns.”
Dr.Millercouldn’tresistherownsmileassheshookherhead.“Passout.Did
you?”
“Icameclose,”Kaisaid,growingseriousagain.“Someonecalled911,theEMTs
wentthroughthewholefiasco,andIwastoodrainedfromthepanicattacktoprotest.”
“Andthenwhathappened?”
“Jondrovemehome,dosedmeupwithValium,andIslepttherestoftheday.”
Dr.Millerarchedhereyebrows,hersignalfor,“That’sit?”
Kaisighed.“Wetalkedaboutit,alittle.Hepromisedmethathewouldalways
bethereformeifIneedhim,nomatterwhat.”
“Andyoudon’tbelievehim?”
Kaisighedagain,morefrustratedthistime.“OfcourseIbelievehe’ssincere.
Butoneday,nottoofarfromnow,he’llhavetochoosebetweenmeandhisfamily.
Eitherhepicksthem,orhelosesthem.It’sinevitable.”
Dr.MillermadeanotethatKaiclearlydistinguishedhisbrother’sgirlfriend
andfuturenephew(orniece)asJon’s“family”whileexcludinghimself.“Let’sputthis
asideforamoment.Youdohavefriends,though,right?”
Kaishrugged.“Jakedoesn’tlivehereanymore.”
“ButwhataboutDavid?Theoneyougrewupwith?Whomyoureconnected
withonHalloween?Didn’thehelpyoustudyforyourmidterm?Isn’themodifyinghis
housesoyoucancomeoverforThanksgiving?Doesn’thecallyouhisbrother?”
Kainodded.“I’msupposedtogoovertherethisafternoontoseeifeverything’s
kosher,orifhehastodoanythingelse.”
“Youdon’tthinkDavidwouldbethereforyou,inthishypotheticalsituation
whereyou’re...”Dr.Millerglanceddownathernotes.“‘Sickandalone’?”
Kaisighed.“Heleftmebefore.Idon’tblamehim,butifI’velearnedanything,
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albeitthehardway,it’sthatIcan’trelyonanyonetobetherewhenIneedthem.”
Adamningadmission.Dr.Millerwrotethatdownandboxeditin.“Doyou
reallybelievethat?Surelyyoudon’thonestlythinkthatofyourbrother,notafterthe
pastfouryears?Andespeciallythepastfewmonths?”
“Ifyouexpectsomething,you’realwaysdisappointed.Ifyoudon’t,youcanbe
pleasantlysurprised.”
Kaiwasgoingforjadedanddisaffected,butDr.Millersawthroughhim.“Tell
mewhatyou’refeelingrightnow.”
Kaihesitated,asifthinkingaboutlyingbeforefinallyadmitting,“Depressed.
Prettyfuckingdepressed.Anditdoesn’thelpthatIknowIhavenoreasontofeelthat
way.”
“Haveyoubeenfeelingtheneedtoselfharmthisweek?”
Kaisighed.“Notreally;I’vebeenprettygoodlately.”Hehelduphishands,
thensmootheddownhissleevesoneachsidetorevealhiswrists.“Norubberbands.”
“That’sreallygood,Kai,”Dr.Millersaid,jottingthatdown.
Kaiscoffed.“It’sallRe....ThingswouldbeperfectifIdidn’tconstantlyworry
aboutlosingher.Aboutherrealizingwhatamistakeshe’smade,howfuckedupIreally
am,andhowmuchbettershecoulddoforherself.”
“Doyoureallythinkaboutthat‘constantly’?”
Kaisighed.“Ithinkaboutitalotmorethanshecouldpossiblyrealize.”He
shiftedhisweight.“That’stheproblem:she’sconvincedI’mthiscool,calm,confident
guywho’snotafraidofanything.”
Impressionmanagement?Dr.Millerjotteddownquickly,underliningit
severaltimesandstarringit.Sheknewtheywerealmostoutoftime,certainlynot
enoughtogointodetailonKai’sexpressrevelationthathefeltheportrayedoneversion
ofhimselftoothers—eventhoseasclosetohimashisgirlfriend—yetbelievedhewas
completelytheoppositeofthatpersona.Sheknewalready,ofcourse,thatexpressing
himselffreelywasanissue,butshehadn’tquiterealizedhowdeepitwent—andhowit
mightpotentiallyaffecthisanxiety.Still,shedidn’twanttoleavehimwithout
addressingitonsomelevel.
“Sooncesherealizesthe‘truth’...”Dr.Millersaid,usingairquotes,following
hislogictrain.
“Yup.Bubbleburst,gameover.Donotpassgo,donotcollect$200.”Andthere
itwas,Kaiassumingthatrelationshipswouldallendinfailure.Shewonderedifhe
realizedthatbeliefslikethiscouldoftenbeself-fulfilling.
“YoupresumethatReneeisextremelyshallow,andfromeverythingyou’vetold
meabouther,shedoesn’tseemtobeatallthatway.”
Kaiseemedtoconsiderthis,butsaidnothing.
“Ialsofinditunlikely,especiallyinthepastfewweeks,thatyou’vedonesucha
goodjobpretendingtobethissupposed‘otherperson’thatshe’sfallingforhiminstead
ofyou.”
Kaifrowned.“Whatdoyoumean?”
“Peoplearecomplex.True,wecan’tknowhowanyonewillreactinagiven
situationuntilthey’reinthatsituation.But,ifReneehasreallylivedthroughher
previousexperiencesrelativelyunscathed—andkeepinmindI’mbasingthisonlyon
whatyou’vetoldmeofher—thenshe’salotstrongerthanyou’regivinghercreditfor.
Justbecauseyouhaven’thadapanicattackinfrontofherdoesn’tmeanshe’llboltifit
happens.”
160
Kaitookthisin,hisexpressionunreadable,butnotintentionallyso.Heseemed
thrownbytheentireconcept.Finally,hecomposedhimself.“Sonowiswhenyoutellme
Ishouldsitherdownandtellheraboutmyanxiety.”
Dr.Millernodded.“Keepingitfromherisn’tdoingyouanyfavors.Ifyouhave
adialoguewithher,likeyoudidaboutyourtransplantandyourMLS,thenshe’llbeable
tounderstandandknowwhattoexpect.And,mostimportantly,it’llbeonelessthingfor
youtoworryabout.”
“Onelessthingtobeanxiousabout.”Hedrummedhisfingersonthearmofthe
recliner.“I’llthinkaboutit.”Normallyaphrasethatmeant“nofuckingway,”likewhen
shehadfirstsuggestedKaitrygrouptherapy(untillater,whenshepersisted,andhe
actuallydidtellher“nofuckingway”),butthistimeheseemedsincere.Heleanedover
totesttoseeifthereclinerclosedthesamewayitopened,withthelever,andgruntedin
frustrationwhenherealizeditwasthekindyouneededtoclosewithyourlegs.
Dr.Millerthoughtaboutofferingtohelp,butdecidedshe’dlethimaskifhe
neededit.Notonlydidshenotwanttoirritatehimandpotentiallyruintheirgood
rapport,butshewasprettysureKaiknewhislimitations,atleastphysically.She
watchedasheusedhishandstopushhisbodyforwardintheseat;oncereclined,the
reclinernolongermoved,whichmadethingsalittleeasier.Makingsuretokeepone
handgrippingtherecliner,justincase,hereachedoutanddraggedhiswheelchair
closer,liningitupbeforeliftinghislegsovertheedge.Hehadtobecarefulhishand
didn’tstraytooclosetothefootrestoftherecliner,sinceitthreatenedtoclose—not
completely,butenoughtothrowhimoffbalance—fromthestrengthofhisupperbody.
Sohereadjustedhisweight,movedhislegsagainwithonehand,beforefinallymaking
thetransfer,loweringhisbodysmoothlybutcarefullyintothecushionofhiswheelchair.
Hepausedforamoment,asiftoglareatthereclinerbeforesettinghisfeetinplace,
shiftinghisbodyback,andletoutarelievedsigh.
“Remindmenevertositinthatthingagain.”
Dr.Millerstifledalaugh,especiallywhenKaiusedthesideofhisfistina
powerfulthumptoshuttheblastedthing—whichpromptlydecidedtospinaroundonce
freeofitsreclinedlock.Insteadshesaid,“HaveagoodThanksgiving.”
Kainodded.“Youtoo.”Hehesitatedamomentbeforespinningaroundto
leave.“Icanstillcallyou...if—”
Dr.Millernodded.“I’mnotgoingoutoftown,soifit’sanemergency—aslong
asyourlifeisn’tontheline,”sheclarified,“inwhichcase,gototheER—youcancallme
andI’lltrytoreturnyourcallassoonaspossible.”
Kailookedimmenselyrelieved.“I’mnotplanningonoffingmyself,butit’sonly
Tuesday.”Kaismirked,andDr.MillerknewitwasKai’sway,butittroubledher,andshe
couldimmediatelyseeheregrettedthejoke.“I’mOKrightnow,really.Ijustwantto
knowwhatmyoptionsare.Justincase.”
Dr.Millernodded.“Nextweek,Iwanttodosomebiofeedbackandrelaxation
exercises.Ifwefeelthat’stakingtoomuchtime,wemightwanttoconsidertwosessions
aweekagain,ifyouthinkyouneedit.”
Kai’seyesdartedtothesidebeforefinallynodding.“Imight.Thanks,Dr.M.”
Theconferenceroomwasuncomfortablywarm,andDr.BenJohnsenknewforafact
thatmostofthecommitteemembershadn’tplannedtoworktoday,whichdidn’tbode
wellforJon.Still,Jonhadclearlyputallhiseffortintohispresentation:thelighted
cabinetsbehindhimwerelinedwithX-raysandCTfilmsthoughthelightwasoff,and
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hislaptopwassetupwithhisPowerPointpresentationallreadytogo,thepulldown
screendisplayingthetitlepageinalarge,boldfont.Jonhadalsoputonhisnewest,
cleanestwhitecoat—likelykeepingitinhisofficeinthedrycleaningbaguntilonlyafew
minutesagotomakesureitwasfresh,changingintoitfromanother,morelived-inone.
HishairwascombedandasneatasJon’shairevergot,histieseriousandstraight,and
onlysomeonelikeBen,who’dworkedwithJoncloselyforseveralyears,wouldbeableto
tellhownervoushewas.
Rightnow,theyhadtheroomtothemselves;Jonhadarrivedearlytosetup,
andBenhadfinishedhisroundsfifteenminutessoonerthanplanned,sohe’dtakena
seatheknewoneofthecommitteememberswouldn’tuse,slippedhisbriefcasewithhis
ownpresentationmaterialsunderthetable,andleanedbacktowaitwhilehesippedhis
coffee.
Jonwasorganizedtothepointofbeinganal,andinadditiontohislaptopand
filmshadastackofmaterials,professionallyboundandreadytobedistributedtoeach
committeemember,plusarubberbandedbunchofindexcardsthatseemedtobecolor
coordinated,perhapspromptsforthespeechportionofhispresentation.Jonwas
definitelya“gunner,”anot-so-affectionatenicknameforthesupersmart,highly
motivatedmedicalstudent,sonamedbecausetheyoftenused“gunnerpens”—themutliinkkindwiththeknobsthatletyouswitchcolorsfromthesamepenfortakingdetailed,
organizednotes.
Dr.Jhadtostiflealaughwhenhenoticedacoupleofthefamiliarblue-andwhitepensinthebreastpocketofJon’swhitecoatasJongatheredupthespiral-bound
bookletsandbeganlayingoneinfrontofeachchair.Unofficially,theseatingwasfirst
come,firstserve,butthecommitteemembershiphadn’tchangedmuchovertheyears,
andeachpersonhadafavoritespot.Woebetidetheyoungdoctorwhochosethewrong
seatfortheirfirstmeetingwiththecommittee.
Thiswasn’tJon’sfirstrodeo,though;inadditiontotheseveralmeetingshe’d
attendedtopleadKai’scase,plustheoneseveralmonthspreviouslythatthisonewas
meanttoreconsider,JonhadsatinorassistedonseveralofDr.Johnsen’scaseswhile
hewasafellow,andhadmetwiththecommitteeononeotheroccasionaboutfour
monthsagoforoneofhisCFpatients.
BenwassurprisedwhenJonlaidoneofthepacketsinfrontofhim.
“Imadeafewextra,”Jonsaid.“Justincase.”
Bennodded,flippedthroughit.Jonwasnothingifnotthorough,including
someofthelimitedpublishedresearchonFS—mostofitdonehereatJMH—alongwith
someunpublisheddata.Dr.JwasparticularlyimpressedwithJon’scomparative
analysisofthedeleteriouseffectsoftheFSdiseaseprocesswiththatofother
transplantableailmentslikecysticfibrosisandemphysema,completewithsomefull
colorphotos,sidebyside,ofseveralpostmortemlungtissuesamplesfromCFpatients
andFSpatients.Thepictures,whichshowedmassivefibrosisanddestructionofthe
smallairways,werealmostindistinguishable.
“Thisisexcellentwork,”Dr.Jcouldn’thelpsaying,flippingtotheback,where
Jonhadincludedalistofothermaterialthecommitteecouldconsultformore
information,shouldtheybesoinclined.“Wedon’tdeserveyou.”
Jonignoredhim,doublecheckedhehadeverythinginorderforthefifteenth
time,andthensatdown,anxiously,towait,tryingtoresistlookingathiswatchevery
tenseconds.
BengaveuptryingtoengageJoninconversationafteracouplemorefailed
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tries,andsimplydrankhiscoffeecalmly,wonderinghowmuchJonwasgoingtohate
himinaboutthirtyminutes.
Startingaboutfiveminutesbeforethemeetingwasscheduledtobegin,thefirst
membersofthecommitteearrived,filingin,notebooksinhand,chattingglumly.Itwas
clearthatmostweren’tparticularlythrilledtobehere,buttheyallnodded
acknowledgmentstoBenwhileatleasthavingthedecencytonotglareatJon.
TheJonesvilleMemorialHospitaltransplantcommitteewascomprisedof
sevenmembers:threephysicians,twonurses,oneofthein-houselawyers,anda
middle-agedwomanwhoDr.Jwasn’tentirelysurewhathertrainingwas,onlythatshe
servedasacombinationofanadministrativeandsocial-workertyperole,andhadforas
longashe’dworkedhere.Whenshewasn’tmakinglife-or-deathdecisionsonthepanel,
shewasinchargeofthelegionofcounselorsandothernon-medicalsupportstaffthat
helpedpatientsandtheirfamiliesnavigatethewatersofillhealth,treatment,anddeath.
Onceeveryonehadarrived,includingacoupleyoungmeninscrubsDr.Jdidn’t
recognizeandwhowereprobablyeithersurgeryresidentsornon-pulmonaryfellows
invitedtositinonthemeetingbyoneofthecommitteemembers,Jonbeganhis
presentation.Asaformality,heintroducedhimself,thankedthecommitteefortheir
time,explainedthematerialshehadprovidedforthem,andbegan.
IfJonhadn’talreadyimpressedBenwithhismaterialsandpreparation,his
presentationdiditfromthebeginning.Jonhadchangedhisstrategycompletely;instead
ofpresentingmoregenerallyaboutFS,he’dchosentofocusononeparticularpatientas
anexampleofwhythecommitteeshouldchangeitsmindaboutuniversallydisallowing
FSpatientsfromtransplantconsideration.Byputtingafaceonthedisease—inthiscase
ahandsome,ifsicklylookingfifteen-year-oldboynamedMartinGomez—Jonwas
startingstrong.Jon’sstrategybeingitwaseasyforthecommitteetorejectallFS
patients,butalotharderwhentheyhadtolookatsomeone’sphotoanddoit.Jonhad
usedarecentpicture,too;Dr.Jhadseenhimtakeitonlyafewdaysearlier.Itshowed
theboy,clearlysmilingthoughhismouthwashiddenbyasurgicalmask,thetubingof
hisoxygencannulaeleadingoutfromaboveandbeneathit.
AsJoncontinued,Martin’sphotostayedinoneportionoftheslidewhilehis
bulletpointsslowlyfilteredinontheother,comparingMartin’spresentationwiththat
ofanotheroneofhispatients,aboyofsixteennamedIvanSwanssonwithCF,whomthe
committeehadapprovedtobelistedafewmonthsearlierandwasalreadyawaitinga
match.Itwasacunningmove,andJon’spassionandcompassionforhisjobandhis
patientsshonethrough.WhenJonhadfoughtforKai,ithadbeenpersonal.Thoughthis
situationwasclearlydifferent,Jonwasshowingasmuchcareanddeterminationforthe
restofhispatientsashehadforhisbrother.Itwasadmirable,butalsoapotential
liability,Benobserved.
Joncontinued,showingsomemorecomparativeslidesliketheoneinhis
packet,illustratingthepathologicalsimilaritiesinthetissueofhisexampleCFandFS
patients.AllofthisworkeduptoJon’ssmartestmoveyet:compromise.He
acknowledgedthatheunderstoodifthecommitteewasn’twillingtoputFSinthesame
bracketasmoreestablisheddiseasessuchasCF,butpleadedwiththemtoatleast
considerafewcasesayear.Jonpromisedthathewouldcarefullyscreenhispatientsand
ensurethatonlythoseFSpatientswiththegreatestneedandwhohedetermined—
basedonvariousfactorssuchasageandcompliance—wouldmostbenefitfroma
transplantwouldevenbesubmittedtothecommitteeforconsideration.
WithafewfinalslidesshowingthemassivefibrosisofMartin’slungs,followed
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byanotherphoto—thisonewithoutthemask,showinghimsmilingdespitetheoxygen
cannulae—Jonmadehisfinalpitch.Jonencouragedthecommitteetoconsider
pathology,ratherthandiagnosis,whenmakingtheirconsiderations.
“Afibrosedlungisafibrosedlung;themechanismofdiseaseastohowitgotto
thatstateshouldbeirrelevant,ifallotherfactorssuggestthepotentialforasatisfactory
outcomeposttransplant.PatientslikeMartinshouldn’tautomaticallybedoomedto
deathbecauseoftheirdiagnosis.Iurgethecommitteetostronglyreconsiderits
previousstanceontheissueofallowingFSpatientstobeconsideredforlistingforlung
transplantation.Thankyouagainforyourtime.”
Jonpaused,asifhopingsomeofthecommitteememberswouldengagehimin
questionsordiscussion,butnoneofthemdid.Hispresentationhadbeenquite
thorough,andBenfeltaflareofguiltknowingthatifheweren’tabouttogoupthereand
saywhatheneededtosay,Jonmayactuallyhavebeenabletoswayenoughofthe
members’mindstomakeadifference.Infact,hewastemptedtogetupandwalkout,
anddamntheconsequences,because,frankly,heagreedwitheverythingJonsaid,even
ifhedidfeelJoncouldstandalittlemoreemotionaldistancefromhispatients.Afterall,
KaimightneverhavegottenhistransplantifDr.JandJonhadn’thadaunifiedfront
againstthecommitteeyearsago.
Shakinghishead,Benstoodup,hisbriefcaseoveroneshoulder,andshook
Jon’shand,offeringhimasmile.“Whateverhappens,”hesaid,“noonecansayyou
didn’tdoyourabsolutebest.”
AlmostassoonasBenbooteduphisPowerPoint,Jonknewhewasfucked.Benwas
talking,butitdidn’ttakelongforitalltobecomeablur.JonhadadmiredDr.Johnsen
greatlyfromhisfirstinterviewasafellow,andhadevenconsideredhimafriend—as
muchashehadfriends,anyway.Andnowallofhishardwork—thepresentationhehad
focusedonsopainstakinglyforweeks—wasallfornaught.
Dr.Jwasn’tsupportingJon’scase,asJonhadassumedhewould.Instead,he
wasreportingonKai,astheonlypatientwithknownFStohaveundergone
transplantation,andhewasclaimingthatitwasinconclusivehowcurativethe
procedurehadbeen.
“EarlyonthemorningofSeptember3,thisyear,Mr.Foxwasbroughtintothe
ERbyambulance...”
Jon’sheartstopped,andhebarelymanagedtocatchbitsofwhatBenwas
saying.Justshyofthreemonthsago,Kaihadstoppedbreathing,goneinandoutof
consciousness,wasrushedtotheERandkeptforobservationforseveralhours,mostof
thoseonmechanicalventilation.
“Unfortunately,Mr.Foxdeclinedfurthertreatment,andthoughIdidrun
severaltestsafewdayslater...”
Jonstaredattheslideandtriedtorememberthiswasrealandnota
nightmare.Kaihadalmostdiedandhehadn’tthoughttomentionit?AndhowwasJon
notnotifiedinthefirstplace?NotonlywasheKai’snextofkin,hewaslistedinKai’s
filesashismedicalproxy.IfKaiwasunconscious,Jonshouldhaveimmediatelygottena
call.Whothehellfrompulmonologyhadbeenoncallthatnight?Jon’sthoughtsturned
murderousashestruggledtonotriphishairout.
Dr.Jcontinued,talkingmoreaboutKai’scaseandhistestresults,howKai’s
issuesdidn’tseemrelatedtorejection,howDr.JhadstartedKaiontheamphigarol
again,etc.,etc.,butJonwasn’tabletoconcentrateonanyofit.He’dneverfeltmore
164
betrayedinhislife—bybothBenandKai—andneverfeltmoresicktohisstomachthat
somethingcouldhavehappenedtoKaiandhewouldn’thaveknownaboutituntil
nothingcouldbedone.
“There’snodoubtthetransplanthasprolongedMr.Fox’slife,andhisqualityof
life,evenwithimmunosuppression,isunqualifiedlybetter,”Dr.Jsaid,windingdown.
“However,Imustacknowledgethatthereisstillalotwedon’tunderstandaboutFS,and
itisimpossibletosayhowmuchlong-termbenefithewillreceive,orhislifeexpectancy,
excludingpost-transplantationsequelae.”
Thelastfewminutesofthemeetingpassed,thecommitteeannouncingthey’d
revealtheirverdictatnextweek’smeeting,andfilingoutafterafewwordstoBen,who
waspackinguphislaptop.Jonsatinhisseat,seeminglyfrozen,waiting.Thenhe
mechanicallyroseandstrodeovertoDr.J,whohadslunghisbriefcaseoverhis
shoulder.
PerhapshesawthelookonJon’sface,hisonlywarning,becausehethrewhis
handsupinsupplication.“Jon—”
Later,Joncouldhardlyrecallwhathadhappenedafterthemeeting;itfeltlike
anightmare,likeadreaminwhichhisbodywasdoingthingsheneverimaginedit
woulddo,buthewasn’tabletostophimself.Inaninstant,JonlungedatBen,shoving
himagainstthewall,standinginfrontofhim,armsoneithersideoftheshorterman’s
head.KaiwastallerthanJon,nearly6’4”,butnotbymuch;Jonstoodahalfaheadover
themanhehadconsideredhismentoruntilaboutfifteenminutesearlier,fumingwith
ragesointensehisvisionwentred.
“Youmotherfucker!Youfuckingcockblockedme!Thecommitteewillnever
ruleinmyfavornow!Howcouldyou?”
ThoughBenhadinitiallyflinched,heleanedagainstthewall,outwardlycalm,
lookingupatJon.“IdidwhatIwasethicallyobligatedtodo.Wedon’tknowwith
certaintythatatransplantiscurativeforFSpatients,andKaihasbeenexhibitingsome
FSsymptomsrecentlythatheshouldn’tbeexperiencingpost-transplant.”
“Andyoucouldn’tgivemeaheadsupthatyouweregoingtosideswipemy
entirepresentation?”
Dr.Jatleasthadthedecencytolookcontrite.“Iworriedifyouknewitmight
weakenyourresolve.Yourcasewassolidandwellargued.EvenwiththeinfoaboutKai,
there’sstillachance—”
“AndKai.HowwasInotnotified?”
Dr.JmadetoduckunderoneofJon’sarms,butJonshiftedtokeephim
trapped,forcinghimtoanswer.“Justbecauseyou’rehisproxydoesn’tmakeyou
automaticallyprivytoeverything.Youknowthat.Kaiwasconsciousenoughtostatehis
wishes:hedidn’twantinvasiveventilation,andhedidn’twantyoucontacted.”Ben
shrugged.
Jonduckedhishead,thoughhedidn’tmoveotherwise.“You’vekilledMartin,
youknowthat?AndGodknowshowmanyotherkids.”
Dr.Jfinallylosthiscool.“Jon,you'rebrilliant,youhavegreatintuition,and
yourpatientsadoreyou.You'realsoincrediblypassionateanddedicatedtoyourwork.
Butpassioncanbeabadthingforaphysician.Weneedtohavedistance.Youforget
that,sometimes.Thiscaseinparticular,thiskid—IknowyouseeKaieverytimeyou
lookathim,andthat'sonereasonyou'resodeterminedtofightforhim.Butit's
beginningtoblindyou.You'vegottenonthebadsideofalotofthosecommittee
members—includingtheChiefofSurgery.Thatcouldhaveseriousconsequencesfor
165
yourabilitytogetdonewhatneedstobedoneinthisplace.”HepushedatJon’sarm,
whichfinallydropped.Jontookastepback,releasingBenfromwherehe’dbeenpinned
againstthewall.“I'mstartingtoworryaboutyourabilitytomakegooddecisions
regardingMartin’scare.”Dr.Jadjustedthestrapofhisbag,watchingJonwarily,
thoughhe’dgonebacktohiscalmcomposure.“Ishouldassignhimtoanother
physician.”
Jonsteppedbackfarther,lettingtheoldermanwalkaroundhim.“Don't,Ben.
Please.MartinhasbeenmypatientsinceIgothere.Iknowhim.Iknowhismother.”
Dr.Jsighed.“Youneedabreak.Arealbreak,awayfromthisplace.Iwantyou
togohomeandIdon'twanttoseeyouhereagainuntilMonday.”
“I'moncall—”
“I'llarrangeforsomeoneelse.”
“Youdon'thavetheauthor—”
ThefirstflashofgenuineangerpassedfleetinglyinBen’seyes.“Doyouwant
metogetMacDonaldonthephone?ShouldItellhimhowyouassaultedme?”
Themagnitudeofwhathe’ddonehitJonhard.Hecouldbarelyfindthewords
tosay,“No,sir.”
Kaiwassittinginhiswheelchair,leanedforwardwithhiselbowsonhisknees,watching
Davidmakeafewadjustmentstotheframeofhismasterbathroomdoor.Kaihadbeen
surprisedbyhowhandyDavidapparentlywas,andDavidhadconfessedtolearning
mostofwhatheknewfromoddjobshe’dfoundtopaytherent.Hewasn’tskilled
enoughtomakealivingatit,he’dquicklyrealized,butgoodenoughforDIYandthe
occasionalextracashforasmall,simplejob.
DavidturnedaroundandlookedatKaiwithafrown.“Thedoorkeepssticking.
Imighthavetotrytocutitdown.Whatdoyouthink?”
Kaishrugged.“I’veneverevenheldahammer.You’reaskingthewrongguy.”
ThatmadeDavidlaugh.
“Look,partofthereasonIcameovertodayisIhaveafavortoaskyou.”
Davidgrabbedabottleofwaterhe’dsetasideandtookalongdrink,thengave
Kaialookthatsaid,“Whatareyougettingmeinto?”
Kaisighed.“I’vebeenthinkingalotaboutmymom,eversinceJongaveme
thatphoto—”
Davidgrabbedhistools,asiftoleaveandendtheconversation,butKai
reachedoutforhim,urginghimtowait.Withasigh,Davidcollapsedonhisbed,gave
Kaianeyeroll,thenagesturetocontinue.
Kainoddedathanks.“Jonwon’ttalkabouther.I’vetried,”Kaiaddedin
responsetoDavid’sskepticallook.“Allhe’llsayisthatIremindhimalotofher,that
I’malotlikeher,butthenheshutsdown.It’sbeendrivingmecrazylately.”
Davidfrowneddeeply,crossedhisarmstightlyonhischest.HisfacetoldKai,
withoutsigns,thathemightnotknowexactlywhereKaiwasgoingwiththis,buthe
thoughtitwasabadidea.Thepastwasbetteroffforgotten,andonewayoranother,
whetherbydeathorchoice,boththeirparentshadleftthembehind,andthesooneryou
rememberedthatandgotonwithyourlife,thebetteroffyouwere.Davidhadsaidas
muchtoKaimorethanonceinthepast,andhiscurrentscowlmeanthisopinionsonthe
matterhadn’tchanged.
Kaicontinuedanyway.“There’saroominthebasementofthehospitalwhere
theykeeptherecordsofthedeceasedpatients—”
166
Asifsensingwherethiswasgoing,Davidpoppedup,shakinghishead.“No,”
hesaid,usinghisvoice,oneofthefewwordsheknewhowtosay.Speakingwas
somethinghealmostneverdid,butitwasawayofexpressinghowvehementlyhewas
opposedtothedirectionKai’spleawastakinghim.“No,”Davidsaidagain,theword
inarticulate,butclearenoughallthesame.Hecontinuedinsign,hismovementsrapid
andjerky.“I’mnotbreakingintothehospitalrecordsjusttosatisfyyourcuriosity.I
mayhavebeenafuckupwhenitwasjustmeIhadtoworryaboutanddamnthe
consequences.ButnowIhaveMegan,andshe’sasweet,innocentgirlwhodoesn’tneed
toknowthatIbarelystayedoutofjailafterIagedoutofCH.”
Kaiblinked.Thatwasnewstohim.Davidhadexplainedthatlifehadn’tbeen
easyforhimafteragingout,thathe’ddonewhateverhecouldtoscrapebyuntilhe
finallygotasolidjobthatlethimputhislifebackontrack.But,truetocharacter,David
hadleftoutthefinerdetails,andKaiwasn’texactlyknownforbeinganopenbook
himself,sohedidn’tpush.Nowhekindofwishedhehad.Davidhadalwaysbeenan
expertlockpickerandpettythiefwhentheywerekids,andhadrunaminismuggling
operationatCountyHouse,gettingitemsforkidsonthedown-lowthattheynormally
wouldneverhavehadanopportunitytohave.Thingslikelipstickforthegirlsordirty
magazinesfortheboys,itemsbartered,stolen,orboughtwithbarteredorstolencash.
WasthathowDavidhadsurvivedonthestreets?
Still,Kaitriedtoconveyinhisfacehowimportantthiswastohim.“Iwoulddo
itmyself,butI’mnotexactlyinconspicuous,”Kaisigned,indicatinghiswheelchair.
“Especiallysinceeveryoneknowsmeinthatfuckingplace.Butyoucouldsneakin,
snatchmymom’sfiles,andsneakout,andnoonewouldbethewiser.”
David’sscowl,whichcouldhavemeltedglass,intensified.“AndhowamI
supposedtodothis,exactly?”
“Pretendtobeanorderly,sneakdown,grabthefiles,andgo.Ifigureifyou
doitThanksgivingnight,orthedayafter,whenalotoftheusualstaffwillbeoff,no
onewillnoticeyou.”
Davidrolledhiseyes.“Yeah,don’tyouthinkthey’dknowiftheyhadadeaf
orderly?”
Kaismiled.“Putsomeheadphonesinandactboredbutwithapurposeandno
onewillnoticeyou.Trustme.”
Davidshookhisheadandstormedoutoftheroom,signalingtheendofthe
conversation,butitwasn’tanotheradamant“no,”either.
NeitherKainorDavidhadbroughtupthesubjectofKai’smother’srecordsagain,and
theysattogetheronthesofa,eatingpizza.TheTVwason,ESPNtalkingheadsgoingon
aboutthevarioustopcollegefootballteamsandwhoseemedtobethemostlikely
candidatestomakeittotheNationalChampionshipinJanuary,thevolumeoffand
closedcaptioningtextscrollingautomaticallyonthescreen,butKaicouldtellDavid
wasn’treallyreadingit.
Davidhadgivenupongettingthedoorjustrightfornow,andeverythingelse
aboutDavid’shousewasprettyaccessible.ItturnedoutthatMeganhadasthma—
nothinglikewhatKaihadbeenlikebeforehistransplant,ofcourse—butitmeantno
carpets,norugs,sowithonlysomeadjustmentoffurniture,plusthemodificationtoa
fewdoorwaysandthebathroom,andKaicouldbequiteathomehere.
Itwasstrange,seeingDavidinhisownhouse,startingareallifeforhimself,
andKaiwondered,vaguely,ifmaybehecouldhavethissomeday,too.Maybewith
167
Renee.
“Youneedtoeatmorethanonepieceofpizza,”Davidsaid,gesturingwitha
crustwithonehandwhilehesignedwithhisother.Davidhadgottenanextra-large,half
everythingandhalfcheese,buthe’deatenmostofithimself.
Kaishrugged,lookedathishalf-eatenslicesittingonaplateinhislapbefore
settingitasideononeoftheendtables.“Ishouldprobablygohome.”
Davidsighedandrolledhiseyes.“Don’tbemadatmebecauseIdon’twantto
bechargedwithbreakingandentering,andwhoknowswhatelsesincethisismedical
recordswe’retalkingabout.”
“She’sbeendead16years.Noonewillcare.”
DavidshiftedinhisseatsohecouldfaceKaibetter.“Whyisthissoimportant
toyou?Whatareyouhopingtofindinhermedicalrecords?I’msureyourscould
wallpapertheWhiteHouse,butwouldthattellmewhoyouare?”
Kaisighed.“Iwanttoknow...”Kaihesitated,droppedhishands.
Davidtiltedhishead,hiseyesurgedKaitofinish.
“Ineedtoknowifshewastreated...psychiatrically,”Kailookedsheepish.
Davidshookhishead.“Youfeellikeyou’regoingcrazy,andyouthinkifyour
momwascrazythat’llmakethingsbetter?”DavidleanedforwardandgrabbedKai’s
face,peeringintoitforalongmoment,asifhe’dfindtherealanswerthereifheonly
lookedhardenough.
Kaipushedhimaway.“MaybeifIcanunderstandher,Icanunderstand
myself.”Kaireachedforhischair,pulleditcloser.“Ishouldgo.”
Thelightsflickered,andDavidputahandouttopleadwithKaitowaitashe
rosetoanswerthedoor.
Whathappenednext,happenedfast.
KaiwasdebatingaboutignoringDavidandtransferringbackintohischair
anywaywhenheheardacommotionbehindhim.HeturnedhisheadintimetoseeJon,
alookoffurylikehe’dneverseenonhisbrother’sfacebefore,pushingpastDavidand
barrelingstraighttowardKai.Jonmight’vehadseveralinchesoverDavid,butitwas
onlysurprisethathadenabledJontobargepastthestrongerman.
“Whythefuckdidn’tyousayanything?”Jonwasscreaming,andheleaptat
Kai,causingthemtobothfallontothefloorwithathudloudenoughDavidprobablyfelt
it.
Kai’sheadandshouldersslammedintothehardwoodwithenoughforceitsent
electrictendrilsofpainthroughhisjointsandmomentarilycausedhisvisiontoblur.In
theconfusion,Kai’sbodytookover,knowinghewasinacompromisedposition,that
someonewasrestraininghim,thattheyweregoingtohurthim,thathehadtofight
back.Hispulseskyrocketedasheshovedagainstthepersonontopofhimwithfull
force,causingthembothtorollontotheirsides.Kairegisteredthethudandwhooshof
airastheothermanlandedhard,andnow,freefromimmediatethreat,Kai’sbrain
cleared.
HereleasedhisgriponJon.“What...whatthehell,Jon?”Hewasbreathing
heavily,buthehopedJonwouldthinkitwasfromexertionandnot...whatthehellhad
justhappened?Forasplitsecond,itwasasifKaihadslippedoutsideofhimselfand
hadn’tquiterealizedthemanhewasfightingwashisbrother.Ithadtobefromhitting
hishead.
Davidpacedlikeacagedtigernearby,readytopounceifKaiindicatedhe
wantedhelp,butKaitiltedhisheadandcastalookatDavidthatsaid,“I’vegotthis.”In
168
theprocess,Kaisawhiswheelchairhadrolledacrosstheroom,faroutofhisreach.
Jongrowled,pushedagainstKaiwithallhisstrength,usingthegroundfor
leverageandmanagingtothrowKaionhisbackagain.“TheER.Dr.Johnsentalkedall
aboutyourlittlevisitafewmonthsago,whichprettymuchnailedthecoffinshutasfar
asthetransplantcommitteewasconcerned.Whatthefuckiswrongwithyou?Why
didn’tyoutellmeyouwerehavingbreathingproblems?”JonwasstillpinningKai,
thoughsomeofhisangerhadfaded,andherelaxedhishold.
“Ididn’twanttoworryyou,”Kaisaidsimply,notlikingthewayhispulsewas
racingandhislimbswerebeginningtofeeltingly,liketheydidbeforeafull-blownpanic
attack.Kaiplantedhispalmsonthefloortopushhimselfupintoasittingposition,but
Jonshiftedhisweight,shovingagainstKai’schestwithonearmandleaningforwardto
keephimdown.AnxietyflaredandKaishiftedhisrestrainedhandsubtlyinJon’sgripso
hecouldpushagainstthefloorwhilehetookadvantageofhisonefreearmtoviolently
reversetheirpositions,usinghissuperiorweightandstrengthtopinJonbeneathhim,
ignoringthewayhislegstangledawkwardly.
Hisbodywasstillonedge,butbeingincontroleasedsomeofhisanxiety,
thoughhisangerflaredtoreplaceit,makinghisskinhot.“I’mbreathingfine.Itwasone
time.”Kai’snostrilsflared,hiseyesglinting,wordlesslytellingJonnottofuckwithhim.
“It’snotlikeyoutellmeeverything,”Kaichallenged.“I’msurethere’sbeentimesyou
didn’teatorcheckyoursugarlikeyoushould,andyoudidn’tgivemeafullfucking
report.”
KaiexpectedJontogivein,butinstead,heshoulderedintoKai,catchinghim
offguard,andtheyrolledalongthefloor,eachfightingforcontrol.IfDavidhadn’t
alreadyclearedthelivingroomtomakeegressforKai’swheelchaireasier,itwaslikely
theywouldhavedestroyedit.Thetwobrotherswrestledacrosstheopenfloor,unwilling
toyield,thoughneitheronewasabletooverpowertheotherenoughtofixtheirposition.
Kaiwasmuchstrongerandfitter,butJonhadtheadvantageofallfourlimbs,andhe
finallymanagedtousehiskneestosubdueKai,gettinghimonhisbackagain,sittingon
Kai’sstomach.JonutilizedallhisweighttopinKai’sarmsoutathissides,palmsup,
crucifixionstyle,pressinghimintotheground.
Bothbrothers’chestswereheaving,bothweresweating,thoughKai’swasmore
fromanxietythanexertion.HefoughtagainstJon’shold,butwithouthisarmsandwith
Jonsecuringhisabdomen,hecoulddolittlemorethansquirm,hisbodyracingtoward
fullpanicagain.
“Getoffme,”Kaisaid,tryingtomakeitsoundlikeathreatandnotlikefear.
ThoughadrenalineanddeterminationweremakingJonstrongerthannormal,Kaiknew
hecoulddisplacehisbrother,thoughhewasn’tsurehecouldescapewithoutseriously
hurtingJon.Kai’sheartwasbeatingsoharditfeltlikeitwouldtearitswayoutofhis
chest.“Getthefuckoffme,now,”Kaisaid,hisvoicetingedwithanger,thoughit
wobbled,hispulseflutteringfranticallyinhisthroat.
Jon’sgriptightenedonKai’sarms,andKaihadtobitehisliptotrytokeep
himselfundercontrol.Fortunately,Jonpushedagainsthim,releasinghimwithagrunt
offrustratedanger.“Foronceinyourlife,stopbeingsofuckingself-absorbed.Theworld
doesn’trevolvearoundyou.Youractions—andinactions—haveconsequences,”Jonsaid,
hiswordsharsh,thoughKainoticedhisvoicebroke.Jonrose,immediatelylooking
away.Thenhestoodforamoment,asiftryingtocollecthimself,wipinghisfacewithhis
sleeve.
Kailayonhisback,proppeduponhiselbows,thehumofadrenalinestill
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coursingthroughhisbody,feelingdizzy,knowinghewouldbeginshakinganymoment
anddesperatelyhopinghecouldkeepittogetherforafewmoreminutes.Hestaredup
atJon,gratefulhewasnolongertrapped,butbewildered.Jonwasneverviolent,andhe
rarelygotangry.AtleastnotdirectedatKai.
“I’mgoingtoVicky’s.Imaynotcomehomeforawhile,”Jonsaidinacold
voice.Hehesitated,glancedatDavid,thenseemedtorememberthatKai’sfriend
couldn’thearanythinghewassaying,andadded,“Vickywantsmetomoveinwithher
anyway,becauseofthebaby.Mightaswelldoitnow.”Jonadjustedhiscoatandheaded
towardthedoor,pastascowlingDavid.“I’llhavethepaperworkdrawnuptocancelthe
proxyship.Mightnothappentillaftertheholiday,butifyouwantyourindependence,
I’llgiveittoyou.”
Kai’sbloodrancold.Hepushedhimselfupintoasittingposition.“Jon—”
“Don’tfucking‘Jon,’me,”Jonsaid,hisangerflaringagain.“Youmakeyour
bed,youlieinit.JustrememberthatMartinwilldieifthecommitteevotesagainstme.
Anditwill,nowthattheyknowthegolden-hairedboyisn’tcured.”Jon’sfinalwords
cameoutsoundinglikehewasgoingtolosehislunch,andbeforeDavidslammedthe
doorbehindJon,Kaithoughtheheardheavingsounds.
Kailetthetremblingtakeover,strugglingtotakeslow,deepbreathstoget
himselfundercontrol.
DavidrushedovertoofferKaiahand,butKaipushedhimaway,pulling
himselfbacktohischairandliftinghimselfupintotheseat,reliefwashingoverhimas
hesettledintoit,evenifhispulsewasn’tyetbacktonormal,andthetinglingstillmade
hisfingersnumb.Withoutaword,hehurriedtothefrontdoor,rippingitopen,thecold
piercingthroughhisT-shirtandjeans,butJonwasgone,theonlysignhehadbeen
therethefaintsmellofvomitsomewhereinthebushes.
Kai’scheekswerebrightred,hislipswereturningblue,hewasshivering,andhewas
blatantlyignoringDavid’sshouldertapsandhandwaves.SoDavidtriedtogripthebar
onthebackrestofKai’schairtoforciblypullhiminside,butKailockedhishands
aroundhiswheelsandrims,anditbecameawarofwillsandstrength,makingDavid
gruntinfrustration.
Davidstompedhisfootloudlytonoavail.Clappedhishands.Usedhisvoiceto
letoutashort,sharpsoundthatusuallyworkedwellenoughtogetahearingperson’s
attention.Noresponse.Finally,hecuppedhishandsoverhismouthandshouted,
throwingtheairoutfromdeepinhisstomach,somethinghenormallywoulddoonlyif
heweretryingtogetsomeone’sattentionacrossalargespace.MaybeitwouldsnapKai
outofwhatevertrancehe’dfallenintoafterhisbrotherhadstormedout.
Davidhadnoideawhatthetwohadsaidtoeachother,buthe’dseenthehurt
andangryexpressionsoneachoftheirfaces,andhe’dseenhowutterlylostKaihad
lookedwhenDavidhadfinallycomeouttocheckonhim.Thesamesad,vacantshadow
thathadtakenoverKaiyearsago,whenthey’dbothrunawayfromCountyHouse
hopingtoconfrontKai’sparents,whoKaihadbeenconvinced—atageeight—werestill
alive.Sohecouldaskthem,pointblank,why’dthey’dlefthim.
Only,whenthey’dfinallymadeittoKai’schildhoodhome,astrangerhad
answeredthedoor,andeventhoughKaihadtriednottoshowit,allhishopehad
crumpledinthatmomentasherealizedhewasalone.Davidbeingbesidehim,refusing
toleavehimevenwhentheyknewthecopsandCPSwouldbebyanyminutetoreclaim
themboth,towhiskthembacktoCountyHouse,hadn’tmattered.
170
Davidletoutalesspowerfulsecondshout,shakingKai’sshoulderharder.
Kaiseemedtofinallysnapoutofit,lookingupatDavid,causingachill
unrelatedtothewinterweathertoraceupDavid’sspine.Kailookedlikehissoulhad
beenhollowedoutanddiscardedlikethepulpofaJack-o-Lantern,leavingonlyan
emptyshell.ItwasevenworsewhenKaismiled,putahandtohischest.“I’mfine.”
BeforeDavidcouldcontradictorcallhimout,Kaihadpushedbackinsideand
waspullingonhiscoat.
“Whereareyougoing?”
“Tokillmyself.”Kaisignedwiththatsamecreepy,deadsmile,anditscaredthe
shitoutofDavid.“WherethefuckdoyouthinkI’mgoing?Home.”
Davidblockedthedoor,ignoringKai’spaint-peelingglare.“Stayheretonight.
Thebathroom’sready—”
Kaiinhaledsharply.“I’mfine.Idon’tneedJon,andIdon’tneedyou.I’mfine.”
DavidcouldseeKai’swallscrumbling,likehewasthreateningtoloseitatany
moment,buthealsoknewKaiwellenoughthatnothinghecouldsaycouldkeepKaiif
he’dalreadymadeuphismind.“Don’tdoanythingstupid,”Davidsaidanyway,doing
hisbesttoimpartallthemeaninghecouldintoacouplesigns.KaiandDavidhadnever
talkedaboutit,andDavidhadneverrattedKaiout,butovertheyearsatCountyHouse
Davidhadoccasionallyfoundtherazors,thesharpplastic,theglass,whateverKaicould
managetostealunnoticed,hiddenintheirvariouscachesinthewallsorunderthefloor.
AndDavidhaddiscardedthemeverytime,tryingtoignorehowthey’dsometimesstill
becoatedwithdriedblood.“Textmeifyouneedto.OK?”
KaistaredatDavidalongtime,almostasifKaiwasn’tseeinghim,before
smilingfaintly.“TellMeganI’msorryImissedher.I’llseeyouThursdayatten,”Kai
said,asifnothingunusualhadhappened.Thenhesmiledagain,theexpressionpained,
beforeheadingoutthedoor.
TheapartmentseemedparticularlyemptyandforlornwhenKaigothome.Heforced
himselftopushtohisbathroom,wherehedutifullytookhisnightlymeds,includinghis
inhaledmedications,tryinghisbesttoignorehisreflectioninthemirror.
Then,becausehefeltliketorturinghimself,hewenttothefridgeandpulledit
open.Triedtopretendhisstomachdidn’tcurlpainfullyinonitselfwhenhesawthe
vialsofinsulinweregone.Completelygone.Notevenoneleft.
SomethingbrokeinsideKai.
Heswallowed,shutthedoormechanically,pushedtothefarcornerofthe
kitchen.Hestaredatthekitchenknivesintheirblock,imagininghowthesteelwould
feelwhenhepulleditthroughhisflesh,howeasyitwouldbetoaimforsomethingmore
thanasuperficialwound.Immediately,hehatedhimselfforthethought.Talkabout
self-absorbed,hethoughtbitterly.Instead,heignoredthem,pulledhimselfuponthe
counter,sittingontheedgeawkwardly.ItremindedhimabitofRenee,howshedidthe
samethingtoreachstuffinthehighercabinets,anditmadehimsmilefaintlyashe
pulledopentheoneinthecorner.Hestretched,justbarelymanagingtosnagabottle
fromthetopshelf,whereJonhadsequesteredit.
Jondidn’treallydrinkbecauseofhisdiabetes,butheoccasionallywasgifteda
bottleofliquorfromagratefulpatient’sfamily,andKaiwasrelievedthebottleofJack
Jonhadsavedwasstillthere.Kaineverdrank,either,partiallybecausehedidn’tmuch
careforthetasteofalcohol,partiallybecauseofhisshittystomach,andpartially
becausehisliverwasputthroughenoughpaceswithallthedrugsheneededtotake,but
171
ifitwasbetweengettingdrunkanddoingsomethingfarmoreselfdestructivetonight,
Kai’dpickthewhisky.
172
November23,2000
VickyopenedhereyesinthedimnessofherroomandstartledwhenshesawJon,sitting
upinbed,onelegpulleduptohischest,theotherhangingofftheedgeofthebed,his
headrestingonhisknee,justwatchinghersleep.
“Sorry.Ididn’twanttowakeyou,”Jonsaidinawhisper.
“Whattimeisit?”Vickysaidasshestretched,searchingfortheclock.
“Toolatefornightandtooearlyformorning,”Jonsaidonasigh.
VickylaidahandonJon’sshin.“Didyousleepatall?”
Jonsighed,hesitated,finallyshakinghisheadasheexhaled.“SinceTuesday
night,Ican’tfallasleep,andwhenIdo,Ihavenightmaresandwakeup.Usuallyit’sjust
notworththeefforttotrytofallasleepagain.”
Vickyreachedoverandturnedonthebedsidelight,onitslowestsetting,justso
theycouldseeeachotherbetter.Jonhadexplainedwhathappenedwiththecommittee,
withDr.J,howJonhadbeenunofficiallysuspendedforaweek.HisfightwithKai,
whichVickysuspectedwaseatingatJonfarmorethananythingelse.
“Theusualdreams?”
Jonsighedagain.“Sometimes.SometimesIhavethisoneIusedtohaveallthe
timethelastsixmonths.”Jondidn’tneedtoclarify;Vickyknewhemeantthelastsix
monthsbeforeKai’stransplant.
Shesqueezedhisankleencouragingly,sawhimsmilefaintly.OnethingVicky
hadenjoyedmostaboutthelastfewmonthswasdiscoveringhowmuchJonlikedtobe
touched.Ahandonhisface,fingersonhiswrist,asoftkissunderhischin.Andhow
muchJonlikedtotouchback:lipsonherneck,armsaroundherwaist,foreheads
pressedtogether.
“Iwakeup,andI’msittingbyanemptyhospitalbed,andIknow,inthedream,
thatKaishouldbethere,buthe’snot,andIpanic.SoIstartsearchingforhim.Butit’s
weird.Likenooneelseseemstonoticeanything’swrong?SoI’mfreakingout,tryingto
pushpastpeople,tryingtoaskthemwhathappenedtomybrother,andtheyeither
ignoremecompletely,orjustlookatmelikeI’mcrazy.AndIthink,maybeIamcrazy?
ButIhavetokeeplooking,soIdo,pushingpastpeoplelikethey’resomekindofliving
obstaclecourse,andthewholetimemyheartisracingandI’msweating,justfilledwith
thisoverpoweringfeelingofdread.”
Joncollapsedinonhimselfforamoment,beforeyieldingtoVicky’sarms,
lettingherpullhimdownintoherembrace.Hecurledupbesideher,hisheadonher
shoulder,sighingsoftly.Shepressedakisstohishead.
“MaybeIshouldcallhim?Makesurehe’sOK?”
Vickyhuggedhimtighteragainsther.“Ithoughtthewholepointofthiswasto
giveyoubothsomedistance.”
Jonsighed,likeheknewshewasright.
“Lethimstewforafewdays.He’sabigboy.Hecantakecareofhimself.And
he’scapableofpickingupthephone,too.”
Jonlaughed,butVickycouldtellitwasareflexandhewasstillworried.
Gently,shepressedagainsthim,urginghimontohisback.Thensheclimbed
overhim,straddlinghim,smiling.“Letmehelpyougetsomesleep.You’llbetoobusy
dodgingmyrelativestomorrowtothinkaboutKaianyway.”Sheplantedakissonhis
forehead,atthebridgeofhisnose,oneachcheek,onhislips,onhischin,athisthroat,
173
workingherwaydown.
Hishandsslidalongherbody,slippingunderhernightshirttofindbareskin.
“Ican’twaittillyou’reshowing,”hesaid.
Shelaughed.“Secretpregnancyfetish?”
Jonlookedbothmortifiedandembarrassed,whichmadeVickylaughharder.
Shekissedthetipofhisnose,rubbingtheircrotchestogether.Noturgently,
justgentlepressure,feelinghiswarmthagainsthers.
Jon’shandsexploredherbelly,herbreasts,whichwereslightlyfullerthan
normal,eventhisearly.“Itjustamazesmethatwemadeanewlifetogether.Itdidn’t
existbefore,andnowitdoes.Isn’tthatincredible?”Inthedimlightofthelamp,Vicky
couldseetheglowinJon’seyes,aninnocent,childlikejoy.Andsheknew,despiteJon’s
reservationsabouthisbrother,hisperfectlysensibleapprehensionsaboutthefuture,he
reallydidwanttobeafatherwithher.
Shestilledhermovements,ahandonhisshoulder,staringdownathim.
“What?”heasked,worried.
Shesmiled,leanedintokisshim,deep,needingtotastehimsuddenly,make
thismorereal,lovingthewayhishandsreflexivelysoughtoutpositionsonherbodyto
supporther,keepherfromfallingorslidingorcollapsing.“Iloveyou,”shesaidina
whisper.
Jonfroze,literallywentstill,andforaninstant,Vickyworriedshe’dmadea
mistake,thatitwastoosoon,evenifthebabyhadacceleratedthingsbetweenthem.
Butthenshesawhissmile—thatrare,full-facedgrinthatmadehiswhole
countenancelightenandhiseyesbrightentoafaint,beautifulblue.Helaughed,asif
surprised,beforesaying,“Iloveyou,too.”Hepulledherdownintoadeep,passionate
kiss,thenrolledherontoherback,hisarmsbracedoneitherside,staringintohereyes,
hishairfallingdownaroundhisface.Hekissedherhungrily,everybitofskinhecould,
beforepausingtopulloffhisteeandtossitaside.
Shelaughed,nudgedhimoffsoshecouldstrip,too,andastheyhurriedlytore
theirpajamasoff,Jonnevertookhiseyesoffher.
“Imagineifsavingliveswereaseasyascreatingthem,”Jonmused,snagging
Vickytohimsohecouldfeelhernakedbodyagainsthis.Withanyoneelse,itwouldbe
weird,butJon’sphilosophicwayofthinkingwasonethingshelovedabouthim.And
talkingaboutthismeanthewasn’tdwellingonhisnightmares.
“That’dmaketheworldprettycrowded.”VickylaughedwhenJonteasedone
nipple,thentheother,gentlylayingheronthebedbeforehim,hishandseverywhere,
largepalmsslidingoverbareskinfromherbreaststoherthighs.ThecaressmadeVicky
shakeandshiverwithpleasureandanticipation,thepressureofJon’serectionagainst
herleg,urgent.
“Mmm,”hemumbledashehummedagainstherbelly,kissingdownherinner
thigh,hisbreathwarmandtauntingonhernowsensitizedlipsandclit.
“Andwe’dbeoutofajob,”shesaidonasigh,stretchingandtryingtopullhim
closewithherlegswrappedaroundhiswaist.
“We’dfiguresomethingout,”Jonsaid,hisvoicelow,hoarse,ashepressed
himselfcloser,teasingatherentrancebutnotyetpushingin.
Shegrippedhisforearmtight.“Please,”shebegged.
Finally,shefeltthepressureandfullnessasheenteredher,deep,inone
smoothstroke.“Yes,”shesaid,reachingforhim,needinghimtobeasclosetoheras
possible,tofeelhimslidingevendeeper.
174
Gettinghercue,Jonsmiledslyly,leanedforward,thrustinghard,nippingat
herneck.
Vicky’shandstracedtheirwayalongJon’sback,towardhisass,pressinghim
closer,closer.Theymovedagainsteachother,eachreachingfortheirownclimaxyet
workingtogether,touchingandkissingwhenevertheirmovementsbroughtthemnear
enoughtodoso.
Finally,ithitthemboth,withinmomentsofeachother,Vicky’svisiongoing
whiteandsparkly,hermusclestensingbeforetheyrelaxedasshefeltJon’swarmthfill
her,hisbodyjerkbeforetheyfinallybothwentstill.Theycollapsedbesideeachother,
spentandsweaty,theirforeheadstouchingasJonmanagedtosnagtheblankettocover
thembothbeforethechillaircouldmaketheirdampbodiescold.
“Thinkyoucansleepnow?”Vickyasked,smoothingsomeofJon’shairoffhis
forehead.
Hesighedcontentedly.“Yeah.Foralittlewhile,anyway.”
Shewatchedhiseyesdriftclosed,hisbodyrelax,smilingfaintlythatmaybe
he’dfinallygetsomerest.
VickythoughtJonhaddriftedoffwhenhesaidinasleepyvoice,“Youreally
loveme?”Likehegenuinelycouldn’tbelieveshecould.
Vickypressedakisstohisforehead,stretchedtoshutoffthelight.“Ihavefora
longtime,Jon.Alongtime.”
Kaithrewhisalarmclockacrosstheroom,grinningwhenitsevilblareendedina
shatteringofplastic.Hismouthwaspainfullydryandnastytasting,hisheadthrobbed,
andhisstomachhurt.Whenhepushedhimselfup,hisvisionswamforamomentbefore
settling.Hangoversofficiallysucked.
Kaigrabbedhischairandtransferred,pushingintohisbathroomtotakehis
medicine.Itwastellinghowdehydratedhewasthathedidn’tneedtopee.ButthenKai
hadspentmostofthelast36-hoursdestroyingtheJack,alongwithafifthofawfultastingrumhe’dalsofoundinthebackofanothercabinet,passingoutandthrowingup
asnecessary,beforeturningbacktothebottleagain.Itdidn’tmakehimlikealcoholany
more,andhedidn’tseehimselfmakingtheeventsofthelastdayahabit,butatleast
he’dbeenabletoignorehowemptytheapartmentwasforalittlewhile.
Rightnow,Kaistaredathisfaceinthemirrorashefilledacupwithwater.He
haddeeppurplecirclesunderhiseyes,whichwerebloodshot,hishairwasstandingon
endeverywhichway,andahandonhischeekremindedhimhehadn’tshavedsince
Tuesdaymorning.Afterrinsinghismouthanddowningseveralglassesoftapwater,Kai
proceededwithhismorningroutine,somethinghe’dbeendoingeverydayforlong
enoughhedidn’tneedfullbrainpowertogetthroughit.
Kaihadjustfinishedtakingthelastofhismedicineandlazilyrecordinghis
vitalsinhisnotebookwhenhisphonevibratedonthecounter,fromwherehe’dleftit
sometimethedaybefore.Whichwasallabitofablur,butwasn’tthatthepoint?
Kaishuthisnotebookwithaloudthudthatmadehimcringe,buttheheadache
wouldgoawaywithmorewater,hehoped.Hedidn’twanttotakeaspirin,whichwould
furtherkillhisstomach,andTylenolwasoffthetableifhedidn’twanthislivertosend
outalittlewhiteflagofsurrender.Besides,heprobablycouldusethepenance.
Renee’snameflashed,andhethoughtaboutlettingitgotovoicemail,buthe’d
missedhercallsmostofTuesday,andignoredtherestofthem,soheknewhehadto
answer.Afterall,itwasn’tRenee’sfaulthewasinashitty,feeling-sorry-for-himself
175
mood.
“Morning!”Reneesaidcheerfully.
Kaigruntedasheshiftedthephoneintothenookofhisneck,pinningitthere
asheusedbothhandstowheelouttowardthekitchen.
Shedeflated.“I’msorry.DidIwakeyou?Ithoughtyougotupatseventotake
yourmedseverymorning....Shit.Butmaybeyougobacktobedafterward.I’msorry
—”
Kailethimselfrolltoastop,freeinguphishandtoadjustthephone.“No,Re,
it’sfine.I’mup.”Hetriedtoputasmileintohisvoiceforhersake.“I’mjust...I’m
actuallynotreallyamorningperson.Ijusthavetobe.”
Reneelaughed,andthesoundmadeKaibrightenalittle.
“I’msorryImissedyourcalls,”Kaisaid,pushingwithonehandafewfeet,then
crossinghisarmoverhisbodytopushtheotherwheelafewfeetuntilhewasclose
enoughtothekitchentousethecounters.“It’sbeen...abusycoupledays,”Kaisettled
onashepulledopenthefridgeandgrabbedacouplebottlesofGatorade,tryingnotto
lookattheemptyshelfwhereJonnormallykepthisinsulin.Davidwantedhimtoshow
upatten,sinceeveryoneelsewasslatedtoarriveatnoon,whichdidn’tgiveKaitoo
muchtimetogethimselfinpresentablecondition.Andhereallydidn’twanttopassout
fromlowbloodpressureinthemiddleofabunchofDeafieshedidn’tknow.
“That’sOK.Ifiguredasmuch.”Shehesitatedamoment.“Imissyou.”
Kaifoundhimselfsmiling.“Imissyou,too.”Partofhimwouldhavelovedto
havespentthelastdayandahalfwithherinsteadofexploringabottleofwhisky,butif
hewashonestwithhimself,hewasn’tsureifhecouldhaveletherseehimsowreckedby
afuckingfightwithhisbrotherandanemptyapartment.
“I’lltrytocallyoulater,butthingsgetalittlecrazyaroundhereonceallthe
relativesarriveandthealcoholstartsflowing.I’lltextyou,atleast.”
“Soundsgood,”Kaisaid,thencringedathowbadthatsounded.“Imean,I
don’tknowhowlongI’llbeatDavid’sanyway,sojustcallmewhenyoucan.”
HeheardasoundheknewwasReneeblowinghimakiss,andchuckled,his
stomachwarmingslightly.“Ifit’saJudething,though,justtextmethatandI’lltryto
sneakawayandcallyouback.OK?”
Reneesighedsoftly,herbreathblowingintothephone.“Atfirst,Iregretted
tellingyou.I’dkeptitsecretfromsomanypeopleforsolong,Ithoughtitwasamistake,
andIwonderediftherewereawayIcouldtakeitback.”
Kaicompletely,totallyunderstood,butitdidn’tchangethefactthatithurta
littletohearit.
“ButI’mreallygladIdid.Idon’thavethathangingoverus,andit’sniceto
havesomeonetotalktoaboutit.Whounderstands.Youknow?”Hecouldheartheself
consciousnessinhervoice,andhewishedhecouldhugitaway.
“Yeah.”Kaisighed,shiftedthephone.“Look,Re,I...IknowI’mnotaneasy
persontodealwith,foralotofreasons....Just.”Hesighedagain.“Thanksfortakinga
chanceonme.”
Renee’slaughagain,warmandliltinginhisear.“Idon’tseeitasachanceat
all,andyouknowthat.Ican’twaittillSaturday.”Asoundinthebackground.“Ugh.I
gottago.I’msorry.Talktoyoulater!Bye!”
ReneewasgonebeforeKaihadtimetoreact,andagain,theapartmentseemed
desperatelyquietandempty.HechuggedbothGatorades,barelypausingtobreathein
between.MaybeDavidandMeganwouldn’tmindifhegotthereevenearlierthan
176
planned.
Itdidn’ttakeKailongtoshower,shave,brushhisteeth,dress,anddownanother
Gatorade,whichstilllefthimtwohoursuntilhewassupposedtobeatDavid’s.He
decidedtotexthisfriendtoseeifhe’dmindKaicomingoverearlierandnoticedseveral
textmessages,spacedapartfromTuesdayafternoonuntilthismorning.Notsomanyas
tobeobnoxious,andnoneofthemweredemanding,buttheyallusedsubtlyorjokesto
checkinwithKai.Thelastone,sentonlyaboutthirtyminutesearlier,asked,Youdead?
Kaifrowned,eventhoughhesuspected,ifDavidhadsignedthat,he’dhavesaid
itwithenoughlevityinhiseyestohidetheseriousnessofthequestion.Kairealizedthe
lasttimehe’dspokentoDavidhe’dessentiallyjokedhewasgoingtooffhimself,so...
Dammit,maybeJonwasright:hewasaself-absorbedasshole.
Stilllive.Hangover,KairepliedinASLtextspeak.
Davidrespondedalmostimmediately.Meganhermothersisterhere.House
crazy.NowmorningMeganhersisterburnfood.MeganMADMAD.NowIneedgo
Walmartwhy?buynewfood.Youmegotogether?Please?Yousaveme!
KailaughedreadingDavid’stexts,abletoclearlyseehisfriendinhismind’s
eye.HewonderedifDavidwasreallysodesperatetoescapethefamily,orifitwashis
wayofcheckinguponKaipersonally.Perhapsacombinationofboth.
Sothat’showKaiendedupparkedoutsideDavid’shouseat8:30inthe
morning,waitingforhisfriendtorushoutandhopin.
Amomentlater,DavidkissedMeganatthedoorbeforeleapingoverand
slidingintothepassenger’sseatlikeabankrobbermakingforhisgetawayvehicle.
Kailaughed.
“Whenyouhavein-laws,we’llseewho’slaughing.”ButDavidwassmiling.
“OK,thismightseemobvious,butIcan’tsignwhenI’mdriving.”Kaigestured
tothesteeringwheelandthehandcontrols.“Ineedbothhands.OK?I’msorry.”
Davidshrugged.“Myeyesneedabreak,anyway.IloveMegan,buthersister.
..”Davidwavedhishandsinfrontofhimtoindicatehissister-in-law-to-be’sconstant,
frenziedsigning,puffingouthischeekstoemphasizehisexasperation.Thenhepaused,
hisfacegotalittlemoreserious,andhelookedKaiover.
“I’mfine,”Kaisaid,ahandonhischest.“Notbeingalonetodaywillhelpme.”
DavidstudiedKaiasiftryingtoseethroughhisdefensivewalls,searchingfor
anytinyhintofbodylanguagethatmightgiveawaywhatKaididn’tfreelyinhissignsor
facialexpression,but,seemingsatisfied,hewrinkledhisnose,Deafiefor,essentially,“I
believeyou.”
Kaiforcedasmall,ifgenuinesmile,shiftedinhisseat,andputthecaringear.
Davidreclinedhisownseatandshuthiseyes,andthoughhedidn’tsnore,Kaiwas
prettysurehesleptthroughtheshorttriptothestore.
Eventhoughitwasearly,itwasThanksgivingday,andthestoreswereall
closingatnoon,includingWalmart,sotheparkinglotwasevenmoreofamadhouse
thanusual.Kaitookadvantageofbeingstuckbehindaladybackingoutanenormous
pickupsheclearlywasn’texperienceddrivingtonudgeDavidawake.
“Lookforaplacetopark.Ideallyahandicappedspot.”Foureyeswerebetter
thantwo,anddeafeyeswerelikeawholeextraset.
Kaicircledthelotafewtimes,gruntinginfrustrationathowmanyofthe
handicappedspotsweretakenbycarswithoutplatesorpermits,wonderingifmaybehe
shouldjustdropDavidoff.
177
HefeltDavidtaphisshoulder,andglancedovertofollowwherehisfriendwas
pointing.AnoldladyclimbingintoherBuickupahead.Kainoddedathanksand
signaled,waitingforthespot.
Eventhoughtheyweren’tabletotalk,Kaifoundheenjoyedthesilent
company.Itremindedhimofwhentheywerekids;DavidknewKaihadtroublesigning
ifhewascrutchingit,sohe’doftenshovehishandsinhispocketsandnotsignhimself
soKaiwouldn’tfeelleftoutofaconversation.Thoughbysecondgrade,DavidandKai
hadgottenprettygoodatcommunicatingwitheachotherwithoutasinglesign,using
onlybodylanguageandfacialexpressions.Itwasausefulskillthey’dhonedoverthe
years.
Theoldladywastakingforever,though,andDavidwasbeginningtoget
restless.“MaybeIshouldgetoutandshoveherinhercar.”
Kailaughed.Shookhishead.
Davidpouted.Thenherolledhiseyes,stuckouthistongue.Hiswayofsaying,
“Youspoilallthefun.”
Finally,grandmapulledoutofthespot,andKaisnaggeditbeforeanyoneelse
could.Onceparked,Davidheldupahandforahigh-five,andKailaughedashispalm
metDavid’s,asiftheyweretwelveinsteadofintheirtwenties.Itfeltgood.Reallygood.
AndKairememberedwhatDr.Millerhadpointedoutmorethanonce,thathewasn’t
alone,thathehadfriendsandpeoplewhocaredabouthim.Peoplehecouldbe
comfortablewith,likeDavid.
DavidfollowedKaiintothegroceryentrance,andKaiimmediatelypausedandtiltedhis
head,rollinghiseyes.
Daviddippedhiseyebrows.
Kaishrugged.Slippedoffhisglovesandstuffedtheminthepocketofhiscoat.
“They’replayingChristmasmusicalready.”
Davidglancedup,asifhecouldseethemusic,thenshookhishead,offeredKai
ahugesmile.“Doesn’tbotherme.”
KailaughedandfollowedDavid,who’dsnaggedacart,towardtheproduce
department,thetwoofthemneedingtosplituptomaneuverthroughthecrowds.
Everyoneandtheirgrandmotherseemedtobefranticallysnatchingthelastbagsof
cranberriesandpotatoes,andnormally,somanypeoplewouldmakeKai’sanxietyflare,
butrightnowhewasjustgratefulhehadtofocusonnavigatingthroughtheseaoflegs
andcarts,notgivinghismindmuchtimetowander.
Hisstomachstartedtoknotwhenherealizedjusthowmanypeoplethere
were.Heknewheshould’vewornamask—healwayskeptacoupleinhisbag—butit
wouldmakesigningharder,withhalfhisfacecovered.Andasmallvoiceinhisheadwas
screaminggleefullyaboutthedanger,theriskhewastaking.Probablythesamevoice
thatconvincedhimdrinkinganentirebottleofwhiskyandrum(whenonlyacouple
swallowswasenoughtogethimdrunk)wasagoodidea,too.
HefinallycaughtupwithDavid,whoteasedhimabitbeforegoingoverthe
remainingitemsonthelistsotheycouldcoordinatetheireffortsandgetthroughthe
shoppingasquicklyandsmoothlyaspossible.
Overthenextfewminutes,thetwofriendsworkedtogether,Kaigrabbingstuff
athislevelandDavidstickingtoitemsstackedhigherup.Finally,theyendedupinthe
bakingaisle,Davidbentoverhisphoneashetextedbackandforthwithhisfiancee,
tryingtofigureoutthedifferencebetweenlightanddarkbrownsugar.
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Kaiwasslinkingalongtheaisle,figuringhe’dsnagafewoftheotherlistitems
whileDavidwaitedforaresponseonthesugar.Hespottedoneoftheitemsonthelist—
cornbreadmix—butitwasonthetopshelf,andevenwithhislongarms,hecouldn’t
quitereach.HeknewheshouldwaitforDavid,butwasstillstretchingoutofsheer
stubbornnesswhenahandwentoverhisandsnaggedabox.
“Gotit.Hereyougo.”
Kaisaidareflexive“Thanks,”eventhoughhewasalittleirritated.Ashe
acceptedthebox,hisstomachdropped,nauseaswelled,andhebrokeoutintoacold
sweat.“Nikki.”
Shesmiled,tossedherhair,whichwaslonger,superstraightbutcutjaggedly,
anddyedpalepinkwithasinglestripeofblackononeside.Verypunk,anddisturbingly
sexydespiteheroutfit:khakiswithabluepolo,andanametag.Whichmeantshe
workedhere.Shit.
Kaiwasdesperatelytryingtobreatheandnotletthisturnintoafull-blown
panicattack,butitalsomeantfindingEnglishwordswasimpossible.
“Ihadplannedtostayawaylonger,butIwasableto...workthingsout,”she
saidvaguely.“Ilikethistown.And...”Shebrushedherbangsoffherfaceandlookedat
himseductively,lickingherlips.Kaiwonderediftheystilltastedlikestrawberries.Ifher
hairstillsmelledliketropicalfruit.“Imissedyou.”
Kai’sfacehardenedwhileanotherpartofhimdid,too.Hehopedhisanger
wouldchangethat,quick.“Don’t.”
Nikkiopenedhermouthasiftosaysomethingelse,whenDavidstrolledback
over,ignoringNikkiforthetimebeing,andsigningtoKai,“Megansaysweneedto
hurryup.”ThenheseemedtorealizeNikkiwasn’tjustanemployeehelpingKaireach
thetopshelf,anddippedhiseyebrows,glancingoverather.
Kaigroanedoutasigh,speakingandsigningforbothNikkiandDavid’s
benefit.“Nikki,thisismyfriendDavid.David,thisisNikki.She’s...”Kaistruggledfor
awaytodescribewhattheyweretoeachother.Ex-lovers?Formerfuckbuddies?She
lovedmebutIdidn’treciprocatesosheleft?
“Wefucked,”Nikkisaidwithabrilliantsmile,offeringDavidherhand.
Davidreadherlips,thenlookedatKai,signing“fuck”withraisedbrowsto
confirmhe’dreadhercorrectly.Heusedasexualsign,onethatimpliedamanpounding
intoawoman,twohandsslammedagainsteachother,pinkiesandindexfingers
extended,bentinteriorfingershittingeachotherrepeatedly.
Kaiblushedafierce,hotred,partiallyfromembarrassment,butmostlyfrom
anger.
ItwasanswerenoughforDavid,wholaughedloudly.“Nicetomeetyou.”Kai
initiallyrefusedtointerpret,pissed,butafteraprodfromDavid,did.
Nikkimimickedthesigns,echoingDavid,“Nicetomeetyou.”
Daviddecideditwastimeforhimtogo,sohepointedtotheshoppinglist,then
outtowardthestore,thensaid,“Meetyouhereintenminutes?”
Kaimanagedanod.WithoutwaitingforDavid’sfootstepstorecede,Kaifolded
hisarmstightlyonhischestandgaveNikkihismostsearingglare.“Whatthefuck,
Nikki?”
Nikkisighed,butthenregainedcontrol.“Yourfriend’shot.He’sreallydeaf?”
“No,hejustlikestotalkwithhishands,”Kairepliedsarcastically.“Andhe’s
engaged.”
Nikkipouted,nodded.“Whataboutyou?Youlookgreat.”
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Kailetoutaharshsound.Evenafterashaveandshower,heknewhelooked
likeshitwarmedover.
“Didthingsworkoutwithyouand...thatothergirl?”
“Whatthefuckbusinessisitofyours?”
Foramillisecond,Nikkilookedhurt,butsherecoveredquickly.“Iknowyou
can’tunderstand,butIdidwhatIthoughtwasbest.”
Kaisighed,puthishandsonhisrims,readytobackaway,butNikkistepped
forward,placingherhandshighuponhisthighs,leaneddownasiftokisshim.“Don’t,”
Kaisaid,buthisvoicewasweak.
Soclose,hecouldsmellher—thefruityshampoo,ahintofcigarettesmoke,and
therawfemalesexsmellthatalwayshoveredaroundherandmadehisdickpainfully
hardagainsthiswill.Hislittlebrainwasscreamingathimtoacceptthekiss,andhe
almostdid,tastingherbreath,coffeeandnicotineandbubblegum.Heknewthatifhe
asked,she’dpullhimintothebreakroomoreventhebathroomandgethimoffintwo
minutes.Hisballsdrewupinanticipation.Helickedhislipsunconsciously,andshewas
soclosehistonguejustbarelygrazedherlips,makingashudderrushuphisspine.
Fortunately,hisbigbrainkickedin,snappingKaibacktohissenses.He
pressedhishandagainstherjustenoughtopushheraway.Themomentumsenthim
rollingbackwardaninchortwo,helpingtoincreasethedistancebetweenthem.
“Kai—”
“Don’t,”Kaisaid,moregritinhisvoice.“Don’t.I’mwithReneenow.Andeven
ifIwasn’t,youdon’tgettojustleavemelikethat,thenshowbackupandexpectusto
pickupwhereweleftoff.Youknowwhousedtojerkmearoundlikethat?”
Nikki’sfriendlinessevaporated,andnowshejustlookedguilty.Sheswallowed,
butsaidnothing.
“Becca,”Kaisaid,acidinhisvoice,eventhoughheknewNikkihadnodoubts
aboutwhohewastalkingabout.
BeforeNikkicouldsayanythingelse,Kaibarreledawayfromher,pumpinghis
armsfuriously,navigatingaroundcartsandpeople,makingabeelinefortherestroom
sohecouldthrowupthemeaslybreakfasthe’dforcedhimselftoeatonlyacouplehours
earlier.
“Yousureyou’reOK?”Davidasked,crouchingbesideKaijustoutsidetherestrooms.He
mighthavebeenintense,buthewasneverpushy,notwithKai,soKaiknewhewas
genuinelyworried.“It’scoolifyouwanttojustblowofftoday.Igetit.Iknowit’shard
foryoutobearoundfoodwhenyourstomach’sbeingshit.”
Kaismiledfaintly,gratefulforDavidagain,evenifNikkihadsenthimbackoff
kilter.“Itooksomemedicine.Ithelpswiththenausea.”Andformyanxiety,too,Kai
thought,sincehe’dalsopoppedahydroxyzine.Honestly,hedidn’twanttohavetodeal
withpeopletoday,butthatseemedalotbetterthantheprospectofbeingaloneinthat
emptyapartment.
Davidfrowned,asifhedidn’tquitebelieveKaiwasfine,butheleftitatthat.
“CanIdriveyourcar?MaybeIshould?”
Kaisighed,noddedreluctantly.
DavidsqueezedKai’sshoulder,checkingKai’sfaceonemoretimebefore
standingupagain.“Youreallytappedthat?”Davidasked,usingaparticularlyludesign,
similartowhathe'ddonebefore,addingacheckmarkintheairandthesign“FINISH,”
whileblowingonhisfingerstoemphasizethatKaihadusedherandleftherinthedust.
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Kairolledhiseyes.“Thanksforhavingsomuchfaithinme.”
Davidlaughed.“Justsaying,you’vechangedalot.TheKaiIusedtoknow
wouldneverhaveeventriedtohookupwithagirllikethat.”
Kaishrugged,butthenherealizedifhedidn’tsaysomething,Davidwould
keepbringingitup,andhedidn’twanttotalkoreventhinkaboutNikkianymoretoday.
“Look,thedealwas,shewasjustafucktogetovermyex,aftermytransplant.Then
thingsgotcomplicated.Sheleftmeonenight,completelyoutoftheblue,whileIwasin
thehospital.LeftmeanotesayingshelovedmebutIdeservedbetter,likeIcan’t
fuckingdecideformyself.”Kaiwastryingtomaintaincontrol,andtheyweretucked
intoanookoutofmainlineofsight,buthefelthimselfstartingtoloseit.“Fuck,”hesaid
outloud,barelyresistingtheurgetoshovetheheelsofhishandsintohiseyes.He’d
washedthem,buthereallydidn’twanttogetsomefunkyeyeinfection.“Fuck.”
DavidgavehimamomentbeforenudgingKai’swheelwithhisfoottogethim
tolookupagain.“God,I’msorry.I’manasshole.”
Kaishrugged,struggledtotakeafewbreaths.Hewasnotgoingtobreakdown
inWalmart,infrontofDavid,overNikki.Kaiwasgrittinghisteethsohardhisjawhurt,
andhiseyeswerestartingtoblur,soheshutthemfirmly.HefeltDavidwrappinghis
armsaroundhim,squeezinghimtight.David’ssupportiveembracetightenedwhenKai
didfinallyloseitandstartedtosob,powerful,reflexivejerksofhischestlikehisbody
wastryingtoforciblyexpelthepainandself-loathing,hismindfilledwithnegative
thoughtsofBeccaandNikki,Jon,andevenRenee.NotlettinggountilKaigothimself
undercontrolagain.
Davidpulledback,hishandsonKai’sshoulders,staringathimintently.His
eyessaiditwasOK,andheunderstood,andlifefuckingsuckssometimes,buthewas
theretohelpKaiifhewantedit.
“Getaroomfags,”acoupleguyssneeredastheycameoutoftherestroom.
DavidmusthaveseenachangeinKai’sface,becauseheturnedandrosetohisfeet,his
eyesnarrowing.
Thetwoguystossedafewmoreepithets,buttheirdeterminationclearly
waveredonceDavidfacedthemfullon.Davidwasn’tthebiggestman,buthewasbroadshoulderedandmuscled,plusgreatatbeingintimidating.Especiallywhenhewasreally
mad,andhedidthishissing,growlingthing,histeethbaredlikeacorneredanimal
readytostrike.
Whenthetwoguyscontinuedtheirharassment,likeacoupleofyippydogstoo
stupidtobackdown,Davidyelledatthem,acoupleofharsh,inarticulatesoundsthat
freakedthefuckoutofthetwopunks,sendingthemscattering,muttering“freak”and
“fag”afewmoretimesastheyleft.
Kaiwassurprisedhowmuchthatmadehimfeelbetter—notthathegaveashit
aboutthosekids,orwhattheysaid—he’dbeencalledfarworsebefore,afterall—andnot
likehecouldn’thavehandledthingshimself,butbecauseitremindedhimofwhen
Davidandhewerekids,howDavidreallywasalwaysthereforhim,alwaysstickingup
forhimwhenheneededit.Infact,Kaihadlearnedhownottotakeshitfrompeople
partiallyfromDavid’sexample.
“Ihavenoideawhattheyweresaying,butIcouldtellitwasn’tgood.You
feelingbetter?”
Kaismiled,tookadeepbreath,andrealizedthat,yeah,hedid.Henodded.
“Good.BecauseMeganwillservemefordinnerifwedon’tgetbacksoon.”He
leanedforward,pattedKai’scheekandflashedagrin,asifnothinghadhappened,asif
181
Kaihadn’ttotallylostitonlyafewminutesearlier.ThatwasthegreatthingaboutDavid,
andwhyhe’dbeensuchagoodfriendtoKaiallthoseyearsgrowingup.WhenKai
neededhim,hewasthere,alwaysunobtrusively,andnomatterwhat,heneverrubbed
anythinginKai’sface.
Itwasstillrelativelyearly;thankGodmostofRenee’srelativesweren’treallymorning
people,andReneehadofferedtodosomefinalprepworkwhilehergrandmother
showered.Shewasenjoyingtherelativepeaceandquietofthekitchen,thesun
streaminginthroughtheshutters.Thishouse,evenmorethantheoneshegrewupin
withherparentsandbrothers,hadalwaysseemedmorelikehomesomehow.Shewasn’t
surehowKaiwouldmanageit,butshewasalreadythinkingahead,lookingforwardto
introducinghimtohergrandparentsandthishouse,andtothecityshelovedsomuch.
He’dbeeninagrumpymoodwhenshe’dcalledthatmorning,barelydisguisingiteven
attheend,butshe’dfounditendearingandamusing.Despitehishealthissues,Kaidid
hisbesttoconveyanessenceof“perfection,”asifnothingupsethimorbotheredhim,
eventhoughsheknewthatwasfarfromthetruth.Hearinghimadmitthatheactually
wasn’tafanofrisingearly—despiteeverythingshe’dpreviouslyseentothecontrary—
wasrefreshing.Asshechoppedvegetablesinthebright,comfortablewarmthofher
grandmother’skitchen,shecouldn’thelpimagesofKaipoppingintoherhead.Shesaw
him,sprawledonhissideinbed,hislegstangledinthesheets,hishairdelightfully
mussed,lookingsexyandsleepy,andmaybeevengruntingandtryingtopullthepillow
overhisheadwhensheattemptedtowakehim.
She’dbeencontinuallyshockedthatshedidn’tregretthesex,eventhemore
risquémorningsexinthekitchen,andeachnighthadsurprisedherselfbyhowmuch
shemissedhimbesideherinbed.Onlyonenighttogether,hislarge,longformtaking
upmostofthemattress,thesubtlesnoreofhisbreath,hisarmcasuallydrapedaround
her,protectiveyetnotpossessive,andshealreadywantedthateverynight.Shewanted
everymorningtoopenhereyestohis.
Shesighedsoftlyandforcedherselfbacktowork.Shewascapableoftwo
thingsinthekitchen:choppingvegetablesandhandingovertoolsorspices,andshe
wasn’tgoingtoletherlovesickdaydreamingruinthat.Thekitchendooropened,and
sheassumed,initially,withoutlookingup,ithadtobehergrandmother,orperhapsher
grandfather,searchingformorecoffee.Butsomethingintheairchanged:aheaviness
thatsuckedthelightoutoftheroom.Itwasprobablythesungoingbehindacloud,but
itmadeherlookup.
“JP.”
Herolderbrother,attwenty-five,was,byallaccounts,averyhandsome,
masculineman.Tallfortheirfamily(andNewOrleans)atjustacoupleinchesundersix
feet,broadshoulderedandmuscular,withthesamedarkhairasReneeandLuc,onlyit
hadasubtlewavetoitratherthanspringingupintightcurls.Hehaditcutshort,but
longenoughtopartandbrushtooneside,framinghisfaceanddrawingattentiontohis
darkhazeleyes,whichweremorebrownthangreen,unlikethoseofhisyounger
siblings.Theyseemedhard,menacing,andcalculating,enoughtosendashiverupyour
spine,butperhapsthatwassimplyReneeseeinginhisfacewhatsheknewwasinhis
heart.Liketheirfather,JPwascold,ruthless,andmanipulative,whilestilleasily
slippingintoanaffable,disarmingpersonawhennecessary.Itmadehimanexcellent
businessman,butnotsomeoneyoureallywantedtosharearoomwith.
“Morning.IseetheGreatWhiteNorthhassuckedoutallyourmanners,”he
182
saidcoolly,pluckingapastryfromoneofthetrayslaidoutonthefarendoftheisland.
“Mannersareforpeopleyourespect,”Reneeresponded,iceinherownvoice,
focusingonhertasktoavoidhisscrutinizingstare.ShetriednottothinkaboutwhatJP
wasdoingoverattheirgrandparents’housesoearly,suspectinghehadcomespecifically
toharassher.
JPletoutasoundthatwasn’tquiteascoffashedrewcloser,practicallyinher
personalspace,leaningonthecounterandcrossinghisarmsonhischest,accustomed
tousinghissizetointimidateothers.
“Myboyfriendisbiggerthanyou,”Reneesaidwithoutlookingathim,dumping
somedicedceleryintoabowlandmovingontothenextbunch.“Soyoucanstop.”
NowJPlaughed.“Iheardyouwereseeingsomeoneupthere.Doesheridea
horsetoschool?”
ReneelookedupatJPonlysohecouldseeherrollhereyesbeforereturningto
herwork.Shedidwonderhowhe’dheardaboutKai.Itwasn’tlikehewasasecret,but
ReneewasreallyonlyclosewithhermawmawandLuc,andshedoubtedeitheroneof
themwouldhavetoldJPmuchofanything.“Noteveryoneisahick,youknow.”
“Well,younevertalktome,”JPsaid,snatchingoneofthecarrotsshehadyet
tosliceandtakingabig,obnoxiouscrunchingbiteoutofit,rightnearherface,grinning
insatisfaction.“WhenIthinkofIowa,Ithinkofcornandscarecrowsandguysfucking
sheep.”
“Ireallydon’tneedtohearaboutyoursexualfantasies,”Reneesaid,crossingto
thesinktorinsesomemorecelery,eventhoughshehadalreadywashedeverything,just
togiveherselfsomespace.
“Ijustwanttomakesureyou’renotdatingsomeloser,”JPsaid,ignoringher
comment.
Reneelaughed,asharp,bittersound,purposefullyshakingofftheexcesswater
soJPwouldgetwet.“You’rehilarious.”
ThismadeJPscowlandtightenhisgriponhisarms.“Whatthefuckisthat
supposedtomean?”
Reneemethiseyesinachallenge,butsaidnothing.
“Idon’tknowwhatthehellhappenedbetweenyouandJude.Hewon’ttellme.
Butyoushouldreallygrowupalready.He’sagoodguy,andhe’sstillcrazyaboutyou.
Maybewhenyou’redoneplayingfarmwithyourlittlecowboyyou’llcometoyour
senses.”
Reneestiffened,grippingtheknifesotightlyherknucklesturnedwhite.“Ihave
aknife,JP.Don’tmakemeuseit.”
JPletoutasigh,butshenoticedhedidshifttotheoppositecounter,putting
somedistancebetweenthem.Heleanedcasuallyenoughagainstit,butReneecountedit
asasmallvictoryandwilledherselfnottosmile.“You’realwayssomelodramatic.Jude’s
notevenintown.Hewentwithhisparentsandcurrentgirlfriendonsomecruise,”JP
explained,wavinghishandasiftosignalhowunimportantthedetailswere.
Reneewasgratefulfortheopportunitytoregainhercomposure,focusingon
herchopping,takingoutherfrustrationsonthecelery.“IfJudelovesmesomuch,”she
said,hervoicedrippingwithscorn,“whyisheoutgallivantingonacruisewithsome
bimbo?”
JPfrowned,butsaidnothing,asifwhatReneesaiddidn’tmeritaresponse.
Instead,hetookanothersharpbiteofthecarrotandleftwithoutanotherword.
Reneeletoutalongsighofrelief,gratefulforthepeaceandquiet,theonly
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soundsthechop,chop,chopasshecontinuedherprepandthebirdsongoutsidethe
window.Thesilencewassoonfractured,though,withtheraisedmalevoicesofher
brothersexchangingincreasinglycreativeinsultsateachother.Well,mostofthetrue
creativitywasonLuc’spart,notsurprisingly.
“Getbacktomewhenyoucancomeupwithsomethingthat’snotatrite
epithet,”Lucspatjustoutsidethedoorway.JPoftenaccusedLucofbeingstupid,ofonly
knowinghowtodoafewscribblesonpaperortosspaintonacanvas,andLucneverlost
theopportunitytoshowoffhisimpressivevocabulary.“Asshole,”Lucsaidashewalked
throughintothekitchen,andReneewasn’tentirelysureifitwasafinalpointtohislast
jabattheirbrother,orifitweredirectedtowardReneeaboutJP.
Reneejustshookherheadandsmiledasshecontinuedtochop.
Lucsunkintooneofthebarstoolsandleanedonthecounter,supportinghis
headonhishand,watchingher.“Wow,you’rearmedandJPisn’tbleeding.You’rea
betterpersonthanIam.”
Reneestuckouthertongue.“Don’tmakemehurtyouinstead,Lulu.”
Lucgroaned.“YouknowIhatethatnickname,”hewhined,hisvoicecracking.
Luc’svoicehadchangedalmostentirely,butoccasionally,inmomentslikethis,it’d
break,becominghigherpitched.Hehatedit,especiallywhenhewastryingtomakea
pointaboutnotbeingachildanymore,likenow.
“Hey,LittleLuluwasawesome.”Reneescoopedherlatestchoppingsintoa
bowlandburstoutintothecartoontheme,“‘Theclocksaysseventhirty;it’sreallyafter
ten.LookslikeLulu’sbeenrepairingitagain.’”
Luctrieddesperatelynottogetsuckedin,butasReneestartedinonthe
chorus,hecouldn’tresist,burstingintoasmileandsingingalong,“‘LittleLulu,Ilove
you-lujustthesame,thesame.LittleLulu,Iloveyou-lujustthesame.’”
LucandReneelaughedtogetherforamoment,buthissmilefaded.“Youknow
Luluwasagirl,right?”
“Yeah,butshewasabadass,andshehadhairlikeus,too.”
ReneenoticedLuc’seyeslookedhauntedforamomentbeforeheflasheda
painedsmileandhoppedoffthestool,huggingherfrombehind,restinghischinonher
head.
“Imissyou,sis.IloveNOCCA,butI’msoreadytogetoutofhere.”Hesighed
heavily.
Reneedroppedtheknifeandturned,kissinghimonthecheek.“Iowaisa
millionmilesfromhere,butyouknowyoucanalwayscallmeifyouneedtotalk,right?
Aboutanything.”Sheputextraemphasisonthatlastword,raisingherbrows.
“Anything.”Shetriedtocorralsomeofhisbangs,onlytohavethecurlsspringoutand
fallbackinplaceagain.
Lucsmiled.“Seriously,though.CallmeLuluagainandImighthavetopickJP
asmyfavoritesibling.”
Reneelaughed,winked.“Yeah,nowayyouhatethatnicknamethatmuch.”
Jonwassittinginhiscar,parkedinthestreetnotfarfromVicky’sparents’house,trying
togethimselfundercontrol.Vickysqueezedhishandencouragingly.“Itwon’tbethat
bad.Ipromise.”
Jonlaughednervously,pushedhishandthroughhishair,whichdidn’tworkso
wellwhenhewaswearinggloves.Apparently,thatmadethestrandsstandupcrazily,
becausesoonVickywaslaughing,abarehandreachingintohishairtosmoothitback
184
down.
“Ifthingsgettobetoomuch,noonebutmeknowsyou’renotstilloncall.You
canalwaysduckoutandusethehospitalasanexcuse.”Sheflashedhimasmile,leaned
forwardtosnatchaquickpeck.
Jonnodded,butsecretly,hewishedhe’dsnaggedsomeofKai’sanxietymeds
onhiswayout.Itdidn’thelpthathehadthatlingeringpitinhisstomachaboutKai.Yes,
hewasstillmadathisbrother,butevenafterthesexthatmorning,Jonhadn’tmanaged
morethanacouplehoursbeforethedreamswokehimagain.
Vickyfrownedathim.“Ifyoudon’twanttodothis—”
“No,no,”Jonsaid,shuttingoffthecarasiftoprovehispoint.“I’mjustall
fuckedupwithwhathappenedonTuesday,Ihaven’tsleptforshit,andhonestly,I’m
freakingthefuckoutalittleaboutmeetingyourentireextendedfamilyallatonce.”
Vickysmirked.“Eh,it’slikejumpingintothecoldwater.Gettheshockover
withquick,right?”Vickypushedherdooropenandclimbedout,soJondidthesame.
“Besides?What’stheworstthatcouldhappen?Eveniftheydon’tlikeyou,thatwon’t
changehowIfeelaboutyou,orwhatwehavetogether,”Vickyadded,layingahandon
herstomach.
Jonsmiledfaintly,buthewasn’tconvinced.Hedidn’tknowmuchabout
family,buthefoundithardtobelievethatthingsbetweenhimandVickycouldreally
workifhersdecidedtheydidn’tlikehim.Hesnaggedhisbagfromtheback,withhis
insulin,syringes,andtestingsupplies,andlockedthecar,joiningVickyontheroad,
sinceitwassaltedandcleared,unlikethesidewalks,whichlookedprettyprecarious.
Jonidlyobservedthehousesinthisneighborhood,thoughnotbrandnew,
wereenormous,almostpalatial.Vicky’sfamilyobviouslyhadmoney.Perhapsnotthe
samekindofmoneyasJon’sadoptedfather,butitstillsurprisedhim.Vickylived
modestly,andthoughsheownedherowndecentlysizedhome,Jonhadn’tthought
muchofit,sinceshewasolderthanhim,hadawell-payingjob,andhadpresumably
beensinglealongtime.
Vickylinkedherarminhis.“Justdon’tmentionthepregnancy,OK?My
family’sprettyCatholic.”Shelaughed.“Well,that’sanunderstatement.It’sbetterthey
don’tknow.”
“Yeah,”Jonsaidastheywalkeduptothefrontdoor.“Ireallywanttostart
talkingaboutoursexlifetoyour—”
Thefrontdooropenedbeforethey’devengottenhalfwaytoit,awomaninher
early40swhohadVicky’sface,butwasshorter,plumper,withtotallydifferenthair,
camedashingout.“Vic!”Thewomansquealed.“Oh.My.God.Whydidn’tyoutellme
yourmanwassohandsome?”
“Uh...”Jonfelthimselfblushingfiercelyandhopedthatitwascoldenough
hischeekswerealreadyflushed.
“Jesus,Viv.Can’tweatleastgetinside?It’sfreezingouthere!”
“Zerodegrees,withthewindchill,”Vivianreported,takingJon’shandand
leadinghiminlikealostchild,babblingtheentiretimeandmakingJonlookoverhis
shoulderpleadinglytoVicky.
“I’mVivian,Vicky’soldestsister,incaseit’snotalreadyobvious!”shesaidas
shepulledJonaway.Henoticedimmediatelyshespokeinaveryanimatedway,likeshe
mighthavebeenacheerleaderatonetimeandhadneverreallygrownoutofthe
exuberance.“Wow,youhaveamazingeyes!Aretheyblue?Orgray?”Shestoodupontip
toes,leaningwayintoJon’spersonalspace,asiftryingtogetabetterlook,andJontook
185
areflexivestepback.Shelaughed.“Here,letmetakeyourcoat,”shesaidasshe
practicallyforciblystrippedJon’slongwoolcoatoff,tanglingthestrapofhisbaginthe
arms.
ViviancontinuedtobabbleasVickyjoinedthem,removingherowncoatand
hangingitupononeofseveralstandaloneracksapparentlybroughtoutforthesole
purposeofgivingherenormousextendedfamilyaplacetohangtheirouterwear.Jon
noticedtherackswerealreadyprettyfull,whichmeantmostofVicky’srelativeshad
alreadyarrived.
WhenViviancontinuedtoinsistontakingJon’sbag,Vickyfinallysteppedin,
whisperedsomethinginhersister’searbeforeguidingJontowardthekitchen.
“Vic,Idon’tknowifIcandothis,”Jonsaidsincerely.Socialsituationshad
neverbeenhisforte,andhewasalreadyfeelingoverwhelmed.
“It’sallright.Vivisjustalittle...vivacious,”Vickysaidwithalaughatthe
subtlepun.
Thekitchenwasenormous,practicallycommercialsized,andbustlingwith
women,allatvariousstagesoffoodpreparation.Moresisters,somecousins,aunts,
grandmothers,wives,andVicky’smom,thoughJoncouldn’ttellwhowaswho.
“Hey,everyone,”Vickysaidinaloudvoice,makingthechattertemporarily
stopandeveryonelookup.“ThisisJon.Myboyfriend.”ThenVickystartedpointingto
eachwomaninthegroup,makingintroductions,thoughJonquicklylosttrackofnames.
Finally,amiddle-agedwomansteppedforward,andJonknewimmediatelythiswas
Vicky’smother.“Ma,thisisJon.Jon,mymother,Margaret.”
SheeyedJonupanddown,thensteppedcloserandputherhandsonhim,
squeezinghisshoulder,tappinghischeek,almostasifhewereapieceoflivestockshe
wasexaminingforsignsofweaknessbeforeapurchase.Jondidhisbesttonotstepback
orjerkawayandhopefullynotlookasterrifiedandmortifiedashefelt.
“So,”Margaretsaidaftersheseemedsatisfiedenough.“You’reCatholic?”
“Technically.”
Margaretfrowned.“You’vebeenconfirmed?”
Jonnoticedthewomeninthekitchenhadallgonebacktotheirwork,yetwere
stillwatchingtheexchangesurreptitiously.
“Yes.”Jonhadcompletedhisconfirmationonlyafewmonthsbeforehis
parentswerekilled.Neitherofthemhadbeenincrediblyreligious,butthey’dinsisted
Jongothroughallthesacraments.Sometimes,whenhismomwasinoneofhermanias,
she’dgotochurcheveryday,fillthehousewithvotivecandles,saytherosaryoverand
overlikeaderangednun.Once,beforeSarawasborn,she’dadmittedthereligious
fanaticismwasawaytocleansehersinssoGodwouldcureKai.ItsurprisedJonhow
muchthatoldmemorystillhurt.
MargaretwaslookingatJonexpectantly.
“St.AnthonyofPadua,”heresponded,assumingshe’dwantedtoknowwhich
patronsainthe’dchosenforhimself.
Margaretseemedtoconsiderthis,frowning,beforesheasked,“Youdon’tgoto
mass?”
JonlookedatVickyforhelp,wonderinghowhonestheshouldbe,butshejust
shrugged.Thetruthwas,JonhadgonetothemainCatholicchurchintown—which
happenedtobearhissaint’sname(thoughthatwasn’tthechurchhismotherhad
attended),andwhomsomeofthelessreligiouslocalsreferredtoasthe“StarWars
Church”(anawfulpunon“Padua/Padawan”)—afewtimesduringKai’sfinalyearpre186
transplant.He’dbeendesperateenoughtohopelightingsomecandlesandprayingtoa
Godhewasn’tsurehebelievedinwouldbeenoughtosaveKai.PerhapsthefactthatKai
hadlivedshouldhaveturnedJonintoabeliever,butthesadtruthwasthechurch
remindedhimofKai’sworstdays,andhecouldn’tstandtogoback.
Finally,hetookinabreath,letitoutslowly.“No,ma’am.Myschedulekeeps
meprettybusy.”
Margaretseemedtoconsiderthis.“You’readoctor?”
Heswallowed.“Yes,ma’am.I’mapulmonologist.Mostlyinpatient,butVicky
andIworktogetherintheoutpatientclinic.”
“Andwhatdoesyourfatherdo?”
JondartedhiseyesatVicky,whowasglaringdaggersathermother,butsaying
nothing.
“MyparentspassedawaywhenIwasfourteen.”
Margaret’sexpressiondidn’tchange.“Sowhoraisedyou?”
Jonswallowedagain.Hadn’tVickytoldhermotheranythingabouthim?“I
spentsometimeinfostercare,thenIwasadopted.Myadoptivefatherpaidformetogo
toschool.”
“Soyoudon’thaveanyfamily?”
“Ihaveayoungerbrother.”Jonfelthimselfsweating.Eventhoughthetopof
Margaret’sheadcameuponlytohischin,shewasincrediblyintimidating.Jonbeganto
seewhereVickygotsomeofherassertiveness,butawarningabouttheinterrogation
would’vebeennice.
Margaretlookedaround,asifwonderingwhereKaiwas,asifheshouldhave
appearedsuddenly.
JonglancedatVicky,thenclearedhisthroat.“IsitallrightifIputmyinsulin
inthefridge?”
Margaretdidn’timmediatelyrespond,stillstaringhimdown.Vickyhadtold
hermomabouthisdiabetes,atleast,right?Shit.Wasshegoingtobeoffendedifhe
didn’tgobbleuppotatoesandbreadandpie?
“Imean,ifit’saproblem—”
Margaretledhimtothefridge,openingit,peeringinsideforamoment.“How
muchspacedoyouneed?”
“Uh,notmuch.Justenoughforonevial.”Jonfishedthevialoutofhisbagand
showedittoher.
“Glass?”
Jon’seyebrowsknit,buthefinallynodded.“Yes?”
Margarettookitfromhim,examiningitforamoment,whethertoproveitwas
whatJonsaiditwas,merelyoutofcuriosity,orwhat,hewasn’tsure.Thensheshuffled
afewthingsinoneofthedoorsandshoveditinwhereitwouldn’tbeatriskforfalling.
Shepointed,lookingathim,tomakeitclearwhereitwas,thenshutthedoor.
“Thankyou.”Jontriednottosoundlikeaballoondeflatingwhenheletouta
sighofrelief.
“Istheresomewherewecankeephisbag?Somewherethekidscan’tgettoit?
Hehassyringesinthere,andhistestingkit,”Vickysaid,jumpingin.Finally.
Margaretnodded,nudgedherheadtowardthetopofthefridge,andVickytook
thecue,takingJon’sbagandputtingitinthecabinetabovetheappliance.
Jonwashopingtheinterviewwasover,butMargaretlookedhimoveragain.
“Dinnerwon’tbereadyforanothertwo,threehours.Butifyouneedtoeat
187
beforethen,justletmeknowandI’llroundsomethingupforyou.Youwon’toffendme.”
Jonwasshockedenoughheblinked,lookedatVickybeforeregaininghis
composure.“Thankyou,ma’am.I’mgoodrightnow,butImightneedalittlesomething
later.”
Margaretsmiledforthefirsttimeandpattedhisshoulder.“Welcometoour
home.Gomeettherestofthefamily.Ihaveworktodo.”
Onceoutofthekitchen,Jonfeltlikehe’dsurfacedafterbeingunderwaterfor
fiveminutes,takinginahuge,deepbreath.“Fuck,Vicky,”hewhispered.
Vickysmoothedhisback.“Sorry.Iprobablyshouldhavewarnedyoumymom
canbeabit...intense.”
“Noshit.”
“Wereyoureallyconfirmed?‘CauseKaialwaysstruckmeasthebullshitterin
thefamily.”Vickyloweredhervoicewhensheswore,asifhermotherwouldsomehow
beabletohear,despitethedistance,backgroundcommotion,andthefactthatshewas
alreadywhispering.
Jonnodded.Thoughtforamoment,thenadmitted,“Mymomwasoff-and-on
fanaticallyCatholic,dependingonhowshewascycling—”
“Youdiditforher?”
JonhadopenedhismouthtosaysomethingwhenViviancamemarchingin
withsixotherpeople.Jon’sstomachfell.Themenandwomenlookedtoomuchalikefor
themtobeanythingotherthantherestofVicky’ssiblings.
Amusingly,theyalllinedupinarow,likesomethingoutofTheSoundof
Music,anditbecameobviousprettyquicklythatVivianwastheleader.Especiallywhen
shetriedtonudgeVickyintoplacewiththeothers.
“I’mprettysureJonknowsmealready,”Vickysmirked.
Vivianrolledhereyes,annoyed,andtookherownplaceatJon’sfarleft.
Presumably,theywerearrangedinbirthorder,withVivianatoneendandtwo
identical-lookingguysacoupleyearsolderthanKaiattheother.
Onebyone,eachsiblingsteppedforward,introducingthemselves,statingtheir
name,whattheydid,theirspouse’sname,andanypertinentinformationtheydeemed
worthy.TherewasnowayJonwasgoingtorememberwhowaswho,sincealleight
siblingswereapparently“V”names:Vivian,Valerie,Vincent,Vaughn,Veronica,and
VerneandVance—theyoungest,identicaltwins—plusVicky,ofcourse.Jonwasn’tsure
whereVickyfitinamongthegroup,buthefigureditwassomewherebetweenValerie
andVeronica.Jonnoticedallsevensiblings—eventhetwins,whowereonly26,they’d
revealed—weremarriedwithchildren.MeaningVickywastheonesolewolfinthepack.
Ofthegroup,JonlikedVeronicathebest—theyoungestdaughter,lookinglike
shewasabouthisage,plusorminusayearortwo,withhairjustlikeVicky’s,thoughshe
keptitshort.Thetwinsalsoseemedprettymischievous,andtheirplayful,joking
personalitiesremindedhimofKai,whenKaiwasn’thidingbehindhisthickprotective
barriers.WallsthatkeptevenJonout,herememberedbitterly,forcinghisemotionsnot
toshowonhisface.
Jonshookhandswitheveryone,laughedatafewjokes—mostlyathisexpense,
primarilyabouthisweight,especiallysinceexceptforVicky,Veronica,andthetwins,
theywereallalittleportly.
Finally,thesiblingsdispersed,andJoncouldn’thelplayingaheadonVicky’s
shoulder.“Didyourparentsnameallofyou‘V’namesjusttomesswithpoorhapless
futurespouses?”
188
Vickylaughed.“Savesatonofmoneyonmonogramming,right?”
Theyhardlyenjoyedtheirmomenttogetherwhen...anaunt?maybe?of
Vicky’semergedfromthekitchen,lookingabitharried.“Yourmotherneedsyou.”
Vickysighed,lookedatJonapologetically.“I’llberightback.”Shekissedhis
cheek,andhadhardlypulledawaywhenVeronicaslippedherarmintohis.
Veronicagrinned.“I’llwatchhimforyou.”
Vickysighedagain,abitmoreexasperated.“Behave,”shecautionedhersister
beforedashingoffbackintothekitchen.
“Valerie,right?”Jontried.Hehonestlycouldn’thaverememberedallseven
siblingsnames,letalonewhichbelongedtowhom,ifhislifedependedonit.
Veronicalaughed.“Veronica.Butit’sOK.Evenourmomnevergetsusall
right.”Shesmiledbigger,toreassureJonitreallydidn’tbotherher.“Maybeit’llhelpif
youcallmeRoni.”
“Roni?”
“Like‘Toni,’butwithan‘R.’It’sagoodwaytostandoutamongaseaof‘V’s,’”
sheexplained.“ButifyoumakeaRice-a-ronijoke,Imighthavetohurtyou.”Roni
wasn’tastallasVicky,whowasseveralinchesshorterthanJon,buthebelievedher.
“PromisetonevercallmeJonathan,andwe’regolden.”Joncouldtolerate
beingcalledalmostanythingthatwasn’thisname,but“Jonathan”alwaysirkedhim.
There’dbeenaresidentinhismedicineprogramwhoneverceasedtodothat,nomatter
howmanytimesJonexplainedthathisnamewas“Jon”;itwasn’tshortforanything.
RoninoddedwithaslimsmileassheledJonthroughthefamilyroom.She
didn’tstoptomakeformalintroductionstothegaggleofmengatheredaroundabigscreenTV,watchingfootball.Thoughitlookedmoreliketheywereyellingateachother
thanreallywatchingthegame.Sheleanedintowhisper.“Thehusbands,ourfather,
grandfathers,uncles,andafewcousins.”Nooneseemedtonoticethemasshedirected
himtowardanotherroom.“Ah,hereweare,”shesaid,pushingadooropen.
Alargeenclosedporch,completewithwhitewickerfurniture.Itwascold,the
roomobviouslynotheated,butthenumerouslargewindowsmeantitwasn’t
unpleasant.Aftertheloudstuffinessofthemainhouse—atleastthetworoomsJonhad
seen—kitchenforthewomenandfamilyroomforthemen—thesunroomfelt
delightfullypeaceful.
AsifsensingJon’smood,Ronigrinned.“Exactly.Plus,it’sfarenoughfromthe
playroomsthatyoucan’tevenheartherugratsrunningaroundupstairs.Iswear,these
familythingsareworthit,ifonlybecausetheyoungercousinswatchthebratsandgive
usmomsabreak.”SomethingchangedinhersmileasshepushedJonintooneofthe
sofas.“You’llappreciatewhatImeansomeday.”
Jonwatchedasshesanktoherkneesandpulledsomethingoutfrom
underneathoneoftheothercouches.Itlookedlikeasmall,soft-walledcooler,whichshe
unzippedonlypartially,removingabottleofbeer.Shewaveditathim.
“Ishouldn’t.”
Shelaughed.“Ifyouwanttogetthroughtherestoftoday,you’llneedone.
Trustme.”
Jonleanedforwardtoacceptit,thoughhedidn’topenit,debating.Ontheone
hand,hewasbetweenmeals,soitwouldn’tspikehisbloodsugarasbadly,butonthe
other,havingamostlyemptystomachmeanthe’dgetdrunkeasier.Herememberedthe
lasttimehe’dgottendrunk,atVicky’sfriend’sparty.Whichhadledtosex,which,ifthe
mathwasright,couldhavebeenthenighthegotVickypregnant.
189
RonilaughedatJon’scontemplativefrownasshestashedherprizeagainand
joinedhimonthecouchwithherownbeer.Shedidn’tcommentonhisunopenedbrew,
twistingthecapoffherownandtakingagratefulgulp.“Ourmomdoesn’treallyapprove
ofwomendrinkingbeer,”sheexplained.“Plus,themeninthisfamilydrinkbeerlike
mostpeoplebreatheair,andifIdidn’tstashsomeinhereinadvance,”sheadded,
gesturingwiththeneckofthebottletowardherhidingspace,“I’dnevermakeitthrough
thesethingswithmysanityintact.”Shetookasip,thenlaughed.“Probablynotwhatyou
wanttohearrightnow.”
ThatmadeJonrelax,though.Roniwaseasytotalkto,evenifhehadn’t
actuallysaidmuch,remindinghimofheroldersister.ShelookedalotlikeVicky,too,
onlyshewasclosertoJon’sage,probablysomewherebetween28and32,andherface
wasmoreopen,lessseriousthanhersister’s.Maybealittleplainer;notthatshewasn’t
beautiful—putherandVicky’spicturessidebysidewhentheywerethesameage,and
youcouldeasilyhavemistakenonefortheother—butshelackedacertaindelicateness
thatVickyhad.OrmaybeitwassimplythatJonlovedVicky.Heblinkedwhenhe
realizedwhathe’djustthought,thensmiledasitdawnedonhimhowmuchhereally
did.
Roni,apparentlyjustasperceptiveasheroldersister,winked.“So.Youand
Vicky,huh?”
Jonnodded.Thoughtaboutopeningthebeeragain.
“Howlonghaveyouguysofficiallybeen...”sheshrugged,wavingherbeer,as
ifnotsurehowtofinishthesentence.
“Onlyafewmonths,butwe’veknowneachotherforyears.”
Ronitookalongslugofbeer.“Noshit.Iwaswonderingifyoutwowereever
goingtogettogether.”
Jonstaredather.
Ronilaughed.Shelaughedfreely,easily,farmorethanVicky.“VicandIare
close.Alwayshavebeen.Maybebecausewe’resixyearsapart,whichmeantwenever
wenttothesameschoolsorweredatingthesameguysatthesametime,etc.,etc.”She
shrugged.“Evenbefore...this,”shesaid,pointingtoJonandofftowardthehouse,asif
tosuggestthetwoofthem,“Vickytalkedaboutyouallthetime.”
ThisrevelationcaughtJonoffguard.NotthatitshouldbesurprisingthatVicky
talkedtoatleastoneofherthreesistersaboutherlife,ofcourse.ButitstruckJonas
surprisinghowmuchVickyhadapparentlybeenthinkingofhimevenbeforethey’d
finallystartedseeingeachotherromantically.
Ronilaughedagain.“Relax,Vic’snotnearlyasclosewiththerestofthesiblings
assheiswithme.”Thenshefrowneddeeply,whichcontrastedsharplywithherlight,
relaxedmoodthathadcoloredherfacepreviously,andtookalongpullofherbeer.
“Someofthemhavebeenprettyshittoherovertheyears,actually,”sheremarked,
almostasiftalkingtoherself.
Jonsensedtherewasmoretothestory.MaybebecauseVickywasn’tmarried?
ShehadsaidthatherfamilywasveryCatholic.Jonthoughtaboutasking,buthewasn’t
reallysurehow.WasitwrongtogossipaboutVickybehindherback?WouldJonbemad
ifVickyhadsatdownwithKaiatsomepointtopryoutthedetailsofhispast?Notthat
KaicouldreallytellVickyanythingshedidn’talreadyknow.
Ronishookherhead,plantedasmileonherface,asifrealizingshewaswading
intosomethingsticky.“Youtwoareserious,though,right?”
Jonnodded.Smiledsweetly.“Yeah.Yeah,weare.”
190
RonieyedJonwithasidewaysglance,asifdebatingwhethertosaysomething
ornot.Finally,sheasked,“Howfaralong?”
Jon’seyebrowsfurrowed,andhemayhaveletoutasoundlike,“Huh?”
Ronistudiedhim,asiftryingtodecideifhewasfeigningconfusionornot.
“Don’ttellmeshedraggedyouherewithouttellingyou.”
Jonblinked.ThingshadbeengoingwellbetweenhimandRoni,evenifshehad
beencontrollingtheconversation,butnowJonwaswellandtrulylost.Hewasn’tsureif
washiscluelessnessaboutthesubtletiesofcommunicationthatwomenseemedtobe
mastersof,orifitwasjusthissocialineptitude.
Thankfully,Vickyappearedfromthedoorwayofftohisright,squeezinghis
shoulderasshesunkintotheseatbesidehim.“Tellhimwhat?”
ThesistersexchangedlooksthatJoncouldneverinterpret,andthetense
silencebetweenthemstretched.
Finally,Ronistoodupandsmirked.“I’mgonnagetanotherbeer.Youwant
one,Vic?”sheasked,butshedrawledthequestion,raisinghereyebrows.
“I’mgood,”Vickyrespondedtightly,andJonwishedthatsomeonewouldjust
tellhimwhatthehellwasgoingon.
Amomentlater,Ronireturnedwithhersecondbeer,butinsteadofretaking
herseat,shesteppedforwardandcoppedafeelofoneofVicky’sbreasts,makingher
yelp,andJonjumpinreflexivesurprise.
“Whatthehell,Roni?!”
“Youinyoursecondtrimesteryet?You’renotreallyshowing.Well,except...”
Roninudgedherbeertowardhersister’schestbeforeopeningit,pleasedaspunchwith
herself.
Ohshit,Jonthought,andimmediatelylookedtoVicky,whowaspissed.He
helduphishandsinsurrender,stillholdinghisunopenedbeer,hisfacedesperately
tryingtoconvey,“Ididn’ttellher,Iswear!”Thebeersuddenlyseemedlikeagoodidea,
soJontwisteditopenandtookalongpull.Itwasharshlybitteronhistongue,buthe
swalloweditanyway.
NowVickywasfrowning,andJonwasn’tlookingforwardtobeinglectured
aboutdrinkingontopofthealreadytensesituation,butthenherealizedshewasn’tso
muchmadasupset.Lookingatthebeeralmostlongingly.Shetookabreath,foundJon’s
freehand,andsqueezedit.Inalowvoice,shesaid,“I’maboutnineweeks.”Jonrealized
Vickylookedreadytocry,andhewasn’tsurehowtohandlethat,becausehecouldn’t
remembereverseeingVickycry.
“YouknowIwon’ttell,”Ronisaid,apparentlysensingthesamething.“Butit
won’ttakelongforsomeoneelsetofigureitout,andthenthefamilygossiptrain...”
Vickytookashudderingbreath,buthereyesweredry.“Iwashopingthey’d
buymynotdrinkingasbeingonadiet.”
ThatmadeRonilaugh.“Yeah,goodluckwiththat.”
Jonlookedbetweenthetwosisters,confusedagain.
“Vicky’salwayshadthegoodmetabolisminthefamily.Sheprobablywon’t
evenbefatwhenshe’sinherlastmonth.”
ThatmadeVickyfrown,butJoncouldfeelherrelaxingbesidehim,sohe
wrappedhisarmaroundherandpulledhercloser.Hecouldsmellherhair,theperfume
ofhershampoo,andhedidn’tresistkissingthetopofherhead.Hefelthersigh,softly,
gratefully,andheknewhe’dmadetherightmove.
Roniwassmilingsweetlyatthem.“Areyoutwogettingmarried?”
191
Andthetensionwasback,atleastinJon’sspine.“Uh...”
“Roni,stop,”Vickysaid,butitwasn’therusualfirmtone.Shesoundedtired.
“What?It’sanhonestquestion.Evenwithyourfigure,youcan’thideittoo
muchlonger,andaweddingtakestimetoplan.Momisgoingtoflip.”
“Thenletherflip,”Vickysaid,pullingawayfromJonandshiftingsoshecould
seehersisterbetter.“IletherrulemylifewhenIwasyoung.ButI’mnotakidanymore,
andIcanfuckwhoIwant,whenIwant,marriedornot.”
Jonpushedbackagainstthecushionofthecouch,hopinghe’dsomehowfinally
mastertheabilitytoslinkintothefurnitureanddisappear.Ofcourse,itdidn’thappen,
andthetwosisterscontinuedtosquabbleasifheweren’tthere.AndthiswasVickywith
thesistershegotalongwith?
Suddenly,Vickyburstintosobs,anditcaughtJonbysuchsurpriseittookhim
amomenttoreact,pullingherclose.
“Vic—”Ronistarted.
“IneedsometimewithJon,OK?Alone.”
Roniseemedreluctanttoleave,butshenodded.“Iwasn’ttryingtostartafight,
really—”
“Iknow.Iknow,”Vickysaid,gettingherselfmoreundercontrol,wipingher
eyes.
RoninoddedandtookJon’sbeerforhim,thenduckedoutoftheroom.
ThedoorhadbarelyshutwhenVickywaslookingatJonandspeaking.“This
isn’tmyfirstpregnancy.”
Jonblinked,notsurehowtorespondtothat.
Vickycontinued,“Myhighschoolboyfriendknockedmeup.”Hervoice
wavered.“Iwas16.”
JonsqueezedVicky’shand,didhisbesttomakehisfaceneutral.
“Myparentsfreakedoutwhentheyfoundout,andtheymadeusgetmarried.
Rightaway.Sonoonewouldknowthat...”Shesighed.“Itwasstupid,becauseof
courseeveryoneknewanyway,especiallyinasmalltownlikethis,but...”Vickytookin
anothershudderingbreath,leanedforwardsoherheadwasrestingagainsthischeek,
savoringitforamoment.Hedidhisbesttocomforther,smoothingahandonherback,
kissingtheedgeofherfaceasbesthecouldwiththeawkwardangle.“Ilostthebaby.”
Thewordscameoutslowly,andwhentheydid,JonrealizedVickywascryingagain,so
hepulledherclose,cradlinghertightlyagainsthim,kissingthetopofherhead.
“It’sOK,”hesaidinasoftvoice.
“Idon’tmeanlikeamiscarriage,”Vickysaid,hervoicestillemotional,though
sheseemedtohaveregainedsomeofhercalm.“Iwasattheendofmysecondtrimester,
andIwentintoprematurelabor,and...”Vickypulledback,onehandcurledinthe
fabricofJon’sshoulder,hereyeslookingintohis,andthepaintherewasenoughtotear
hissoulintotinyshreds.“Theytriedtostopit,but...”Vicky’sgazedriftedofftothe
side,goingvacant.Sheshookherhead.“Thebabywasbornalive,but...”She
swallowed,closedhereyes.Joncouldseeshewastremblingnow,andhewrappedhis
handsinherstostillandcalmthem.“Hewastoopremature.He...died.”
JonsawafewstraytearstracedownVicky’scheeks,andhereleasedoneofher
handssohecouldbrushthemawaywithhisthumb.Hewasn’tsureifheshouldsay
anything.Thecircumstances,whilenotentirelythesame,remindedJonofKai'sbirth,
thoughJonhadn'ttoldanyoneaboutthat,andnowdefinitelywasn'tthetime.Instead,
heasked,“Isthat...isthatpartofhowyouknewwhatthatlastyearformewaslike?
192
WithKai?”
Vickywipedhernosewiththesideofherhand,shrugged.“Ineverreally...I
didn’tthinkofitthatway,exactly,butmaybe.”Shetookinadeepbreath.“He...he’d
bealmostKai’sagenow,youknow?”
“Vic—”Jonstartedtosay,buthisvoicebroke.
Shenoddedsadly.
“Didhehaveaname?”
Afewmoretearsescaped,tracingtheirwayalonghercheeks.“Notofficially.
But...IalwaysthoughtofhimasAndrew.”
Jonsmoothedsomehairoutofherface,lettinghisfingerslingeronherskin
justamomentlongerthannecessary,noticinghowhereyesfellpartiallyclosedasshe
leanedintohistouch.“Whathappened...to...your...husband?”Heregrettedthe
questionalmostassoonasitwasoffhislips.“I’msorry.Youdon’thavetoanswerthat
now.”
Sheshookherheadagainsthishand.“Ifwe’regoingtobeafamily,thenyou
needtoknow.”Sheturnedherheadenoughtokisshispalm,thenpulledhishandaway
andhelditinherlap.“Iwas...Iwasprettymessedupafterthat.Iwasn’teven18,
dealingwithlosingababy,andahusbandwhodidn’twanttobestuckwithme,
especiallynowthatwehadno‘reason’tobetogether.Andafamilywhowasn’tthemost
understandingofthesituation.”Vicky’slipstrembled,butshedidn’tcryagain.“Some
saiditwasGodpunishingmeforgettingpregnantoutofwedlock.”
“Jesus.”
Vickymanagedawetlaugh.“Yeah,IwastoldmorethanoncethatGodwas
prettydisappointedwithme,andthatmybabywasgoingtoburninhellforeversincehe
hadn’tbeenbaptized.”SomethinginVicky’sfacecracked,andthoughshedidn’tcry,the
paintherewashardforJontosee.Butsheshookherhead,asifdismissingit.“Chuck.
Thatwas...myhusband’sname....HeleftnotlongafterAndrew...”Shetookina
breath.“Afterourbabydied,wetriedtostaytogetherforawhile,buthefinallydecided
themarriagewaspointlesswithout....”Vickyshookherhead.“Heleftoneday,soI
movedbackinwithmyparentsforawhile.Ittookmetimetogetmyheadbackon,
finishhighschool,allthat....AndyearsbeforeIcouldgetadivorceandchangemy
nameback.Idon’tknowwhathappenedtohim.Idon’treallycare.”
JonleanedforwardandpressedakisstoVicky’slips,justagentlepeck,before
lettinghisforeheadrestagainsthers.“I’msorry.”
Shesighedsoftly,butsaidnothingmore.
“Sothat’swhyyoudidn’tfightmeonthegettingmarriedthing?”
Shenodded.“Myfamilywon’tacceptacivilwedding,andIcan’tgetmarriedin
theCatholicchurchagainevenifIwantedto.”
“Shit,Vicky,I’msorry.Thisis...thisisallmyfault.”
Vickylaughed,pulledaway,andJonwassurprisedtoseehersmiling.“Ittakes
twototango.Andthatwastwentyyearsago,Jon.Iwantyou.AndIwantthisbaby.
Together.Andyeah,Iwantmyfamilytoloveyou,too,andtoacceptthis,butIdidwhat
theywantedoncealready,and...Ihavetodowhat’srightforme.Forallofus.”
Joncradledhercheek,smiledback.“Imightnotknowmuchaboutfamily,and
ImighthavefuckedthingsupwithKai...butIwillalwaysfightforyou.Evenifit’s
againstahundredangryCatholicrelatives.”
Vickychuckled,wrappedherarmsaroundhisneckandburiedherfaceinhis
shoulder,asifinhalinghisscenttobuoyher.“Iloveyou.”
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“Iloveyou,too.”
Vickysighedsoftly.“I’mhopingthepregnancywon’tcomeoutyet,butmake
sureyourkeysareinyourpocketjustincasetheygetoutthepitchforksduringdinner.”
Jonstaredather,worriedforasplitsecondshewasbeingserious,beforeshe
startedtolaugh,andhejoinedin.
“I’mbeingextracarefulthistime,”Vickysaid,herhandonherstomach.“The
doctorstoldmeitwasn’tmyfault,whathappened,but...”
Jonnodded.“Anyappointmentsyouwantmetogowithyou...justtellme,
andI’llworkmyschedulearoundit,OK?”Jonkissedheragain,andthistimeitgota
littlemoreheated,butthepassionwasmoreliketwosoulsmeldingthananything
sexual.“Thankyoufortellingme.Ican’tpromiseIwon’tdoorsayanythingstupid,
because,well,I’mme,but—”
Vickyshushedhimwithanotherquickkiss,thenpulledhimup.“We’dbetter
getbackbeforetheysendoutasearchparty.Roniwillkillmeifwegiveawayhersecret
beerstashandsanctuary.ThoughI’dbettercomeupwithanexcusefortheredeyes,
quick,beforethegossipmillstartsuptoobadly.”Vickyflashedhimagratefulsmile,
reachingoutforhishandagain,givingitasqueeze.“Probablytimeyoumetthemenof
thefamilyanyway.Comeon.”
DespiteKai’saffectionatenicknameforthegatheringatDavidandMegan’shouseas
“DeafieStrayThanksgiving,”Kaiwasn’ttheonlyhearingpersoninattendance.Besides
Megan,ofcourse,therewasacollegegirlnamedYveworkingonherinterpretingdegree
andlicensewhowasapparentlyfromoutoftownanddecidedthegatheringwouldbe
goodpractice.Kaihadn’tcaughtherfullstory,becausehekeptgettingdistracted,
thinkinghowharditwouldbeforadeafpersontopronouncethatname.Whynotspell
itEve?
BesidesYve,therewasamiddle-agedwomannamedSuzannewhomKai
vaguelyrememberedsincehersonwashisage—Michael,maybe?Shehadn’t
fingerspelledhisname,justusedhisnamesign,precedingtotalkabouthowproudshe
wasofhim,sincehewasapparentlycurrentlyatGallaudetgettinghismaster’sdegree.It
couldhavebeenthelingeringhangoverheadache(whichwasminglingwiththe
beginningsofaZofranside-effectheadache),butitseemedalmostlikeshewasgloating
insteadofbragging.YouandMichaelwereinthesameclassandhe’sonhissecond
degreeandyoucouldbarelypasstwoclassesthissemester.
Shewasstillsigning,thoughshe’dlostKaisomewhereat“consideringa
cochlearimplant,”thoughseeminglyobliviousbecauseKaimadesuretonodandsign
inacknowledgementeveryfewminutes,hopingshewascontentenoughshewouldn’t
expectmoreofacontributionfromhimthanthat.Ahandsqueezedhisshoulder,and
Suzannefrownedattheinterruption,butDavidwassmoothasever,apologizing
profuselyandsmiling,thoughKaididn’tevencatchmostofthat.Healsodidn’tfight
whenDavidliterallypulledhimaside,facingacorner,Davidcrouchingdowninfrontof
himsotheirsigningwouldbeprivate.
“Youlooklikeyou’reabouttopassout.AreyouOK?”
Throughoutthemorning,DavidhadbeenkeepingasurreptitiouseyeonKai,as
ifheexpectedKaitobreakdownagainatanymoment.Still,DavidknewKaiwell
enoughtokeephisdistanceandnotpush.IfDavidhadfeltitnecessarytorescueKai
fromSuzanne’sdiatribes,hemustreallylookbad.Butthen,Kainormallyonlyhadthis
hardofatimestayingfocusedandconcentratingwhenEnglishwasinvolved,andhe’d
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beenprettydistracted(anddistractible)sincethey’dreturnedfromWalmart.
“Justhungover.Acoupleaspirinandsomethingtodrinkwouldprobably
help.”
DavidstudiedKaiclosely,whethertoattempttoreadbetweenKai’slines,orto
giveKaiachancetocommunicatesomethingwithoutsignsifhewasworriedabout
beingoverseen.Finally,Davidnodded,asifsatisfied,andlookedabouttostandbackup
whenheadded,“Ifyouneedtodisappearforawhile,youcanliedowninourbed.It’s
OK.”
Jon’sharshwordsoftwodaysbeforefilteredintohismind:“Theworlddoesn’t
revolvearoundyou,”andvaguely,KairealizeditwasonlytheZofrankeepinghis
stomachfromreassertingitself.Again.Honestly,theideaofretreatingtoDavid’s
bedroom,perhapsforthedurationoftheday,seemedincrediblyappealing.
Instead,heplasteredonhisbestfakesmile,theonethatcouldfoolalmost
anyone,eventhosewhoknewhimwell,andsaid,“I’llbeOK.”
Davidfrowned,butpattedKaiontheshoulderasherose,thendisappeared
intothekitchen,apparentlytogetKaiapainkillerandabeverage.
Kaistayed,staringatthewallforafewminutes,wonderingifhecouldpossibly
pullthatoffatleastuntilDavidreturnedwhenhefeltataponhisshoulder.
Heforcedhimselftonotlookasannoyedashefeltashespunaroundtoface
theperson.Atall30-somethingwomanwholookedshyanduncomfortable,asifshe
regrettedgettinghisattention.Maybehehadn’tbeenquiteasgoodatmaskinghis
grumpinessashe’dthought?
Shesmiledawkwardly,andassoonasshemadeherfirstsignKaiknew
immediatelywhereheruncertaintycamefrom.“Hi.MynameisEmma,”shesignedso
stifflyKaihadtobitebackawince.
“You’relearningASL?”Kaihadtorepeathimselfafewtimes,slowingdown
eachtime,especiallyonthefingerspelling,untilshefinallynodded.
“Thatobvious,huh?”shesaidinEnglish,thenblushed,asifrealizingherfaux
pas.“Mysonisdeaf.”
Andyou’redefinitelyhearing,Kaithought,maskinghisimpatienceinadeep
breath.“Doyouhaveasignname?”Shedidn’tgetwhathewassaying,andthoughit’d
beeasyenoughtoexplaininEnglish,hedidn’twantto.Ifherevealedhewashearing,
shemightswitchcompletelytoEnglish,andhisheadachewouldnevergetrelief.Sohe
triedadifferentapproach.Itwasn’tlikehedidn’thaveadecade-and-a-halfexperience
inmakinghimselfunderstoodwithoutspeech.“MynameisKai.”Kaifingerspelledat
glacialspeed,makingeachletterasclearaspossible.“Mynamesignis...”AndKai
demonstratedhisstandardnamesign,theletterKrolledoutfromhislips.Ithadstarted
outpartiallyasajokeathisexpense,backwhenhefirststartedschool,sincehewas
hearingbutcouldn’tspeak(sincethesignmeant“hearing”becauseitalsomeant
“speak”).Butitstuck,anditwasbetterthanmanyoftheothernamessomeofthekids
calledhim,mostlyunderthetable,wheretheteacherscouldn’tsee.
Emmafinallyseemedtounderstand.“NONAMESIGN,”sheresponded.
Kaisighed,wonderedifheshouldcorrecther.“NONENAMESIGNNONE,”
Kaifinallysigned,unabletoresist.
Shelookedathim,herheadtiltedslightly,confused.MaybeKaishouldleave
thetutoringtoMegan.
Thankfully,DavidappearedwithabottleofGatoradeandacoupletablets,
offeringthemtoKai.Kaitookthemquickly,smiledgratefullyatDavid.“Youknow
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Emma?”
Davidnodded.“Nicetoseeyou,”DavidsignedquicklyenoughKaiwassure
Emmacouldn’thavecaughtit,thenhemadehisapologiestobothofthemandheaded
offtotheothersideoftheroom,presumablytocontinueplayinghost.
“God,Isucksobadatthis,”Emmamuttered.
AsKaiswallowedthepillsandtookalongdrinktostall,hewonderedifnow
wouldbeagreattimetoresuscitatehis“pretendtobedeaf”skillsethe’dusedmorethan
onceinhislife,thoughnotrecently.Hecouldevenfurtherthelieandsayhedidn’tread
lips,thoughthatcouldpotentiallybackfire.Ifshethoughthecouldn’thearher,andif
shewascertainhecouldn’ttellwhatshewassayinganyway,shemightbabbleeven
more,andhehonestlywouldrathergobacktohiseyesglazingoveratSuzanne’ssigned
odetohersonthanhavetotrytoblockoutEmmawhininginhisear.
“Howoldisyourson?”
Emmabitherlip,watchinghimrepeathimself,perhapsreadinghislipsashe
didhisbesttomakehimselfmoreclear.HewasnotspeakingEnglishtherestoftodayif
hecouldhelpit.Finally,thelightbulbwentoff.“Nine...er...six,”sheresponded,
fumblingwithherfingers,initiallyconfusingherthumbonherindexfinger,which
meant“nine,”forherintendedthumbonpinky,meaning“six.”
“Whereishe?”Maybeitwasastupidquestion,butKaiwasseriouslygrateful
that—annoyingheariesaside—thiswasastrictlyadult-onlygathering.
“Withhisdad,”sheexplainedinhercautious,jerkingway.“Divorced?”she
asked,fingerspellingit.
Kainodded,thendemonstratedthesign,two“D”handshapesmeetingtogether
atthefingers,thendrawingapartandout.
“Thanks,”Emmasigned.“MegantoldmeyoumightteachASL...”Herface
scrunchedupasshestruggledtofigureouthowtosigntherestofthesentence.“Next
semester,”shefinished,fingerspellingbothwords,andifKaihadn’tbeenforcedintothe
hearingworld,hemighthavebeenconfused.ForDeafies,“next”didn’tmeanthesame
asitdidforhearingpeople.“Next,”toaDeafperson,meant“theoneaftertheoneafter
thisone,”ratherthan“theoneimmediatelyfollowingthisone.”“Nextexit”toahearing
personmeanttheexitimmediatelycomingup;toaDeafie,itmeanttheoneaftertheone
immediatelycomingup.Kaihadbeenlateonseveralassignmentshisfirstyearatthe
hearinghighschooluntilhe’dlearnedthatwhatheconsidered“next”Thursdaywasnot
thesame,necessarily,aswhattheteacherhadmeant.
Kaihadbeensocaughtupinmusingover“next”—therehewas,getting
distractedagain—thathe’dfailedtoanswer,orevenreacttoherstatement.Emmahad
apparentlytakenthatasmeaningshe’dmessedupandwasattemptingtoexplainin
variousotherways.Itfinallyhithim:MeganhadtoldpeoplehewasgoingtoteachASL?
Maybeshecouldhavetoldhim?Unlessshehad,andhe’dforgotten....Nowayhis
memorycouldbethatbad....Buthewasdoubtinghimself.Histhoughtswere
scattered,andhehadtroublefocusingononethingfortoolong,especiallysincehis
fightwithJonkepttryingtoseepinbetweeneachidea.Itremindedhimalittleofhis
earlydayspost-transplant,whenhismemoryandattentionwereshitandhe’dbeen
seriouslyworriedthathe’dneverbeabletofunction.
Emmawaswavingherhandinfrontofhiseyesnow,frowning.
Heshookhishead,asiftosnaphimselfbacktoreality.Ittookhimacouple
minutesmoretorememberthetopic.Finally,heasked,“Megantoldyouthat?”But
apparentlythatwasoutofEmma’scomprehension.Hesighed.“WhydidshetellyouI
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wasteachingASLnextsemester?”
EmmawatchedKai’ssigningcarefully,managingtounderstandhimfromhis
combinationofslow,clearsignsandmouthingtheharderwords.“Becauseyou’ve
taughtotherhearingpeoplebefore?”KaicringedatheruseoftheEnglishsign
“because”insteadofstructuringhersentenceinASLwitharhetorical“why?,”butsaid
nothing.KailikedMeganwellenough;she’dtamedDavidanddramaticallyimproved
Jon’ssigninginonlyafewmonths,butstickingthenewbieASLdivorceeonhimwas
cruel.
Kaihadtaughtthreehearingpeoplesign:Renee,Jake,andFrankie,hisCP
“buddy”fromCountyHouse,whohadn’tbeentherewhenhe’ddroppedbyfor
Halloween,butwhomTheWardenwouldn’ttellKaianythingabout.He’dbeonly16
now,tooearlytohaveagedout.Soeitherhe’dmanagedtogetluckyandwasadopted,
he’dbeenputintoafosterhome,orhewasdead.DespitehisCP,Frankiehadalways
beenhealthy,sofarasKaihadknown,sothelatteroptionseemedunlikely.Butthe
otheroptionsweren’tsolikely,either,sowhatthefuckdidheknow?
Apparently,Kaihadspacedoutonetimetoomany,soEmmapointedoverher
shoulder.“I’mjustgonna...”
Andshewasgone.KaiwasseriouslydebatingtakingupDavid’soffertoretreat
toabedroom,maybetrytocallJonandapologize.Fuck.Hecouldn’tfocus.Itwaskind
oflikeapanicattack,butwithoutthesweatingandhyperventilation.Maybethiswas
whatlosingyourmindwaslike.Maybethat’sexactlywhytheidiomwas“loseyour
mind,”asifitweresandslippingthroughyourfingers,slowlyescapingyourgrasp,
unabletostopit.
Renee’suncleswerefighting;herUncleEmilehadwonthedressingcontestandnowhis
brotherswereaccusinghimofcheating.Theywerealldrunk,too,whichdidn’tmake
mattersanybetter,andwhenshe’dfinallydecidedtoescapethechaosforalittlewhile,
herpawpawandJPweretryingtopullthemapart.
Theweatherwasevenmorepleasanttodaythanithadbeenwhenshe’dflown
in;inthelow70swithhardlyanyhumiditybyNewOrleans’standards.Someofher
otherrelativesweregatheredaroundchairsandtablesinthefrontportionoftheyard,
oronthebackporch,afewofthemsmoking,butafternearlyaweekofsomanyvivid
personalities,Reneeneededalittlequiettimetoherself.Soshe’dretreatedtothefar
backcorneroftheyard,sittingunderneathahugeliveoaktree,pickingatherplateof
foodandhalfwatchingherrelativesinthedistance,lostinherownthoughts.
ShemissedKaiterribly,andshecouldn’tignorehowdisappointedshe’dbeen
byhowlittlethey’dcommunicatedthisweek,especiallythepastcoupleofdays.
Althoughshecontinuedtoreassureherself,rememberKaihadsaidhewasgoingtokeep
busy,itdidn’tstopthedoubtfromwantingtosurface.Butthenshe’drememberthat,as
sillyandopenasKaicouldbewithher,hewasinnatelyaquiet,privateperson,andthey
nevertalkedmuchonthephoneathome,sowhyshouldthisbeanydifferent?
“Youlooklikesomeonejustkickedyourpuppy,”Lucsaid,somewherenearby.
Reneelookedup.Luchadscrappedhislow-cutjeansandtightT-shirtofhis
usualwardrobeforsomethingalittlenicerandmoreconservative,khakipantsanda
button-upshirtthathungtoolooselyonhisnarrowframe.Reneerealizedtheoutfit
reallydidn’tsuithim.Probablybecausetheclotheshadbeenpickedoutbytheirmother.
Sheofferedasmile.“Didtheyhavetocallthepoliceyet?”
Luclaughedashecrossedhislegsandsankdownbesideher,Indianstyle,his
197
plateinhislap.“OhGod,no.Doyouknowhowmortifiedtheparentalswouldbeifthat
happened?Andthisisn’teventheirhouse.”
Reneechuckledatthat.Sometimes,Marie—Renee’smother—remindedherof
HyacinthBucketinKeepingUpAppearances,alwaysterrifiedofwhatotherpeople
wouldthink,especiallysinceAnthony’sfamilyinparticularwasn’tfromthesame
UptownstockasEvangeline’s.(Theirmarriagehadcausedquiteastirbackintheday.)
Thetwosiblingspickedattheirfoodinrelativesilenceforawhile,watching
relativesfilterinandoutofthehouse,thoughthisfarbackintheyardtheywere
shelteredfromthenoiseandconversations,whichwerelittlemorethanbackground
noise.
“So...canIaskyousomething?”ReneeturnedtoseeLuclookingather,
seeminghesitant.
“Sure.”Sherealizedshewasn’tgoingtoeatanythingelse,soshesetherplate
aside,hopingitwouldn’tgetswarmedwithants,thatmaybethey’dgoneunderground
forthewinterdespitethemildtemperature.
“How...howdoyouknowyoulikesomeone?Like,‘boyfriend/girlfriend’like
someone?”Lucblushed,buthekepthisgazefixedonher,expectant.
Reneesmiledfaintly,thinkingaboutKaiasshespoke.“Well,Icanonlyspeak
formyself,obviously,but...it’slike,yougetthiskindoffloatyfeelinginyourstomach
whenyou’rearoundthem,sometimesevenwhenyoujustthinkofthem.Andwhenthey
touchyou,evenifit’sjustacasualbrush,itfeelslikeyournervesareonfire.Andyou
can’tstopthinkingaboutthem.Allyouwanttodoisbewiththem.Allthetime.”
Lucnervouslypushedafewbitesintohismouth,chewingslowly,asifgiving
himselfachancetothinkofwhatelsetosay.Helookedworried,troubled.Finally,he
swallowed.“Howdoyouknowifsomeonelikesyou?”
“That’salittleharder,”Reneeadmitted,tiltingherhead.“Sometimesyoucan
tellbythewaytheylookatyou,ortalktoyou.Like...it’skindofastarry-eyedlook,
andasweet,flirtysmile...”Reneerealizeditwasreallyhardtotrytoexplainhowyou
couldknowsomeonewasflirtingwithyou.“It’snotscience.Sometimes,youmightthink
someone’sflirtingandinterested,butthey’renot,they’rejustfriendly.Sometimes,you
justhavetotakeaplungeandaskthemout.Sometimesyougetlucky,andthey’llask
you.”Reneesmiledknowingly.“Istheresomeoneyouthinkyoulike?”
Luc’sblushspread,andhepushedhisbangsoutofhisfaceonlyforthemto
slidebackagain.“Yeah.”
“Atschool?”
“NOCCA.”
Reneewantedtopressfordetails,butdecidedshe’dletLuctellherwhathefelt
comfortable.“Findsomethingyou’rebothinterestedin.Like,maybethere’samovieyou
bothwanttosee,oramuseumyoubothwanttogoto,andyoucouldgotogether?That
couldgiveyoumoreofanideaofwhethershe’sinterestedornot.”
Lucstaredather,hislargeeyeswide,asifhewantedtosaysomethingelse.He
stillhadthatscaredlookinhiseyes,butfinallyherelaxedintoasmileandsaid,“Yeah,
that’sagoodidea.Thanks,sis.”
Margaretwasapparentlysuperorganized,Jondiscovered,oncetheywereledtothe
tablesfordinner.Theformallivinganddiningroomscombinedintoanenormous
space,likelynormallydividedbyfurnitureinsteadofwalls,thougheverypiecehad
evidentlybeenremovedinpreparationforthefeast.Perhapsrelocatedtoanotherroom,
198
perhapsputintostorage,Jonwasn’tsure.Intheirplacewererowsoflongtablesthat
Jonassumedwereofthefoldablevariety,thoughthey,alongwiththelinesofchairs
tuckedintothem,werecoveredwithfestivefabricinshadesofautumn.Itfeltalmost
likeasit-downdinnerforaparticularlyfancywedding.
ToJon’srelief,itseemedasifeachlongtablewasdedicatedtoaparticular
segmentofthefamily:oneforVicky’ssiblingsandtheirspouses;oneforthecousinsand
theirsignificantothers;onefortheuncles,aunts,theirspouses,andVicky’sparents;one
forthegrandparentsandgreatunclesandaunts.MargaretandVivianhadapparently
intendedparticularseatingassignments,butJonwasrelievedwhenVickypushedhim
downintooneoftheseatstowardtheendofthetable,nearRoniandherhusband,
makingescapeeasy,shouldheneedit.WhenVivianbegantocomplain,Vickyexplained
thatbecauseofhisdiabetes,Jonneededtobeabletoleavethetablequickly.Itwasn’t
reallytrue,butitwasoneofthefirsttimesinhislifeJonhadbeengratefulforhis
disease.Hewasn’tsurehecouldhavetoleratedbeing“trapped”towardtheinteriorwall,
withVivianathisearcheerleadingthroughoutdinner.
Jonwasalsogratefulthatthechildrenapparentlyatesomewhereelse,sincethe
humofconversationofdozensofadultswasallhehadtoworryabout.Still,Jonwas
feelingtiredandalittlehypoglycemic,unabletostopthinkingaboutVicky’srevelation,
analyzingandreanalyzingeverythingbothsheandRonihadsaidearlier.Whoamong
Vicky’senormousfamilyhadmistreatedher?Vickyhadn’tspecified,andthough
obviouslyaftertwodecadeswoundshadbeenmended,Joncouldn’thelpbutfeellike
theybothhadahugeneonsignovertheirheadsthatscreamed,Sexoutofmarriage!
Pregnant!
“You’resweating,”Vickywhispered,squeezinghishand.“Youshouldn’thave
waitedsolongtoeat.”
Jonsqueezedherhandback.Hedidn’twanttoadmitthathisdiscomfort
wasn’tentirelytiedtohisbloodsugar.
Sensingthis,Vickyleanedin,kissinghischeek.“Eat,andcheckyoursugar,
thencallKai.Maybeyou’llfeelbetterafter.”
Jonnodded,forcingasmileastherestofthesiblingsandspousestooktheir
seats,afewofthewomenremainingstandingtofacilitateserving.Theamountoffood,
evenconsideringhowmanypeopletherewere,wasstaggering.Andso,somany
starches.Jondecidedhe’dloaduponturkeyandham,thentakejustatasteof
everythingelse.
Onceeveryonewasserved,Vicky’sfather—hisnamewasPeter,Jonhadfinally
learnedwhenthey’dbeenintroducedbriefly—stoodupfromhisplaceattheheadofthe
centertable—andledeveryoneinaprayer,endingwiththesignofthecross,whichJon
foundhimselfgoingthroughthemotionsofevenifhehadn’tattendedmassinalong
time.
Aseveryonesatdowntoeat,conversationbegantoflow,andJonfoundhimself
relaxing.Roni’shusbandPatrickwascharmingandfunny,andthetwinsandtheirwives
—whomadeuptherestoftheirhalfofthetable—werealsoenjoyablecompany.Jon’s
terroroverbeingoverwhelmedbystrangersandtheweightofVickyandhisshared
secretfadedaway,andforprobablythefirsttimeinaverylongtime,Jonfeltthe
warmthofrealfamily.ThiswaswhatThanksgivingwasabout,Jonthought,smiling,
squeezingVicky’shand.
Butthenrealizationpiercedthehappybubble.KaiwasJon’sfamily,andhehad
saidsomehorriblethingstohiminanger.AndwhatwasoneofKai’sgreatestfears?
199
Whathadhecriedaboutwhenhe’dlosthismindbecauseofValiumwithdrawals?
Beingalone.Abandoned.
AndthatwaspreciselywhatJonhaddonetohim.
Again.
Onlythistime,ithadbeenintentional.
ThoughKaihadbeenrelievedMeganhadn’tinvitedtoomanypeople,therewerestill
morethanwouldfitaroundtheirrounddiningtable,soDavidhadrentedacouple
circularfoldingtablesandsomechairs,whichKaihadhelpedhimsetupthatmorning.
Kaiwasimmenselygratefulhe’dgottenaseatatthemaintablewithDavidandMegan
andherfamily,puttinghimcompletelyseparatefromtheannoyinghearies,sinceall
threeofMegan’sfamilymemberswereDeaf.
Kai’sappetitewasn’tgreatonagoodday,andtheZofranwasbarelykeeping
hisnauseaatbay,butastheysettleddowntoeat,KairealizedMegan’sfamilywaspretty
awesome.Aremotepartofhismindtoldhimthefoodwasgood,too,asheforced
himselftoeatitwithoutlookinglikehewantedtothroweverybitebackup.The
vegetarianloafthingMeganhadmadeforhimwasoneofthosefoods(likespinach,
whichheloved)whosesightandscentmadehisstomachchurnuneasily,butonceitwas
actuallyinhismouthtastedfantastic.Andapparentlyitwasreallynutritious,too,fullof
proteinandvitamins,orsoshetoldhim.Heshouldprobablygettherecipe,Kaithought
idly.Perhapsaddahintofastrong-scentedspice(likecurry)todistracthisstomach.
Asdinnerpassed,KaiwasabletoseehowinloveMeganandDavidwere,and
howhappyhisfriendwas.AsKaipickedathisfood,lookingaroundtheirtable,seeing
thesmilesandlaughterandsignedjokes,herealizedthiswasalmostexactlythetypeof
Thanksgivinghe’dalwaysdreamedofasakid.NoEnglish,nooneforcinghimtoeat,no
oneharassinghim.Surroundedbythewarmthoffamilyandfriends.
ButthepainofhisfightwithJonlingered,ofknowingthat,attheendofthe
day,thespellwouldbebroken,andKaiwouldhaveanemptyapartmenttogohometo.
ThatMartinwoulddiebecauseofKai,thatJonmightnevertalktohimagain.
ButKaihadmeantwell,keepingtheERvisitandallthatfromJon,hadn’the?
Hehadn’twantedJontoworry.KaiglancedoveratDavid,whowasrelatingastory
(modifiedslightlytotakeoutmentionsofCountyHouse,suggestingthey’ddormed
togetheratJSD)ofthetimetheystoleabottleofcheapwhiskyoneoftheorderlieshad
hiddeninthekitchen,andgottenincredibly,disgustinglydrunktogether.Theorderly
whosealcoholthey’dstolenhadbeentheonetofindthemthrowingupinthe
communitybathroom,buthadknownhe’dlosehisjobifhereportedthemforit.
Instead,he’dhelpedconvinceTheWardenitwasfoodpoisoning,andDavidhadhadthe
guyunderhisthumbfortherestoftheyearheworkedthere.
AcascadeoflaughterfilteredaroundhimasDavidactedoutthestory,andKai
forcedasmile,buthewaslostinhisownthoughtsagain.Whowashekidding?Kai’s
motivesforconcealingthetruthwerealwaysselfish.Justastheyhadbeenthen,getting
drunkwithDavid,theywerenow.Kaididn’ttellJonabouthisrecentlungproblems
becausehehadn’twantedJontobabyhimorharasshimconstantlyaboutbeingsick.
No,itwasmorethaneventhat:Kaihadliedduetosometwistedsenseofdenial.Aslong
asJondidn’tknowaboutKai’sbreathingproblems,Kaicouldpretendtheyweren’treal.
Couldpretendhedidn’tfaceafutureofstrugglingforair.Again.
Ultimately,Kaihadn’tkeptthesecretthathemightnotbecuredbecausehe
wantedtoprotectJon.He’ddoneit,likeeverythingelsehedid,toprotecthimself.
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Kaifelttearspricklinginhissinuses,clenchinghisteethtotrytoholdthem
back.Maybethat’sallhislifewas,Kairealized.Aseriesofjustificationstohidehow
trulyselfabsorbedhewas.KaihadconvincedhimselfthatBeccahadlefthimbecause
hisbeingsickwastoomuchforhertohandle,butmaybeshe’dreallycheatedonhim
becausehe’dbeentooneedy.Tooangry.Tooselfish.
MaybeNikki’sleavingwashisfault,too.ShehadnevertreatedhimlikeBecca,
andyettodayhehadinsinuatedshewasjustlikeher.Maybe,whenReneelefthim,too,
he’dblameherforitwhentheonlyonetrulyatfaultwashimself.Maybehecouldn’tbe
loved.Notreally.Hisparentshadn’tlovedhim.Andeventhosewhothoughttheydid—
likeJon—onlygothurtbyhim.Maybehereallywasahorribleexcuseforahuman
being,andJonwasbetteroffwithouthim,freetostarthisown,new,happyfamily
withoutKaidraggingthemdown.
DavidwaslaughingatsomethingMegan’sfatherwassigning,thoughhis
peripheralvisionwasevidentlyhonedonKai.DavidhadsensedthechangeinKai’s
thoughts,eventhoughKaiwascertainthatoutwardly,he’dkeptuphismask.ButDavid
hadknownKaifortoolong.They’dsharedtoomuch,couldcommunicatetoowellwith
eachotherthroughthesubtlestofbodylanguage.ItwaspossiblenotevenMeganwould
havenoticedtheslightalterationinDavid’seyesorface,orthewayhisshoulderstensed
subtly.
Kaiforcedhissmilealittlebrighter,shookhishead.ThenhetappedMegan’s
shoulder,thankingherforthefoodandcomplimentingheragainonthevegetarian
options,andexcusedhimself.Hisholdonhisemotionswastenuous,andifhewas
goingtoloseitagain,hewoulddosointheprivacyofthebathroom.Hewouldn’tbe
selfishenoughtodestroyMegan’sperfectThanksgiving.
ButwhatisitthattheysaytheroadtoHellispavedwith?
KaiwheeledthroughDavidandMegan’sbedroomintotheirbath.Davidneverhad
managedtogetthedoornottostick,soKaileftitproppedopenasheentered.
Immediately,hepushedtothetoiletandvomited,hisstomachspasmingwiththeurge
toemptyitself.Hefeltalittleguilty,throwingupMegan’shardwork,andthemeal,at
leastincombination,wasdefinitelynot“good”food,leavingaharsh,sourtasteinthe
backofhisthroat.Hisstomach,atleast,feltbetter.Ifonlytherestofhimdid,too.
Hepausedatthesink,sideways,sinceitwasn’taroll-under(notthathewas
usedtohavingoneanyway)andsplashedsomecoldwateronhisface,hastilyrinsedhis
mouth.Lookingathisreflection,hethought,nowonderDavidhadbeenkeepinganeye
onhim.Thoughhedidn’tlookquiteasbadashehadthatmorning—therednessinhis
eyeshadfaded,andhischeekshadmorecolor—hiseyeswerehaunted.Kaitried
slippingonafewofhisdefaultmasks,fromneutralto“I’mfine”to“disaffected”and
backagain,butnomatterwhathedid,hiseyesdidn’tchange.Theyremindedhimofhis
mother’s,thewayshe’dstaredoutfromthatphotographJonhadgivenhim.
Hetorehisgazeawayfromhisreflectionandstartedsearchingthrough
cabinetsanddrawers.Maybecuttingwouldhelptaketheedgeoff,ifonlyfortherestof
dinner.Hecouldfocusonthepainanditwouldstophimfromlosingit,whichhefelt
precariouslyclosetodoing.Dr.Millerinsistedhewasn’tcrazy,butitsureasfuckfelt
thatwayashishandstrembled,divingthroughmakeupandhairproductsand—Jesus
womenhavealotofcrap.
KaifoundDavid’srazor,whichwaselectric,andMegan’s,whichwasthe
standardsafetyvariety,bothofwhichwouldn’treallydohimmuchgood.ButKai
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couldn’tfindanythingelseremotelywithacuttingedge,notevenafuckingcuticle
clipper.IfonlyDavidhadlefthistoolsinthebathorbedroom.Surely,there’dbe
somethingthere.
Hisstomachrolledinselfdisgust,andhefelthischestjerkinward,asifhis
bodywastryingtobreakdown—again—intosobbing.Fitsthatseemedtocatchhim
moreandmoreoffguardlately,andwhichDr.Millertoldhimwerehisbody’swayof
releasingallhispentupemotions.“You’vespentmostofyourlifeburyingyourfeelings
andprojectingothers,”Dr.Millerhadsaid.“It’sliketryingtocontrolariver.
Eventually,thewaterwillburstthrough.”Itwasaninelegantanalogy,butfitting.
Kailetoutascreamoffrustration,notgivingashitifitwasloudenoughforthe
hearingpeopletohear.Anythingtokeephimselffrombreakingdown.He’dbeenalone
before.Hecoulddoitagain.Itwasn’tsuchafuckingbigdeal.DespiteKai’sbestefforts,
fattearsrolleddownhischeeks,selfloathingsweepingoverhim.Todaywasadayhe’d
dreamedaboutforyearsasakid,andhewashidinginthebathroom,cryinglikeafiveyear-old.Fornofuckinggoodreason,either.
Theheatkickedinwithasubtleroarandshiftinpressure.
Thenthedoorpulledshutwithaloudcrash.
Andaclick.
Aclickthatsoundedtoomuchlikealockturning.
Kai’spulseimmediatelyskyrocketed,hisheadsnappingup,lookingtothe
doorway.Itwasjustclosed.Notlocked.Howcoulditbelocked?Kaipushedhimself
towardthedoorasfastashecould,nearlycollidingwithitashemisjudgedhis
momentum.Hishandsflewtothehandle,pushing.Nothing.
Sweathadbrokenoutalloverhisbody,andhispalmswereclammy,kept
slippingoffthehandleeachtimehetriedtograbitagain.It’sjuststuckit’sjuststuckit’s
juststuckKaitoldhimselfoverandover,buthewasbeginningtoshake,makingiteven
hardertotrytheknobagain.Kaithrewhisweightintoit,slamminghisshoulderintothe
wood,hopingtodislodgeit,butitwouldn’tbudge.
Acryofpanickedfrustrationescapedhislips.Tearsspilledout,blurringhis
vision.Ohfuckohfuckohfuckit’slockedohfuckplease,Kai’sthoughtstorethroughhis
mindlikeariverbreakingitsbanks.Hethrewhimselfagainstthedooragain,harder,
theanglecausinghimtotipoutofhischairontothefloor,painsearinguphishipfrom
wherehe’dhitthetile,butheignoredit.Hehadtogetthedooropen,Getthedooropen
getthedooropengetthedooropen.
Hecouldn’tbreathe,hischestandthroattightwithpanic,hisfingersclawingat
thedoor.Hereacheduptotrythehandleagain—maybethedifferentanglewouldhelp—
andhisheartnearlyexplodedinfear.
Locks,stackedhigh,highuponthedoorwherehecouldneverreachthem,
keysandboltsandchainsthatwereallontheothersideofthedoor.Ohfuckohfuckoh
fuck.Locksthatwereunpickableevenifhecouldhavestoodlongenoughtopickthem.
Locksshe’dchosenonpurposesohecouldn’tgetout,nevergetout,notuntilshewanted
himto,notuntilhe’dlearnedtobegood.
Kai’svisionhadtunneled,blurredwithtears,hisbreathshurried,heaving
gasps,hisfingersclawingattheedgesofthedoor,slippingunderit,hopinghecould
findsomewaytoopenit,eventhoughadim,backpartofhisbrainknewitwas
impossible.OhGodhecouldn’tbreathe.Heleanedagainstthedoor,strugglingforair,
wantingtopleadwithherbutunableto.Sobsstolewhatlittlebreathhehadleft,heaving
butnotgettinganyair,tremblingandshakingandcrying.
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I’mgoingtodiehereallaloneallaloneallaloneallalone.Hisbreathing
becamemorefrantic,harried,hismindracing.I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry
I’msorry.Buttheairwouldn’tcome.Theairwouldn’tcome.
Kaisanktothefloor,stillgasping,coveringhishead,tryingtomakehimselfas
smallashepossiblycould.Desperately,hewrappedhisarmsaroundhimself,tryingto
stoptheshakingbecausehecouldhearheroutside,probablytoyellathim,butmaybeif
hewasgoodandhedidn’tmakeasound,notevenapeepfromhisharshbreathing,then
maybeshe’dlethimoutandshecouldseehowsorryhewasandhowhe’dbegoodand
he’dneverthrowupagainorfalloranythingtomakehermadevereverevernever
again.
WhenfifteenminuteshadpassedandKaihadn’treturned,Davidbecameworried.
MaybeKaihadtakenhimupontheoffertoliedownforawhile,butsomethingnagged
inhisgutanyway.Itdidn’thelpthatMegankeptturningherhead,distracted,herbrows
furrowing,asifshewerehearingsomethingshedidn’tknowwhattomakeof.Dinner
wasessentiallyover,afewoftheguestsretiringtowatchfootballanddigestbefore
dessert,soDavidexcusedbothhimandMegan,dragginghertotheirroom.
“Imightneedyourearsandyourvoice,”Davidexplainedastheyenteredtheir
room.
Kaiwasn’tintheirbed,butthebathroomdoorwasshut.Davidcreptcloser,
lookingtoMegan,trustinghertotellhimiftherewasanythingheshouldbeworried
about.
Meganfrowned.“Itsoundslike...he’scrying.”Shepaused,puthereartothe
door,herbrowfurrowingdeeper.Sheshookherhead.“Hisbreathingsoundsbad.”She
pulledawayfromthedoor,worrypaintingherfeatures.“Somethingisn’tright.”
Davidfelthisownworrychurninginhisgut,buthestrodetothedoor,
knocked,lookingtohisfiancéeforguidance.
Hewatchedhercallout,likelysayingsomethinglike,“Kai,areyouOK?”based
onthewayherlipsmoved,thoughDaviddidn’ttrytoreadthem.
Meganshookherhead,perhapstoindicateKaihadn’tresponded.
“TellhimI’mcomingin,”Davidordered.HewaitedforMegantointerpretfor
him,thentriedthedoor.Itwasstuck,butafeweffortfulpullsfinallygotitopen.
DavidsawMegangasp,herhandsgoingtohermouth.
Kailayonthefloor,curledup,hisfaceburiedinhischestandlegs.Hewasn’t
moving.David’sheartstopped.Hetriedtoremindhimselfthatjustbecausehecouldn’t
seethatKaiwasbreathingdidn’tmeananything.
MegantappedDavid’sshouldertogethisattention.Anyremainingbloodshe’d
hadinherfacewasgonenow,hereyeswide.“Ican’t...Ican’thearhimbreathing
anymore.God!”
Withoutathought,Daviddroppedtohisknees,rolledKaiontohisback.Kai
wasunconscious,butwhenDavidputhishandnearKai’smouth,hecouldfeelthe
faintestbreath,andhispulsewassteady.Amomentarywaveofreliefpassedoverhim,
buthenoticedKai’soverturnedwheelchair,sawthedrawersinvariousstatesof
disarray.
Kai,ifyouhurtyourself,yousonofabitch,Davidthought,butasfarashe
couldsee,Kaiwasfine.Justunconscious.Witharushofbreath,Davidsankbackonto
hisfeet.HecouldseeMeganwatchinghim,frozen,waitingforhimtotellherwhatto
do.Heshouldhavehercallanambulance,buthealsoknewKaiwouldn’twantthat.
203
Kaiwasfightingwithhisbrother,butstill...“CallJon.”
Ithadtakensomeeffort,butDavidhadmanagedtogetKaiintotheirbed,stretchedout,
hislegsproppedupwithpillows.Hestillhadn’twoken,buthewasbreathingOK,so
DavidtriednottoworryashewatchedMegantalktoJononthephone.Kaihad
explainedalittleofwhathisfightwithhisbrotherhadbeenabout,andDavidwondered
ifJonwouldletthatcomebetweenthemwhenKaineededhim.
Finally,Meganhungup.“He’sonhisway.”
Davidnodded,feelingsomeofthetensioninhischestunravel.“I’llsitwith
him.Gotakecareofourguests.I’llshoutifIneedyou.”
Meganhesitated,butshefinallynodded.“I’llstartencouragingpeopletogo
home.”Withonemorereluctantlook,sheeasedoutthedoor,shuttingitbehindher.
DavidcheckedKai’spulseagain,justtoensurehewasstillOK—oratleastas
OKashecouldbeunderthecircumstances.Hesettledbacktokeepanall-too-familiar
watch,hiseyesfixedonKai’schest,trackingitsslowbutevenriseandfall.
CountyHousewasdividedintothreewards.Thefirst,the“indies”asDavidand
Kaicalledthemandwheretheirroomwas,wasforthekidswhoweremoreorless
independent.LikeKai,someofthekidsmightneedhelpoccasionally,butforthemost
part,theycouldfunctionontheirown.Dressthemselves,bathethemselves,etc.The
secondwasforthemoreseverelydisabledkids,the“DPTs,”asDavidandKaihadcalled
them,kidswhoweredependentonorderliestohelpthemwithbasictasks,especiallyin
themorningandevenings,butwhootherwise,oncetheywereintheirwheelchairsor
whatever,couldbeOKmoreorlessontheirown.Thentherewasthethirdward,the
“sickies,”asDavidhadnicknamedthem,eventhoughKaididn’tliketheterm.Itwasfor
thefewkidswhoneedednursingcare—notjustanorderlyoravolunteer,butanactual
nurse—tocareforthem.Thereweren’tmanyofthematCH,sincemostofthosetypesof
kidsweresentsouth,andCHonlyhadonetotwonursesontheclockpershift.Butit
wasalsowheresomeofthekids—likeKai—weretreatedwhentheygotsick,ifthings
weren’tseriousenoughtheyneededtobehospitalized.
Kaioftenwouldendupthereatnight,ifhisbreathingwasbadenoughhe
neededclosermonitoringoroxygen,butnotsobadtheyneededanambulancetorace
himtothehospital.Technically,Davidwasn’tallowedbackthere,butafterTheWarden
realizedshortofbarricadingDavidinhisroom,shecouldn’tkeephimfromsneakingin
theretobewithKai,sheallowedit.SoDavidspentmanynights,forcinghimselftostay
awakeashesatbesideKai’sbed,watchinghim,keepingvigilovertheriseandfallofhis
chest,worriedthatifhefellasleep,Kaimightstopbreathing.
Jonstruggledtofindaplacetopark;apparentlyquiteafewDeafieshadflockedto
Megan’shouseforThanksgivingdinner.Finally,hefoundaspotafewblocksover,not
incrediblythrilledabouttrekkingthroughtheroad,theicywindbitinghisexposedskin.
Kai’scarwasparkedinthedriveway,andJon’sangerspiked.Asworriedashe’dbeen
thepastcoupledays,hewasstillmadatKai,forlyingtohim,forruiningthepotential
chancefordozensofotherFSpatients,andhewasmadthathecouldn’tevenbemadif
Kaiwassick.
Hegrunted,adjustedthestrapofhismedicalbag.WhenJonfinishedhis
secondyearofmedicalschool,hisadoptivefatherhadgivenhimatraditional,oldfashionedleatheropen-mouthedbag.However,Jonhadquicklyreplaceditwithamore
practical,modernfabriczipperedversion,morelikethekindofbaganEMTcarried.
204
Inside,healwayskeptasparestethoscope,asimplesphygmomanometer,apulse
oximeter,severaldosesofvariousnebulizersolutions,acouplenewalbuterolinhalers,
andanepipen,plusafewbandagesandotherbasicfirstaidsupplies.
Asannoyedandpissedasitwouldmakehim,whileJonwalkedtothefront
door,hesecretlyprayedthatKaiwasfine,thatthiswasallsomeelaboratepranktoget
backathim.Jonpressedthedoorbell.ButhehadheardthefearinMegan’svoice,and
thoughJoncouldseepullingDavidintothefiasco,itdidn’tseemlikeKaitodragher
intoitaswell.
Amomentlater,thedooropened,amiddle-agedmanwhohadMegan’seyes
answering.“Dr.Taylor?”PerhapsMeganhadpostedherfathertoanswerthedoor.
Jonnodded,gratefulhewasn’tgoingtohavetocomeoffasrudebyskipping
throughthenormalDeafiegreetingritualssohecouldgetstraighttothepoint.Theman
signaledacrosstheroom,andsoonMeganappeared,lookingpaleandworried.
“ThankGodyou’rehere,”shesignedandspoke.
Jonsighed,hisemotionsswirlinginsidehimwhileheusedhistrainingtokeep
himoutwardlycalm.Heknewitwasrudetospeak,uninterpreted,inaroomfullof
Deafies,buthonestly,atthispoint,Jondidn’tcare.Englishwaseasierandfasterright
now.“Whereishe?”
Meganblinkedforamoment,theinterpreterinhernearlytransposinghis
Englishintosigns,beforeshefinallyreplied,inunsignedEnglish,“Inourbedroom.”
Jonnoddedandindicatedforhertoshowhimtheway.“Whathappened?”he
askedastheymadetheirwaythroughthecrowdedfrontroomsintoahallway.
Meganshookherhead.“Idon’tknow.IthoughtIheardscreamingandcrying.
Whenwegotthebathroomopen,Kaiwasunconscious.”
JonfrownedasMeganledhimintothebedroom.Kaiwaslaidoutontheirbed,
Davidsittingbesidehim,watchinghimlikeaguarddog.Hedidn’tseemtonoticethem,
soMeganwalkeduntilhecaughtherinhisperipheralvision,glancingup.Hescowledat
Jonforamomentbutsignednothing.
Jonslippedoffhisbag,hiseyestakinginKai.Hiscolorwasgood,hislips
weren’tblue,andhisbreathing,fromacasual,fifteen-secondcheck,waswithinthe
normalrangeforsleep,slowandeven.Convincedthisdidn’tseemtobeanemergency,
Jonbeganunpackinghisbag.
“Doyouhaveanyammonia?”
Davidglaredathimforspeakingunsigned,butJonignoredhim.
“Like,forcleaning.Ammonia,orsomethingthathasammoniainit,”Jon
barkedashewrappedthebloodpressurecuffaroundoneofKai’sarms.
“Uh,I’mnotsure,”Megansaid.
JonsawMeganandDavidsigningtoeachother,buthefocusedonchecking
Kai’sbloodpressure,somethinghehadn’tdonemanuallyinyears,soittookhima
coupleoftries.ItwasonthelowendofnormalforKai.Jonremovedthecuffashe
noticedDavidhopoffthebedanddisappear.
JonslippedthepulseoxonKai’sfinger,thentossedthesphygmomanometerin
hisbag.Kai’spulsewasfine,aswashisPO2,sobasedonthelimitedinformationMegan
hadgivenhim,JonhadtosuspectKaihadhadapanicattackandhyperventilateduntil
helostconsciousness.Still,tobethorough,JonlistenedtoKai’slungsaswellashe
could,thenhisheart,bothofwhichsoundedfine,althoughJonbemoanedhisreal,good
stethoscope,theonehenormallyuseddaily,andwhichwasinfinitelybetterthanthis
cheaponehekeptinhiskit.
205
Jonheardthebedroomdooropenandclose,andsoonDavidappearedathis
side,offeringhimabottleofcleanerwithascowl.Hisexpressioncouldcertainlyrival
oneofKai’sworst,andJonsuspectedDavidmustnotlikehimverymuch.Jonhadto
admitthatattackingKaiintheguy’slivingroomprobablydidn’tearnhimanybrownie
points,notthatJonreallycared.Itprobablydidn’thelpthatDavid’sdeafnessmeanthe
wouldhaveonlygottenKai’ssideofthestory,andwhoknewhowKaihadspunit.
MaybeKaihadDavidconvincedJonwasevilincarnate.Still,whateverbiasDavidhad
againstJon,ithadn’tkeptithimfromsummoningJontoKai.
Jonacceptedthebottle,openedit,andtookahesitantsniff,hisnose
immediatelyscrunchingupfromthestrongodorofammonia.Henoddedakindof
thankstoDavid,grabbingsomecottonfromhiskit,soakingtheminthesolution.He
cappedthebottle,thenwavedthesoakedswabsunderKai’snostrilsbackandforthand
backandforthuntilKai’seyesshotopenwithastart.
“Welcomeback,”Jonsaid,hisvoicetight.ThoughhewassecretlyrelievedKai
wasOK,hislingeringangerwouldn’tlethimadmitit.
Kaicoughed,bracedhishandsonthebed,musclestense,asifreadyinghimself
tomove,hischestjerking,eyeswidewithconfusedpanic.Heglancedaroundtheroom
beforeshuttinghiseyes,coveringhisfacewithhishandsandobviouslyconsciously
tryingtocalmhimselfdown.
Jontookoutapenlightfromhiskit,pullingKai’shandsawaytocheckhis
pupillaryresponse,sincenoonecouldbesureifKaihadhithisheadwhenhe’dfallen.
Theywerenormal,butJondidn’tlikethewayKailookedathimwhenthelightwas
takenaway.Almostlikehedidn’trecognizehisbrother.
Jonforcedhimselftoaskthebasicorientationquestions,tobeadoctorinstead
ofabrotherforafewmoreminutes.“Canyoutellmeyourname?”
Kaiignoredthequestion,pushinghimselfupwithouthelp.Atremblecoursed
throughKai’sentirebody,andhiseyesfilled.“Jon?”Foramoment,Jonworried,until
Kaithrewhisarmsaroundhim,hugginghimtight.“I’msorry.”
ItwasJon’sturntobeconfused,asJonhuggedKaibackforafewminutes,
listeningtoKaipleadinginhisearachorusofapologyandgratitude.
Finally,Kaipulledback,hishandsstillonJon’sshoulders.“You’rehere.”Kai’s
eyeswereglossy,butfullofsuchoverpoweringrelief,almostasifKaihadbelievedhe
wouldneverseeJonagain.
Jonfrowned.
Kaisighedandrecitedhisname,thedate,andafewotherfactstoconvinceJon
hewasfine.Ashedidso,JonnoticedKai’semotionalityoffirstwakinghadbeenshored
up,thoughJonknewitwasstillthere,lingeringunderthesurface.
“Canyoutellmewhathappened?”Jonaskedinhisclinical,detacheddoctor
voice.Jontriednottofocusonhowlostandscared,yetgratefulKaihadlookedwhen
he’drealizeddespiteeverything,JonhadstillcometomakesurehewasOK.
KailookedfromJontoMegantoDavidandshookhishead.Joncouldseehis
brother’shastilypaintedveneerofcalmchipping.
“Youpassedoutinthebathroom,”Jonprompted.“Doyourememberthat?”
Kai’seyesdriftedtothebathroomdoor.Hisliptrembled.“Thatwasn’ta
dream,wasit?”Kaiburiedhisfaceinhishands.“Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck,”hemuttered,
hisbreathingbeginningtogrowfastandshallow.
DavidlookedatJon,asiftryingtoimpartanencyclopedia'sworthof
informationwithjusthiseyesandbrows,hiseyesdartingtoMegan.Pickinguponhis
206
cue,JonroseandpulledMegantotheside.
JonlaidahandonMegan’sarm,comfortingherthewayhemightapatient’s
familymember.“He’sfine.Itwasprobablyhisbloodpressure,”Jonlied,thoughashe
didso,hewasn’tentirelysurewhy.Hewasfuckingsickofsecrets:Kai’s,Vicky’s.His
mother’s,ifhewasreallyhonestwithhimself.Butmaybethedoctorinhim,whowas
boundnottosharepatientinformation—notthatKaiwashispatientanyway—directed
histongue.Besides,Kaihadbeenupsetenoughabouthispanicattacksintheexam
roomandatthediner.Thelesspeoplewhoknewabouthisanxiety,thelessKaiwould
stress.Andwhateverhadhappenedtoday,maybeitwaspartiallyJon’sfault.Jonknew
howmuchbeingabandonedterrifiedKai,andyethehadwalkedoutonhim,goingso
farastotakemostofhisdiabetessupplieswithhimwhenhe’dleft.
JonglancedoverMegan’sshoulder,wherehesawKai,huddledandtrembling,
noddingandshakinghisheadoccasionallyinresponsetoDavid’ssigns,butotherwise,
shutdown.Jon’sremainingangerfledhisbodyashecoaxedMeganoutthedoor.He
hadpromisedKai,renewingthatpromiserecently,thathewouldalwaysbethereforhis
brother,alwaysbearoundwhenKaineededhim.AndKaineededhimnow.
JonnudgedKai’sfeetoutoftheway,sittingonthebedinfrontofhisbrother.
“Tellmewhatyouremember,”Jonsaidinasoftvoice,gentle,thewayhe’dspeaktoone
ofhisspookedyoungerpatients.Nonthreatening,friendly.
KaiturnedhisheadfromDavidtoJon’s,anditwaspainfultoseehowhardKai
wasstrugglingtokeepittogether,howanysecondhisenforcedcalmwasgoingto
shatter.“It...itwaslikeanightmare.Only...”Kaitookinabreathwithenormous
effort.“OnlyIwasawake.”Kai’sliptrembled,hismaskdropped,butJononlysawitfor
asecondbeforeKaiburiedhisfaceinhisknees,clutchingthemtightlytohischestasif
tryingtomakehimselfassmallaspossible.
DavidjammedhisfingersintoKai’sshoulder,perhapsannoyedbyallthe
English,butKaijustshookhisheadwithoutliftingit.ButDavidwaspersistent,making
anindeterminatenoisetoaidingettingKai’sattention.
Kaifinallylookedup,releasedhisgriponhislegstofreeuponehandenough
tosign,“Thankyou,butpleasego.IneedtotalktoJon.”Kai’seyeswerepleading.
Alongmomentpassedbetweenthem,inwhichtheyseemedtobe
communicatingwithonlytheirfaces.ThehurtatbeingdismissedwasclearinDavid’s
face,andwhenKaicontinuedtopleadwithhim,withoutwordsorsignstogo,pleasego,
Davidfinallyclosedoffhisexpression,glaredatJon,andleftinahuff,thedoor
slammingloudlybehindhim.
ThesoundwasenoughtomakeKaijumpanddescendintotremblingsobadhe
couldhardlykeephimselfupright.Kai’schestexpandedandcontractedvisibly,
breathinganobviouseffort.
JonlaidacautioushandonKai’sshin.“Kai.It’sOK.Talktome.”
Kaitookanotherraggedbreathandliftedhisheadjustenoughtopeeroverhis
kneesatJon.Hiseyeswereredandtearsweretracingdownhischeeks.“Itwasthe
worstpanicattackever....I...Ilostmyself,Jon,”Kaisaid,bitinghisliphardand
buryinghisfaceagain.
Jonfrowneddeeply,gratefulKai’sfacewashiddensohecouldn’tsee.Hewas
tryingtothinkofwhattosayandhowwhenheheardKaibreakintofullsobs,loudand
violent.ItwasasoundofdespairunlikeanyJonhadeverheardfromhisbrother,and
thoughhe’dneveradmitit,itscaredtheshitoutofhim.
DespiteJon’sattemptstoconsolehim,Kaicriedforalongtime,untilhewas
207
gaspingforbreathandexhausted,lyinglistlesslyonhisside.“I’mfine,”Kaisaid,entirely
unconvincingly.“Thankyouforcomingtocheckonme.ButyoucangobacktoVicky.”
Kai’svoicebroke.“Whereyoubelong.”
Jonwasfloored.“Kai—”
“It’dbeselfishofmetoaskyoutostay,”Kaisaidwithapainedsmile,his
breathlaboredandwheezyfromthetears.ItcouldeasilyhavebeenajabatJon,butone
looktoldhimKaiwascompletelyserious.
“Kai.Ishouldneverhavesaidthosethingstoyou.Ididn’tmeanit.Iwasupset.
Andangry.”
Kai’seyesslidtoJon’sfinally.“We’reourmosthonestwhenangry,”hesaid
flatly,asifhewerequotingsomeone.Hepushedhimselfbackup,seeminglytohelphis
breathing,coughingseveraltimes.
JonhandedKaisometissues,watchinghisbrothercough.Witheachcough,his
breathinggotbetter,thoughhewasstillshaking.Hewasfar,farfrom“fine.”“Italkedto
VickybeforeIcame,andshetoldmetostaywithyouaslongasyouneed.”
KailookedupatJon,hiseyesunreadable,butheshookhishead.“Ineedtoo
much;isn’tthatmyfuckingproblem?”ButKai’swordsheldnoanger,onlypain.
Apparentlybothofthemhadspentthepastfewdaysbeingmadatthesameperson—
Kai.Jonsawahitchinhisbrother’sbreathingandwonderedifKaiwasgoingtobreak
downagain.HissuspicionsseemedconfirmedwhenKaijammedtheheelofhishand
intohiseyeandspoke,hisvoiceshaking,“I’msuchafuckingmess.”Kaipulledhislegs
tohischestagain,huggingthemclose,silentnow,butshakingagain,afullbodytremor
notquitelikeanMLSattack,hiseyessodisturbinglyvacant.
Jontookouthisphoneandsearchedhiscontacts.“I’mcallingDr.Miller.”
Dr.Miller’sphoneranguntilhervoicemailpickedup,instructingthecallerto
leaveamessageandshewouldreturnthecallpromptly,butifitwasanemergency,to
hangupandcall911.Shealsogavethenumberforoneofthesuicidehotlines.
JonlookedatKai,sighedheavily,andspokequickly.“Dr.Miller,thisisDr.
Taylor,KaiFox’sbrother.Iapologizeforbotheringyouontheholiday,butIwould
appreciateitifyoucouldcallmebackASAP.”Jonrattledoffhispersonalcellnumber
andhungup.
JonreachedoutforKai’shand,wonderingifKaiwouldpullawayfromhim,
relievedwhenhedidn’t.Kaihadburiedhisfaceagain,andJonrealizedhewascrying
quietly,hispulsejumpinginhisthumb.Theshaking,theracingheart—itmeantKaiwas
stillratchetedup.
“You’llbeOK,”Jonsoothed.Withhisotherhand,JonsmoothedKai’shair,
concernandhisunfailingparentalinstinctkickinginandsweepingawayanylingering
anger.“Letmetakeyouhome.”
Kaishookhisheadwithoutliftingit.Whenhespoke,hiswordscameout
muffled.“Idon’twantanyoneelsetoseemelikethis.”Kaisuckedinaharshbreath,
squeezedhislegstighter,sotightlyhehadtobecuttingoffcirculation.“Whatif...”
Kai’svoicewasstrained.“WhatifDr.Millerwaswrong?Ican’tblamedrugsthistime.”
Kaicuppedahandoverhisneck,asifheweretryingtosilencehispulse.“I’mlosingmy
mind.”
“You’renot,”Jonsaidwithcertainty,thoughhewasn’tnearlyassureashe
triedtoconvey.“You—”ButJon’sphonebuzzedinhishand,cuttinghimoff.“Dr.
Miller?”
“Dr.Taylor?IsKaiallright?”
208
Jonlookedathisbrother,whowasrockingforwardandback,thoughthe
movementwassubtlesincehecouldn’tusehisfeettopush.Hesighed.“Letmeseeif
he’suptotellingyouhimself.”Jonheldthephoneonhisshoulder.NudgedKai’sleg.
“Kai?DoyouwanttotellDr.Millerwhathappened?”
Kaididn’trespondimmediately,butfinally,hereachedahandupblindlyfor
thephone,holdingitlooselytohisear;hisotherarmcontinuedtoembracehislegstight
tohischest.“Thankyouforcallingback,”KaisaidinavoiceJonalmostdidn’trecognize
ashisbrother’s.TherewasnowayDr.Millercouldn’thearhowupsetKaiwas.Apause,
andthenKaichokedout,“Thebathroomdoorclosed,andIpanicked.Itwaslike...”
Kai’seyesdartedtoJon’s,thencontinued,“Iwastrappedinanightmare,butIwasn’t
sleeping.I...”Kai’svoicecracked,hisbreathinggrowingrapidandirregular.“I
believedshewasoutsidethedoor,thatifIheldmybreath,she’dopenit.IthoughtIwas
goingtodieinthere,allalone.Ipassedout.”
Jonnoticedthe“she.”Andapparently,thebathroomdoorhadbeensomekind
oftrigger?Jonstilldidn’tknowtherootofKai’sPTSD,buthesuspectedhe’dfindout
moreaboutitwithinthenextfewminutes,onewayoranother.
“No,no,I’mnotOK,”Kaisaidinawobblyvoice,hisbreathingerratic.“Iwas
livingmynightmare,Dr.Miller.Sanepeopledon’tdothat.”Kai’sdesperationwasclear.
Kaiwassilentalongtime,apparentlylisteningtoDr.Miller,perhaps
explainingwhatshethoughthadhappened,andcalmingKaidown.
“OK....OK....Yes....I’mshakingnow,andIcan’t...Ican’tbreathe.Ican’t
think.Iwanttoscreamandcryandclosemyeyesanddisappear,”Kairambledoff,his
wordsfallingoutofhismouthsorapidlyhisarticulationfailedhim,hiswordsslightly
slurred.“Ineedtogetoutofmyhead.”Kaibegantobreakdownagain.“I’mscaredany
secondI’mgoingtoslipbackintothatwakingnightmare.OhGod,”Kaisaid,becoming
moredesperateandpanicked.Helookedlikehewouldeitherbreakoutinafullanxiety
attackorpassout.“Ihatethis.Ihatemyself,”Kainearlyscreamedintothephone.A
pause.Kaitookinashudderingbreath.“BecauseIfreakedthefuckoutinmyfriend’s
bathroomandmybrotherhadtocomerescueme.BecauseIfeelmoreoutofcontrol
thanever.BecauseIkeepstrainingtohearoverthesoundofmypoundingheartforthe
soundofalockclicking,andthere’sthismoment,whenIthinkmaybeI’mOK,butthen
Ithink,whatifImissedit?Andthesilenceismoreterrifyingthananythingelse.”Kai’s
voicehadspilledoutrapidly,almostincoherently,thepitchrisinginpanicuntilhewas
forcedtotakeseveralstrangledbreaths,almostlikehewasdrowning.
Kaiwasreallystrugglingforairnow,soJonlaidhisfreehandonKai’schestas
agentle,wordlessreminderforhimtobreathe.Kaiattemptedafewslowbreaths,
obviouslylisteningcarefullytowhatDr.Millerwassayingontheotherline.
“Yes,”Kaisaid,andthatsinglewordheldmorepainthananyotherKaihad
spoken.Joncouldn’tbegintoimaginewhatDr.Millerhadaskedhim.“Idon’t,”Kaisaid,
inthatsamepainedvoice,“butIneedto,Ineedto.”Kai’svoicewasdesperate,almost
pleading,andhe’dpulledhishandawayfromhislegs,whichwerethreateningtofallat
anymoment,digginghisnailsintohiswrist.WhenJonsawhowKaiwasdoingsohard
enoughtoleaveserious,almostskin-breakingmarks,hepulledKai’shandaway,holding
ittight.
Kai’seyefilledwithtears,andhestruggledtopullawayinitially,butdidn’t
fightitlong,almostlikehedidn’thavetheenergy.
“OK.No.Please.No.Ican’t...Ican’tbealone.AndIcan’t—”Kai’sbreath
becamemorerapid,panicked.“Ican’tbelockedup.No.”Kaiclosedhiseyes,tookafew
209
deepbreaths.“Thankyou.No,Jonwillstaywithme....No....Youcantellhim....
OK.Thankyou.”KaiwascryingagainasheofferedthephonebacktoJon,buthewas
calmernow,strugglingtoregulatehisbreathing.
“Dr.Taylor?”
“Yes.”
“Ibelieveyourbrotherhadaflashback,hisfirst,andit’sobviouslyafrightening
experience.He’sinaveryroughplacerightnow.He’sgivenmepermissiontotellyou
whyhehasPTSDsoyoumightunderstandabitmorewhathappenedtoday.”Dr.Miller
tookabreath.“WhenKaiwasachild,hewasabusedbyawomanwhofosteredhimfora
summer.Inadditiontovariousformsofemotionalandphysicalabuse,sheusedtolock
himinthebathroom,sometimesovernight.Onenightinparticular,hehadanasthma
attack,andhedidn’thavehisinhaler.Hethoughthewasgoingtodie.”
“Oh.”Dr.Miller’swordssunkindeeperasJonglancedathisbrother,curled
up,cryingandtremblingonthebedbesidehim.“Oh,”Jonsaidagain,wordsfailinghim.
JonknewKaineverlockedhimselfinthebathroom,buthadalwaysassumeditwasa
hangoverfromCountyHouse.“Howoldwereyou?”JonaskedKai,whowasbusy
tearingthesleeveofhisT-shirt,aloudrippingsounddisturbingtherelativequietofthe
room.
“Ten,”Kaisaid,almostwithoutinflection.Hiseyeswerevacant,thoughtears
stillstreamedfromthem.Heseemedlikethepanichadsuckedhissouloutofhisbody.
“Isuggesteda72-hourhold,butKaidoesn’twantthat,andconsideringhis
history,Iwon’tforceitatthispoint.Buthereallyshouldbesupervised,”Dr.Millersaid
inawarningtone.“Areyouabletodothatforhim?Atleastforthenextforty-eight
hours.”
“Yes,”Jonsaidwithouthesitation.Vickycouldn’tblamehimfortakingcareof
Kaiwhenhewaslikethis.
“TreathimwithValium,asneeded,tohelpwiththeanxietyandpanic,andI’ve
agreedtoanemergencysessiontomorrowmorning.Butthemostimportantthing,asI
toldyoubefore,istosupporthim.”
“Ofcourse,”Jonsaidwithanod.“Thankyou.”
“I’llkeepmyphonehandy;callmeagainifnecessary.”
Kaihadwaiteduntilhe’dgottenhisemotionsundercontrolenoughhecouldwheel
himselfoutonhisownpowerwithoutembarrassment.He’dapologizedtoDavid,
promisinghe’dtexthimlater.He’dalsoaskedDavidtomakehisapologiestothe
remainingguests,sincehedidn’thavetheenergyforthethirty-minute-plusgoodbyes
thatDeafiesocialrulesrequired,whichincludedindividualattentiontoeachperson,
andprobablyahugortwo.
Beforeleaving,DavidhadsnaggedJon’sarmandpulledhimaside,anglinghis
bodyandsigningclosetohischesttomakesurenoonewouldoverseewhathewas
saying.“Sometimes,Kaidoesstupidthingswhenhe’supset.”Davidstaredhardinto
Jon’seyes,asifdoinghisbesttoimpartmoremeaningwithoutfurthersigns.“Please
watchhim.”
Jonhadonlynodded,notsurewhatelsetosay.PerhapsDavid’shostilestares
hadbeendirectedatJonnotforthefightsomuchasforpushingKaipasthislimit.
Vickywascertainlyright:JonhadnevershedthetrulyCatholictraitofcarryingguilt,
becauseJonagreedwithDavidthere.
“Textmeifyouneedhelpwithhim,”Davidhadcontinued,signinghesitantly.
210
Then,toJon’ssurprise,Davidadded,“I’vehurthimtoo.”
Kaihadwantedtodrivehimselfhome,butJonhadtakenhiskeyswhileKai
wasstillinDavidandMegan’sbed,recovering,leavingthemwithDavidbeforetheyleft.
Jonwasn’tgoingtorisklettingKaibehindthewheelwhenitwasstilllikelyKaicould
sufferanotherflashbackandwhilehisemotionswerebarelycontained,hastilystitched
uptokeepthematbayfromtheguests,thoughJonknewtheywereliabletoripopenat
anysecond.
Still,Kaihadinsistedhewasfine,thatJoncoulddrophimathomeandreturn
toVicky,butevenwithoutDr.Miller’sandDavid’swarning,JoncouldseeKaihadn’t
beenabletohidethepleading,ifguilty,lookinhiseyesthatsaidtheexactoppositeof
hiswords:Please,pleasedon’tleavemealone.
NowtheywereinKai’sroom,Kaitransferringtohisbed,thenjustsittingthere,
hugginghimselftotrytohidethewayhewasshaking,again.“I’llbefine,”Kairepeated,
tryingtokeephisvoicelevelbutnotquitesucceeding.“Youmovedout,remember?”
Jonshookhishead,offeringKaiabottleofGatorade.“Iwasonlyplanningto
stayawayfortheweek,”hesaidsimply,tappingoutseveralValiumsintohispalm.“Give
usbothachancetocooloff.”
“Everyonealwaysleavesme,”Kaimuttered,abandoningthebottlesohecould
wraphisarmstighteraroundhislegs.“Whyshouldyoubeanydifferent?”Kai’swords
hurt,butonelookathisbrothertoldhimthatagain,theyweren’tmeantasajab.Kai
genuinelybelievedthem.
Jonsighedsoftlyandsatnexttohisbrother.“Thisismyfault,isn’tit?”
KailookedatJon,surprised.Thenheshookhishead.“Youwereright,the
otherday.Ineedtotakeresponsibility.Peopleleavemebecauseofme.Everything
that’shappenedtome,I’vedeserved.‘Youmakeyourbed,youlieinit,’right?”Kaiwas
parrotingbackmoreofJon’sharshwordsfromtheirfightafewdaysbefore,andJon
neverwishedhecouldtakewordsbackmorethanthose.Worse,Kaiwastryingforhis
disaffectedmask,pretendingthatthosewordshadn’ttornhisheartout,butrightnow,
theeffortwassuchitonlymadehimtrembleharder,andhelookedreadytobreakagain
atanysecond.
“Whenyouwere10,Iwas18.IfhadcomeforyouassoonasIwasalegaladult,
insteadofwaitingeightmoreyearslikea...coward,wemightnotbesittingherelike
thisrightnow.”HehandedKaithepills.
Kainodded,almostareflex,though,andhurriedlystuffedthepillsinhis
mouth,washingthemdownwithsomeofthesportsdrink.
“Tellmewhatyouneed,”Jonsaidsimply.“Don’tbeashamed.Allofthiscan
staybetweenus.”
AlookofprofoundreliefsweptoverKai’sface.“I...”DespiteJon’sinvitation
thatKaicouldsayanythingwithoutjudgment,Kaistillseemedtohesitate,sittingonhis
handsasiftheydidn’tbelongtohimanditwashisonlywaytocontrolthem.Hiseyes
scannedtheroomfrantically.KaistartedtotremblesohardJoncouldfeelitthroughthe
mattress.
Acreak—probablysomeonewalkingintheapartmentabovethem—sounded
suddenly.
“Thedoorisclosing!”Kaigaspedinpanic,reachingforhischairtotransfer,but
inhispanickedhurry—andbecauseoftheshaking—thewheelchairmovedandKai
misjudgedandfell.ButbeforeJoncouldreact,Kaiwasdragginghimselfacrossthe
floor,pullinghimselfbackwardwithhisarms.ItwasthefastestJonhadeverseenKai
211
movewithouthischairoutsideofthewater.Aquickglanceatthedoorshoweditinthe
samepositionithadbeenin,asfarasJoncouldtell.
Kaididn’tstopuntilhe’dcoveredtheshortdistanceandbracedhimselfinthe
doorway,breathinghardfromexertionandpanic,stilltremblingsubtly,hiseyesclosed,
tearsvisibleonhischeeks.
Fuck.“Kai,comebacktobed.Thedoorwon’tclose.Iwon’tletit.”
Kaishookhishead,pulledhislegsupintoatuck,andwrappedhisarms
aroundhimselfagain,shiveringviolentlyasifhewerecold.
RealizingJonwasn’tgoingtobeabletocoaxKaitomoveashewas,he
wanderedtheroom,hismindworking.Finally,hepulledKai’spsychologytextbookoff
theshelf—he’ddroppedtheclassthissemesterbutplannedtotakeitinthespringwith
thesameprofessor,sohe’dkepthisbook.Itwasatypicalcollegetextbook,hardcover
andheavy.Jontuckeditunderonearm,thendisappearedintoKai’sbathroom,
searchinginthebottomofthelinencabinetuntilhefoundwhathewantedbefore
reemerging.Kaiwasshakinglessnow,thoughhehadadeathgriponhislegs,watching
Jonwarily.
WhenJongrewwithinafewfeetofhim,Kaisawthebookandimmediately
buriedhisheadinhislegs,coveringhisheadwithonearm,beginningtotremblein
earnestagain.“I’msorryI’msorryI’msorryI’msorry,”Kaipleaded,thewordsblurring
together.
Jon’sbrowsfurrowedinworry.HowbadhadthingsbeenforKaiwhenhewas
akidthathewasreducedtothis?Jonspokesoftly.“I’mgoingtousethebooktoprop
thedooropen,”Jonexplained,carefullywalkingaroundhisbrothertotheothersideof
thedoor.“AndthenI’lltapethejamsoevenifthedoorweretoclose,itcan’tcatch.”Jon
noticedKaipeekoutthroughhisarms,soheshowedhimthemedicaltapehe’d
snatchedfromKai’sbathroom,leftoverfromhispost-transplantcare.
Jonquicklysecuredthedoorashe’dexplainedhewould,thenreachedoutfor
Kai.
“No!Please!No!”Kaiscreamed,franticnow,shovingJonawayfromhim,then
tryingtobackupfarther,buthewasinthedoorframeandhadnowheretogo.Hischest
roseandfellinrapid,panickedbreaths.
Jonwassavedfromfallingonhisassbytheothersideofthedoorframe.Ithurt
likeamotherfucker,buttheValiumhadevidentlybeguntotakeeffect,Kai’spostureand
muscletensionslackening,stealingsomeofhisstrength.“Kai.It’sJon.I’mnotgoingto
hurtyou.”ButwheneverJongotwithinafootofKai,he’dlashout,hiseyeswidewith
terror,hischestheaving,soJonsunkdownintoacrouchafewfeetaway,holdinghis
handsup.“You’resafe,”JontriedtotellKai,butitwasclearhiswordsweren’tbeing
heard.
Kaiwasmumbling,crying,rockinghistorso,whackinghisheadagainstthe
doorframe,anditscaredthefuckoutofJon,whokeptaneyeonhisbrotherwhilehe
slowlypulledouthisphone,notwantingtomovetooquickly.
“Dr.Miller,thankGod,”Jonsaidwhensheansweredafteronlyafewrings.
Kaihadsunkdowntothefloor,weakfromtheValium,butstillhypervigilant,
hyperventilating,sweatingprofusely,hiseyeswideinpanic.Anyminorthonkorwhoosh
oftheplumbing,anychangeintheheatorthehumoftherefrigeratormadehimstartle,
breathequickerandshallower.
“Kai’slostit,”Jonsaidforlackofabetterterm.
HeheardDr.Miller’ssigh.“Whathappened?”
212
“Hethoughtthedoorwasclosing,andthrewhimselfatit,andhewasjust...
gone.Likeinthehospital,likehe’snothere.HethinksI’mgoingtohurthimandkeeps
attackingmewheneverIgettooclose.”
Kaiwasstillexceptfortheexcessivemovementofhischest,anoccasionalslow
tremble,andthefingersofonehandrepeatedlypickingattheskinofhisoppositearm
andwrist.
“He’sprobablystuckinanothermajordissociativeflashback.Yougavehimthe
Valium?”
“Tenmilligrams.Heshouldbeunconscious.”WhileJonwaitedforDr.Millerto
respond,hecreptcloser.“Kai,you’reOK,”hetried,butwhenKai’seyesmethis,the
terrorincreasedahundredfold,andhepushedagainstthefloor,tryingtoincreasethe
distancebetweenthem,butthankstoallthemusclerelaxant,hehadnostrength.
Instead,heclenchedhiseyesshutandbeganbreathingevenfasterandshallower.
“Doyouthinkyoucangethimtotakemore?”
Jonpushedhimselftohisfeet.“No.Well,maybe,sincetheValium’sweakened
him,Icouldshoveitdownhisthroat,but...”Jonpacedinatightcircle,hiseyesnever
leavingKai.“Wait.Dr.GatesgaveKaisomeinjectablediazepamafterhislastmajor
MLSflare-up.Hemightstillhavesome.”
JondashedintoKai’sbathroom,doinghisbesttobequicksoKaiwouldn’tbe
outofhissightlong,andthankfullyfoundwhathewaslookingfor.“Foundit,”Jonsaid
intothephone.Hefilledasyringe,snaggedanalcoholswabpacket,anddashedback
out.“Holdon,”JontoldDr.Miller.“I’mgoingtoneedbothhandsforthis.”
JonfrownedwhenhesawKaihadmanagedtoscratchtheskinoffhisleftwrist
inplaces,approachingcautiously.“Kai,I’mgoingtogiveyouashotthat’llmakeyoufeel
better,OK?”Jonspokesoothingly,thoughhewasn’tsureifKaievenheardhim.
Kaididn’trespond,andthoughheflinchedwhenJonshovedhisclothesoutof
thewaytoexposehiship,heclearlydidn’thavethestrengthtofighthim,toJon’srelief.
HeswabbedKai’sskin,theninjectedthemedicineintothemuscle.Hereachedouttotry
topullKai’shandsapart,tostophimfromhurtinghimself,butitwasnouse.Kaidug
hisnailsintoJon’swristinwarningandthenwentrightbacktopinchinghisskin.
Jonsighed,snatchinghisphonefromwherehe’dleftit.“Nowwewait.”
“Thatshouldknockhimout.What’shedoingrightnow?He’squiet.”
Jonexplained,includinghowhe’dtriedtostopKaiandgottenhisownwrist
scratchedupintheprocess.
Dr.Millersighedgravely.“Ididn’twanttodothis,butperhapsweshould
reconsiderhospitalization.Normally,I’dneedKai’sconsentunlesshe’dattempted
suicide,butsinceyou’rehisproxy,ifwedeterminehe’snotmentallyfit,youcould—”
“You’retalkinglockinghimupinthepsychward,potentiallyrestraininghim?”
JonnoticedKai’seyelidsweregrowingheavy,andhispickinghadweakenedin
intensity.Theextradrugwasbeginningtohithissystem.
“Ifhe’sadangertohimselfandothers,yes.WecoulduseIVsedation,perhaps
starthimonsomeothermedications.Gethimthroughthiscrisis.”
Joncreptcloser,kneltbesideKai,whohadfinallyslippedinto
unconsciousness,hischestbarelyrisingandfallingwitheachbreath.Joncouldn’tresist
smoothinghisbrother’shair.“He’llseethatasabetrayal.LikeIabandonedhimagain,”
Jonsaid,switchingthephonetothecrookofhisshouldersohecouldexamineKai’s
wrists.Theywerered,andalittlebloody,butKaihadn’tactuallycausedmuchreal
damage,theskinbarelybroken.“WegotintoafightTuesdayafternoon,andIsaidalot
213
ofhurtfulthingsIdidn’treallymean,”Jonconfessed,risingandgoingtothekitchento
disposeoftheusedsyringeinthesharpscontainer.“Iaccusedhimofbeingselfish,I
threatenedtomoveout,andcanceltheproxyshipsohecouldhavehisindependence.”
“Isee,”Dr.Millersaidafteralongpause.“Isupposeyoucankeepaneyeon
himfornow,andI’llkeepmyphonehandyifnecessary.”
“Thanks,”Jonsaid,hisvoicedefeated.
Kaiwokeslowly.Hisbodyfeltstrangelyheavy,weigheddown,unnaturallyloose,like
partsofhimdidsometimesafteranMLSattackwhenhismuscleswouldgohypotonic
andrefusetocontract.Hedidn’ttrytoopenhiseyes,buttheroomfeltstrangelycold
andbright,eventhroughhisshutlids.Vaguely,heknewhewasbreathing,butitwas
likehischestbarelymoved,eachbreathshallowandalmostnonexistent.
Kaitriedtomove,buthisbodyresisted.Hefelthimselfpanic.Or,rather,the
rushofpanicracedthroughhisthoughts,buthisbodydidn’trespond.Hisbreathing
didn’tchange.Hisheart—hecouldstillfeelthat—continueditsslowdrumbeatinhis
chest,thougheventhatdidn’tfeelquiteright.AndKaihaddefinitely—inhisheadat
least—sprungup,handspushinghistorsoawayfromthebed,buthehadn’tmoved.It
waskindoflikewhenhislegsrefusedtolistentohim.Nomatterhowmuchhefocused
onmovinghisleftfoot,forexample,hismusclesrefusedtosomuchastwitchin
responsetohiscommand,andithadbeenthatwaysolonghenevereventhoughtabout
itanymore.Movingthatfootwithotherpartsofhisbody,ordraggingitfeltmore
natural.
Kaifocusedonhisheart.Itwasfuzzy,liketherestofhim.Andhereallywas
cold.Washedead?Wasthiswhatdeathwas?Beingtrappedinyourbodyuntil,what,
youwereburiedoritdecayedandthenyouwerefree?Ormaybehejusthadtoseparate
himselffromit.Maybethat’swhyhefeltsoheavy.Buthowdidhedothat?
Perhapshewasinthemorgue.Thatcouldexplainthecoldandthebrightness.
Hadtheyguttedhimyet?Kaihaddonatedhisorgans—butnothisfullbody—toscience,
sinceitwashighlyunlikelyanywouldbeviablefortransplant;he’dmadethedecision
nearlytwoyearsagonow,figuringmaybepeoplelikeJoncouldlearnsomethingfrom
hisfuckedupremnants.Wouldithurt,whentheycutintohim?Wouldhefeelhollow
withouthisinsides?Couldghostsevenfeelpain—oranything,really?Becauseifhewere
dead,thatdidmakehimaghost,right?
Hedefinitelywasn’tinahospital,becausetheroomwastooquiet.Hecould
heartheblowingofafan,orperhapstheclimatecontrolsystem,anddistantly,some
plumbing,watermovingthroughpipes.Butotherwise,hewasalone.Nobeeping.No
breathing.Noshufflingfeetorwhispers.Nothing.
HewonderedwhatJonwoulddowithKai’sbody.Formonthsbeforehis
transplant,JonhadtriedtogetKaitotellhimhiswishes—it’showthe“donatethe
organs”thinghadcomeupandbeenarranged,paperworksignedwhileKaiwasstill
cognizantenoughtodoso.Butmorethanthat,KaihadtoldJonhedidn’tcare.Maybeif
he’drealizedhissoulorwhateverthehellitwasthatmadeushumanwouldhang
aroundafterdeath,hewouldhaveinsistedonaveryspecificsendoff.
Evendaysbeforehistransplant,whenKaicouldbarelycommunicateanymore,
anditwasallbutcertainthatKaiwouldbedeadwithinafewdays,weeks,atmost,Jon
hadtriedtogetKaitoimparthiswishes.Finally,Kaihadmanagedtoscrawlonasheet
ofpaper,Fun4live-whtuwntfne.Ithadtakenhimseveralattemptstowritethis,
needingtorestbetweeneachcouplewords,buthe’dbeenabletoconfirmwhenJonat
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lastgotthemessage:Funeralsarefortheliving.Whateveryouwanttodoisfinewith
me.
Butnow,Kaiknewonethingwascertain:hedidn’twanttobeburied.Maybeif
hisbodywouldburnhewouldceasetoexist,andhecouldn’tstandthethoughtofbeing
inadark,lockedboxsixfeetunder.Forever.Orforhoweverlongthiswouldlast.Kai
hadalwaysbelievedinreincarnationafterdeath—oneoftheluxuriesofgrowingupina
homehadmeanthecouldformhisownbeliefsaboutlifeanddeathandGod.Butmaybe
everyonehadbeenwrong.Eventheatheistshadn’tgottenitquiteright.Whenyoudied,
youdidn’tceasetoexist,butrather,horrifyingly,youcontinued.Itjustwasn’tright.
Thatpanicstartedtoformagain,notquiteexpressingitselfinhisbodytheway
itnormallywouldhave,andtheinstincttotrytospeak—sincehislimbswouldn’tallow
forsigning—burstthrough.Perhapsitwouldonlybelikeitwaswhenhewasakid,
beforehisvocalchordsandlungsandtongueandmouthwouldaligninthecorrectway
toproducesound,buthehadtotry.
Don’tburyme,hethought.
“Kai?”Avoice.Nearby.Jon?Maybethiswasawake?Kailaughedinhisheadat
thethought.
“Don’tburyme.”Kaitriedagain,andthistime,thewordstookform.Sortof.It
soundedmorelike“Dohnbeary.”
Jon’shandwasonKai’sforehead,smoothingit,beforehepeeledoneofKai’s
eyesopenandshownalightintoit.Itwasso,sopainfullybright,butforafractionofa
second,Kaigotaviewofhisbedroom.Wait.What?
“Jesus.Iwasworried,”Johnsaidafterafewminutes,“thatyou’dOD’d.”
What?Andforamoment,Kaiwassurehiseyebrowshaddippedthattime,
thoughhekepthiseyesfirmlyclosed.Hefelthisbrother'shandsslippingsomethingon
hisfinger,probablyapulseoximeter,thenacuffonhisarm.Ittightened,painfully,so
thatmeanthewasstillalive,right?Wait.Kaiwasconfused.Hefeltthecuffslowly
deflate,tillitfinallyreleasedcompletelywithahissandJonremovedit.
Kairiskedopeninghiseyes,justaslit.
“Ionlyleftyoualoneforaminute.Tocheckmybloodsugar.”Jonwasgripping
oneofKai’shandspainfullytight.“WhenIcameback,itlookedlikeyouweren’t
breathing,andyouwouldn’twakeup.”
Drugs.Buthewashome.HadhetakentoomanyValiumtohelphimsleep?But
thenKairememberedpanic,thoughtherestwashazy.“KillmyselfItry?”Thedrugsalso
apparentlyeliminatedthecensorinhisheadthatwould’vekeptthatjustathought.
Jonletoutalong,whooshingsigh.“No.God,no.It’smyfault.TheValium
didn'tseemtobeworking,andyouweresoterrified.Dr.Millerthoughtafewmore
milligramswouldknockyouout.Thoughtmaybeyourtolerancewashigh.Butitwas
morethanyou’veevertakenoutsidethehospital.I’msorry.”Jonsmoothedsomehair
outofKai’sface.“Howareyoufeeling?”
“Dead,”Kaisaidbeforehecouldstophimself.Andsick,likehewasgoingto
throwup,thoughhedidn’thavetheenergyforit.
Jonmayhavefrowned,butKaiwasn’tsure.He’dlethiseyescloseagain.
“How’syourbreathing?Shouldwegotothehospital?”
Theimageofbeingstrappedtoastretcherandtrappedinsideatinyambulance
sentanewrushofpanicthroughKai'sbrain,butapparentlythedrugswerekeepinghis
bodyincheck.Kaimanagedtoshakehishead.“Helpmesit?”
Kai’sbodywasloose—notquitelikeithadbeeninSeptember,whenhewason
215
acocktailofmusclerelaxants,includingMexitil,totrytokeephisbodyfrompulling
itselfapartattheseams,buthecouldn’treallypushhimselfup,andhewaspretty
certainthatevenifhecouldmanagethat,hewouldn’tbeabletoholdhimselfthere.Jon
seemedtosensethis,soheshiftedKai’slegs,andthenKaifeltthemattressdip,then
Jonliftinghimup,thoughbeingdeadweightdidn’thelp,especiallysinceJonwasn’tas
strongashewas.Buthewasabletohelpalittle,andsoonJonhadKaisettled
awkwardly,leaningagainstJon’schest,Jonapparentlyagainstthewall,hisarms
helpingtokeepKaiupright.
Sittinguphelpedthenauseaandhisbreathing.Kaiwasabletoopenhiseyes
finallywithoutthelighthurtingtoobadly,andheglancedtowardthebathroom.
Somethingaboutitwasn’tright,buthecouldn’tquitefigureoutwhatitwas.Helethis
headfallbackonhisbrother’sshoulderbecausekeepingitupwastoodifficultright
now.
ButJonapparentlyhadfollowedKai’sgaze.“Itookthebathroomdooroffits
hingeswhileyouwereout,”Jonexplained.
Sothatwasit.Thedoorwasgone.Kaiwasn’tsurewhereJonhadputit—outin
themainroom,maybe?
“Ithoughtmaybeyouwouldn’tbeterrifiedofgoinginthereiftherewasn’ta
door.”
ArushofgratefulreliefsweptthroughKai.“Youbestbrother.”Dammit,now
Kairememberedonereasonhedidn’tliketotaketoomuchValium.Toomuchraw
honesty.
“Reneecalledwhileyouwereout.Iletitgotovoicemail.”
Kailethisheadrollwithgravitysothatitbarelystayedonhisbrother’s
shoulder,closinghiseyesagain.Ifitweren’tforthefactthathesaidalmostevery
thoughtthatsprangtohismind,hehadtoadmithefeltprettygoodrightnow.He
hadn’tevenrealizedhowmuchmuscletensionhelivedwitheverydayuntilitwas
suddenlyallblissfullygone.Wasthishowpeoplebecameaddicted?
“YouloveVicky?”Kaiaskedlazily.
Kaifelthisbrother’sdeepbreath.“Yes.Yes.Ido.”
“Sheloveyou?”
“Yes.Ifshedidn’t,shewouldn’tputupwithmyshit,”Jonaddedwithaslight
laugh.
“IthinkIloveRe.Ithinkshelovesme.But.”
“But?”
“Butshedoesn’tknowme.”Kaiwassorelaxedandsecurerightnowhecould
fallasleepagain,butatthesametime,agnawinginthebackofhisbrainseemedto
whisper,Don’tfallasleep.Keepvigilant.Andthenhesuddenlyrememberedthefreak
outatDavid’shouse,thereasonhewasdopedupandtellingthingstoJonhewouldn’t
tellanyone,exceptmaybeDr.Miller,behindcloseddoors.Hefelthisheartlurch,likea
cartryingtoturnoverincoldweather,likeitwantedtoracebutthedrugswereholding
itback.“I’msofuckedup.”
PerhapsJonmisinterpretedwhatKaimeant,figuringhewasreferringtohow
incrediblystonedhewasrightnow.“Ishouldn’thavegivenyousomuchdiazepam.I’m
sorry.”
Kailaughed,farlongerandlouderthanheshouldhave,andavoiceinsideof
himwasscreaming,Whatthefuckiswrongwithyou?Shutup!“Iwouldhaveslitmy
wristsifyouhadn’t.”Fuck,Kaithought.Ihadn’tintendedtosaythatoutloud.
216
Especiallysincethatwouldn’tevenbeKai’sfirstchoiceforsuicide.
KaifeltJonstiffen.
Kaivaguelyrememberedpowerful,irrationalpanic,embarrassinghysteria,
desperationtogetoutsidehisheadanywayhecould.Adiazepamshotandthesleepof
thedead.Sleepofthedead.Ha.ThatmadeKaigiggle.
KaisensedJon’sangerbeforehisbrotherevenmovedorspoke.Somehow,
fasterthanKai’sdrug-soakedmindcouldprocess—JonshiftedtheirpositionssoKaiwas
onhisback,Jonloomingoverhim.“Isthisfunnytoyou?”
KaiblinkedatJon,strugglingtofocushisvision.“Ithinkaboutitsometimes,”
Kaiadmittedwhilehisinternalvoiceyelled,SHUTUP!
JonstareddownatKaithoughhedidn’ttrytopinhim,likelyassumingKai
couldn’tresistrightnowanyway.Afaintfeelingofreliefwashedoverhim.
Kailaughed,butitwasn’tahappysound.“You’dbebetteroffwithoutme.No
onetofuckupyourlife.YoucouldmarryVicky,ornotmarryher,guiltfree.”Kaigaveup
tryingtofocushiseyes,soheletthemshut.“Itwouldbeeasy,too,”Kaicontinuedinhis
nonchalantvoice.“ValiumplusMexitil.Seewhichstoppedfirst:mybreathingormy
heart.”
“Stopit,”Jonsaid,thewordscomingoutlikeahiss.
“IfIwasdead,thecommitteecouldn’tblamemeanymore.Martincouldgethis
transplant.”
KaicouldfeelJon’sangryglarethroughhisclosedlids.“Youdon’tunderstand
whyIwassoangryaboutthecommitteemeeting,doyou?”Jonpaused,asifwaitingfor
Kaitosaysomething,butwhenhedidn’t,Joncontinued,“Idon’twantMartintodie.I
don’twantanyofmypatientstodie.Istillthinkthecommitteeisabunchofoldfashioned,stick-in-the-mud,narrow-mindedassholeswhocouldn’tseethetruthifit
waspinnedtotheirnose.ButIlostmytemper,reallylostmytemper,becauseIhadto
findoutfromDr.Johnsen’spresentationthatyoualmostdied,Kai.”Jon’svoice
changed,becomingmorehonest,sadder,somehow,andhesunkdown,asifindefeat.
“DoyouhaveanyideahowgettingacallfromtheER—afteritwastoolate—wouldhave
destroyedme?”
Kailetthissoakintothemurkofhisbrain.Hefeltpowerfullynauseated.He
mayevenhavedryheaved,becauseJonrolledhimontohisside.
“I’msuchanasshole,”KaimutteredasJonarrangedhislimbsintherecovery
position.“Worthless.Disgusting.”Kaigaggedagain,andpartofhimwishedhewould
throwup,becausemaybethenhe’dfeelbetter.“That’swhyshelockedmeup,you
know.”Hedidn’tevenreallycareanymorethathisbrainwasleakingdirectlyouthis
mouth.Thatwasn’ttheonlythingleaking,herealized,astearstraileddownhischeeks,
catchingonthebridgeofhisnose.“Goddammit.”ItworriedKai,alittle,thatJonhad
saidnothing,butthen,whatwasthereforJontosay?“Justgivememoredrugsand
shutmeup.”
“Isthatwhathappened?Thatwoman...shedruggedyoutokeepyouquiet?”
Kaifoundhimselflaughingagain,thoughhewasstillcrying,andaremote
cornerofhismindpointedouthowstrangethatwas,butlikehisinabilitytofilterhis
thoughts,hecouldn’tsuppresshisemotionsrightnow,either,apparently.“Iwasmute.
Shedidn’tneedtodrugme.Justlockmeawaysoshedidn’thavetolookatme,either.”
Jonsighed,butitwasn’tafrustratedsound.“Idon’tknowwhattowithyou,”
hesaid,almosttohimself.
“Neitherdidshe.”Kaitriedtoseeifhecouldfindtheedgeofthedrug,letit
217
pullhimbacktosleep,butapparentlyenoughhadwornofftokeephimawake.His
mindrefusedtobeshutoff,andhewasremindedofonereasonhehatedValiumso
much:ittookashitloadofittohaveaneffect,andthen,unlesshekepttakingit,itdidn't
last,leavinghimnauseous,groggy,sluggish,andhungover.
KaifeltJonclimboutofbed,andasinkingfeelinghithim:hisbrotherhadhit
histhreshold.Everyonehadone,andJonhadapparentlydecidedKaiwassimplymore
troublethanhewasworth.Kaiwondered,distantly,howmuchlongeritwouldtake
Reneetofigureoutthesamething.Kaistrainedhisearsforthesoundofdisappearing
footsteps,bracedfortheinevitabilityofdoorsshutting.Maybe,ifhereallyconcentrated,
he’devenhearacardrivingaway.
Instead,heheardJonmovingquietlybesidehim,feltthepulseoximeterbeing
slippedontohisfingeragain,thecuffoftheautomaticbloodpressuredevicebeingfixed
onhisarm.Jonwasn’tleavinghim;hewastakingKai’svitals.
“Jesus,Kai.Yourpulseisracing,”Jonsaidafteraminute,thensoftlysmoothed
Kai’shair.
Kaisquintedhiseyesopen,butcouldn’tseemuchsinceJonwasstanding.“I’m
stillfreakingoutinside,buttheValium’skeepingmostofmybodyincheck.”
Kaicouldalmosthearhisbrother’sfrown.Thebloodpressurecuffbeeped.
“You’restillfeelingthemusclerelaxanteffectsbutnottheCNSones,”Jonmutteredto
himselfasheremovedthecuff.“Dammit.”
KaiwassorelievedJonwasn’treallygivinguponhim,hewasspeechless.
Joncheckedhiswatch.“How’syourstomach?”
Itwasempty,andangry,buthe’dfeltmuchworse.“I’lllive.”
Jonsighedheavily.“IfyoupromisetodrinkabottleofGatoradeandeata
sandwich,I’llletyouhavesomemoreValiumsoyoucansleep,andwe’llcallitanearly
night.Fair?”
“OK,”Kaisaid.“Butnothere.I...”Hecouldn’tevensaywhy,maybebecause
he’dspentmostofthedayfreakingoutinhisroom,buthejust...hecouldn’tsee
himselfbeingabletosleephere.
“Fine.Idon’treallywanttosharethatnarrowbedwithyouanyway,theflooris
hardandcold...”
Kaihadavaguememoryofpassingoutinhisdoorway,likehisaunthadbeen
there,tryingtodraghimintothebathroom,butitfeltlikeadream.Ithadtobeadream.
Butwasit?Wasthatwhentheshothadhappened?Hisheadwasmuddled.Dammit.
“AndI’mdefinitelynotleavingyoualone.”Jonpaused.“WillyoubeOKfor
like,oneminutewhileIgetthefood?”Jon’snervousnessanduncertaintywaspalpable.
“Yeah.Just...don’ttaketoolong.”Kaiwinced.“Iwon’tdoanythingstupid.If
Istartpanicking,I’llscream.”Itwasonlypartiallyajoke,especiallysinceKaicouldfeel
sweatbreakingoutonhisneckdespitethefactthathewascold.
Jonsatdownontheedgeofthebed,andwhenKaiforcedhimselftolook,he
couldseeJon’sfacewasserious,concerned.“Exceptthosetwelveyearswewereapart—
whichI’llneverbeabletomakeupfor—I’vealwaystakencareofyou.AndIalwayswill,
aslongasyouneedme.Iwon’tletanythingbadhappentoyou.”
Kaibreathedslowlyforseveralseconds.“Dr.Msaysnoonecanprotectanyone
fromeverything.”
Jonlaughed,asurprisedsound,likehehadn’tintendedto,finishingitwitha
gentlesigh.“It’strue.God,it’strue.Butitdoesn’tmeanIcan’ttry.”Jonsmoothedsome
ofKai’shairoutofhisface.“Thingswillhavetochangewiththebaby,butyouwill
218
alwaysbemybrother,andifyouneedme,Iwillbethere.”
Kaifelttearspricklinginhiseyes.Again.Dammit,dammit,dammit.“Idon’t
wanttoneedanyone,”KaiadmittedwithlingeringValiumhonesty.
“Iknow,”Jonsighed.“But—”
“Yeah,everyoneneedssomeonesometimes.I’vegottenthatspeechmorethan
oncefromDr.M.”Kaiwasn’tsureifsnippinesswasasignhewasmoreofhimselfor
thathewasheadingforanotherbreakdown.Atthismoment,itreallycouldswingeither
way,andthetearssuggestedthelatterratherthantheformer.“I’msuchafucking
mess,”Kaisaid,halfsobbingnow.“IwishIcouldbelikeyou.”
Jonlaughed.“Grassisalwaysgreener,”hesaid.“I’mnotastogetherasIseem,
andifitweren’tforVicky,Ineverwouldhavesurvivedthepastfouryears.Ineed
someonesometimes,too.”
Kaiwassurprisedbyhowmuchthatadmissionmadehimfeelbetter:Jon
alwaysseemedtobesofocused.Hedidn’tgetdistracted,andthoughhewasn’tquiteas
goodatmodulatinghisemotionsasKaiwas(whenhewasn’tfreakingout,anyway),his
brotherhadacertaincalm,comfortingnaturethatKaihadalwaysenvied.
“You’llgetthroughthis,”Jonsaid,squeezingKai’shand.Andforthefirsttime
thatday,Kaibelievedhim.
Davidwasn’tsurewhatirritatedhimmore.Thefactthathewascavinginand
attemptingtostealmedicalrecords,puttinghimselfnotonlyinjeopardyofjailtime,but
alsolosingMegan’strustandlove,orthatKaihadbeenright.Thanksgivingnighthad
meantaskeletonstaffinmostofthehospital,andthosewhowereworkingwere
primarilytemps,newbies,andresidentswho’dforgottenwhatsleepwas.
IthadbeenridiculouslyeasytoslipthroughthebusyER,findasupplycloset,
andpullonapairofscrubs.Hethencarefullydouble-checkedhisphonesettingsto
makesureitwouldn’tringandblowhiscover,plugginginapairofheadphoneshe’d
pilferedfromMegan.Hisphonewasn’tcapableofplayingmusic,butinhisscrubshirt
pocket,itwouldatleastgivetheillusionofoneofthosedigitalmusicplayerthingslike
Meganwantedwhentheycouldaffordtospendthatkindofmoney.Itwasapaper-thin
disguise,buthopefully,it’dbeenough.
Feelingridiculous,Davidstuffedtheearbudsineachear,frowning.Theywere
uncomfortable,makinghisearsache.Heshookhishead,rolledhisshoulders.Kaihad
outlinedexactlywhereheneededtogo,andremindedhimifhewalkedwitha
combinationofpurposeandboreddistraction,noonewouldnoticehim.
Itworked;acouplefemalenursesmerelypausedtocheckhimout.Heknewhe
wasn’thandsome,atleastnotlikeKai(althoughKaineverseemedtorealizehow
innatelygoodlookinghewas),buthe’dbeentoldmorethanoncehewasstriking.
Largelybecauseofhishair,thoughhe’dcovereditwithacapsinceitwassuchan
intensereditwouldmakeiteasyforsomeonetoidentifyhimlater,ifitcamedowntoit.
Hewassurprisedbyhoweasyitwastosneakdownintothebasement,andthe
simplicityofthelockontherecordsroomdoor,whichhepickedeasily.Hehadexpected
moresecurity,perhapskeycardlocks,butpresumablythehospitaldidn’tcaretoomuch
abouttherecordsfordeceasedpatients,particularlysincethisroomapparentlyonly
heldrecordsolderthantenyears.
Thankfully,theroomwasneatandlookedorganized,thoughitwasdustyanda
littledark.Kaihadexplainedthattheroomwasadisasterthelasttimehe’dsnuckdown
there,afewyearsbeforehistransplant,andsodustythathe’dbarelylastedafew
219
minutesbeforecoughingandwheezingforcedhimtoabandonhisquest.
AsDavidimmediatelydoveintothefiles,hewonderedifthehospitalhad
begundigitizingsomeoftheoldrecords,andintheprocesshadputthehardcopiesin
order.Whateverthereason,itdidn’ttakeDavidlongtofindthemonthandyearhewas
lookingfor,andthefilesfortheTaylors.
Hefrowned.Theyweresurprisinglythin,asiftheyonlyhadasinglesheetof
paperinthem.EvenifKai’sfatherhadbeenhealthyandneverbeentothehospital
exceptwhenbroughtinafterhisdeath,DavidknewKai’smotherhadgivenbirththree
timesinthishospital.Certainly,atleasttherecordsfromthosestayswouldbehere.
Glancingoverhisshouldertomakesurehewasstillalone,heflippedeach
openandnotedthathisinitialimpressionwascorrect.Thefolderswerebareexceptfor
eachperson’sdeathrecordandpostmortem.Awaveofirritationflaredattheideathat
he’dgonethroughallthistrouble—includingsneakingoutofhishouseinthemiddleof
thenight—fornothing,sohecheckedacoupleoftheotherpatients’filestoconfirma
potentialsuspicion.
UnliketheTaylors,alltheotherfileswerefilledwithallkindsofrecords,from
nurses’notes,doctors’orders,andtestresults.Itmeantthatsomeonehadtakenthereal
filesforBryanandAnnTaylorandleftthesebare-bonesduplicatestopreventsuspicion.
Afterall,howmanypeoplewouldreallylookfortherecordsforpeoplewhohadbeen
deadsixteenyears?
Onlytwopeoplewouldbeinterested,andDavidwaslookingononeoftheir
behalf.WhichmeantJonhadobviouslytakenhisparents’recordsatsomepoint.But
why?
ItwouldhavebeeneasyenoughforDavidtogohome,totellKaithequesthadbeena
bust,buteventhoughKaihadchosenhisrealbrotheroverhim,Davidfeltacertain
obligationtoKai,asifmaybebeingaroundabunchofstrangerswhenhe’dalreadybeen
inaprecariousmoodhadpushedhimovertheedge,whichwouldn’thavehappenedif
Davidhadn’tinsistedKaicomeoverforThanksgivingdinner.Kaicouldbeabitbipolar
whenitcametopeople;eitherheputonhisfriendly,affablemaskthatnoonewould
evenknowwasafront,orhebecameanxious,withdrawn,andbarelycommunicative.
Jon’sofficehadbeeneasyenoughtofind,tuckedawayinacornerofthesixth
floorwithseveralotherpulmonologist’soffices.Fortunately,itlookedlikeonlythestaff
doctorshadofficeshere,andwiththeholiday,theywerealloffduty,sothehallwaywas
isolatedandempty,givingDavidtimetopickthelock—anothereasyone(thishospital
reallyneededtoreconsideritssecuritymeasures)—andtaketimetosearchforthefiles.
Jon’sofficewasdecentlysized,largeenoughforagenerousdesk,several
bookshelvesandfilingcabinets,andacouchthatlookedlikeitgotquiteabitofuse.
DavidnoticedthatthefurniturewasarrangedtogiveKaienoughspacetomaneuverin
itonwheelsorcrutches,thoughitwasn’tnearlyasneatasDavidwouldhaveexpected.
HehardlyknewJon,andwhathedidwasprimarilyfromthelittlebitMeganorKaitold
himsecondhand,buthe’dpicturedJonasthetypeofpersontobealmostpathologically
organized.DavidhadimaginedJon’sofficewouldlooklikealabelmakerexploded,with
everythingmeticulouslylabeledandcolor-coded.
Instead,itwasmorelikeorganizedchaos.Thebookshelveswereoverflowing
withmedicaltextbooksandjournals,withbothstackedineverypossiblefreespace,
swampingtheotherwiseneatlyarrangedshelves.Jon’sdeskwassimilarlymessy,butin
acalculatedway,withcarefulpilesstackedatanglesontopofeachother,andhis
220
computermonitoramessofcoloredpost-itsstuckallover,tricklingontothedesk
surface.ItwasasifJonhadorganizedeverythingatsomepoint,thensimplygottentoo
overwhelmedandmanagedacompromisebystackingandsortinghaphazardlyashe
went.
Davidactuallyfounditalittleamusing,becauseKaiwaskindoflikethat,too.
Ononehand,hewasinclinedtowardneatness(David’stendencytobeaslobconstantly
causingproblemsbetweenthemovertheyearstheysharedaroom).Butontheother,
whenthingsgotmorecomplicated(likesuddenlyhavinganinfluxofpaperworkor
bookshehadtoworryabout),Kaigotstressedeasilyandfoundtryingtokeepthings
straighttoooverwhelming,resortingtoaconfinedmessnotunlikeJon.
Forexample,ithadn’tsurprisedDavidtofindthatKaihadaregimented,
obsessivelyorganizedsystemforhisdailymedicationregimen,butallhisaccessory
drugs—themedshetooksymptomaticallyoronlywhenhisMLSflaredupbadly—were
notsomuchorganizedasgatheredtogetherinlittlevillagesofprescriptionbottlesthat
bloomedupononesurfaceoranother.
Surveyingtheroom,DavidtriedtothinkwhereJonwouldkeephisparents’
records.Jonmusthaveknowntakingthosefileswaswrong,ifnotillegal,hencethe
flimsycover-up,sotherewasagoodchancehe’dhiddenthem.Infact,Davidrealized,
Jonmightnotevenhavekeptthemhereatall.Still,themostobviousplacetolook—the
filingcabinets—mightbeasgoodahidingplaceasany,simplybecauseitwassuchan
obviousplacetoputanything.
Aquicksurveyofthefilingcabinetsdidn’trevealwhathewaslookingfor,butit
waspossiblethatJoncouldhavemisfiledtherecordstoconcealthem.Davidreachedfor
thetopdrawertopullitopen,butitwouldn’tbudge.Locked.Andnotwithakey;this
oneapparentlyusedasix-digitcombination.Hefrowned.Thatwouldbeagoodplaceto
keepfilesyoudidn’twantanyonetoknowyouhad.Unlesstheykneworcorrectly
guessedthecombination,itwouldbevirtuallyimpossibletopickwithoutdestroyingthe
lockorcuttingopenthedrawerwithsomeserioustools.MathhadneverbeenDavid’s
forte,butheknewthepossibilitiesofasix-digitpasswordwithtenpossibledigitshadto
beinthemillions.
AllDavidcoulddowastryafewpossibilitiesbasedonthelittleheknewabout
Jonandhopeforthebest.Itwouldbefrustratingtohavegonethroughallthistrouble
andriskfornothing,butsincethefilingcabinetlookedlikeaparticularsturdyfire-proof
model,itwasunlikelyhe’dgetthedraweropenevenifhehadacrowbar.
Takingamomenttothink,Davidenteredthefirstpossiblecodehecouldthink
of:Kai’sbirthday,day,month,andyear,twodigitseach.Heenteredthenumbers,then
pulledonthedrawer,surprisedwhentheexpectedresistancewasn’tthereandthe
draweropened.DavidwonderedifJonrealizedhowdisturbinglypredictablehewas.
Itdidn’ttakelongforDavidtofindthefiles,thoughtheywerewedgedinthe
backandnotlabeled.Bryan’swasthin;notmuchthickerthanthefakeoneinthe
recordsroom.Apparently,unlikehisyoungestson,he’dbeenahealthyman.Ann’s,on
theotherhand,wasanotherstory,takingupmostofthedrawer.Itmeantoneoftwo
things:eitherAnnhadhadherownphysicalailments,or,consideringKai’srationalefor
wantingtoseehermedicalrecordsinthefirstplace,shehadbeenmajorlymentallyill.
Davidwastemptedtoflipthroughthefilesformorethanmereconfirmation
thattheywereallhers,toseewhatitwasthathadcreatedsuchahugepapertrail,but
quicklydecidedagainstitasheshovedthefilesintothebaghe’dbroughtwithhim.They
wouldn’tallfit;he’dhavetocarrytherest,buthopefullynoonewouldquestionwhya
221
guyinscrubswascarryingabunchoffiles.
Still,Davidcouldn’tgetoutofhisheadhowlost,howgoneKaihadlookedthat
afternoonafterhisfightwithhisbrother,orhowclearlyterrifiedandbarelytogetherKai
wasthatafternoon.WhateverKaiwasdealingwithatthemoment,perhapsreading
abouthismotherwouldn’tbehealthy.Davidcouldalwayspretendhe’dnevercomein
searchoftherecords;afterall,he’dinsistedhewouldn’t.Orhecouldhandthemover
later,whenKaiwasfeelingmoreofhimself.Iftherewerethingsinthesefilesthat
pushedKaiovertheledge,Davidwouldneverforgivehimself.
Butontheotherhand,whatiftheyhelpedKai?Davidknewnothingabout
Kai’smother,becauseKaihadalwaysclaimednottorememberher.
AsDavidcarefullyemergedfromJon’soffice,makingsurethedoorwouldlock
behindhim(unlessJoncheckedthelockeddrawer,he’dneverknowDavidhadbeen
there),hedecidedhe’dgiveKaithechancetomakehisowndecisionabouttherecords.
Afterall,Kaiwasanadult.
Besides,Davidalreadyfeltlikehe’dbetrayedKaioncebynotmakingmoreof
anefforttocheckinonhimafteragingout.Yeah,lifehadbeentoughforDavid,butit
hadn’tbeeneasyforKai,either.AndifJonhadn’tcomeforKaiwhenheturned18?
Davidtrieddesperatelynottothinkaboutthat,knowinghowsickKaihadgotteneven
witharoofoverhisheadandfoodandmedicine.
IfKaifoundoutDavidhadgottentherecordsandnevergiventhemtohim....
ItwasagoodbetKaiwouldneverforgiveDavid.
AndthatwasnotsomethingDavidwaswillingtolethappen.
222
Flashback:June26,1996
JonwassurprisedtofindKaistandingoutsideCountyHouse,leaningsidewaysagainst
thefrontdoorsinthemeagershadecastbythebuilding,hisarmsfreedfromtheir
crutches,whichstoodbesidehim,carefullypositionedsotheywouldn’tfall.Kai’seyes
wereclosed,andJoncouldseehisshouldersandchestworking,onehandonaninhaler
heapparentlyworearoundhisneck.ItmadeJonfrownreflexively,butKaiseemedto
haveagreedtoJon’sofferofaplacetostayasalastresortandthepromiseofa
wheelchairofhisownandnotoutofanyrealdesiretorekindletheirrelationshipor
makeupformorethanadecadeapart.Kaiwasanangry,bitterteenager,astranger,and
Jonhadtorememberhisbrotherwasn’tthesweet,innocentkidofJon’smemory,buta
manwhohadprobablylivedamuchharderlifethanJoncouldimagine.
KaiworeafadedblackT-shirtandwornjeanswithholessolargeatthesidesof
thekneesJoncouldseethemetalofKai’sbracesbeneath,theobviousculpritforsaid
gashes.ThepantsandshirtlookedacouplesizestoobigforKai’snarrow,thinframe.An
equallyrattybackpackclungtoKai’sback,lookingsuspiciouslyempty,andwhenJon
casthiseyesdown,henoticedKai’sshoes.Theywereinaboutasbadshapeastherestof
Kai’soutfit,beat-upleatherlaceupswithmetalfixedtoeachheelleadingupintoKai’s
pants,likelyattachedtohisbraces.Joncouldseethetopedgeofeachshowedthe
outlineofKai’stoes,suggestingKaihadoutgrownthemlongenoughtodeformthe
leather.
ClothesshoppingforKaiwoulddefinitelyhavetobeanotherthingtoaddtohis
list.Alongwithatriptotheorthotist.Kai’sfeetwouldbecomedeformed—iftheyweren’t
already—iftheydidn’tdosomethingabouthisshoessoon.
“Goodmorning,”Jonventuredashedrewcloser.
Kaiopenedhiseyes,nodded,andadjustedhisweightsohewasn’tleaning
againstthewall,tuckingtheinhalerunderhisshirt.
“Where’syourstuff?”Jonaskedreflexively.
Kaiblinkedathim,andforamoment,JonwonderedifmaybeKaihadn’t
understoodhim.Instead,Kaisighed,repliedinhisoddASL-grammarEnglish,his
pronunciationalittlethickandnasally,butclearenough,“Ihavestuffnone.Iamlucky.
Why?TheWardenallowmekeepmybraces,”hehesitatedamoment,concentrating,
beforeaddinginmorecorrectEnglish,“andapairofcrutches.”Evidently,Kaiwasfluent
inEnglish,butitdidn’tcomeeasilytohim.
Jonnodded,notsurewhattosaytothat.Herememberedhisyearinfoster
carebeforehe’dbeenadopted,howhe’dmovedfromhometohome,sometimesafter
onlyafewweeks,leavingwithnothingbuttheclothesonhisbackandthesingle
photographhe’dmanagedtoholdontoaftertheirparentsdied.EventhoughKaihad
livedherefortwelveyears,JonhadtoremindhimselfthatKaihadn’ttheluxuryof
personalpossessions.Apparently,asinsaneasitwas,thewomanwhorantheplace—
JonrememberedhernamewasEvans—couldhavekickedKaioutwithoutevenhis
mobilityaids.NowondertheprospectofhisownwheelchairhadmadeKai’seyes
sparkle.
“Allright.Well,Happybirthday,”Jonsaid,buthiswordslosttheirpunchat
thedeadlookinhisbrother’seyes.Joncertainlyhadhisworkcutoutforhim,itseemed.
Didhereallywanttoworkwithteenagers?Jonclearedhisthroat,stretchedahandout
totakeKai’scrutchesforhim;apparently,withhisbraces—whichJonrealizedKai
223
hadn'tbeenwearingtheotherdaysincehe’dbeenbarefoot—Kaididn’tneedthem.Kai’s
glarewasscathing,andhetooktheminhandhimself.
“Don’tneedyouhelpme,”Kaisaidfirmly.
Joncontainedhissigh.Kaiapparentlywasn’tabigfanofbeingassisted—or
prepositions.“Allright.Let’sgetinthecaranddecidewhatyouwanttodofirst.”
Kaihadoptedforhisbirthdaypresentfirst,soJonhaddriventothestoreacrossthe
streetfromthehospital,givinguponanyattemptstomakeconversationwithKaionce
theirdestinationhadbeenestablished.
Astheymadetheshortdrive—CountyHousewasonlyminutesawayfrom
JMH,afterall—Joncouldn’thelpcastingtheoccasionalsurreptitiousglancehis
brother’sway.Kaihadhisforeheadleanedagainstthewindow,staringoutvacantlyat
thescenery,silentexceptforhisraggedbreathing.Apparently,despitehowitpained
Jon’searstohearit,thatwasnormalforKai.
Theyfinallypulledintotheparkinglotofthestore,whichadvertisedrentals
andsalesofmobilityequipmentlikewalkersandwheelchairs,aposterofasmilingold
womanwithawalkerdominatingthefrontwindow.
Kailookeduncertain,staringstraightaheadnow,pullingattheloosestringsof
hisknees.
“Thisismybirthdaypresenttoyou,OK?”Jonsaid,speakingslowlyandevenly
thewayhewouldtoanervouspatient.“It’llbeyours.Soyoucangetwhateveryou
want.”
KaiturnedhisheadandstudiedJonforamoment,hisfaceblank.Jonwasn’t
certainwhatwasgoingthroughhisbrother’shead,butfinally,Kaibroughtahandtohis
mouth,drawinghisflathandoutanddown.Jonrememberedthatsign.Thankyou,Kai
hadsaid.
Inside,thestorefeaturedafewexpensiveelectricscooters,obviouslytargeting
thegeriatricdemographic,awallofwalkersofvariousstylesandfeatures,andsome
basicfoldingwheelchairs,includingseverallightweightmodels,again,intendedforthe
elderlypopulation.Towardthebackwereafewofthebulkierfoldingmodelsnottoo
dissimilartotheonesusedatJMH,lookinglikeclumsy,ancienthulksofmetalbeside
thefewsmaller,sleekersolid-framechairsondisplay.
Kaiimmediatelygravitatedtowardthose,hiswalksurprisinglygood,thoughhe
clearlywasstrongeronhisrightthanhisleft,relyingonthatsidetohelppullhisleftleg
forwardwitheachstep.JonwatchedKaiforamomentuntilthesalespersonapproached
Jon,drawinghisattentionawayfromhisbrother.
“CanIhelpyou?”
“Uh,yeah.I’dliketoorderalightweightwheelchairformybrother,”Jonsaid,
noddinghisheadtowardKai,whowasplayingaroundwithoneofthefloormodels,
eventhoughitwasclearlytoosmallforhim,hislonglegsstickingout.
“Ofcourse.Wehaveacouplebasicmodels,andthenafewmorethatallow
morecustomization.Icanpullafewcatalogs,tooifyouwant.”Thesalesperson,whose
namewasClydeaccordingtohisnametag,duckedaroundthecounterandstarted
searchingthroughtheshelves.
Jonnoticedthecrutcheshungonthewallneartheregister,mostlythe
temporaryaxillarykind,thoughtheydidhaveacouplepairsofadjustableforearmones
nottoodissimilartothekindKaihad.Asignbesidethemannounced,Wedocustom
orders!
224
Jonpointed.“Whatdoesthatmean?”
ClydeheavedastackofcatalogswithnameslikeColoursandTiLiteand
followedJon’sfinger.“ForcustomerswhouseLofstrandsregularly,wecanmeasureand
orderthemtosize,sotheydon’thavethenoiseofpins.Plusthecustomonesare
sturdier,lesslikelytobreak,andlastlonger.Moreexpensive,ofcourse,butthe
handgripsandthecuffscanbecustomized,too.Also,wecangetthemindifferent
colors,especiallyinthepediatricsizes.”
Jonnodded,openedhismouthtoaskanotherquestionwhentherewasaloud
crashfromthebackofthestore.JonturnedhisheadbutallhesawwasKai’sakimbo
legsandfeetandaspinningwheel.
Clydehadgonealittlepaleandrushedtotheback,soJonjoinedhim.
Kaihadapparentlytippedover,dumpedpartiallyoutofthewheelchair,
perhapsnotusedtothelighter,morenimblechair,orperhapsbecausehiscenterof
gravitywasoffduetothechairnotfittinghimproperly.Whateverhadhappened,hewas
strugglingtogetbackup,fightingwiththelockononeofhiskneesandthechairitself,
whichkeptwantingtotipeverytimehetriedtogetbackintoit.
Bynow,Jonhadlearnedtokeephisdistance,butthesalespersondidn’tknow
anybetter,andswoopedin.“Thismodelisalittletippy,”hesaidtoKai,lockingthe
wheels.“Makesiteasiertomaneuver,butit’snotforeveryone,andittakessome
adjustment.”Clydeheldthechairsteady,whichenabledKaitofinallytransferbackinto
itfromthefloor.“Isthisyourfirstwheelchair?”
JonnoticedKaiactedlikehedidn’tevenhearClyde,andJonwasn’tsureifKai
wasangryorembarrassedbythespill,orthatClydehadhelpedhim,orwhat.Kai
pushedtotheotherfloormodellightweightchairs,testingthe“tippiness”ofallofthem,
continuingtoignoreClyde,whowasregalingthefeaturesofeach.
ClydelookedconfusedandbegantalkingtoJoninstead,occasionallyglancing
atKaiasiftoincludehim,thoughKaiwasengagedintryingeachmodelout,
transferringinandoutofthembeforefinallytakingoffaroundthestoreinthethird
one.
“CP?”Clydeaskedonceitwasjustthetwoofthem,casuallyobservingKai
wheelingaroundthestore.Thismodelfithimalittlebetter,thoughhestilllookedeven
moreganglyinitthatusual.
Jonhesitatedinreplying.Clydewaslikelyaskingsohecouldbetter
recommendoptionsforthem,butMLSwasaveryraredisease;evenifClydehadspent
yearsworkinginthebusiness,hemightnotbefamiliarwithit.“Hehasaformof
musculardystrophywithCP-likefeatures,includingoccasionalhighmuscletoneand
spasms.He’sneverhadawheelchairofhisownbefore.Buthe’dlikeone,foraroundthe
houseorwhenhe’stired.”Inthebackofhismind,JonwonderedifKaiwouldbe
annoyedwithJonforspeakingforhimlikethis,butKaihadhadplentyofopportunity
totalktoClydehimselfandhadn’tseemedparticularlyinterested.
Clydenodded.“Howoldishe?”
“Eighteen.”
ClydegesturedforJontofollowhimbacktothecounter,whereheflipped
throughoneofthecatalogs.“Meanshe’sprobablystillgrowing.”Heflippedsomemore.
“Doyouknowwhatfeaturesaremostimportanttohim?Weight,maneuverability,
customization...?Doyouhaveabudget?”
Jonsighed.Henormallyconsideredhimselfaverypatientman,butKai’s
juvenilebehaviorwastestinghislimits.“Kai,”Joncalledseveraltimes.Kaiignoredhim,
225
testingouttheturningradiusofthecurrentmodelhewasinandgrinning,then
growlingandshakinghisfingerswhenhe’daccidentallycatchthembetweenthespokes
ortherim.Jonstompedhisfootinfrustration,andthatfinallymadeKailookup.Jon
rolledhiseyes,wavedKaiover.
KaiwovehiswaytowardJon,occasionallyhittingadisplaywithhiskneesor
wheels.WhenhereachedJon,hepointedtothechairhewasinandthenliftedhis
hands,palmup,pullingthemtowardshimself.Jonknewherecognizedthesign,butit
didn’thithimtillKaigrewmorefrustratedandrepeateditagain.WasKaishyabout
talkingtopeoplehedidn’tknow?Butthen,Jonwasbasicallyastranger,andKaihad
spokentohim.Usuallywithbitterreluctance,butstill.
“Youwantthatone?”
Kainodded.
Bynow,ClydewasprettysureKaiwaseitherdeafordumbinthearchaicsense
oftheword,andhaddecidedtodirect100%ofhisattentiontoJon.“That’sthebrandI
wasgoingtorecommend—ifit’sinyourbudget,XCalibre—butIwasgoingtosuggesta
differentmodel.Wedon’thaveafloormodel,butit’llhaveasimilarfeelasthatone.”
Clydepointedtoapageinoneofthecatalogs.“TheRanger.It’sagoodfirstwheelchair.
Light,nimble,andadjustable,soashegetsmorefamiliarwithithecantweakitabit,
andit’llgivehimsomeroomtogrow.Plus,youcangoanti-tipwithit.”Clydeindicated
theanti-tipaccessory.
JonshowedKaithecatalog.“Whatdoyouthink?”
KaiyankeditoutofJon’shand,layingitinhislap,studyingthepictureofthe
chairandaccessories.Kai’sfingersslidovertheglossypaper.Hefrowned,thenpointed
totheonehewasstillsittingin,thenpulledoutfromhischestwithhismiddlefinger
andthumb.AnothersignJonremembered.AfterKaihadrepeateditinsistentlyafew
times,itclicked.Kaihadsaid,“Ilikethisone.”
Jonsighed,lookedbackatClyde.“What’sthedifferencebetweenthisoneand
theonehe’sinnow?”
“That’stheElite.Irecommendthatformoreexperiencedwheelchairusers.
Plus,theRangerisalotcheaper,becauseit’slesscustomizable.Butifhe’snewtothis,
hewon’treallyknowwhathewantsyet.I’dgowiththeRanger,andinafewyears,he
canupgradeifhewants.”
Kaiseemedtobeengrossedinthecatalog,buthelookedupatJonandsigned
whatJonwasprettysurewasOKfollowedbyrubbinghisfistonhischestinapology.
Thenhepointedtothecatalog,hisfistgoingrapidlythroughletterstoofastforJonto
distinguish,thenheldhishandoverhismouth,wigglinghisfingers,hiseyebrows
furrowed.
Jonhadnoideawhatthatmeant,andhedesperatelywantedtoaskKaitojust
speakEnglish,butitwasKai’sbirthday,amajorshiftwashappeninginhislife,andas
sillyasitwas,JonjustwantedtomakeKaihappy,toseehisbrothersmile.
KaisighedasheseemedtorememberJon'slackofASLproficiency,closingthe
catalog.Hetookabreathandspokeslowly,focusingonhisarticulationandgrammar.
“Rangerisgood.Whatcolors?”
Clydeblinked;apparentlyhe’dfiguredKaididn’tspeak.Hereachedunderthe
counterforaringofpaintchips.“TheRangerdoesn’tcomeintoomanycoloroptions,
butyoucanpickfromthese,”heindicatedthefirstsix.
Kaipushedcloser,snaggingtheringandstudyingeachonecarefullybefore
finallyselectingabluenotdarkenoughtobenavybutnotlightenoughtobecobalt.A
226
darkroyalblue,perhaps.“Nonotip,”Kaisaid.“Iwilllearn.”Thenheusedthecounter
topullhimselfbacktostandingagain.Nowthathewasonhisfeet,soclosetoJon,it
madeJonrealizemorethaneverthiswasn’tthelittlekindergartenerhe’dbeen
separatedfromallthoseyearsago.Kaiwasonlyafewinchesshorter,withyearsstillleft
togrow.
“OK,we’llgetyoumeasured.Thesedon’ttaketoolong,sohopefullyit’llcome
inwithinthemonth,”Clydesaidwithasmile,perhapsrelievedKaiwasfinally
cooperating.
“Happybirthday,”Jonsaid,pattingKaiontheback.
Kailookedathim,andforasecondJonworriedKaiwouldcastoneofhissoulmeltingglaresJon’sway,butinstead,heflashedhisownhintofasmile.
Anhourorsolater,theywerebackinJon’scar.Kai’schairhadbeenordered,alongwith
apairofnewcrutches—atJon’sinsistence—andKai’smoodhadlightened.
“Youknow,youwerereallyrudetothatsalesperson,”Jonsaidashegavethe
car’sACachancetokickin.Ascoldandmiserableaswintercouldbe,Jonhadforgotten
howhotand,well,miserable,thesummersinJonesvillewere,too.
KailookedatJon,blinked,evidentlyconfused.“Idon’tlikeEnglish.”
“Well,it’swhatwehavetoworkwith,andIknowyou’recapableofspeakingit
well.It’srudetoignoresomeonewhenthey’retalkingtoyou.”
“Isthisyourprice?”
Jon’seyebrowsdipped.WasKaimistranslatingfromASLintoEnglish?
“Forthechair,foraplacetostay.Yougettolectureme.”Kai’svoicewasflat,as
washisexpression,makingitimpossibletotellwhetherhewasangry,beingsassy,or
serious.
Jonsighed.“Iwasjustmakingyouawareofthesituation.Acceptinghelpfrom
someoneisn’tabadthing.”
“Iacceptedyourhelp,”Kaisaidwithafewblinks,continuinghismonotoneand
expressionlesscountenance.
Jonshookhishead.Hestilllovedhisbrother,evenifhenolongerknewhim,
andhedidn’tregrethavingasecondchancewithhim.HejustneverimaginedKaiwould
havechangedsomuch.Jondidn’tfeellikehe’dchangedsosignificantlyinthepast
twelveyears.ButthenithitJon:presumably,KaihadcontinuedtoattendtheJonesville
SchoolfortheDeafwhiletheywereseparated,andJonrememberedsomeofwhathe’d
learnedintheclassesforfriendsandfamilythey’dtakenwhenKaihadfirstenrolledin
thepreschoolprogram.Deafnesswasn’tadisability,itwasaculture,withitsownnorms
andrulesapartfromthehearingworld.TheteacherhadexplainedmanyDeafpeople
resentedhearingpeoplefornotappreciatingthis,forbeingforcedtolearnanother
languagewhenthehearingworlddidn’tcareaboutthelanguageoftheDeaf—ASL.
“Youhatehearingpeople,don’tyou,”Jonsaidsuddenly,asithithim.Itwasn’t
aquestion.
“Iamhearing,”Kaisaid,withthefirsthintofemotioninhisvoice:disgust.
“Youare,”Jonsaid.“Butyou’reculturallyDeaf,aren’tyou.Evenifyouwere
forcedtolearntospeakEnglish,youresentit,andyou’reangryattheworldforit.”
Kaibreathedinandoutseveraltimesbeforefinallyreplying,“Beingforcedto
speakisonlyafractionofwhyIamangryattheworld.”KaispokeinperfectEnglish,too
perfecttosoundnatural.“Thankyouforthewheelchair,etc.Iamgrateful.ButIwillnot
change.Ican’tpromisetonotbeangry.Ican’tpromisewewilleverbefriends.”
227
Jonnoddedandfinallypulledoutoftheparkinglot.“Youcan’tpromiseto
forgiveme.Igetit.”
JonparkedinfrontoftheJonesvilleDiner.Hisbloodsugarwaslow,sohe’ddecidedto
makeapitstopbeforetheywentshoppingforclothesandmaybedroppedbyKai’s
orthotisttoorderhimsomenewshoes.
“Areyousurethisiswhatyouwant?Wereallycangoanywhere.”
KaiseemedconstantlysurprisedthatJonwasdoingallthisforhim,thathe
caredwhatKaiwanted,andhekeptasking,albeitindifferentways,whatJonexpected
inreturn,whathis“price”was.“Davidsaidthewaitresseswereprettyhere,”Kaisaid,
strugglingwiththeword“waitresses”andnotexplainingwhoDavidwas.Afriend?“I
likesweets,”Kaisaid.
IfJongotanickelforeverytimehestifledasighwithKaisincepickinghimup
earlierthatmorning....“Youalwaysdid.Butyou’llneedtoeatsomethingofsubstance,
too.Evenonyourbirthday,youcan’tjusteatdessert.”ThatmadeJonsmiledespite
himself.Asachild,JonhadoftenfoughttogetKaitoeatmorethanacouplebitesof
meatorvegetables,butputanythingsweetinfrontofhim,andhe’ddevouredit.
KailookedatJonforamoment,hisexpressionstrangeandunreadablebefore
finallynodding.
Thedinerwasbusy,eventhoughitwasearlyforlunchandlateforbreakfast,
thesmellofgreaseandburntcoffeepermeatingtheair.JonnoticedKaiseemedquieter
thanusual—ifthatwerepossible,hiseyesdartingaroundtheroomnervously.Still,he
heldhisshouldersandheadup,doinghisbesttoconsciouslyhidehisanxiety.
AsJonscannedtheroom,heobservedKai’sfriendhadbeenright;withthe
exceptionofanolderwomanwholookedlikeamanagerdespiteheruniform,allthe
waitresseswereyoungandfairlyattractive.
Oneofthewomenledthemtoatableandtooktheirdrinks;Jonorderedcoffee
andKaioptedformilk,pointingtoitonthebackofthemenuinsteadofspeaking.
“So,youcanorderwhateveryouwant,”Jonsaid,watchinghowKai’sfingers
fiddledwiththeplasticedgesofthelargemenu,asifheweretryingtopeelthelayers
apart.
Kaishrugged.“Nothungry.”
Joncouldn’tstiflehissighthistime.Herememberedbeingeighteen.Hemay
nothaveweighedmuchmorethanKai,butitdidn’tmeanhewasn’tconstantly
ravenous.EvenifKaihadeatensomethingbeforeJonpickedhimup,thatwouldhave
beenhoursago.
“WhataboutifIorderyousomething,andthen,after,youcangetanydessert
youwant.”
Kaishruggedandclosedhismenu,dragginghisfingernailsoverthelaminate,
staringatthebacking.WashemadbecauseJonhadcalledhimoutforhisbehaviorat
themobilitystore?OrwasKaialwayslikethisnow?Withdrawnandsad.Jon
rememberedVickysayingshe’dneverseenhimsmile.
Thewaitressreturned,andJonhastilyorderedhimselfachefsaladandKaithe
Jonesvilleburger—abaconcheeseburgerwithfries.Whateighteen-year-oldboydidn’t
likethat?Thewaitresssmiledatthembothbeforedisappearing,andJonnoticedKai’s
eyeshaddriftedtowardoneoftheotherservers,atall,thingirlnotmucholderthanKai
withmedium-browncurlspiledhighonherheadandasmilethatcouldensnareany
man.
228
Kaiknewshewasn’tsmilingathim,buthewasgoodatpretending.Shewasbeautiful,
oneofthemostbeautifulwomenhe’deverseen,andhewonderedwhatherhairwould
looklikeloose.Howlongwasit?Itwasimpossibletotellthewayshehaditpulledup.
Hehopeditwaslong.He’dhadathingforcurlyhaireversincehis(unrequited)middle
schoolcrushonErikaWasserman.
Kaiknewhisbrotherwaswatchinghim,buthepretendednottonotice.It
seemedJonalternatedbetweenseveralroles.Thefirst,andmostfamiliar,wasspeaking
slowlyandpatronizingly,asifKaiwasn’tcapableofunderstandinghimotherwise.The
second,andanotherKaiwasusedto,wastreatingKailikeanunusualcapturedstray
animalthathadtobecarefullyobservedoutofscientificcuriosityanduncertaintyasto
howhewouldbehavenext.Lastly,andtherolethatmadeKaimostuncomfortable
becauseitwassoforeign,wasthisawkwardparentalthingJonslippedintofromtimeto
time.Wasitbecausehewasolder?Becausehewasadoctorandusedtoorderingpeople
around?Kaididn’thateauthoritynearlyasbadlyasDavidhad,buthehadnolovefor
beingtoldwhattodo,especiallyinEnglish.
Still,despiteKai’sbestattemptstopushJon,hisbrotherhadbeenremarkably
patientandcalmtheentiretime,andotherthanafewsighs,hadn’tyetlosthistemper.
Kaistillcouldn’tfigureoutwhatJonwantedthough,andthatterrifiedhim,evenifhe
wouldn’tletJonseethat.Thelasttwelveyearshadtaughthimnoonegaveanythingfor
nothing;therewasalwaysaprice:sometimesasteepone.HislastventurewithaTaylor
relativehadn’texactlybeenallrainbowsandkittens,either.
“So,whatkindofthingsdoyouliketodo?”Jon’svoicepulledKaiawayfrom
histhoughtsandtheattractivecurly-hairedwaitress.
KaiblinkedatJon,decidingitwouldn’thurttoreply.“Read.”
Jon’seyebrowsfurrowed.Kairealizedhowmuchtheylookedalike;itwasa
littleeerie.Ifhegottobethatold,wouldhelookjustlikeJon?Well,exceptforthe
ridiculoushaircut.Kaiwouldnevershavehishead.“Youliketoread,butyouhate
English.”
Kaishrugged,searchedforsomethingtokeephisfingersoccupied,finally
settlingfortyingthestrawwrapperinincreasinglymoreintricateknotsuntilthepaper
broke.“JustbecauseIhatetospeakdoesn’tmeanIcan’tliketoread,”Kaisaidinproper
English,sincehismorelazyhybridASLEnglishapparentlyannoyedJon.Normally,Kai
wouldn’tcare,butforsomereason,especiallyafterthatincrediblewheelchairJonhad
lethimorder,Kaifigureditwastheleasthecoulddo.
Jondidn’tseemtoknowwhattosaytothis,drinkinghiscoffee.
Kaidrummedhisfingersonthetabletop,thenpressedhishandsintotheseat
ofthechairtoadjusthisweight.“You’rereallyadoctor.Arealdoctor?”
Jonrubbedhishandoverthetopofhishead.“Asopposedtoafakedoctor?”
“Howoldareyou?”
“Twenty-five.I’llbetwenty-sixinAugust.”JonlookedalittlehurtthatKai
didn’tknowthis.Honestly,Kaiwouldn’tevenhaverememberedhisownbirthdayifit
weren’tforalwaysbeingsick,andDavid,whonever,everforgot.Untilthisyear.Kai
pushedthethoughtfromhismind.
“Pulmonology,”Kaisaidslowly.Hestillhadtroublewith“L’s”and“R’s”
sometimes,especiallyinlongerwordsandwhensandwichedbetweenvowels.
Jonnodded.
Beforeeitherbrothercouldsayanythingelse,theirwaitressreturnedwiththeir
229
food.JonhadorderedKaianenormoushamburger,drippingwithcheeseandbacon.
Davidwouldbeinheaven.Baconwasn’tsomethingtheyeverhadatCountyHouse,but
Davidhadmanagedtoblackmailoneofthecookstomakesomeforhimfromtimeto
time,underTheWarden’snose—thoughasstronglyasbaconsmelled,Kaiwasn’tsure
howthatcouldbepossible.
Kai’saunthadlovedbacon,andmadeKaicookitforher,whichwasprobably
oneofthereasonshethrewupsomuch.Somedayshewasfine,butothers,hejust
couldn’tstandthesmellofit.Apparently,todaywasoneofthosedays.
Jonsat,staringatKai’semptychairforafewseconds,processing.Oncetheirfoodhad
arrived,Kaihadturnedalittlepaleandthensuddenlystood—usingthetabletohelp
himselftohisfeet,anddonetheclosestthingtoarunhecouldmanagetowardthe
restrooms.
Maybethebaconcheeseburgerwasn’tthebestorderingdecision.Jondebated
aboutfollowingKai,butthefaintheadacheandlightheadednesstoldhimhereally
neededtoeat,andKaihadmadeitabundantlyclearhecouldtakecareofhimself.Still,
asJonate,hekepthiseyesfocusedonthesmallhallwaythatleadtotherestrooms;if
Kaididn’treappearinatimelymanner,he’dgocheckonhimanyway.
Afteraboutfiveminutes,Kaiemerged,lookingalittlewobblyevenatthis
distance,ahandonthewall.Theprettycurly-hairedwaitresswentovertotalktohim,
butallJoncouldmakeoutwasafewnodsandheadshakesbeforeKaismiledshylyand
slowlyreturnedtotheirtable.
“I’mfine,”Kaisaidimmediately.Buthesat,staringathisfoodinsteadofeating
it,sippinghismilkandlookingpaleandtired.
Jonfrownedbutdidn’tpushhim,signalingforthewaitress.“Doyoulike
chocolate?You’renotallergic,right?”
Kaitiltedhishead,shookit.“Ilikeit.ButIshouldn’teatit.”
Jon’seyebrowsfurrowedatKai’scrypticresponse.“Whataboutpeanutbutter?
You’renotallergic?”
Kaishookhishead.
Decidingnottomakeanyassumptions,Jonasked,“Andyoulikeit?”
Kaishrugged.
Stiflingyetanothersigh,JonsignaledthewaitressandorderedKaiapeanut
buttermilkshake.IfKaiwasn’tgoingtoeattheburger,oreventhefries,perhapsthat
wouldbebetterthannothing.
“Kai,ifyou’renotfeelingwell,wecangobacktothehotel—”
“I’mfine,”Kairepeated,offeringasmileJoncouldtellwasnotonlyforcedbut
fake,eatingafewofthefries,asiftoplacatehim.
Jonshookhisheadandwentbacktohissalad.“Ithoughtthiswouldbeeasy,”
hemutteredtohimself.
Kailaughed.Hewasbreakingfriesinhalf,notactuallyeatingthem,just
playingwithhisfood.“Youadoptedthewrongpuppyifyouwantedeasy,”hesaid,
evidentlyreferencinghislicensingjokefromtheotherday.
TheirwaitressreturnedwithKai’smilkshake,deliveredinatall,old-fashioned
glass,toppedwithwhippedcreamandacherry.
Kai’seyeslitupashebroughtitcloser,eatingthecherryfirst.
Jonsighed,buthesmiled.“Happybirthday.”
“Oh,isityourbirthday?”thewaitresssquealed.
230
Kaiblushedabrilliantred.
“Hiseighteenth,”Jonannounced.
Theirwaitresssignaledtotheothers,shouting,“Wehaveabirthdayhere!”And
soonthey’dallgatheredaround.
Kaiwasmortified,thoughwhenthecurly-hairedwaitressjoinedthegroup—
Becca,hernametagsaid—hetriedtohideit,goingfordisaffected,leaningbackinhis
chairlikethiskindofthinghappenedtohimallthetime.
Thewaitresses—andevensomeofthepatrons—joinedinthehappybirthday
song.Whenthey’dfinished,Kaiwasactuallysmiling.
“Happybirthday,”theirwaitresssaidonceeveryonehadfilteredbacktotheir
stations.“What’syourfavoritekindofpie?”
“Everything,”Kaisaid.
Shelaughed,alowrollingchuckle.“I’llsurpriseyou,then,”shesaidwitha
wink.
Kaihaddevouredhismilkshakeandpie,andevenmanagedtoeatafewbitesofhis
burger(withoutthebacon—JonmadeamentalnotethatKaiapparentlydidn’tlikeit).
They’ddetouredtoKai’sorthotisttoordersomenewshoes,andthenthey’dheadedto
themall.Jondecidedtokeepthingssimple:getKaiafewpairsofjeansandsome
Tshirtsandthenmaybetheycoulddosomeapartmenthunting.
TheywalkedintoJCPenneytogether,headingtowardthemen’sdepartment.
“Doyouknowyoursize?”Jonsaid,sortingthroughthestacksofjeans.
Kaishrugged.
Jonlookedathim.Kaiwasalittleshorterandthinnerthanhewas,sohe
supposedhecouldmakeaguess.“I’dsay,28or29waist....Doesthatsoundright?”
Kaishrugged.“Iwouldwearwhateverwouldfitmybraces.Andabelt,”Kai
said.
Jonshookhishead,snaggedafewdifferentsizesforboththewaistandlegand
draggedKaitothedressingroom.
“Takingmypantsoffisn’teasy,”Kaisaidassoonastheyhittheroom.Kai
pointedtohisshoes,asifthatwouldexplaineverything.
Jontookadeepbreath.Kai’sshoeswereattachedtohisbraces,whichmeant
hecouldn’teasilyremovethem,orhispants,forthatmatter.Which,aftertheirvisitto
theorthotist,Jonshouldhaverealized.“Fine.Youwon’ttrythemonthen.MaybeIcan
seeyoursizeatleast.Isthisweird?”
Kaishrugged.
JonmotionedforKaitolifthisshirtup,andassoonashedid,Jonrealizedany
awkwardnessbetweenthemwouldbeavoided:Kai’sjeanswereatleastasizeortwotoo
big,barelyheldupbyanequallylargebelthe’dloopedback.Theoversizedclotheshad
hiddenhowhorrifyinglygauntKaiwas,hishipbonesprominentandtheedgeofhisribs,
peekingbeneathhisraisedshirt,clearlyvisible.Nowonder.Evenwithdessert,Kaihad
hardlyeatenanylunch,andJondoubtedhisappetitehadbeenmuchbetteratCounty
House.
“Allright,forgetit.I’lljustbuyafewdifferentsizesandstylesandyoucansee
whatworksforyouwhenwegettothehotel,Iguess.Let’sgopickoutsomeshirtsand
wecangetoutofhere.”
JonandKaiexitedthemall,theacridodorofcigarettesmokehittingJon’snose:agroup
231
ofkidsabouthisbrother’sageweregatheredaround,smokingandtalking.Jon
immediatelyglancedoveratKai,whowasholdinghisbreathanddoinghisbestto
hurry.
ButJondidn’thaveahandicappedplacard,andhadn’tbeenabletofinda
parkingspaceclose.Kaiwastryingtoactcool,butJoncouldseehischestjerking,and
soonhewascoughing.JonwouldhaveofferedtogetthecarandpickKaiupsohedidn’t
havetowalk,buthonestly,hedidn’twanttoleaveKaialoneanditwasprobablybetter
nottoleaveKainearthesmokersanyway.
Kaicoughedharder,beginningtowheeze,leaningagainstoneoftheparked
cars,fishingouthisinhalerandtakingafewquickpuffs.Hiseyeswereshut,andhe
leanedforwardasbesthecouldwithoutlosinghisbalance,hisbreathingharsh,loud,
painfulsounding.
Jonhatednotbeingabletodomuch,sohegotclosetoKai,offeringhimhis
supportandhishand.Kaiaccepted,toJon’ssurprise,stillworkinghardforeachbreath,
thoughthemedicinewasevidentlyworking.Overthenextfewminutes,Kai’swheeze
lessened,andhisbreathingslowed,thoughtheattackhadclearlytakenalotoutofhim.
Jonsaidnothing,justbeingthereforKai,givingtimeforthealbuterolto
continueworking,andforKaitorecover.Severalmoreminutespassed,andthoughKai
wasclearlywipedout,hepushedawayfromthecar,releasingJon’shand,andbeganto
walk—slowly—backtoJon’ssedan.
JonwalkedsilentlybesideKai,matchinghispace,notwantingKaitofeel
rushed,carefullylisteningandwatchingforanysignsoffurtherdistress.Jonwas
relievedthespaceonthepassenger’ssideofhisvehiclewasempty,sohedidn’tneedto
backoutforKaitogetin.Assoonasthedoorswereunlocked,Kaisunkingratefully,
usingthedooranditsframetohelpeasehimselfintotheseatbeforepullinghislegsin
onebyone.Heleanedback,hiseyesfallingclosed,hisbreathingalittlemorelabored
thanithadbeenearlierintheday,butheseemedtobeOK.
JonneededtogetKaianebulizer,too,herealized,sincehedidn’thaveoneof
hisownnowthathenolongerlivedatCountyHouse.“Let’sgetyouhomesoyoucan
restawhile,”Jonoffered.
Kaididn’topenhiseyes.“Idon’thaveahomeanymore,”hesaidinpieces,his
voicelowandbreathy.
Jonwasgratefulhe’drentedatraditionalfoldingwheelchairforKaitouseuntilhis
camein,becauseKaihadfallenasleepnotlongafterJonpulledoutoftheparkinglot,
andthoughherousedwhenJonshookhim,wasclearlytooexhaustedfromthelongday
andtheattack—hislegsjitteringwithspasms—towalk.AsunderweightasKaiwas,Jon
wasn’tstrongenoughtocarryhim,either,sohehelpedKaitransfer.Kaiinitiallytriedto
pushhimself,butwastooshortofbreathandhadtogiveup,gasping,afteronlyafew
feet.Thoughheclearlywasn’tthrilledbytheprospect,hehadnochoicebuttoletJon
pushhimtherestofthewaytotheirroom.ConcernedforKai,Jonlefteverythingelsein
thecar,figuringhecouldgettherestoftheirpurchaseslater.
Becauseofhisstrangesituation,transferringprograms,Jonhadoriginally
optedforatemporarysublettingsituation,livinginaresident’sapartmentwhowas
awaydoingaruralrotationforacouplemonths.WithKaiinthepicture,though,Jon
hadswitchedtoahotelroomwithanaccessiblebathroomandtwodoublebedssoKai
wouldbemorecomfortable.Jonhopedthey’dfindatwo-bedroomapartmentthat
wouldworkforbothofthemsoon,though.
232
Kaitransferredtooneofthebedsbyhimself,buthesoonlayback,hiseyelids
heavy.
Jonwasn’tsureifheshouldoffertohelpKaiundressornot.“Letmeknowif
youneedanything,”Jonsaidinstead,hopingthatwasneutralenough.
“I’msorry,”Kaisaid,hisvoicebreathy.
“It’sfine,”Jonsaid,wantingtosmoothKai’shair,butnotsureKaiwould
welcomethetouch.“Getsomerest.Do...youwantmetohelpyoutakeyourbraces
off?”
Kaiputonehand,folded,fingerstouchinghischestnearhisshoulder,thenlet
itsag.Perhapsthesignfor“tired”?Becausehisarmfellshortlyafter,andsoonhewas
asleep.
Kaiwokeslowly.Hischest,neck,andbackhurt,andhefelttired,likehehadbeenfor
weeks,eversincehe’dstartedhoardinghismedsinpreparationfor“kickingout”day,
buthewasbreathingeasierashepushedhimselfintoasittingposition.Ashedidso,he
realizedatsomepoint,whilehewassleeping,JonhadtakenoffKai’spants,braces,
socks,andshoes,shiftinghimundertheblanketsinjusthisunderwear.Kaiglanced
over,seeinghisbracesandcrutchesproppedupagainstthewallononesideofthebed,
therentedwheelchairontheother,withineasyreach,hisjeansfoldedneatlyintheseat.
Kaisatforamoment,wakingup,processing.Itdisturbedhim,ononelevel,thatJon
hadmanagedtostriphimofhispantsandbraceswithoutKaiwakingup.Doingso
wasn’taquickoreasytask,especiallysince,presumably,Jonwasn’tnearlyasfamiliar
withtheprocessasKaiwas.Eitheryouhadtotrytoworkthejeansoffoverthebulky
bracesbeneath,thenundothenumerousstrapsbeforefinallyfreeinghisfeetfromhis
shoes,oryouhadtoleavethejeanson,workingtoundothestrapsbyfeeluntilKai
couldshimmyoutofthewholemessatonce.Bothweretimeconsuming,andbothwere
awkward,andKaiwondered,ifhehadn’twokenthroughoutthatordeal,whatelsecould
hehavepossiblysleptthrough?
Nervously,Kaislippedahandunderthewaistbandofhisunderwear,cupping
hispackageasiftoreassurehimselfitwasstillthere,assillyastheideawas.Eventired
andnervousandstillunsureastowhatJonwantedwithhim,thesubtletouchhadhim
halfhardinseconds.Butafewstrictlynon-sexythoughts—includingJonwithhishands
onhiminthedressingroomonlyhoursearlier—andthingstookcareofthemselves.
Jonwasawfullyhandson,especiallyforahearie,andKaiworriedifthatwas
perhapsJon’sprice.Afterall,hewasbuyingKaistuff,andhe’dwantedKaitostripatthe
mall,andevidentlyhaddoneexactlythatwhileKaiwasasleep.Heshivered,staringat
thedoorofthebedroomthatledtotherestofthesuite.Jonwasadoctor,anddoctors
weregenerallyhands-onbynature,andJonhadn’treallydoneanythingtoraiseanyof
Kai’sredflagsexceptfortheveryfactthathehadn’traisedanyredflags.IfJonwas
somekindofperv,he’dhadplentyofopportunities—inthecar,inthedressingroom—
butJonhadseeminglybeennothingbutconcernedandeagertomakeKaihappy,as
ridiculousasthatwas.Kaithrewtheblanketoff,grabbedhisjeansandusedhishandsto
pullthemoneachleg.Sleepinginhisbraceswasuncomfortable,andKaihadvague
memoriesofJontakingcareofhimwhentheywereyoung,beforetheirparentsdied.
MaybeJonhadgenuinelywantedtohelp.TomakeKaimorecomfortable.IfJonhad
meantKaiharm,wouldhehavelefthisjeansandwheelchairnearby?Orhiscrutches
andbraces,forthatmatter?Wouldhehavebotheredtogetahotelroomwitha
bathroomthatKaiwouldn’thaveanytroubleusing?IfJonreallywantedtotake
233
advantageofhim,likeAuntJuliahad,itwouldhavebeeneasytobringKaisomewhere
relativelyinaccessible,tokeephismobilityaidsoutofreach,totrytotraphim....
ButJonhadorderedKaiawheelchairallhisown.Newcrutchesthatwouldfit
himproperlyandwouldn’tperpetuallyannouncehispresencewiththeclangofrattling
pins.He’drentedthisroom,andthiswheelchair,Kaithoughtgratefullyashe
transferredintoit.Kaiwouldn’tlethisguarddownyet,butmaybeitwaspossibleJon
wasjusttryingtobe—asforeignasthatwas—nice.Maybe...thingswouldbeOK.Good,
even.
Jonwassittingatthedeskinthesuite,takingnotesonapartmentcomplexesforthemto
checkoutthefollowingdaywhenKaifinallywoke.Herolledoutofthebedroominhis
rentedchair,dressedagain,thoughhisfeetwerebare.Jonhadtakenacalculatedrisk
oncehewascertainKaiwassoundasleepandremovedhispants,braces,andshoes.Kai
hadbeenright;itwasn’teasytodo,butthetoo-largepantscertainlymadethejob
easier.JonhadbeenalittlesurprisedKaididn’twaketheentiretime,butalsoalittle
relieved.Kaineededtherest.
Jonhaddiscoveredhisoversightsintheirearlierclothingrunoncehe’dgotten
Kai’spantsoff:Kaiapparentlyhadonlybeenallowedtokeeptwopairsofunderwear—
therattypairoftighty-whiteysthatfitonlyslightlybetterthantherestofhisclothing—
andoneextra,foldedinhisbag,andnosocksexceptthesinglepairofbracesockshe’d
beenwearingunderhisorthotics.Kaicouldprobablyalsouseapairofshoeshecould
wearthatweren’tattachedtohisbraces.
“Feelingbetter?”Joncouldn’tgaugeKai’smood,whichhewasbeginningto
suspectwouldbeacommonexperience.
Kaistilllookedalittletired,butheseemedtobebreathingeasier,relatively,
andhischeekshadmorecolor.Henodded,pushedalittlecloser.“Youtookoffmy
braces,”hesaid,speakingslowlyasifhewerehavingtothinkbeforeeachwordtomake
surehisgrammarwasright.
“Ifiguredyou’dbemorecomfortable.”
KaistaredatJonforalongtime,anuncomfortable,penetratingstare,oneJon
hadnoticedKaigivinghimthroughouttheday,asifhewereconstantlysearchingfor
Jon’shiddenmotivations.
“I’msorryifIoverstepped,”Jonaddedinapology.
Kaitookinaharshbreathandonlynodded;whetherthatwasanindication
thatKaididn’tmindorwhat,Jonwasn’tsure.
Kaiwasn’tangry,surprisingly,andJonwouldtakewhathecouldget.Maybeit
wasasignhewasmakingsomeheadwaywithhisbrotherafterall.“Youhungry?Wecan
gosomewhere,orIcanorderroomserviceordelivery.”
Kai’sheadtilted,almostlikeabirdordog.“Roomservice?”
“Yeah,foodmadehereinthehotelandtheybringittoyourroom?”
Kairolledhiseyes.“Igrewupsheltered,notunderarock.Iknowwhatroom
serviceis,evenifI’veneverstayedinahotelbefore.”
TherewasthesassJonwasexpecting,butherealizedthistimethatKaiwas
smilingfaintly.Jonreachedoverfortheroomservicemenuandofferedittohisbrother.
“Takealookandseeifthere’sanythingtherethatsoundsgood.Ifnot,youcancalldown
tothefrontdeskandaskiftheyhaveanymenusforplacesthatdelivertothehotel.”
Kailaidthemenuinhislapandpushedtothecouch,transferringeasily,
thoughittookhimamomenttorecoverhisbreath,makingJonfrownreflexively.
234
“I’msorryaboutearlier.Iwastryingtodotoomuchinoneday.”
Kaishruggedasheflippedthroughthebinder.Atfirst,Jondidn’tthinkKai
wasgoingtosayanything,buthefinallylookedupatJon,hiseyesunreadable,butnot
intentionallyso;theemotionstherewerejusttoocomplexforJontoparseout,
especiallyfromacrosstheroom.“Iwasheadingtowardanattackallday.Thecigarette
smokejusttriggereditsoonerratherthanlater.”
Jonnodded.“Ihopeyoudon’tmind,butItalkedtoDr.Johnsenwhileyou
wereasleepandI’mgoingtopickupanebulizerandyourprescriptionstomorrow.
You’llbeOKuntilthen,right?”
Kainodded.“Ihavemyinhalersandafewofmypills.I’dbeenhoardingthem
forawhile,sinceIwasn’tsurehowthingswouldgoonceIturnedeighteen,”Kai
admitted.
JonfrownedbutletKai’scommentslide,seeminglyunnoticed.“Ialsofounda
fewapartmentcomplexesthatsoundpromising.Madesomephonecalls.Weren’ttoo
manytwo-bedroomswithaccessiblebathrooms,butIfoundacouple,plusafewmore
thatthelandlordsaidcouldbemodifiedeasily.”
Kainodded,lookedupatJonforamoment.“Ikeepexpectingtowakeup,”he
said.JonnoticedKaihadbeentryingharder,sinceaboutmidwaythroughtheday,to
speakproperlyforJon’ssake.
“How’sthat?”
Kai’sbrowsfurrowedforaminute,perhapsconfusedbytheidiom,before
continuing,“Noneofthisfeelsreal.”
Joncouldunderstandonacertainlevel;he’dfeltsimilarlyatfirst,aftertheir
parentsdied,andlater,whenhefirstmovedinwithhisadoptivefather.“Doyouusually
dreamabouthavingasthmaattacks?”
Jonhadmeantitasakindofjoke,butKairespondedanyway.“Oh,yeah,all
thetime.”Heabandonedtheopenbinderinhislapamoment,lockinghishandsand
stretchingthemhighabovehishead,rollinghisneckandshoulders.“ButIusuallywake
upgasping,andI’mstillhere,withyou,soeitherthisisaparticularlyunusualdream...
.MaybeI’minacoma?...Oritreallyisreal.”
Kaispokesomatter-of-factly,itmadeJon’schesthurt.Heshouldhavebeen
thereallthoseyearsforhisbrother.Howselfishhe’dbeen,focusingonschoolandhis
fearoflearningthatKaireallywasdead...ofwantingalifeofhisownwithoutneeding
toworryaboutanyoneelse...insteadoflookingforKaiathisfirstopportunity.
Kaishrugged,returnedtoexaminingthemenu.“Theysayyoudon’tdream
whenyou’reunconscious,especiallydrugged,butit’snottrue.It’snotcommon,butit’s
happenedtomebefore.”
JonstudiedKai,butsaidnothing.Dr.Johnsen,despiteJon’spleas,wouldn’t
violateKai’sprivacyevenforageneralsurveyofwhatKai’shealthoverthepasttwelve
yearshadbeen—thoughJohnsenhadonlybeenKai’sphysicianforfiveyearsorso.
“Meatloaftonight,”Kaisaidashecontinuedtoflipthroughthemenu.
"Isthatwhatyouwant?"Joncheckedhiswatch.Itwasalmostsix,andhewas
goingtoneedtoeatsomethingsoon.IfKaicouldn’tmakeuphismind,Jonwouldhave
toeatalittlesomethingoutofthevendingmachine,asmuchashehatedjunkfood.
“AtCountyHouse,”Kaisaid,lookingup.“Theylovemeatloafbecauseit’scheap
andeveryone—eventhekidsonfeedingtubes,iftheyblenditupenough—caneatit.”
Kaigesturedaboxintheair,thenpinchedtheskinbetweenhisthumbandindexfinger,
thenfingerspelledsomething.Thenhedrewahandoutfromhismouth,thumbinward,
235
jerkingdown,hisfaceoneofdisgust.Kaiseemedtorememberhimself,andclarified,“I
fuckinghatemeatloaf.”
Jonroseandcrossedtheroom,takingaseatinoneofthechairsnearthesofa.
Kai’sfacetwitchedattheproximity,buthedidn’tsayanything,andJonfigureditwasas
closetoaninvitationashe’dget.“Therehastobeafoodyoulikethough.Pizza?”
Kaishrugged,shutthemenuandtosseditaside,beganworkinghisfingersinto
hisneck.
“Hamburger?Fries?Well,weruledthoseoutalreadytoday.Spaghetti?You
usedtolovethatwhenyouwerelittle.Well,asmuchasyoulovedanythingthatwasn’t
sugary,”Jonconceded.
Kaisighed.“SpaghettiisOK,”hesaid,sayingthewordslowly,asifhewere
worriedhe’dflubthepronunciation.“Butit’sa‘badone.’”
Jon’seyebrowsdipped.
“Nevermind.”
Jonreallywantedtopush,buthisfewhourswithhisbrotherhadtaughthim
thatpushingKaiwaslikeharassingagrowlingdog.Itdidn’tmakethesituationbetter,
andifyouwerereallyunlucky,you’dgetattacked.
KailookedatJonhardforalongwhilebeforeapparentlydecidingtoexplain.
“Mystomachdoesn’talwaysliketobefilled.Icouldn’teatthebacontoday.Why?The
smell,”Kaisaid,lookingatJonearnestly,asifhopingthatwouldcoverit.“Growingup,I
neededtolearnfoodsthatdidn’ttastebadasecondtime.”Kaichosehiswordsslowly
andcarefully,asifhewerethinkinginASLandtranslatingashespoke.
WasKaisuggestinghehadchronicnauseaandvomiting?He’dalwayshada
sensitivestomachasachild,andhe’dneverbeenabigeater,butthiswasserious.That
couldcertainlyhelptoexplainhowunderweighthewas.
“No,Idon’thaveaneatingdisorder,”Kaisaiddefensively,asifhethoughtthat
washowJon’smindwasturning.“FoodandIjust...don’talwaysgetalong.”
JonacceptedthemenufromKai,glancingthroughit.“Howaboutaturkey
sandwich?Doyouthinkyoucouldmanagethat?AndI’llgetyouasliceofcheesecake.I
supposeit’smorenutritiousthanmostdesserts,andit’sfullofcalories.”
Kainodded,andthoughhefeignedmorenonchalance,Joncaughtthehintofa
relievedsmile.
Kaiwasn’tgoingtoadmitit,butsofar,Jonseemedprettyawesome,andKaihadbegun
torelaxaroundhim.Afterall,he’ddonenothingbutputupwithKai’sshitalldayand
buyhimstuff.Notinashowy,“tryingtobuymywayintoyourfavorkindofway,”either.
Thatdidn’tmeanitwasn’tblatanthowmuchJonwantedtobefriends,despiteKai’s
warning.ThefactthatJonwasadoctorhadautomaticallypaintedhiminacertainlight;
afterall,Kaihadexperienceddozens,ifnothundredsofphysiciansinhislife.Mostof
themwerearrogant,didn’tlisten,andthoughttheyknewhimbetterthanheknew
himself.Kaihadespeciallyhatedtheoneswhowouldn’twaitforaninterpreter,orwho
wouldn’tusetheinterpreterproperly.Whotreatedhimlikeasmallchildinsteadof
someonecapableoffullyfeelingpainandunderstandingwhatwasgoingon.
Jon,ontheotherhand,eventhoughheoccasionallyslippedintoaslightly
condescendingtone,seemedtogenuinelycareaboutKai,asbewilderingasthatwas.
Dinnerhadbeenoneofthosemoments,whenhehadn’tpushedKaitoexplainmore,
simplydecidedmaybestayinginwouldbebestforbothofthemandselectingitemshe
thoughtmightworkwithKai’sfinickystomach.Kaihadforcedhimselftoeathalfthe
236
sandwichandmostofthecheesecakeandhadlistenedattentivelyasJonspokeabit
abouthislifeandhisplansforthefuture.Kaihadevenofferedafewofhisown
questionsandanswers,butthetruthwas,astheeveningworeonandgrewclosertothe
timeforhimtotakehismedicine,hisbreathingbecameworse,increasinglydifficultto
hidefromJon,whowasnothingifnotperceptive.
Kaileanedforward,hethought,nonchalantly,hishandsonhisknees,which
madebreathingalittleeasier.Buthestillhadtoworkhardforeachbreath,afaint
wheezeoneachexhalation,usingeverymuscleinhisupperbody.
Withoutaword,JonpressedKai’srescueinhalerintohishand.Kaigreedily
tookseveralpuffs,forcinghimselftoholditintogivethemedicineachancetosink
down.Hisbreathingwasgettingworse,morepanicked,andhetriedtotellhimselfhe
justhadtowaitforthemedicinetowork,buthisbodyhadotherideas.
“It’sOK,Kai,”Jonsaidinasoothingvoice,smoothinghishandoverKai’sback
inawaythatwasbothcomfortingandmanagedtorelievesomeofthestrainonhis
overworkedmuscles.“Breathe.Comeon.In.Out.In.Out.”
KaifollowedJon’svoicelikeabeaconleadinghimthroughthedarknessashe
slowlyfeltthemedicinebeginningtowork,openinghisbronchiandlettinghisbreathing
deepen,thetightnessinhischesteasing.
“You’reOK.”
Kainodded.
JonsmoothedKai’sshoulderbeforepullingaway,asifrealizinghewas
overstepping.
“FINE,”Kaisigned,whethertoindicatehedidn’tmindorhewasOK,evenhe
wasn’tsure.
“Let’sgetyouinbed.”
Kainodded,buthedidn’tmoveimmediately.“Thankyou,”hesaid,hisvoicea
littlehoarse.
Jonshruggeditoff,pullingtherentedwheelchaircloser.
KaiputahandonJon’sarmtodrawhisattention.“No.Thankyou,”hesaid
again,puttingmoreforceintohisvoice.Itmadehimcough,wince;hischestwassore.
“Foreverything.”Hesmiledfaintly.“Iwaswrong,earlier.Iwanttotrytobefriends.”
237
November24,2000
Kaiwokewithapainedgasp,hiseyesstillclosed,andhisfirstconsciousthoughtwas
hospital.Hefeltheavyanddisoriented,likehe’dbeendrugged,andhisrightsidehurt,
particularlyhishipandass,alow,steadythrobthatechoedthedullheadache,probably
asideeffectofwhateverdrugshewason.Hisstomachchurnedangrily,too,supporting
thedrughypothesis.
Butbeforeheattemptedtoopenhiseyes,helistened.Fartooquiet.Hospitals
werenoisyplaces.Theconstantbeepandhumandhissofmachines.Thewhispersof
doctorsandnurses.Phonesringing,PAannouncements.Shufflingfeet.Rollingcarts.
Clickingofcomputerkeys.Itneverended.Kai’sexperiencewiththecacophonyof
hospitalswasonereasonhe’ddevelopedtheabilitytofallasleepanywhere,andquickly.
Kaiforcedhiseyesopen.Whichhurt.Hecouldn’tquitetellifitwasfromthe
headacheorthelight—theroomwasn’tfullylit,justalampofftooneside—butitwas
perhapsenough.Still,Kaiwasrelievednottofindhimselfincompletedarkness,his
heartthrummingagainsthischestwallfastandfluttering.Kaiattemptedtopush
himselfup,whichtookafewawkwardtries,hisupperbodyswayingslightly,awaveof
nauseasweepingoverhim,andhedryheaved.Vaguely,hewonderedifhewas
dehydrated,andthathadsavedhimfromspewing.Buthetriednottothinkaboutit.
Themorehedid,themorelikelyhewouldn’tgetsoluckythesecondtimearound.
Kaifeltlethargicasheforcedhisbraintowork.Jonwasasleepinthebed
besidehim,stretchedoutonhisstomach,hisarmswrappedaroundapillow,hisface
obscured.Wait.WhywasheinJon’sbed?Kaitriedtobringahandtohishead,topress
itagainsthistempletoeasethepulsingache,buthenearlyfelloverandhadtoquickly
dropitagain.Thenear-fallmadeaflareofpanicdashuphisspine,settinghisheart
racingfaster,whichconfusedhimuntilsuddenlyithithim,likethesunpiercingthrough
heavy,darkclouds.
He’dfuckinglostit.Yesterday.Wasthatyesterday?Thedigitalclockacrossthe
room,withitsenormousbrightrednumbers,displayedthetimeasjustafterthreeAM.
UnlessKaihadtrulyblackedout,itmeantthatlessthantwelvehourshadpassedsince
thisallstarted.Dammit.Itfeltlikeagesago,yetjusttheedgeofthememorymadehis
bodybegintorespond,hisbreathingshifting,becomingmorefrenzied,sweatbreaking
outonhisneck.
Hestruggledtofindsomethingtofocusontostemtheimpendingfullpanic
attack.Hisbladder.Nowthatheforcedhimselfbeyondconfusionandheadacheand
sorenessandaracingpulse,hefeltthepainofitsfullness.Whenwasthelasttimehe’d
emptiedit?Hecouldn’tremember.Itdidn’tmatter.Concentratingonithadsuccessfully
stemmedthetideofanxiety,butnowheknewhehadtotakecareofit—soon—the
urgencyincreasingwitheverysecond.Perhapsthatwaswhathadawokenhimfromthe
depthsofthedrug’sembrace.
Kaiwantedtoignoreit,butbecauseoftheGatoradeJonhadmadehimchug,
heeitherhadtotakecareofitorriskwettingthebedanditwasn’tevenhisbed.Kaiwas
alreadypushingtheboundariesofbrotherlylovenomatterwhatJonsaid.Hedidn’t
reallyneedtoaddfueltothefire.
Kaitookafewbreaths,shiftedhisweightontohisrighthand,andreached
blindlyoverthesideofthebedforhischair,buthefoundonlyemptyspace.Panic
threatenedtogriphimagain,butheforcedhimselftothinklogically.Hehadto
238
remember:thiswasn’thisownroom,andJonhadneededtohelphiminbedlastnight
becauseofallthebenzosinhisblood.Nomatterwhathetoldhimself,hestillfeltthat
creepy,almostflutteryfeelingbeneathhisskinthatsometimesprecededapanicattack
ashepushedhimselfawayfromtheheadboardandtowardtheedgeofthebed.
Kai’sheartthrewitselfagainsthischestlikeakidnappingvictimpleadingfor
escapewhenhisnow-adjustedeyessurveyedhishalfoftheroomanddidn’tseehischair
anywhere.Again,hetriedtocalmhisbody’surgetofreakbytellinghimselfithadtobe
aroundsomewhere.He’dbeenoutofitlastnight,anddidn’treallyrememberalotof
whathappenedafterdinneryesterday—bitsandpieces,likeadamagedfilmreel—but
notsomuchthatrealitycouldhavewarpedforreal,evenifithadseemedthatway.
Barringseriousmusclerelaxants,KaiwasprobablystrongenoughtoliftJon,butKai
knewthereversewasn’ttrue.JoncouldnothavecarriedKai,especiallyasdruggedas
he’dbeen,fromoneroomtotheother.
Hischairhadtobehere.
ButthenapanickedthoughtracedthroughKai’sbrain:hadJonkepthischair
awayfromhimasinsurancethatKaiwouldn’tdoanythingstupidifhewokeupbefore
hisbrother?Itmadethealreadyexistingnauseasurge.Jonwouldn’tdothattohim.Jon
wouldn’ttraphimlikethat.
Wouldhe?
Kaishiftedhisweightagain,nottrustinghimselftostayuprightwithout
support,andjabbedhisbrotherintheshoulder.Jongroanedbutonlyhuggedhispillow
tighter.KaivaguelyrememberedhowtiredJonhadlookedyesterday;maybehe’dtaken
somedrugshimselftohelphimsleep.ThoughJoncouldbearidiculouslydeepsleeper
whenhedidmanagetofallasleep,evenwithoutmeds.Kailosinghisfuckingmarbles
probablydidn’thelpJon’sexhaustion.Kaitriedshakinghisbrotherafewmoretimes,
callinghisname,buttonoavail.
Thatfloaty,buzzy,anxiousfeelinghoveringinsidehimbattledagainsthis
insistentbladder.Heneededtogo,soon.Andheneededtofocusonthatbeforehe
seriouslylosthisshit,whichhewasfartooprecariouslyclosetodoingthanhewas
willingtoadmit.MaybeJonhadabottleinthenightstanddrawer.Itwasafalsehope,
especiallysinceKaicouldn’timagineJoneverpeeinginabottle.Therewasabottlein
thedrawer,butitwaslube.Halfempty,somethingKaireallydidn’tneedtosee,butat
leastallofthiswasdistractinghimfromthefactthatthiswasn’tthefirsttimeinhislife
he’dfoundhimselfdesperateandwithouthismobilityaids.Heshiveredasmemories
triedtoseepthrough.
Hegazedacrosstheroom,towardJon’sbathroom.Intheory,hecouldlower
himselftothefloor,pullhimselfacrosstheroom,buthewasn’tatfullstrength,and
therewasagoodchancehewouldn’thavetheenergy,oncehegotthere,tomakethe
difficulttransferfromthefloortothetubortoilet.
Thepaininhisbladderandthenauseaswirlinginhisgutdraggedhimback
fromhisthoughts.Enoughthinking.Heneededtojustgetdownonthefloorandfigure
itout.MaybeKai’schairwasontheothersideofthebed,andhejustcouldn’tseeitfrom
here.Maybehe’dfindabottleonthekitchentablejustoutsideJon’sroom,andhe
wouldn’tneedtodraghimselfallthewaytohisroom.
Kaithrewbackthecovers,thenliftedonelegatatimeovertheedgeofthe
mattress.Jon’sbedwashigh,andevenwithhislonglegs,fromasfarbackashesaton
it,hisfeetjusttouchedthefloor.Hestaredatthemforamoment.Hewantedtothrow
up.Hewantedtocry.Hewantedtoscream.Hismindwasthreateningtopullitselfinto
239
thepast,andhewasn’tgoingtoletithappen.
Still,unwilled,amemoryfloodedhisconsciousness.
Kaisatonthesmallbed,needingtopee,bad,buthislegswerelooseandunresponsive,
andshe’dtakenhiscrutchesandbracesagain.Sohewouldn’tgetintotrouble,she’d
said.Hehadsavedabottle—pulleditoutofthetrashwhenshewasatwork—andhidden
itinhisroom.Fortimeslikethese.Butshecouldn’tcatchhim.Hereachedunderthelip
ofthebedforthebottle,whichwaspartiallyfull—he’dhavetotrytoemptyitlater,when
shewassleeping,dragginghimselfslowlyacrossthefloor—butit’dworkfornow.
Butshecaughthim,slappedthestill-shutbottleoutofhishands.“That’s
disgusting!”shesaid.“Standup!I’mtiredofyourpatheticlazyass.Standup!”
FattearsformedandrolleddownKai’scheeksasheshookhishead.“Ican’t,”
hesigned.“Ican’t.”
“Forfuck’ssake.Stopit!”Shegrabbedhimbytheupperarmsandpulledhim
unsteadilyupright,offthebed.Hiskneeswouldn’tlock,andhecouldn’tgethisfeet
wheretheyshouldbe,notwithoutsomethingtoholdonto.Herhandswrappedtightly
aroundhisthinbiceps,theonlythingkeepinghimfromtumblingtothefloor.
Forabriefmoment,hewashappy.Shewastouchinghim.Andnotjustthe
occasionalslapswhenhecriedtoomuchorwhenheforgothimselfandsignedtoher.It
wasatight,harshgrip,andassoonassheletgo,he’dfall,butrightnowshewas
supportinghim.Itmeantmaybehewasn’tsobad,sodisgusting,thatshecouldn’ttouch
himexcepttodisciplinehim.Maybeitmeantshe’dwanttokeephimafterall,andif
he’djustbegood,really,reallygood....
Hewilledhislegstoobey.Ifhecouldjuststaystanding,notfallwhenshelet
go,thenmaybeshe’dbeproudofhim.Maybeshe’devenhughimandtellhimhewasa
goodboyandhecouldstayforever.
Focusinghardonhislegsandfeetandnotcryingmeanthestoppedholdinghis
bladdersofiercely,andurineleakedout,wettingthefrontofhispantsandrunning
downontothefloor,makingasplattering,wetsound.
“Ohforfuck’ssake!”
Hebittheinsideofhischeek,hard,sohewouldn’tcry.She’dneverkeephim
now.Hereadiedhimselfforhertoreleasehimindisgust,fortheimpactofthefall,but
insteadofdroppinghim,shehalfdragged,halfcarriedhimtowardthebathroom.
That’swhenpanicsetin,andhebegantofightherasbestashecould,
franticallyshakinghisheadanddoinghisbesttogetpurchasetopushawayfromher
body,mouthingNorepeatedly,frantically,histonguemakingasubtleclickingsound
againsthisteeth,themostsoundhecouldproduce.Helethimselfcry,puttinghiseffort
intofightingherinsteadofblockingthetears.
“Ifyou’regoingtomisbehaveandpeeeverywherelikeaGod-damneddog,then
youcanstayinthebathroomlikeone,”shesaid.Hefoughther,butshewastoostrong.
Toostrong.Sostrong.
Hebarelyhadtimetothinkbeforeshethrewhimintothebathroom.Thedoor
alreadylockingbeforehe’devenhittheground.
Kaihitthefloorwithathumpthatsentjoltsofsharp,icypainthroughhisbody,butthe
painwasgood.Itkepthimfocusedawayfromthepullofinsanityandanymoreofthat
hauntingmemory.
Headjustedhislegs,squeezedthebaseofhisdick.Itwasn’ttoofar.Hecould
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dothis.Heplantedhispalmsonthefloor,pushingtoshifthisbodyawayfromthebed,
facinghimselfbackwardssohecoulddraghimselftowardtheopenbedroomdoor.His
armsandshouldersburnedwithheavyfatigue;hedidn’thavethestrengthhenormally
did,andhehadtopauseseveraltimes,leaningagainstthefootboard,buthefinallygot
totheothersideofthebed.
Kaipulledhimselfcloserandpaused,hismusclestrembling,andspiedhis
chair,finally.Inthefarcorneroftheothersideoftheroom,drapedinshadows.No
wonderKaihadn’tseenit.AlmostlikeJonhadbeenhidingitfromhim.Arushofhot
angerfloodedhissystem,temporarilyoverwhelminganxietyandpainandexhaustion
andeverythingelse.Immediatelyfollowingtheangerwerethetearsthatalwaysseemed
toofuckingclosetothesurfacelately,andhegrithisteeth,takingafewsteadying
breathstopushthemaway.Hecouldalmostsmellanotherbreakdowncoming,likeit
wasacomponentoftheair,likethesharp,humidscentbeforeasummerstorm.
Hehadtwochoices.Hecouldgoforhischair,riskexhaustinghimselfgetting
toitandthennotbestrongenoughtopullhimselfupintoit.DamnValium.Orhecould
forgetitandsticktohisoriginalplan.
AtleastJonhadleftthedooropened,proppedinplacewithachairstacked
withmedicaljournals.Thoughhe’dleftthelightsoffinthemainlivingspace,the
darknessthreateningtocreepintothebedroomlikeafog.
Kaididn’twanttogooutthere.Itwasillogicalandfuckingnuts,especially
sincehisroomwasonlyafewfeetaway,butitdidn’tchangethewayhisbreathcame
quicker,shallower,atthemerethoughtofventuringintoit.WhatifJonhadtidiedup
andthebottleofGatoradewasn’tonthetableafterall?Whatifheaimedforhisroom,
andthelightswerealloff?Wouldhebeabletoreachtheswitchfromthefloor?
Kaipulledhimselftowardthedoor,makinghisdecision.Heneededtopee,so
he’dfindabottle,anduseit,andthen....Thenhe’dfigureoutwhatthefucktodoafter
that.
Despitehisbestefforts,thenearlyimpenetrabledarknessofthemainroomhadcaused
Kaitobreakintoacoldsweat.Ratherthanriskfullpanicorworsewhilehesearchedfor
thebottlethatshouldbeonthetable,he’ddraggedhimselfintotherelativesafetyofhis
roomasquicklyashisrelaxedandfatiguedmuscleswouldcarryhim,gratefulJonhad
leftthebedsidelampon,castingtheroominasoft,warmglow.
Kaitookamomenttoregainhisstrengthandbreathinthemiddleoftheroom.
Hewashalfwaytoananxietyattacknomatterhowhardhewasstrugglingtotellhimself
hewasperfectlyfineandderailthecrazytraininhismind.Hetriedtoforcehimselfto
thinkwhatwouldbefasterandeasiertogetto:hisbackpack,inonecorneroftheroom,
orhisnightstand.Hekeptbottlesinboth.
Hejustcouldn’tmanagetocatchhisbreath,though,aninvoluntaryshudder
coursingthroughhisbody.Eventhepaininhisbladderwasn’tenoughtopullhimaway
when,somewherenearby,adoorunlocked,swungopenloudly,thenshutwithabang.
Kaijumped,letoutareflexiveyelpashismindimmediatelybegantorace.
She’shome.Shecan’tcatchmelikethis.OhGod.
Maybehecouldgetinbedbeforeshegottohisroom.Buthestillhadtopee.
Wouldhehavetimetofindthebottlehekepthiddenunderthebedanduseitbeforeshe
bargedin?Hisshirtclungtohisbackwithsweat,hisbreathingpanting,andheknewhe
shouldbemoving,buthewasfrozen.Heavyfootsteps.Somewhere.Comingcloser?
Madehisstomachseizeup.Ohno,hewasgoingtothrowup.No,hecouldn’tthrowup,
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becausethatwasbadandthatmadehermad.
Asmall,warmwetspotformedonthefrontofhispajamapantsbeforehe
caughthimselfandstopped,squeezingthebaseofhisdickwithonehand.Ifhemadea
mess,she’dlockhimupagain.Maybeforever.
Kaiclenchedhiseyestight,tookafewbreaths,buthejustcouldn’tseemtoget
enoughair.Suddenly,heheardaloudpoppingsound,andtheroomwentdark.Pitch
dark.Kaiyelpedagain,hiseyesdesperatelysearchingforlight,butfoundonlythe
faintestsuggestionofitsomewherebeyondhisdoorway.Justenoughthathe’dbeable
toseeherwhenshecameintoyellathim.
Kai’sentirebodywastenseandjitteryandreadytoexplodewithfear,hiseyes
fixedonthedoor.Heheardthecreakoffloorboardsassheapproached.Heneededto
move.Heneededtomove.
Hewaited,listeningcarefully.Maybeshe’dgostraighttobed.He’dbeOK.
Safe.Hecouldcleanthehousereallywelltomorrowwhileshewasatworkandthen
she’dbeproudofhim.Asharpcreak,creak,creak,asheavy,angryfootstepsdrewcloser.
Kaiwastremblingsointenselynowhecouldbarelystaysitting.Nomatterhowhardhe
triedtoseeinthedarkness,itwasimpenetrable,likeathickblanketcovering
everything.Sodarkandcold,likethebathroom.
Thethoughtsentaviolentshiverthroughhisbody.Warmthfloodedoverhis
groinandlegs,poolingaroundhimonthefloor.OhGod,shewasgoingtobesomad.
Tellhimhowdisgustinghewas.Andwasn’the?Peeinghimselflikealittlekidbecause
hewastooafraidtomove.
Theear-gratingcreakingnoiseoftheoldsolidwooddoorsinherancienthouse
seemedtogoonforever.Kaihadtoescape,hide,somewhere.
“Youbetterbefuckingsleepinginthere!”
ThevoicemadeKai’sheartleapintohisthroatandsoonhewasbentover,
throwingup.He’dhardlyfinishedwhenhewaspullinghimselfbackasfastashecould,
awayfromhismess,fromthedoor,fromher.Maybeifhehidshewouldn’tseethemess
andhecouldcleanitupbeforeshesawitandthenshewouldn’tsendhimaway.His
thoughtswereracingfastashisbackslammedintotheedgeofthebed.Hecouldhide
underthere.Foralittlewhile.Shewouldn’tbothertopullhimout,wouldshe?
Hecouldstaywiththedirtythingsunderthebed,becausehewasdirty,and
maybethenshe’dleavehimandhecouldwriteheranotesayinghowsorryhewasand
howhe’dtryharder.
Anothershudderseizedhim,hisarmsshakingsobadlyhesliddown.Pull
yourselfunderthebed,hetoldhimself.You’llbesafethere.Foralittlewhile.
Kairolledhimselfontohisstomach,handsreachingblindlyforsomethingto
helppullhimselfunder.Behindhim,heheardherfootstepsgrowcloser.Hehadto
hurry!Hewrappedonehandaroundthemetalslatsofthebedframe,hisotherhand
pushingagainstthefloor,movingasfastashecouldinhispanicinthedarkness.He
shiftedhisgrips,pulledandpushed,themetalcuttinghisfingers,buthedidn’tcare,he
didn’tcare,hedidn’tcare.
Safe.
That’sallthatmattered.
Hemoveduntiloneshoulderpressedagainstthewall,usingahandtoguide
hisstubbornlegsunder.Kai’svision,eveninthedarkness,wasfading,hisbreathing
panickedtothepointofnonexistence,buthekepthiseyestrainedforthegapbetween
themattressframeandthefloor.
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“Fuckingmoretroublethanyou’reworth.I’llhaveyououtofmyhouseinfive
minutes,evenifitistheGod-damnedmiddleofthenight!”
Eveninthedarkness,somehowKaisawhershoes,onlyinchesawayfromhim,
andanyremaininglogicthattoldhimhewashiding,thatheneededtobequiet,shut
down.Hefeltherhandswrappingaroundhisankles,andhewantedtokickheraway;he
triedtokickheraway,buthislegswouldn’tcooperate.Shewaspullinghimout!Kai
triedtofindsomethingtogrip—thelegsofthebed—theslats—something,tokeep
himselfsafe,butshewasstrong.Sostrong.Shewasgoingtohavehimsoon,andthen
what?OhGod.Hecouldn’tbreathe.Hecouldn’tseeinthedark.OhGod.OhGodOh
God.
Kaiscreamed.
Jon’seyesshotopen,butittookamomentforhimtoprocess,hismindstrangelyfuzzy,
whetherthescream—pure,undilutedfear—wasreal,orjusttheremnantofadream.He
satup,rubbinghiseyes.Kai’ssideofthebedwasempty,andaquickglancetoldJonhis
chairwasstillthere,too,whereJonmusthaveleftitthenightbefore.Jonhadhelped
Kaiintobedonhisownside,butKaihadwantedtokeepJonbetweenhimselfandthe
door,andhadshiftedover.Exhaustion,aidedbythedoseofdrugs,hadmeantJonhad
fallenasleepwithoutbotheringtoguideKai’schairtoputitwithinKai’sreach.
ThelingeringgrogginessoftheValiumfadedasJonshiftedintofocus,tearing
offtheblanketsandhoppingoutofbed.Hejoggedtowardhisbathroom,takingaquick
peekinside—itwasunlikelyKaiwouldhavebeenthere,buthedecidedtobethorough.
Empty.Turningbackaroundandsurveyinghisbedroom,itwasclearKaiwasn’there.
Hadhedecidedtogobacktohisownroom?
WorryflaredinJon’sgut.WhatifKaihadtriedtohurthimself?Whatifhehad
hurthimself?
Jondashedouttothemainroom,hurriedlyslamminghishandagainstthe
switchtoturnonthelights.HeshouldneverhavetakentheValium.Eventhoughithad
beenaridiculouslysmallamount,especiallycomparedtowhatKaiwason,itdiditsjob,
luringJonintoadeep,dreamlesssleep,whichhe’ddesperatelyneeded.Butitmeanthe
hadn’tbeenasvigilantasheshouldhavebeen.Fuck.IfKaiwashurtbecauseJonwas
sleepingwhenheneededhim....
Jonscannedthemainroom—whathecouldseefromthehall—andsawnosign
ofKai,soherushedtoKai’sroom.Itwasdark,buthethoughtheheardaweak,pained
sound,sowithoutbotheringtoturnonanyadditionallights,JonrushedintoKai’s
room,relyingontheglowspillinginthroughtheopeneddoorwaytoguidehim.He
steppedinsomethingwarmandwet,aparalyzingchillgrippinghisbody.
Blood.
Jon’sworldspunforabriefmoment,buthemanagedtogethimselfunder
controltohobblebacktothelightswitch.Jonblinkedtoadjusthisvisionandsighed
withrelief.Notblood.Urine.Andnowhecouldsmellit,alongwiththefaint,acidictinge
ofvomit.Jonsawthatnow,too,andtherednessofitagainmadeworryflareup,but
thenthelogicalpartofhisbrainkickedin—tooredforblood.Itwasthebright,artificial
shadeofthesportsdrinkhe’dmadeKaidrinkthenightbefore.ItmeantKaihad
obviouslyhadanotherpanicattack—abadone—orperhapsanotherflashback.Jonhad
tofindhimbeforehehurthimself.Buttheroomwasempty,andaquickglanceinto
Kai’sbathroom—whichJoncouldeasilyseeintowiththedoorremoved—didn’tyieldhis
brother,either.
243
Bettertobethoroughandcleanhisfeet,Jonthought,hoppingintothe
bathroom,wipinghisfeetandcheckingthetub—justincase.NosignofKai.Hesnagged
sometowels,threwthemoverthepuddleonthefloor,andheadedbackoutintothe
mainroom.MaybeKaiwasonthefloornearthecouch,orinthekitchen?
Joncombedthemainroom,butKaiwasnowheretobefound.Howcoulda
nearly6’4”,200-pounddisabledmanjustdisappear?Withouthiswheelchair,oreven
hiscrutches—they’dbeenproppedagainstthewallwhereKaialwayskeptthemwhen
notinuse.Itdidn’thelpthatKaihadgrownquiet,andJoncouldn’tusesoundasaway
tohelplocatehim.
Itwasalongshot,butJoncheckedthefrontdoor.Kaicouldn’treachallthe
locksfromthefloor,evenaslongashisarmswere,butpanicenabledpeopletodocrazy
things.Allthelockswereshut,includingthechain.EvenifKaihadmanagedtounlock
thedoorandopenitwithoutJonhearing,thenlockeverythingagain,hecouldn’thave
donethechain.ItmeantKaiwassomewhereintheapartment.Butwhere?
JongrabbedarollofpapertowelsfromthekitchenandheadedbacktoKai’s
roomtofinishcleaningwhileherackedhisbrainforwhereelseKaimightbe.Add
disinfectantandit’dsmelljustlikethemedicineward,Jonthoughtashedroppeddown
tohiskneestopaperupthevomit.
That’swhenheheardit.Sobbing.Quiet,breathy,butnearby.Jonblinked,
lookedaround,butdidn’tseeanythinguntilhestoopedtoscoopupthedirtypaper.The
glintoftwopanickedeyes.Underneaththebed.
Jonblinked.Ithadtobehisimagination;thespacebetweenthefloorandthe
framewasafoot,maybe.Jonwasskinnierandlessmuscularthanhisbrother,andhe
didn’tthinkhe’dfitunderthere.
Jondroppedtohisstomach,peeringunderthemattress.Hecouldjustbarely
seetheoutlineofKai,alsoonhisstomach,pressedupagainstthewall,hisheadtilted,
cheekontheground.Hewascrying,andassoonasKaisawJon,hebegantoshake,
tremblinghardenoughtorockthebed.
“Kai.It’sJon.Yourbrother.You’resafe.Nooneisgoingtohurtyou.”
ButKaiclearlywasn’tseeingJon,cryingandmumblingandbarelybreathing.
Jonpushedaway,tohisfeet,tryingtofigureouthowtoeithergetKaioutfrom
underthebedorsnaphimoutoftheflashback,orboth.Ofcourse,hecouldwaituntil
Kaipassedout,buthedidn’treallylikethatoptionatall.EspeciallysinceKaiwas
wedgedinthereprettygood,anditdidn’tlooklikeJonwouldbeabletomovethebed—
becauseofthewayitwasbracedintoacorner—withoutpotentiallyhurtingKai.Kaiwas
literallysandwichedbetweenthebedandthefloor,anditwasclearlyonlysheerpanic
thathadenabledhimtoevenfitintothetightspacetobeginwith.
Jonsupposedhecouldtakethebedapart,buthedidn’treallyrelishthatidea,
either,especiallyifhetriedtodothatbeforeKaipassedoutorsnappedoutofit.Who
knewwhatKai’sreactionmightbeifhewasstillpanickedwhenJontriedthat
approach?
Jonfoundapenlight,leftonKai’snightstandfromwhenJonwascheckinghis
pupilsearlier,andgotdownonhiskneesonemoretimetosurveythesituation.Kaiwas
stilltrembling,stillmutteringandcrying,butwhenJonpassedhisclosesthand,hesaw
blood.EitherKaihadcuthimselfduringhistumbledowntherabbithole,or....The
lightwasn’tverybright,butitwasclearKaiwasgrippingthemetalslatofthemattress
frametightly,tightlyenoughitwascuttingintohispalm.
Dammit.Joncouldn’tleavehimtherelongifhewaspotentiallyhurting
244
himself.
Jonclosedhiseyesandbreathedinandoutforseveralmoments,tryingto
decidewhattodo.Hehadtoomuchtrainingtopanic,butthiswasKai,andtherewasa
reasonphysiciansweren’tsupposedtotreattheirfamilymembers.Heopenedhiseyes
anddecidedtotrythefirstmethodthatcametomind—signlanguage.Presumably,the
womanwhohadhurtKaididn’tknowASL,soperhapsifhesignedtoKai—asawkward
asitwouldbelyingonthefloor,holdingapenlighttotrytoilluminatehissigning—that
wouldsnapKaioutofit.Somethingthatwasdistinctlyinthenowinsteadofinwhatever
horriblememoryKaiwasstilltrappedinside.
“Kai,”Jontried,usingthenamesignoftheirchildhood,aletterKbrushedoff
thetipofhisnose,which,amusingly,wasstrikinglysimilartothesignforpissedoff,Jon
hadsincelearned.“You’resafe.Noonecanhurtyou.Comeout.”Signingthiswaywas
challenging,andhewasn’tevenentirelysureifthelightwassuch(despiteJon’sbest
attemptstocarefullyanglethebeam)forKaitomakeoutwhathewassaying,buthe
keptgoing,signingplatitudesandreassurancesandhopingitwouldwork.
JonwasaboutreadytogiveupandtrytofigureoutaplanBwhenhesawKai’s
griponthebedframerelaxandheletoutashudderingbreath.Helookedaround,asif
panickedandconfusedastohowheendedupwedgedunderthebed,butthenhiseyes
finallyfoundJon,asifhetrulyseeinghisbrotherforthefirsttime.Itwashardtosee,
butJonthoughttheyfilledwithtears.Jonfoughtbacktheurgetousehisvoice,justin
case,andofferedKaihishand,slidingitunderthebedandhopingKaiwouldacceptit.
Kaiwasreluctant,buthefinallyreleasedhisdeathgripontheframeand
slippedonehandinJon’s,usingtheothertohelppushhimselfawayfromthewall.
Together,theyslowlymanagedtoextractKaifromunderthebed,Jondoingalotof
pulling,sinceKai’spositiondidn’tgivehimmuchleverage,anditwasn’tlikehecould
usehislegstokickawayfromthewall.TheentiretimeKaiwasquiet,thoughtearsstill
spilledoutfromthecornersofhiseyes,tracingpathsonhisdirtycheeks.
WhenKaiwascompletelyfree,Jonhelpedhimsitup,leaningagainstthe
mattresstosupporthisback,tryingtosurveythedamage,butKaipushedhimaway.
“Don’ttouchme,”Kaisaidmiserably.BeforeJoncouldprotest,Kaiadded,“I’m
disgusting.”Hepulledhiskneesuptohischest,buryinghisfaceinthemandsobbing.
EachtimeJontriedtotouchKai,toreassurehim,Kaiwouldflinchandsob
harder.SoJonrose,wenttothebathroomtowetacouplewashragsandgrabsome
cleantowels,beingsuretokeepKaiatleastpartiallyinhissight,andtomovequickly.
Onhiswaybacktohisbrother,hesnaggedsomecleanPJsandunderwearfroma
drawerbeforesinkingdownbesidehimagain.
“Let’sgetyouclean,OK?”Jonsaidinagentlevoice,tuggingatKai’sshirt.
Reluctantly,Kailetgoofhislegs,pushingthemdown,calmnow,thoughhe
wasclearlystillupsetandwouldn’tletJontouchhim.Hisclothes,face,andhandswere
filthy,hisshirtsoakedinsweatandvomitandcoatedwithdust,hispantsand
underweardrenchedinurine,andheremovedthemclumsily,mechanically,histears
driedbuthiseyesso...dead.ItbrokeJon’sheart.
“Here,cleanyourself,”Jonsaid,offeringKaithewarm,dampcloth.“It’sOK.”
“It’snot,”Kaisaidwithpainedanger,wipinghisfaceandchestandinjuredleft
hand(whichJonnoted,tohisrelief,seemedtobesuperficiallyhurt—he’dhavetotreat
itproperlylater,onceKaiwasasleep).Kaihurriedlyslippedonthelong-sleevedteeJon
hadbrought.Shivering,Kaitookcarecleaninghisgroinandthighsanddrying
everythingthoroughlybeforeusinghishandstohelppullafreshpairofunderwearand
245
pantson.JoncouldseehowKaiwasfocusingonhistask,bitinghislipinadesperate
attemptnottobreakdownagain.Itkilledhimtoseehislittlebrother—whoJonhad
alwaysadmiredforbeingsostrong—lookingso...broken.
Jonpluckedadampclothfromthefloor,turneditaroundtofindacleanside
andusedittowetKai’shair,gentlybrushingoutsomeofthedustthatclungtoit.He
hadtomakesuretovacuumundertheremoreoften.JonhadgottenlaxsinceKai’s
transplant,sincehedidn’thaveattackslikeheusedtobefore,butifhereallywasn’t
cured,maybeheshouldn’tpushtheirluck.Kaididsoundalittlewheezyrightnow,butit
couldsimplyhavebeenfromallthetears.
AsJongentlycleanedKai’shair,gratefulhisbrotherdidn’tpullawayorpush
Jonback,hepouredallthecomforthelongedtoofferhisbrother,butwhichKai
wouldn’tacceptrightnow,intothetouch.Kaikepthiseyesshut,tremblingsubtly,asif
hewerecryingwithouttears.
“Howcanyouevenlookatmerightnow?”
Jonstifledhissigh,debatedaboutsayingthewordsthatroseinhismind.
“You’reunwell,Kai.Itmightbeinyourheadinsteadofinyourlungsoryourlegs,but
it’snomoreyourfault.It’swhywe’regoingtoseeDr.Miller,soshecanhelpmakeyou
better.”Jontossedthedirtyragaside,gentlygrabbedthesidesofKai’sfacetoforcehim
tomeethiseyes.“Youhavenothingtobeashamedabout,OK?”Jonkissedhisforehead.
“Doyouwanttogiveyourselfthediazepamshot,orshouldI?”
Kaisighedbrokenly,butputahandoutfortheshotJonhadgrabbedwiththe
towels.“I’mworse,”Kaisaidinasmallvoice,shiftinghisbodyandquicklyinjectingthe
medicineinhiship.“WhatifIcan’tgetbetter?”
Jontookbackthesyringe,thenslippedahandinKai’s.“Youwill.You’remore
stubbornthanIam.You’vesurvivedwheneveryonesaidyouwouldn’t.Morethanonce.”
JonpushedthedirtylinensasidesohecouldsitbesideKai,backsupportedbythebed.
Hecappedthesyringeandsetitonthebedfornow,holdingKai’shandfirmly.
“HaveIevertoldyouaboutyourfirstyear?”
Kaishookhishead,pushedhimselfdowntotheflooragain,grabbinghislegs
andcurlingintoaball,hisheadrestinginJon’slap.
JonsmoothedKai’sshoulder,aslow,repetitive,soothinggesture,happyKai
wasallowingthetouch.“Youwerealmosttwomonthspremature,andthedoctorssaid
youweren’tgoingtomakeit.Youweren’tbreathingonyourown,andtheydidn’texpect
youtolastmorethanafewdays.Theyevenmadeanexception,sincetheywerecertain
youweregoingtodie,andletmeinwithDadtoseeyou.Iwasn’teveneight,soI
normallywouldn’t’vebeenallowedintheNICU,butDadfoughtforme.”Jonsighed.
“Youwereso,sotiny.Wecouldhardlyseeyouwithallthetubesandwires.Italkedto
youandtoldyouIneededyoutogetbetterandifyoudid,I’dbethebestbigbrother
ever.”Jonlaughedwetly.“Yousurvivedtheweek,sotheysaidyouwouldn’tmakethe
month.Thenthree.Thentheyear.Butyoukeptfighting,Kai,becausethat’swhoyou
are.You’venevergivenup.I’vealwaysadmiredthataboutyou.It’sthememoryofyour
tenacitythatkeptmegoingallthoseyearswewereapart.”
“Noonecanfightforever,”Kaisaid,hiswordsslurredandsleepy,thedrug
beginningtotakeeffect.
“No,”Jonadmitted.“Butyou’renotfightingalone.”
IthadbeendifficulttorouseKaiatsevenforhismorningmedications,butJonwasn’t
entirelysureitwasduetoallthediazepam.Theentiremorning,Kaihadbeen
246
cooperativebutdistantandsilent,asifhismindhadshutdownatsomepointduring
thenightandhewerejustanemptyshell.NomatterwhatJonsaidorsignedtohim,Kai
barelyresponded,offeringanodorashakeorashrugasabsolutelynecessary,andno
more.IthadpainedJontogiveKaianotherlargedoseofValiumalongwiththerestof
hisusualmedications,butwithsomuchinhissystemoverthepastday,Joncouldn’t
riskpushingKaiintowithdrawalsontopofeverythingelsehewasalreadygoing
through.He’dalsoaddedaZofran,somethingKaiusuallytooksymptomaticallynow
thathewasn’tontheMexitilanymore,asaprecautiontohelpeaseanynauseabrought
onbyhisanxietyorthelargedosesofValium.
AfterdressinghimselfinseverallayersofTeeshirts(bothshort-andlongsleeved),sweatpants,andanenormouslyoversizedthrift-storehoodie,Kaipushedout
towardtherestoftheapartment,sinceJonhadinsistedheeatsomethingdespitehis
insistencethathewasn’thungry.Kaihadrefusedashower,butJonwasn’tsureifitwas
fearofenteringthebathroomorifKaifelthewasn’tdeservingofbeingclean.Theslight
shiveranddeadlookinhisbrother’seyeswhenJonhadsuggesteditseemedtosuggesta
combinationofboth.
AtleastKaihadallowedJontotendtohisinjuredlefthand.Noneofthecuts
wereterriblydeep,butbecauseseverallayinthecreasesofhisfingersandpalm,it
meantbendingorflexingtoomuchriskedre-openingthewounds.Notwantingtorisk
infection,Jonhadwashedthemallthoroughlywithanantimicrobialrinse,treatingeach
withantibioticointmentandbandagingitaswellashecould.
JonhadexpectedKaitoplanthimselfstubbornlyatthekitchentable—it
wouldn’thavebeenthefirsttimeJonhad“forced”Kaitoeatwhenhedidn’twantto—
butinstead,Kaihadmadeitallthewaytothekitchen,usinghisarmsonthecounters
andcabinetstopropelhimselfonhisleftasnecessarytogivehishandabreak.
KaisnaggedthecoffeecarafefromwhereJonhadleftitdryingbythesink,
presumablytofillit.Kaineverdrankcoffee,buthedidoccasionallymakeitforJon,
thoughitsurprisedJonthatKaiwasdoingitthismorning.Maybehesimplyneeded
somethingtokeephimselffrombeingalonewithhismind?
“Youdon’tneedtoworryaboutthat,”Jonsaidbeforehecouldstophimself.
“I’llgetit.”
Kaiturnedwithshockingabruptness,thecarafehalfwaytothesink,andithit
theedgeofthecabinetandshattered,glassexplodingoverKai’slapandtheflooraround
him.“Fuck!”Kaiscreamedloudly,thesoundespeciallyvividsincehe’dbeencompletely
silentallmorning.
“It’sfine,Kai,”Jonsaid,holdinguphishandsasiftopacifyhisbrother.“Just
staystill—”
“I’mnothelpless,”Kaisaid,angry,butwithatingeofdesperation.Itwasa
relieftofinallyseeemotionafterthemorning’svacancy,butthatlook,thattone,was
enoughtonearlythrowJonintohisownflashback.Jonvividlyrememberedhismother
droppingthecarafe—thisonefilledwithcoffee—inthemiddleofthekitchenfloor.
Tryingtopretendshewasfinebeforedissolvingintotears,foldingdownontothe
ground,seeminglyobliviousthatshewaskneelingonshardsofglassandhotcoffee.At
thetime,Jonwasonlyfour,maybefive,andtheentireexperiencehadbeenterrifying.
“Iknowthat,”Jonsaid,doinghisbesttokeephisvoicelevelandnot
patronizing.“Butyou’llruinyourtires.”
Kaitookafewheavingbreaths,andJoncouldseehewasonthevergeofeither
screamingorcrying,ormaybeboth.“LikeIruineverything.”Kai’svoicewasablendof
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anger,frustration,shame,andheavywiththesuggestionthathewasbarelykeeping
himselffromabreakdown.
Jonsnatchedateatowelandusedittohelphimgatherupthebiggestshardsof
glass,thoughhetriedtokeepacautiouseyeonhisbrother.“Whatareyoutalking
about?”
“YourrelationshipswithJenny.Vicky.MinewithBecca,Nikki.Renee,too,
oncesherealizeshowfuckinginsaneIam.Yourchancewiththecommittee.
Thanksgiving.Yourvacation.Evenyourfuckingcoffee.”Kaifoldedhimselfintohislap
withoutpushingtheglassoutofit,andJonwasimmediatelyonhisfeetagain,pushing
Kaibackupandbrushingtheglassaway.HehadtoforciblyholdKai’schintocheckfor
cuts,butKai’scavernoushoodhadprotectedhisface,andmostoftheglasshadfallen
onthefloor,anyway.
JonheldKai’sheadinplacesohecouldn’thide.“Isthatwhatyoureallythink?”
Kailookedaway.Itwasanswerenough.
“Kai...”Jonstarted,buthewasn’tsurewhathecouldsaytoreassurehis
brotherrightnow.
KaibroughthiseyesbacktomeetJon’s,soblue,sosad,soguilty.Itfeltlikean
eternity,Kaiattemptingtoconveysomuchwithoutwords,withoutsigns,thoughJon
knewonlysecondshadpassedbetweenthem.Don’ttouchme,KaihadtoldJononly
hoursearlier.I’mdisgusting.Kaireallysawhimselfthatway?
Finally,Kailookeddown,aroundhim,overhisshoulder,andbeforeJoncould
sayanythingorevenreact,Kaileanedbackandwheeliedbackwardssharply,outofthe
pathoftheglassandtowardtheoppositeendofthekitchen.
“I’llmaketoast,”hesaid,slippingintohismonotonevoice,hismaskfirmlyin
placenow.“IfIcanmanagenottofuckthatup,too.”
Fortunately,thecarafehadshatteredinmostlylargeshards,soitdidn’ttake
toolongforJontogetmostofit,thoughitprobablywouldn’tbeabadideatodoapass
withthevacuumtoprotectKai’swheels.
“Wecouldgotothedinerforbreakfast,”Jonsuggestedbeforeherealizedwhat
he’dsaid.
Kai’seyesdarkened,andhevisiblystiffened.“Ican’tgothereanymore.”
“Ofcourseyoucan.Youlovethatplace.It’sbadenoughyouletNikki’sleaving
keepyouawayfromitforsomanyweeks—”
JoncouldseeKai’sjawworking,asubtleshimmerinhiseyes,hisfacealmost
flickering,likeanout-of-alignmentTVchannel,ashetriedtokeephismaskinplace.
“I’mnotexactlyinconspicuous.”
“It’sasmalltown,Kai.Everyoneknowseveryone.Thatdoesn’tmeanthey
care.”
“Everyonedoesn’tknoweveryone.Everyoneknowsme,”Kaisaidwithmore
vitriolinhisvoice.“Don’tstandthereandfuckingtellmeIcanpretenditdidn’t
happen,”Kaicontinued,emphasizingtheword“stand.”Kaibreathedheavily,staring
intenselyatJon,asifheweremerelypausinginhistirade,butthenheshookhishead,
andseeminglynotcaringabouthishandortheglass,barreledpastJonandoutintothe
livingroom.
Afewminuteslater,JonfoundKaionthecouch,hiswheelchairdisassembledashe
carefullyexaminedeachtireforanysignsofpuncture,anyhintthathe’dsnaggedsome
glassthatwouldcauseaflatatworst,oraleak,atbest.JoncouldseeKai’sfingersand
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palmwerebleedingthroughtheirbandages,butifKainoticed,hedidn’tseemtocare,
focusingintentlyonhistask.
“I’msorry,”Jonsaid,perchingatthefarendofthesofatogiveKaiasmuch
spaceaspossible.
Kaididn’tseemtohearhim,settingonetireasideandbeginningonthe
second.
“Icouldmakeyoupancakes,”Jonofferedafteratensemomentofsilence.Jon
couldn’treallyeatthem,becausetheyspikedhisbloodsugartoomuch,butheknewKai
likedthem,especiallywithalittlehoneyaddedtothebattertomakethemsweet,even
withoutsyrup.
Kaididn’trespond.Hefoundasmallpieceofsomething,pluckeditoffthetire,
runninghisfingersovertherubber,squeezingit,seemedsatisfiednodamagehad
occurred,andsetitaside.Hestareddownattheframe,butdidn’tmovetoreattachthe
wheels.
“Orwecouldgogetdonuts.There’sthatplacethatopened—”
Kaihelduponehand,thoughhisfacewasdevoidofanyemotion.“I’mtrying
nottothrowupmymorningmeds,”hesaidinthesamewayyoumightsay,“Igotthe
mail.”
Jonsighed.“Youneedtoeat.”
“Missingamealwon’tkillme,”Kaisaidflatly,pullinghiswheelchairframe
closer.Hetookthetimetosmoothhisuninjuredhandoverit,asifheexpectedtofinda
flaw.Thedarkbluepaintwaswornoffinsomeplaces,exposingthemetalbeneath,but
otherwise,itwasinalmostasgoodconditionaswhenKaihadfirstreceiveditfouryears
ago.Kaiwasmeticulousaboutmaintaininghiswheelchair,andthoughhedidn’thave
histools,hefelteachboltanyway,searchingforanythatmightbeloose.Jonsuspected
itwasawayforKaitokeephishandsandmindbusy.
Silencestretched.
Finally,Kaispokeagain,layingahandpossessivelyontheframe,hiseyes
hiddenbyhishood.“Don’tevertakemychairawayfrommeagain.”
Jonblinked,tryingtoprocesswhatKaiwastalkingabout.Shit.Jonhadbeen
soexhaustedbythetimehe’dgottenKaisettledhehadn’teventhoughtaboutit,the
doseofValiumhe’dtakenforhimselfpullinghimrapidlytowardunawareness.
“Sheusedtodothingslikethattome,”Kaisaidinthatsameeerilyemotionless
voice.“Takemycrutchesandbraces.”Thenhesnappedthewheelsbackontheframein
afewquickmovements,asiftopunctuatetheendoftheconversation.
ThehoodshieldedKai’sfacefromthecoldofthepassengerwindow,thoughhecould
stillfeelit,dully,throughthefabric.Kai’scarwasstillatDavid’s—whohadtexted
severaltimestounobtrusivelyaskifKaiwasOKandsaythatheandhisfather-in-lawto-bewoulddropbylatertogiveKaihiscarback.JonwasgratefulDavidwasn’tbeing
pushy—histextsweresuccinct,delightfullyASL-y,anddirect.Nofalsereassurancesor
insistencesthatKaitellDavideverything.Damn,KailovedDeafies.
Still,KaicouldhardlyhandleJonrightnow,sohe’drepliedsimplywithhis
brother’sphonenumber(notthatMegandidn’talreadyhaveit,obviously),tellingDavid
todealwithhimfornow.Wheneverhegothisheadonstraight(ha!ifthatwouldever
happen),hepromisedhe’dfillDavidin.
SoJonwasdriving,notthathewouldhaveletKaidriveanywaywiththe
ridiculousamountofdrugsinhissystemrightnow.ButitalsomeantJonhadtried,
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severaltimes,toalternatelyexplainandapologizeforlastnight,forTuesday,for
everything,becausethat’swhatJondid.Hewasamartyr.Iftherewasguilttobehad
aboutanything,he’dabsorbitforhimself,likeahumansponge.ItmadeKaiwonderif
JonwaslikethatbecauseoffourteenyearsofCatholicindoctrination,orifthatwasjust
whoJonwas.KaiwasgladthathisonlyreligiousexposurehadbeentheYoungsand
similargoody-two-shoesmissionariesproselytizingtothekidsatCountyHouseoncea
month.That,andthecreepyBible-Thumper,“JesusLovesMeMoreThanYou”cliqueat
thehearinghighschool,whoalwayscarriedtheirbiblesundertheirarmswhere
everyonecouldseeandfollowedthegroupleaderintwoneatrowslikeshewasJesus
rebornandtheywereapostles.Kaihadfoundthemincrediblyamusinguntilthey’d
decidedtomakehimtheirprojectandprayoverhimatleastonceaweek,convinced
thatifhewouldacceptJesusintohisheart,he’dbehealed.Theyweren’tsoentertaining
afterthat,butatleastthebullieslefthimalonewhenhewassurroundedbyborn-agains.
ButnoneofthiswasJon’sfault.Itwaseasyenoughtoblamehim,atleaston
thesurface,butKaiknewthetruth.Hewasadrain,aworthlessparasite,andhealways
hadbeen.Peoplewerebetteroffwithouthim,including—maybeespecially—Jon.Hefelt
tearspricklebehindhiseyesandthumpedhisheadagainsttheglasstoshakehimself
outofit.Dammit,hewasn’tgoingtodothatagain.Dammit.Dammit.Dammit.
HefeltJon’shandonhisshoulder,tryingtostillhim.“Kai,it’sOK.Dr.Miller
willhelpyouandyou’llgetthroughthis.”
Kaistifledalaugh.Jonwasalwayssoconfidentabouteverything.Hehadtruly
believed,downtotheverylastday,thatKaiwouldgetatransplant.Really,truly
believed.Ifhe’deverdoubted,he’dneverletitshowinfrontofKai.Kaisighedheavily,
hisbreathtemporarilyfoggingtheglass.Hewishedhecouldbesocertain.
“Youcold?”
Evidently,theshiverhadbeenmorevisible,evenwithhiscoatandoversized
sweatshirt,thanKaihadthought.Truthwas,hewasfreezing,despitehislayers.
ProbablypartiallybecauseoftheValium.“Fine,”Kaisaid,notbotheringwiththerestof
thesentence.Englishwassounnecessarilycomplicated.
Still,heheardJonfiddlingwiththecontrols,andsoonhefeltevenwarmerair
blowingonhim.Heshiveredagain.Ithadsnowedsometimeduringthenight,not
heavy,justenoughtobeannoyingandmeltandrefreezewhenthetemperature
plummeted,makingtheroadstreacherous.ProbablyextragoodKaiwasn’tdriving.
Valiumandicyroadsdidn’tmixverywell.
Althoughdrivinghead-onintoatreesoundedprettyappealingrightnow.
Dammit.Dammit.Dammit.
Kaislippedhisrighthandintothepocketofhissweatshirt,whichwaslarge
enoughitpeekedunderthehemofhisjacket.Kai’sfingersfoundthepieceofglasshe’d
snuckinthereearlier.Hehadn’tintendedtobreakthecarafe,butoncehehad,itwasan
opportunityhecouldn’tpassup.Incaseheneededtoremindhimself,later,that
physicalpainwassomucheasierthantryingtodealwiththewarwithinhishead.
Theysaidcrazypeopledidn’tknowtheywerecrazy,butKaicouldn’tthinkof
anyotherwaytodescribethelasteighteenhours.
Kaididn’twaitforJontofinishparkingwhenhepushedthedooropenand
heaved,throwingupthelittleamountoffluidhehadinhisstomach,hopingenough
timehadpassedthatallhismedshadalreadybeenabsorbed.Thoughpartofhimdidn’t
careeitherway.
“Dammit,Kai,”Jonswore.“Youshouldhaveeatensomething.”
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Atleastthat’swhatKaithoughtJonwassaying.Hecouldn’thearhimwellas
hisstomachspasmedagainandhetrieddesperatelytothrowupmore,buthehad
nothingleft.Hesankbackinhisseat,wedginghisheadinthedoorframe,noteven
botheringtoclosethedoor.Notcaringaboutthebittercoldthatsweptin,hisstomach
stillcrampingasifitweredisgustedithadtobeapartofhim.
Don’tblameyou,Kaithoughtashelethiseyesshut,cherishingthecold.Itwas
nicetofeelsomethingoutsideofhimself,somethingsharpandpainfulthathadnothing
todowithhisfuckeduphead.Painhecouldfocusonthatwouldn’tgethimcommitted.
Kaiheardthatannoyingchimethatmeantthekeywasstillintheignitionbut
thedriver’sdoorwasopen,andthenhefeltJoncheckinghispulse,andprobablytalking
tohim,too,butitwaslikethecombinationoflowbloodsugarandthesurgeofValium
wasmakinghisbraindelightfullyfoggy,andsoitwasalmostliketryingtohear
underwater.
Evenwiththenausea,evenwiththebrutalhonesty,Kaicouldstarttoseehow
dosinghimselfupwithbenzoscouldbenice.Hefeltheavyandgroggy,buttheyalso
madeiteasiernottocareaboutanything.Andofcourse,therewasalwaysthe
possibility,likeyesterday,ofOD’ing.
Dammit.Hewasthinkingfartoomanybadthoughtsthismorning.Andhewas
sodruggeduphewasn’tsureifhe’dbeabletohideitfromDr.Miller,either.
Eventually,thoughKaiwasn’tsurehowmuchtimepassed—itcouldhavebeen
seconds,couldhavebeenminutes—Jonmadesurehewasoutofthewayofthedoorand
shutitagain.Amomentlater,KaifeltJonreenter,theshiftofthecarwithhisweight,
andthentheyweremoving,presumablytoanotherspot.
Dr.Miller’sofficewasinasmallmultistoryofficebuildingwithitsownparking
garage,butitbeingthedayafterThanksgiving,presumablytheotherbusinesses—
lawyers,accountants,architects,etc.—wereallclosed,leavingthegaragecoldand
empty.
Kaidrifted,wakingwithastartwhenhefelthisbrothertaponthewindow.Kai
forcedhimselfawayfromthedoorasJonopenedit.He’dalreadyassembledKai’schair,
andseemedtobeunsureofhowKaiwouldreact.Hereallydidn’twantJontotouchhim
rightnow;asillogicalasitseemed,itwaslikeKaiwouldcontaminateJonsomehow.
Honestly,Kaijustwantedtopullhimselfoutofthecar,curluponthecoldconcrete
floorandletthesoundofthewindhowlingthroughthegaragewashoverhim,
monstrouswhooshingsounds,asifthestructureweresomekindofsnoringbeastthat
wouldswallowhimup.
Itwashardtokeephiseyesopen,andsleepwouldbesonice,because,barring
nightmares,itwasanescape.
Jon’shandswereonhim,andKaiwastootiredtopushhimaway.“Jesus,Kai.
You’refreezing.Ishouldtakeyourbloodpressure.”
Kaimanagedtoshakehishead.“FINE,”hesignedlazily.HebattedJonoutof
thewayandbarelymanagedtomakethetransferhimselfwithoutfallingonhisass.
“I’mworriedaboutyou,”Jonsaidinalowvoicethatmostlygotswallowedby
theroarofthewind.
“Jointheclub,”Kaisaidtiredly,pushingslowlytowardtheentrance.
EventhoughKaihadjoked,duringtheirlastmeeting,thathewouldneversitinthe
reclineragain,he’dinsisteduponit,climbingintoitwithbothhisbrother’sandDr.
Miller’shelp,butonlyafterturningitsohecouldstillseetheentranceleadingtothe
251
waitingroom,whichmeantDr.Millerhadtoswitchtoanotherchairtokeeplineof
sight.AtKai’sinsistence,Jonleftthedooropenbehindhim,proppingitopenwitha
chair,andassuringKaihe’dbeinthewaitingroomifheneededhim.
Kaihadshiftedhisbodysothathewaslyingsideways,hislegstucked,hishead
lazilydrapedonthearmcushion.Aslong-limbedasKaiwas,itdidn’tseemlikeavery
comfortableposition,thoughitwasdefensiveanddefeatedandperhapsprojectedmore
aboutKai’scurrentmoodthananythinghecouldhavetoldher.Shealsonoticedhewas
dressedinbaggysweats,thegianthoodmaskingmostofhisface,hisgoldenhair
uncharacteristicallybrushedsoitcoveredhiseyes.Kaiwashidinghimselfwithhishair
andclothesandposture,whetherherealizeditornot.
“Howareyoufeelingthismorning,Kai?”
“Medicated,”hesaidflatly,hisvoicecomingoutalittlemuffled.
Dr.Millersuspectedtoday’ssessionwaspotentiallygoingtobeasdifficultas
theirfirst.“DoestheValiumhelp?”
Kaishrugged.
“Kai.”
Hesighed.“No.Givemeenoughtokillanormalpersonanditknocksmeout
foralittlewhile.Itcontrolssomeofthephysicalanxietysymptoms,butitdoesn’tstop
mybrainfromhavingacrazyparty,ifthat’swhatyou’reasking.”Kai’svoicewastired,
butnotinthesenseofexhaustionorwearinessfromthedrugs.Rather,itwasmore
exasperation.Sherememberedhowinitiallyhe’dbeenconvincedhecouldn’tbehelped,
andshewonderedifhewasthinkingthatnow,too.
Shedidn’tbothertochastisehimforusingtheword“crazy,”thoughshedid
findhisphrasing—killanormalperson—interesting.“Kai,haveyouhurtyourselfsinceI
sawyouTuesdaymorning?”
Sheheardtheleathersquelchasheshifted,liftinghishead,peeringather
throughhishair.“Technically,no,”hesaid,andshesawthehintofagrimace,asifhe
hadn’tintendedtobethatforthcoming.
“Technically?”
Hesighed,asifheknewshewouldn’tlethimleaveitatthat,eventhoughhe
didn’twanttogointoit.“JonandIgotintoafightTuesdayafternoon.HetoldmeIwas
selfishandneededtogetovermyselfandthathewasmovingout.”Dr.Millercouldn’t
seeKai’sface,butshecouldhearthesubtletrembleinhisvoice,likehewastryingto
speakdispassionatelybutfailing.
“Yes,hementionedthattomeyesterday.”
Kaireachedovertopushhishairoutofhiseyes,toseeDr.Millermoreclearly.
“When?”
“Yesterdayafternoon,hebroughtyouhomeandyouhadanotherflashback,
andhehadtogiveyoumorediazepambecauseyouweregettinghystericallyviolent.Do
yourememberthat?”
Kaipushedhimselfupsomemore.“I’mnotsure,”hesaid,confusionand
surpriseinhisvoice.“Everything’sallfuckedupinmymemory.”
Dr.Millertappedherpenonhernotebook.“Hewasveryworriedaboutyou,
concernedsomeofthethingshe’dsaidhadpushedyou...”Dr.Millercorrectedher
wording.“Hadbeenhardforyoutodealwith.”
Kaiseemedshaken,pushinghimselfupsohewassitting,thoughhegathered
hislegstohischestagain.“WhyamInotstrappedtoahospitalbedrightnow?”
Kai’sperceptivenessneverceasedtoamazeDr.Miller,evenheavilymedicated
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andnotfullyhimself.“Jonwasworriedyou’dthinkhehadbetrayedyou.”
Kaitookinaharshbreath.“WhenIgothomeandsawhe’dmovedout,I...”
Kaidroppedhisforeheadtohisknees,hisvoicecomingoutamufflingecho.“Iwanted
tograbaknifeandjustcutuntilthatwastheonlyhurtIcouldfeel.”
“Butyoudidn’t?”
Shesawasubtleshakeofhisheadinresponse.“Instead,Igotdrunk.Ispent
TuesdaynightandallWednesdaydrunk.”
Dr.Millerscribbledsomenotesfuriously.Kaihadadmittedtophysically
harminghimselffromtimetotime,butneveranythingsubstancerelated.Considering
theveritablepharmaceuticalbonanzathathadtoexistinKai’smedicinecabinetat
home,thisrevelationwasconcerning.“Isthatsomethingyou’vedonebefore?”
“What?”
“Drinkyourselfintooblivion?”
Kaishookhisheadagain.“Idon’tlikealcohol.Butitwasthatorriskdoing
worsewiththeknife,so...”
“Andwhataboutdrugs?”
Kaihesitatedalongmomentbeforefinallyreplyingwithadefeatedsigh.“No..
.not...notreally...but...it’sbeenonmymindlately.”
Dr.Millertookadeepbreath,sethernotepadandpendownforamomentso
shecouldgiveKaiherfullfocus.“Kai,haveyouthoughtaboutsuicide?”
Kaitrembled,whichsheheardinhisbreathingmorethansawwiththat
cavernoussweatshirt.“Yes.Idon’twantto,butitkeepspoppingintomyhead.”He
releasedhislegs,slippinghishandsintothepocketofhishoodie.
“Why?”
Kaishookhishead.“Iguess...Iguess,especiallyyesterday—today—fuck,my
lastfreakoutwasonlyafewhoursago.”Hisshoulderstrembledagain,asifhewere
tryingtokeephiscontrolbutitwasstrugglingtobreakthroughanyway.“Itfeelslike..
.”Kaishookhishead.
“Likewhat,Kai?It’sOK.”
Kaitookinabreath,asifitwereastruggletogettheairtoenterhisbody.
“LikeI’velostwhateverbitofsanityIhadleft.WhateverounceofcontrolIstillhad.Like
thereisnolightattheendofthetunnel,andwhetherIwantitornot,I’mgoingtohurt
myself.”Kaiwassurprisinglycalm,anddespitehisinsistencethattheValiumdidn’t
work,Dr.Millersuspecteditwasresponsible.
“It’snotuncommontofeeldepressedandevensuicidalafteracrisis,”Dr.
Millersaid,choosingherwordscarefully.“Butaflashback—whichiswhatyou’ve
experienced—isnotpsychosis.Itmayfeellikeyou’relosingtouchwithreality,butit’s
reallyadissociativeexperience.Thinkofitalmostlikeaparticularlyvividdaydream,
onlythesevisionsarefromyourmemory.Doesthatmakesense?”
Kaiswepthishairoffhisfaceforamoment,andshesawhiseyeswererawand
desperate,likehemighthavebrokendownintooneofhissobbingfitsifthedrugs
weren’trestraininghim.Still,helookedparticularlydefeated.Andnotterribly
convinced.“Idon’tremembermostofwhathappenedyesterday,betweenlosingmyself
inthese...flashbacksandallthedrugs.Andyou’retellingmethat’snormal.”
“NormalforsomeonewithPTSD,yes.”
“Sometimes,whenI’minabadpanicattack,liketheoneIhadatthediner,I
thinkI’mgoingtodie,andIwelcomeit,becauseit’llmeanit’sover.WhydoIkeep
thinkingaboutitnowevenwhenI’m...”Kaiseemedtosearchfortheword.“Fine?”He
253
laughedbitterly.“Dammit,ifI’mfine,thenthepope’sJewish.”
“Whatareyouthinkingaboutrightnow,Kai?”
Kaiwasstillalongmomentbeforehefinallypulledahandfrominsidethe
pocketofhishoodie.Heopenedhispalm,revealingalargeshardofglass.
AsurgeofdreadreflexivelyshotthroughDr.Miller’sbodyasshequicklyrose
totaketheglass.Itwasclean,thoughKaihadcutsonhisleftfingersandpalm.They
weren’tfresh,though.
“Kai?”
Hehelduphislefthand.“Thathappenedearlythismorning,duringa
flashback,”hesaid,wavingitaway.“That,”hesaid,indicatingtheglass,“brokeafew
hoursagoandI’vebeenwantingtouseiteversince.”
“Butyoudidn’t,”Dr.Millersaid,staringatit.WithKai’sstrength,evenonthe
musclerelaxant,ifhehadwantedto,hecouldhavedonesomeseriousharmtohimself.
Hesighedheavily,almostasifheweredisappointedwithhimselfthathe
hadn’tusedtheglass,thathe’dgivenitup.Telling.“No.Otherthanthealcoholand
somequestionablejudgments,andwhatevershitIdotomyselfwhenI’mlostina
memory,”hesaid,hisvoicedrippingwithscornonthefinalword,“Ihaven’thurt
myself.”
Sheknewhewasn’tlying,soshefinallyreturnedtoherseat.“Haveyougiven
anymoreconsiderationtohospitalization?”
Kaihesitated,thenfinallynodded.“Itprobablymakesmeevenmorecrazythat
theappealofbeingdruggedunconsciousisgreaterthanmyfearofbeinglockedup?”
ThatmadeDr.Millerfrownsternly.Butsheletherselffocus.Thethemehere,
betweenKai’ssuicidalandself-harmingthoughtsandmagnetismtowardchemical
assistancewasescape(whichshe’drecalledhe’dsaidhehadusedsexforinthepast).
“Whatareyousoafraidof,Kai?It’smorethantheflashbacks.Iknowyoubetterthan
that.”
Kailookedather,surprisedagain,perhapsattheshiftindirection.“Idon’t
understand.”
“Ithinkyoudo.”
Kaiwassilentalongmoment,contemplating,staringlonginglyatthe
confiscatedglass,almostasifhewishedhehadn’trelinquishedit.
“Whatareyousodesperatetoescaperightnow?Didsomethingotherthanthe
flashbackshappenyesterday?”
Kaireachedupandfiddledwithhishood,asifheweredebatingpullingit
downfartherandfurtherhidinginit.“IranintoNikkiyesterdaymorning,”Kaisaidona
sigh.
Dr.Miller’seyebrowswentupreflexively.“And?”
“Shetriedtopretendlikenothinghappened,likewecouldjustpickupwhere
weleftoff.”
“And?”
“ItoldherIwaswithRenee,but...”Kaishookhishead.
Dr.MillerwaitedforKaitofinish.
“I’mstillattractedtoher.ButItoldheroffandthenIwentandthrewup,and
thenIbrokedownandsobbedlikeafuckingkindergartener.”Kai’svoiceroseinhis
usualself-directedanger.
Dr.Millerscribbledafewnotes.“Doyourememberwhathappenedbeforeyour
first‘freakout’—touseyourwords—thatpromptedyoutocometomeinitially?”
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ShesawKaifreeze.“No,”hetried,thoughwhatshecouldseeofhisface
revealedhedidn’texpecthertobelievethelie.
“Kai.”
Hesighedheavily,rubbedhisarmwithonehand.Couldthesedatingeffectsof
thediazepambewearingoffalready?“Becca.”
Dr.Millernodded,addedhernametoalistinoneportionofhernotes.“And
doyourememberoneofthemaintopicsofourlastmeeting?”
Kaihesitated,notthathehadtothink,butmorelikehedidn’twanttoanswer.
“Re,”hefinallyrepliedresignedly.
Anothernameforthelist.“Soyouhaveyourfirstmajorpanicattackandseries
ofnightmaresinrecentmemoryafterBeccareappearsinyourlife.ThenNikkileaves
youandyouhaveanothermajorbreakdown.Reneegoeshomefortheweekandyou
haveapanicattackinpublic,coincidentallyafteryourfirstsexualexperiencewithher...
.”Kailookedlikehewasgoingtointerrupt,butDr.Millerkepttalking.Shewasn’tgoing
tolethimderailher.“AndNikkishowsupagainandthatafternoonyouhaveyourfirst
flashback.Idon’tbelieveincoincidences.”
Kaipushedhishairoffhisface,towardthetopofhishead,whereitstayedfora
fewsecondsbeforeslowlycreepingbackdown.Still,itgaveherenoughtimetoseehow
strickenhelooked.
“Beccaleftyouwhenyouwerevulnerable.SodidNikki,evenifshesupposedly
hadgoodintentions.Andyou’reconvincedthatReneeisgoingtoleaveyou,too,again,
whenyou’revulnerable,onceshefiguresoutthe‘real’you.Addtothefactthatyour
brother,theoneperson—exceptperhapsyourfriendDavid,whileyoulivedatCounty
House—whohasbeenacertaintyinyourlifebeforeandsincethosetwelveyearsmight
suddenlybenotsoconstant.”Dr.MillerfixedhergazeonKai.“That’salotofstress,
Kai.”
Kai’seyebrowsfurrowedthreateningly,buttherewasnomaliceinhisvoice
whenhespoke.“Whatareyousaying?”
Dr.Millersoftenedhertone.“Youwereabusedbyyouraunt,andyouarereexperiencingmemoriesofthatabuse.Youneverreallydealtwiththatbefore,justdid
yourbesttoburyitandpretenditdidn’taffectyou.Butthepastfewmonthshave
broughteverythingbacktolight,andIthinkBeccawaslikelythetrigger.”Dr.Miller
lookedatKaiearnestly,thoughitwasimpossibletoseehiseyesbetweenhishairandthe
hood.“Ithinkpartofthereasonyou’restrugglingsomuchwithnightmaresand
flashbacksisbecauseofyouroverarchingfearsofabandonmentandself-esteemissues,
feelingsofworthlessnessandhelplessness.Thosememoriesareaperfectechoofthe
innerturmoilyou’vebeengoingthroughsinceyourtransplant.”
Kailaughed,thoughitwasdefensive,hollow,forced.“Youcouldn’thave
soundedmorelikeashrinkinthoselastsentencesunlessyou’dthrownin‘Oedipus
complex’orsomething.”
Dr.Millerchosetoignorehissnark.“Whatdoyourememberofyourlifebefore
yourparentsdied?”
Dr.Millerwasn’tsureifitwastheeffectsofthedrugdimmingKai’snormally
sharp-as-steel,cut-through-bullshitmind,butshe’dtotallythrownhimoffguard,again.
“What?”
“WhatmemoriesdoyouhavefrombeforeyouwenttoCountyHouse?”
Kairolledhisneck,whichcrackedloudly.“Notmany,”headmitted.“I
rememberHalloween1983,becauseitwastheonlytimeIwenttrick-or-treating.I
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rememberbitsofthatwinter,becauseIwassickwithpneumoniaforalongtime.Most
ofmymemoriesarelessconcrete,like,bitsandpiecesIcouldn’tsaywhentheywere
from.IrememberJonfeedingmeandplayingwithmeandsigningwithme.Iremember
himpoundingmybackandhelpingmecough.Irememberhimbathingmeandholding
mewhenIwashavingtroublebreathing.Irememberhimreadingtome.Stretchingand
massagingmylegswhentheyhurt.”Kaitookinabreath,hiseyesrolledbackasifhe
weresearchingtheceilingforanswers.“Iremembermysister,vaguely.Ithinkshehad
darkhair,unlikeJonandme,butbrightblueeyeslikemine.Iremembershewasalways
whiningthatJontreatedmedifferentandthathewouldyellatherandnotatme.I
rememberhercomplainingitwasn’tfairthatIgotmoreattentionthanshedid.I
rememberbeingjealousofher,thatshecouldtalkandIcouldn’t,andthatshedidn’t
haveproblemswalkingorbreathing.Thatherlegsneverhurther.ThatMomlovedher
more.”Kaiblinked,asifheseemedsurprisedatwhathe’dsaid,likehe’dbeenfollowing
sometrailinhismind,notrealizingwhereitwouldtakehim.
“Doyounoticeatrendinthesememories,howeverfragmentedandnonspecifictheymaybe?”
“I’msureyou’regoingtotellme,”Kaisaidwearily.Kaidefinitelywasn’t
himself.Exhaustedphysicallyandmentally,probablypartiallybecauseoftheValium,
partiallybecauseofthelasttwenty-fourhours.
“Youhaven’tmentionedyourparentsatall.AllofthosememoriesinvolveJon.
AndnotjustJon,butJonactinginaparentalrole.Howmucholderthanyouishe?”
Kairubbedhisface,asifheweretryingtostayawake.“Almosteightyears.”
“So,in1983youwerehowold?Five?”
Kainodded.
“Forthesakeofargument,let’ssayyourmemoriesstartthen,thoughI’msure
someofthemareolder.ThatwouldhavemadeJonthirteen?”
Kaishrugged.
“AndI’massumingthatyouneededmorecareasayoungchildthanatypical
kidofyouragedid.”
Kaiscowled.
“Idon’tmeanthatinajudgmentalway,Kai.Youknowthisisajudgment-free
zone.I’mjusttryingtolaythefactsout.”
Kaisighed.“Yeah.IhadmajorbreathingproblemsuntilIwasaboutseven,
whentheyleveledoutalittleforawhile.AndIdon’tremember,butaccordingtoJon,I
didn’treallywalkuntilIwasthree,andthatwasonlyafteralotofphysicaltherapyand
withorthotics.Andofcourse,Ididn’ttalk,andapparentlyhadproblemseatingformy
firstfewyears.”Kaisighed.“I’mnotnormal;weknowthat.Dowehavetotalkabout
this?”
Dr.Millerdecidedtoignorehisuseoftheword“normal”fornow.“I’mtrying
tomakethepointthatJonisa‘protector.’It’sfairlytypicalfortheoldestchildinan
abusivefamilytogrowupquickly,becomea‘littleadult’andassumetherolesthatthe
parentalfiguresaren’tserving.Makingsureeveryone’sfed,thattheclothesarewashed,
theotherchildrenarecaredfor....”
Kaipushedhimselfup,hisbackstraight,hishoodfallingoff.“You’resayingour
parentswereabusive?Thatthat’swhyIdon’trememberthem,becauseofrepressionor
someshitlikethat?”Kaiwasgettingangry,whichDr.Milleractuallysawasagoodsign,
becausetherelativeapathyoftherestofthesession,combinedwithhisadmitted
suicidalideations,hadconcernedher.Angermeanthewasengaged.
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“Notnecessarily,atleastnotintentionally.Buttheywereobviouslyabsentin
somewayifyourbrotherfeltcompelled—evenatagethirteen,perhapsyoungerthan
that—tostepinandtakecareofyou.”
Kaiblinked.
“MypointisthatyourememberJon,notyourparents,becausepotentiallyhe
wastheonlysignificantparentalfigureinyourlife,forwhateverreason.”
Kaiseemedtoletthatsinkin.“SoIwasfuckedupbeforeIevengottoCounty
House,letalonemysummeroffun.”
Dr.MillerscribbledanoteaboutKai’ssardonicreferencetothetimehespent
withhisaunt,butnodded.“Thefactthatoneofyourmemoriesfromthattimeisbeing
jealousyourmothercaredforyoursistermorethanyouistelling,don’tyouthink?”
Kai’sforeheadwrinkled,justbarelyvisiblebeneathhishair.“Ialwaysbelieved
theydidn’tlovemebecauseIwas...broken,”Kaisaidinasmallvoice.“Jonsaysour
daddid,butIdon’trememberhimatall.”
“Doyouseeyourselfasbroken?”
Dr.MillerheardKaiswallow,turnhishead,lookdown,clearlyashamed.
Withoutaword,Kaibrushedhisbangsbackoverhiseyes,resecuredhishood,and
settledhimselfdownintohisoriginalpositionfromthestartofthesession,making
himselfassmallandinvisibleaspossible,whichspokevolumes.
Still,Dr.MillerworriedshewaslosingKaiagain,asheseemedtobeshutting
downfast.“Tellmewhatyou’refeelingrightnow.”
Kaididn’tanswer,butsherealizedhewascryingsoftly.
“It’sallright,Kai,butIcan’thelpyouifyoudon’ttalktome.”
“Please,”Kaipleaded.“Pleasedon’tmakemetalkaboutthis.”
ThatstruckDr.Miller.IfKaididn’twanttotalkaboutsomething,hedidn’t.He
gotangry.Hegotsnarky.Heartfullychangedthesubject.ThiswasKaimorelikehe’d
beenthatdayinthehospital,whenhe’dbeensufferingfromValiumwithdrawals.She
addedthattohernotes.“Whatdoyouwanttotalkabout,then?”
ThequestionsurprisedKai,andsheheardhimsniffle,takeabreath.“Whyis
thishappeningtome?”
“What,Kai?”sheasked,pressinghimtobemorespecific.
“WhyamIlosingmyself?”Kai’svoicewasfullofsuchrawdespairitpushed
throughDr.Miller’sshieldsandmadeherevenmoredeterminedtoensureKailefther
officefeelingatleastalittlebetter.SherememberedKaitalkingbefore,briefly,about
howhedidn’tknowwhohewasanymore,post-transplant.Itwasn’tatopichetalked
aboutmuch,butshe’dgleanedthathedefinitelyhadidentityissues.Shewrote,Selfand
identitydysregulation?andboxeditin,hopingitwassomethingshecouldtacklemore
later.
“Whatdoyoumean?”Dr.Millerqueried,hopingtogetKaitoelaboratebefore
heshutdownagain.
“It’slike...I’veneverbeenabletocontrolmybody.Itdoeswhatitwants.
Alwayshas.Butmymind?That’salwaysbeenmine,andIfeellikelately...”Dr.Miller
heardmorequiettearsbeforeKaifinallyexplained,“It’slikeI’velostit,inmoreways
thanone.LikeI’velostmyself....That’swhythisisso...whyI’mso...”Kaiwas
breathingalittlefaster.
“It’sallright,Kai.Remember,it’sOKtoexpressyouremotions.Howdoes
‘losingyourself’makeyoufeel?”
“I’mscared.”SheheardtheshudderinKai’svoice,sawhimgriphislegstighter
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tohisbody.“I’veneverwalkedwell,Icouldn’ttalkmostofmylife,andthat’swhy...”
Kaihesitated.“Iwasweak,andpeopletookadvantageofthat.Idon’twanttobeweak,
but...Ican’tcontrolmybody.Ican’tcontrolthatI’mprobablynotcured,andthatnot
onlyaffectsmebutothers.Jon....Thispatientofhiswhowon’tgetatransplant
becauseofme.He’sjustafuckingkid,Dr.M.”Kaipaused,theonlysoundhisragged
breathingashestruggledtocollecthimself.“That’swhyJonandIfought.”Alongpause,
whereKaididn’tevenseemtobebreathing,andwhenhefinallymadeasound,Dr.
Millerrealizedhe’dbeenattemptingtopreventhimselffrombreakingdownintomore
tears,quietweepingsoundsseepingoutdespitehisattemptstostopthem.“Andnow...
Ican’tevencontrolmyconsciousness?WhetherIhurtsomeone?Myself?Whatthefuck
isleftofme?Ican’teventrustwhat’srealandwhatisn’t.”
Feelingweak—broken,ashe’dindirectlyadmittedtoearlier—outofcontrol,
andguiltywereallprettyparforthecoursewithsomeonewithahistorylikeKai’s,butit
wasgoodtoseehimadmittingtosomeofitatleast,insteadofavoidingthesubject,as
hehadearlier.“Icanunderstandwhyyoufindthisfrightening,butyouknownooneis
fullyincontrolofthemselvesatalltimes—”
“I’msoscaredoflosingeveryone.Jon.”Kai’svoicebroke.“Ireallythought...
I’dneverseenhimangrylikethatbefore,notatme.Andhetookallhisinsulinwithhim.
...”Kailetoutashortsob.“David.WhatthefuckhaveIeverdoneforhim,otherthan
interpretfromtimetotime?AllIdoisusehim.AllIdoisuseeveryone.Jon.Nikki.Re..
..”Kaibrokedowninearnestnow,eithergivingupontryingtocontainhistearsor
losingthebattle.Heburiedhisfacecompletelyinthehood,hishair,andhisknees,
cryingforalongwhile.“I’mso,soscaredofendingupalone.Allalone.”
Dr.MillerwasbeginningtowonderifKai’sfearsofabandonmentandisolation
weremorethansymptomsofhishistoryandtheabusehe’dsuffered,certainly
pathological.Hehadn’tgivenheranyindicationsthathehadthedesperationof
preventingsaidabandonmentinthesamewaysomeonewithBPDmight,butshe
wonderedifpartofhisfearsabout“losinghimself”wereanextensionofthatsame
terrorofaloneness.Madness,evenifitwasn’ttrueinsanityinthesenseofpsychosis,
wascertainlyisolating,especiallyifitforcedKaitorelivethemomentsinwhichhefelt
mostalone,themosthelpless,inhislife.
“Doyouknowwhataself-fulfillingprophecyis?”sheasked,hopingtodiga
littledeeperintotheissue.
Kailetoutasoundofconfusedsurprise.
“It’swhenyoubelievesomethingsostronglythatyoumakeittrue.”Dr.Miller
shiftedinherseat.“Iseeitalotinpatientswho’vesufferedabuse.You’reconvincedthat
badthingswillhappen.Thatpeoplewillleaveyou,so,consciouslyornot,yousabotage.”
Kaipushedhimselfup,partially,sohewasn’tonewiththerecliner,whichwas
potentiallygood.Thehintofangerinhisvoicewasgood,too.“So,what,I’msopathetic
thatIhavetocreatedrama,likeyesterday,tokeeppeoplefromleavingme?Like,Iwas
soafraidoflosingJonforeverIwentcrazyjusttogethimbackandkeephimclose?So
nowyou’regoingtotellmeI’mfuckingMunchausenorsomething,likeImakeallthis
shitupbecauseI’msofuckingscaredofbeingalone?”WhatDr.MillercouldseeofKai’s
eyeswereangry,thoughafewstraytearstraceddownhischeeksanyway.“Ormaybe,I
dothisshitsopeoplewillleaveme,soIcanblametheminsteadofme?”Hiseyes
widenedwithrealization,thoughshecouldonlyseeoneeyeclearlythroughhishairand
hood.“That’swhatIdidwithBeccaandNikki,didn’tI?”Hisgazewasdirected
downwardashecontinued,speakingalmosttohimself.“Iwasgoingtodothatwith
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Renee,too.”Kaisuddenlybecameveryagitated.“Fuck.Fuck.Fuck.”Shesawoneofhis
handsdiveintohispocket,andshejumpedup,worriedthathemighthaveanother
pieceofglass,butthenheletoutaharshsoundoffrustration,asifhe’dforgottenhe’d
givenittoher.“Itwouldbeeasytouseallthisshittopushheraway.”Kaicrumpled.
“Dammit.Iloveher,”hesaid,surprisedasthewordsspilledout.ItsurprisedDr.Miller,
too,who,knowingthelimiteddetailsofhisrelationshipwithBecca,hadn’tbelievedKai
wouldbecapableofadmittinglovesosoon.“Butwhatwehaveisn’treal.”
ThatgotDr.Miller’sattention.“Whatdoyoumeanbythat?”
“Itcan’tbereal.Itcan’tlast,”Kaisaid,hisbreathingquickening.“Lookatme.
I’mafuckingmess.IpissedmyselflastnightbecauseIwassofucking...”Kaigrunted
asifhedidn’twanttoadmitit.“...scared,lostinanotherfuckingwakingnightmare.Re
deservessomuchbetter.Someonewhoisn’tsuchaneedy,insecurelittlebitch.Fuck.
Dammit.Fuck.”Kaiwashittingthechair,asifheweredesperatelyinneedofthrowing
something,hischestjerkinglikehewantedtosobagainbutcouldn’tquitegetthere
becauseofhisanger.Heletoutafrustratedscream,reachinguptopullathishair,
breathingheavily.
Dr.Millerinchedtowardherdesk.
“MaybeIshouldletherseemelikethis,soshecangetscaredoffforgoodand.
..”Kaiwasrambling,asifhisthoughtswerejustspillingoutuncensored.“Andthat’s
exactlywhatyoumean,self-sabotage,right?”
Dr.MillerfoundherstashofXanaxandtappedoutasinglequarterofapill,a
smalldose.“YouadmittedtomethatReneemakesyouhappy,thatshemakesyoufeel
free,alive.Safe.”Sheheadedforherminifridgetogrababottledwater.
“Shedoes.God,shemakesmefeellikenooneelseeverhas,notevenBecca,
notevenNikki....Sexwithherwasevensomethingcompletelydifferent.WithBeccait
was...”Hehesitated,shookhishead.“Awayforhertocontrolme,Ithink,”Kaisaid,
hiswordsfullofdisgust,hishandonhisstomachasifheweregoingtothrowup.
“Dammit.”Hetookafewsteadyingbreaths.“AndNikkiwasaboutescape.Forgetting.
ButRe.WithRe....”Kaisighed.“Ialmostdidn’tcareaboutgettingoff.Howfuckedup
isthat?Ijust...Ijustwantedtobewithherandmakeherfeelgood,makehernot
regretbeingwithme.”Kai’sagitationwasgrowing,hishandssearchingforsomethingto
keepthemoccupied.“Withherit’sjust.”Hesighed,frustratedhecouldn’texplain
himself.“WhenI’mwithher,everythingis...peaceful.Like,Idunno,likeitcan’tbe
real,becauseit’stooperfect.Lifeisn’tlikethat.”Kaishookhishead,almostviolently,as
ifdoingsocouldtossthethoughtsphysicallyoutofhishead.“Thisissostupid.I’mso
stupid.”Kaiwhackedhisheadwiththebaseofhisfists.“IlethertrustmeandI’mjust
goingtototallydestroyher.”Kai’sangerdidn’tebb,buthesoondissolvedintotears.“All
thesememories...alltheseyearsItoldmyselfitwasn’ttrue,”Kaisaid,almostbabbling
tohimself,cuppinghishandsoverhiseyes.“Whatif...everythingsheeversaid...
everythingthebulliesinschooleversaid...whatiftheywererightaboutme?”
“Kai,”Dr.Millersoothed,snaggingonehandandofferinghimthebottle.
“Drinksomewater.HaveyouevertakenXanaxbefore?”
Kaiobeyed,sniffling,eagertotakeoutsomeofhisfrustrationonthebottle,
swallowingafewgulpsgreedily.“Yes.OncethatIknowof.MyfirstfreakoutNikkigave
mesome.”
“Anditworkedforyou?”
Kaiseemedconfused,butnotsomuchbythequestion,moreathavingbeen
derailed.Henodded.
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“Here,”shesaid,offeringhimthepill.“Ithinkthis’llhelpyourightnow.”
Kaitookit,staredatitamoment,checkedhereyesasifhedidn’ttrusther,but
finally,heswallowedthepill.Thenheletsomeofthetensiongooutofhisbody,sinking
backintohisdefeated,secureposition.
“Iknowyoudon’tthinkso,”Dr.Millersaid,retakingherseat,“butflashbacks
canbeasignofrecovery.Itmeansyou’rereadytofaceyourtraumasheadonandmove
pastthem.”
Kaisighedheavily.Hewasshaking,almostshivering,wrappinghisarms
tighteraroundhislegs.
“Sometherapistsliketheirpatientstodealwiththeflashbackswithoutdrugs,
butIbelieveyou’realsodealingwithdepression,somethingIthinkyou’vebeen
strugglingwithsinceyourtransplant.Wouldyouagreewithme?”
Kailetoutalongsigh.“Isnowthetimeyoutellmemy‘suicidalideation’isan
extensionofmy‘inabilitytoacceptmycontinuedsurvival,’orsomethinglikethat?”
Kai’swordsweremocking,asifhewerequotinghisprevioustherapist,buthejust
soundedtired.Therealitywas,Dr.MillersuspectedpartofKai’sproblemsdidarise
fromthat,fromacombinationoftwistedsurvivor’sguilttowhatessentiallyamounted
toAdjustmentDisorder—Kai’sstruggletoaccepthisnewlife,post-transplant.
“Whatdoyouthink?”
Kaigrunted.AfterDr.Millersaidnothing,though,hefinallyspoke.“Ispent
mostofmylifebeingtoldIwasn’tgoingtolive,orIwasgoingtodieyoung.Ididn’t
reallyexpectI’dmakeittoeighteen,andIspentmostofthetimebetweenthenandnow
activelydying.Ineverexpectedtobehere,togotoschoolandmeetagirlwhocouldbe.
..”ShecouldhearKai’sbreathingslowasthemedicinebegantowork.Heshookhis
headandlookedaway,asifhewereshuttingdownagain.
“Couldbewhat,Kai?”Dr.Millerpromptedwhenitdidn’tseemlikeKaiwas
goingtocontinueonhisown.
Kaisighedheavily,wipedhiseyeswithhissleeves,thendroppedthem,staring
downatthemtoavoidhergaze.“It’sgayasfuck,Iknow,but...Ijust...wanted
someonetoloveme.”KailetthewordshangintheairforamomentasDr.Millerwrote
thatdown.Itwasn’tasurprisingadmissionbasedonKai’shistoryandthetypesof
thingshe’drevealedtoherbefore,butitwasgoodforhimtosayitoutloud,blatantly.
Kailookedupthroughthecurtainofhishair.“Notbecausetheywereobligatedorforced
ordaredorwantedtofuckaroundwithmyhead.IthoughtIhadthatwithBecca,butI
wasstupidandnaive....I’mprettysureRelovesme,thoughhow,Ihavenofucking
idea.”Kai’svoicehitched,likehewasgoingtobreakdownagain,buthedidn’t.“Inever
reallyplannedformyfuture,becauseIneverthoughtI’dhaveafuture.AndnowIhave
Re,and...”Kaididbreakdownnow,butitwasaquietintensity,perhapsmediatedby
theXanax.“...Iwanteverythingwithher.Iwantitsobaditterrifiesme,becauseit’s
easynottocareaboutsomethingyouknowyoucanneverhave.Right?”Hepushedhis
hairoutofhisface,revealingred-rimmed,desperate-lookingeyes.“Like,I’venever
walkednormally,soit’snotsomethingImiss,right?Howcanyoumisssomething
you’veneverhad,thatyou’llneverhave?”ConsideringKai’sissueswithfeeling“broken”
ornot“normal,”andlackingcontrol,andhisadmission,earlier,thatthelabels(suchas
“freak”and“fuckedup”and“worthless”)giventohimbyhisauntandothersmightbe
“true,”Dr.MillerwonderedhowhonestKaiwasbeing,notjustwithher,butwith
himself.Dr.Millerdidn’tinterrupt,though,makinganotetoexploretheconceptlater.
“But...”Kaiwasn’tbotheringtohidehistears,lookingthroughthemtoward
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Dr.Millerlikethelastpuppyinalitterstaringout,alone,fromtheglassofapetshop,
certainnoonewouldevertakehimhome.“IwantforeverwithRe.Dammit.How
fuckingsentimentalisthat?Ihaven’tevenfuckingknownherthatlong.I’msucha
fuckingidiot.”Kai’sswearingalwaysincreasedwhenhegotparticularlyangrywith
himself.Heshookhisheadasmoretearsfell.Wipedhisnosewiththebackofhishand.
“Iwantit,butIdon’tevenknowifIcansurvivetoday.Idon’tknowifIdeserveit,even
ifIcan.”
Dr.Millertookherowndeepbreath.“Firstofall,Kai,thankyouforbeingso
openwithme.Iknowthatwasn’teasyforyou.”
Kaibreathedoutnoisily,sunkdownintotherecliner,hiseyelidsdrooping.The
Xanax,probably.
“Second,noonecangiveanyone‘forever.’That’sonereasonmarriagevowsare
until‘deathdouspart.’Third,desiringloveisnormalforanyone,butespecially
someonewhogrewuplargelywithoutparentalaffection.You’vetoldmeaboutCounty
House;youdidn’texactlyhaveamotherorfatherfigurethere.Youtalkaboutthat
experienceasifitwereincarceration.Soit’sunderstandableforsomeonelikeyouto
cravetheintimacyyouneverhadgrowingup.”Dr.Millertookadeepbreath.“Butmost
importantly,wantingsomethingyou’renotsureyoucanhaveispartoflife,Kai.And
you’vebeenblessedwithlife,whetherit’saweekoradecadeormore.Lifeisscary,but
haveyoueverreallyletfearstopyoufromdoingwhatyouwanted?”
Kaishrugged.EitherthedrugwascombiningwiththeValiuminhissystem
andmakinghimgroggy,orhewassimplypsychologicallyexhausted.Bothwere
legitimatepossibilities.
“Deathiseasy.Thedeadhavenoproblems,nofears,nodoubts.Ithinkit’svery
possiblethatpartofyouwishesyouhadn’tbeentransplanted,thatyouhaddiedlast
year,soyoucanfantasizeaboutnotneedingtodealwithanyofthedifficultemotions
thathaveplaguedyousincethen.”
FreshtearsspilledoutofKai’seyes,buthesaidnothing.
“Ithinkthere’sareasonwhyyoufindtalkingaboutyourlastcoupleyearspretransplantharderthantalkingaboutthesummeryouspentwithyouraunt.”Dr.Miller
grabbedtheboxoftissuesfromthenearbytable,rose,andofferedthemtoKai.“But
thinkofallthethingsyouhavegottentoexperienceinthelastyear.Yes,you’vehad
heartache,butyou’vealsohadhappinessandlove.Youwon’tsaytheword,butIknow
you’vewantedto.YouseeReneeas‘theone,’andmaybeyou’rewrong,buthowmany
peopleattwenty-two—orevenatanyage—cansaythey’vefoundthatkindoflovein
theirlife?Andthatdoesn’tcountyourbrother,whoIknowwouldinsulateyoufrom
everyhurtintheworldifitwasinhispower,helovesyouthatmuch.Hegotangrywith
youbecausehelovesyou.Doesthismakesense?”
Kaiblewhisnose,coughedforseveralminutes,wheezing,thencoughedsome
more.Kainodded.
“Iconsidermyselfprettyconservativewhenitcomestoprescribingformy
patients,butIwouldliketoproposetwoadditionstoyourmedications,ifyou’llhearme
out.”
Kaigrabbedmoretissues,coughedmore,wipedhisface.TheXanaxreallydid
seemtoworkforhim;hewasfarmoreserenethanhewasbefore,anditwasn’tthe
stoned,deadlookoftheValium,either.Henodded.
“I’dliketoconsiderofferingyouXanax,totakeonanemergencybasis,like
yesterday,whenthehydroxyzineandmindfulnessaren’tenough.”
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Kaiusedanothertissuetowipesomegunkoutofhiseyes.“Iknowyoujust
gavemesome,butcanIreallytakeXanaxandValiumtogether?”
“I’dprefer,undernormalcircumstances,youdidn’t.Butyoucan,ifyou’re
careful.ButIthinkit’dbebestifyoukeptonlyadoseortwoonyouatatime,andlet
Jonholdontoyourbenzodiazepinesforyou.Especiallyatatimelikethis.Doyou
understand?”
“SoIdon’tkillmyself,”Kaisaidflatly.
Dr.Millerdecidedtherewasnoreasontosugarcoatit.“Yes.Especiallysince
youmightnotevendoitentirelyintentionally.Youmightsimplybehopingtoturnoff
yourpain,andwhenonepilldoesn’twork,you’lltakeanother,andanother....The
Xanaxclearlyworksforyou,Kai,”Dr.Millersaidpointedly.“Thatwasonlyhalfa
milligram.”
Kailaughed.“IthinkyesterdayIhadlike,14,20milligramsofValiumatonce,
combinedbetweenpillsandshots.Probablywould’vekilledanormalperson.”Ten
milligramswasusuallyconsideredthemaximumdose,butKaihadatolerancefrom
takingthedrugforsomanyyears.
Dr.Millerfrowned.“Ifyoudon’tthinkyoucantrustyourself,behonestwith
me,Kai.”
“Idon’ttrustmyself,”Kaisaidwithouthesitation.“ButIdotrustJon.Hewon’t
letmehurtmyself,notifhecanhelpit.”
Dr.Millernodded.“Ialsowantyoutoconsideranantidepressantcalled
Celexa.It’sveryeffectiveforanxiety.I’veseenpatientsrespondwithinonlyafewdays;
mostwithinaweekortwo.Itmayalsoeventuallyhelpwithyourmood.Iknowyou’re
happywhenyou’rewithRenee,andit’sgoodthatshehelpswithyouranxiety,too.But
youknowyoucan’trelyonotherpeopletomakeyoufeelgoodaboutyourself.”
Kailaughedderisivelyatthat,butnodded.
“I’lltalktoJon,andyoutwocandiscusswhetherit’ssomethingyouwanttotry
ornot.”Shesmiledfaintly.“Howareyoufeelingrightnow?”
“Alittlebetter,”Kaiadmitted.“Butthat’slikeaskingtheguywhobarely
survivedaT5tornadothatdestroyedhishousearoundhimifhe’sfine.”
Dr.Millernodded.“TrytoweanofftheValiumandtaketheXanaxfourtimesa
dayinitsplaceforthenextcoupledays.Relax.Ican’tpromiseyouwon’thaveanymore
flashbacks,butyoucantrysomeofthetechniquesyouuseforyouranxietytomoderate
them.Stimulatingyoursenseswhenyoususpectonemightbecomingcanhelp.Itwon’t
alwayspreventthememory,butitcanhelpshiftyourfocussoyou’rewatchingthem
insteadoflivingthem.”
Kainoddedweakly.“Wouldyou...wouldyoubedisappointedinmeifIused
rubberbandsagainforalittlewhile?”
“Kai,”Dr.Millersaidgently,“youdon’tneedmyapproval.”Thoughitwas
tellinghefelthedid.“I’mnotheretojudgeyou,remember?Ifyouthinkyouneedaway
toreleaseyourself-harmingurgesinawaythatisrelativelyharmless,thengoahead.
Areyoufeelingthaturgerightnow?”
Kailookedsoashamed,likeayoungboywhowantednothingmorethanforhis
parenttobeproudofhim.Which,insomeways,evenasanorphan,Kaistillwanted.
“Thepastfewdays,ithasn’treallygoneaway....Beforethefirstflashback,Iwas
lookingforsomethingtohurtmyselfwith,anythingIcouldfindinmyfriend’s
bathroom,buttherewasn’tanything.Andthiswholetime,it’sbeenhoveringintheback
ofmymind,kindoflike...kindoflikewhenyou’retoobusytoeat,butyou’rereally
262
hungry,anditkeepstryingtopullyourattentionaway.Ifthatmakessense?”
“Let’stryanexercisebeforewego.Iwasn’tsureyouwerereadyforthisquite
yet,butit’snotsomethingyoucan‘master’overnight;itcantakeweeks,evenmonths,
butyoumightfindithelpful.It’scalledtheCircleofForgiveness.It’samindfulness
exercise.”
Dr.MillerhadexpectedKaitoresist,atleastsaysomethingsardonic,ashe
professedanoutwardscornfortherapeuticexercisesingeneral,thoughlater,heoften
would(reluctantly)admittheywerehelpful.Instead,hesimplysaid,“OK.”
“Closeyoureyesandimagineyou’reinabeautifulparkinearlysummer.It’s
warm,butnothot,andthebirdsarechirping.Somewhere,inthedistance,youcanhear
thelaughterofaparty,ormaybeagame,peoplehavingfun.Youcansmellthegrass...”
Dr.MillerhalfexpectedKaitointerrupthere,ashesometimeswould,tosaythatfreshcutgrassmadehimwheeze,buthedidn’t.Heseemedtobecooperating,andshe
thought,howeverinappropriately,thatmaybesheshoulddrughimwithXanaxbefore
sessionsmoreoften.“Someone,maybeattheparty,isgrilling,thescentofcharcoal
floatingintheair.You’repeaceful.Content.You’realone,butyou’renotlonely;you’re
notscared.Youdon’tacheanywhere;yourmusclesareloose.You’rebreathingslowand
deepandrelaxed.”
“It’sabeautifulday,”Kaiaddedsleepily.“Theskyisbrightblueandclear,with
onlyafewclouds,andthere’sawarmbreezethatfeelslikeadelicatetouchonmyskin.”
Kaisighedsoftly.Henormallywasneverthiscooperative.
“That’sgood,”sheencouraged.“Inthedistance,youseepeopleapproaching
youfromallsides,butthey’renotthreatening.You’renotscaredatall.Infact,you’re
happythey’recomingcloser.Oncetheygetabouttenfeetaway,theyformacircle
aroundyou,andyoucanfeelhopeandloveradiatingfromthem.Thesearepeoplewho
youneedtoforgive,orwhoyouwanttoforgiveyou.Whodoyousee,Kai?”
Kailetoutalongbreath.Again,heansweredgenuinely,surprisingher.“My
momanddad.Jon.Becca,Nikki,Renee.David.Art.Ms.Evans.Jake.Jo.Vicky.Jenny.
Troy.Dr.J.Martin.”Kai’svoicebrokeonthatlastname,andthoughhenamedafew
otherpeople,Dr.Millercouldn’tdistinctlytellallofthemuntilhefinallysaid,“My
aunt.”
“That’sgood,Kai.Now,Iwantyoutoimaginegoinguptoeachpersonyou
needtoforgive,lookthemintheeyes,andIwantyoutocallthembynameandtell
them,‘Iforgiveyouforhurtingme.Ireleaseyou.Youhavenopowerovermeanymore.
Goinpeace.’Takeasmuchtimeasyouneed,Kai,anddon’tbeafraidoftheemotions
thatmightarisewitheachperson.Youmightfindithardtosaythosewords,evenin
yourmind,tosomeofthesepeople.Itcantaketime.ButIwantyoutotry,OK?”
Overthenextfewminutes,Dr.MillercoachedKaithroughtheexercise,which
didbringupsomestrongemotions—particularlywithhisparents—thoughperhapsnot
asstrongasifhehadn’tbeenonthebenzodiazepines.
“Ican’t,”hesaid,though,atonepoint.
“Whatcan’tyoudo?”
“Ican’tpicturemyaunt.Ican’tbelieveshe’dbethere.”
“That’sOK,Kai.Youcanworkonthat.Thisisn’tsomethingthatcanbedone
rightorwrong;it’saprocess,andittakestime.Iwantyoutowatchthepeopleyou
forgavewalkaway.Youfeeltheirreliefandhappiness;it’salsoyours.Nowthecircleis
filledwiththosepeoplewhomyoumayhavehurtandwhoneedtoaskyoufor
forgiveness.Doyouseethem?”
263
Helaughed,butitwastingedwithtears,hisvoiceemotional.“There’smoreof
themthantheothergroup.”
ConsideringhowmuchguiltandshameKaicarriedaroundwithhim,that
didn’tsurpriseheratall.“There’sonepersonthatmightnotbethere,butIwantyouto
picturehim.Canyoudothat?Canyoupictureyourself,lookingatyourself?Likeyou’re
oneofthegroup,butyou’realsostillinthecenterofit.”
Kaitookinawheezybreath.“Ican’tlookatmyself,”headmitted,hisvoice
pained.
Sheknewhedidn’tmeanhecouldn’tpictureitinhismind,likewithhisaunt,
butrather,thathecouldn’tmeethisowngaze.“Why,Kai?”
Kaiseemedreluctanttorespondinitially,finallyadmitting,“Becauseyouneed
torespectsomeonetolookthemintheireyes,right?”Hesighed.
Dr.Millerjottedthatdown.“Iknowhe’sprobablythehardestpersontoface,
butIwantyoutoimaginehimapproachingyou.Iwantyoutopicturehimtellingyou—
insignorEnglish,whateveriseasierforyou—thatheforgivesyou.Tellingyou,‘Kai,I
forgiveyouforhurtingme.Ireleaseyou.Youhavenopowerovermeanymore.Goin
peace.’”
Kaistartedtosob,hiseyesstillclosed,hishandsheldupinfrontofhim,
movinginwhatsheknewhadtobesigns,thoughshewouldneverhavebeenableto
makeoutanythingmorethansomepointingandblurredfingers.
Kaithenopenedhiseyes.Hisfacewasagrimace,almostasifhewerein
physicalpain.“Pleasedon’tmakemedoanymore,”hesaidsoftly.
“It’sallright,”Dr.Millersaid,speakingsoothingly.“Forgivingyourselfisgoing
totaketimeandeffort,butIthinkthatmaybemoreimportantthananythingelse.I
wantyoutodothisexerciseonceaday,everyday.Youcanskipthepeoplewhoyoudon’t
feelreadytoconfront,likeyourself,orsavethemfortheend.Try.Iwantyoutowrite
downhowyoufeelwitheachperson,anythingthatstandsout,andIwantyouto
genuinelyworkyourwaytowardconfrontingyourself.OK?”
Kaisighed,buthenodded.Tired,defeated.
“Ialsowantyoutostartthinkingaboutcharacteristicsyouthinkofwhenyou
imaginea‘good’motherorfather.Peopleyoumightknow,inreallifeorinfiction,that
youthinkofintheseroles.”
“Ismellanotherexercise,”Kaisaidwearily,butwithafaintslysmile.Perhaps,
asdifficultastheexercisewas,ithadhelpedhimasshe’dhopeditwould.
“Yes,butthat’sforanotherday.Ijustwantyoutostartthinkingaboutthese
things.Ifyoucouldhaveageniegrantyourwishforparents,whatwouldtheybelike?
Theydon’tneedtobe‘perfect,’becausenooneis.Justgiveitsomethought.”
Kailetoutalongbreath.“Thankyou,Dr.Miller.Ifeel...Idon’twanttosay
‘better,’but...”Kaipassedhishandoverhisface.“Morehopeful,Iguess?Alittleless
lost.”
Dr.Millersmiled,relieved.“That’sgoodtohear.UsetheXanax,andeven
rubberbandsorotherdistractionsforyourhandsifyouneedthem.LetJonsupport
you.Ifyourself-harmingurgesbecomeoverwhelming,youcancallme.ButI’dstilllike
toseeyouagaintomorrowmorning.”
“Refliesintomorrowafternoon.”
“Howdoesthatmakeyoufeel?”
“Scared.Confused.”Kaishovedhishairoffhisforehead.“Iwanttoseeherso
badly,butatthesametime,I’mafraid.It’snotevensomuchaboutherseeingthecrazy
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partofme,thoughthat’spartofit.It’s...”Kaicradledhisfaceinhishand.“I’mnot
readytotellheraboutmyaunt.I’mnotsureifI’lleverbeready.AndhowdoIexplain
thepastdaywithoutit?”
Itwasaveryvalidpoint,butshewashappytoseeKaibeingsoselfaware.That
hewasbeginningtorecognize,andevenwant(thoughthatwasprobablytoostronga
word)toletReneeintothisfinalmajorcornerofhislife.“Whydon’tyougivethatsome
thought,too.TalkwithJonaboutit,ifyoufeelcomfortable.Andwecantrysomerole
playingtomorrow,whichmighthelp.”
Kaihadbeensoworndownbythecombinationofdrugsandpsychologicalexhaustion
thatonceJonhelpedhimintobed,hefellasleepbeforehe’devenfinishedthealbuterol
treatmentJonhadgivenhimtoeasehisbreathing,whichwasalittlewheezy
(presumablyfromacombinationoftears,drugs,andtoomuchlyingstill).Still,itwas
goodtoseehisbrotherrelativelypeaceful.
SecurethatKaiwouldbeasleepforawhile,Jonwentouttothekitchentotest
hisbloodandcallVicky.Dr.MillerhadexplainedhertreatmentplanandwhatJon
shouldexpect,andthoughJonwasapologeticaboutinterruptingherholiday(sinceshe
wantedtoseeKaiagaininthemorning),she’dsimplylaughed.“IfIwantedtowork
MondaythroughFriday,9-5,withnointerruptions,Iwouldhavegoneintoderm,”
she’dexplained,knowingthatJon,asacritical-caredoc,couldcertainlyunderstand.
Still,JonhadthankedherforworkingwithKai,andforbeingwillingtotaketheircallsif
thingsgotdicey.He’dalsoassuredherhe’dputKai’smedsoutofhisreach,since
anythingtakeninahighenoughdosecouldbelethal.
God,hewastired.
“Here’sJonny,”Vickysaidjokinglywhensheanswered,doingherbestEd
McMahonimpression.Sheknewhehatedbeingcalled‘Jonny’evenmorethanhehated
‘Jonathan,’butalittleteasingfromherfeltwonderfulrightnow.
“Hey,Vic.SorryIcouldn’tcallyousooner.”He’dplannedtocallherduring
Kai’ssessionwithDr.Miller,buthadfoundhimselfengrossedinabookaboutadults
whowereabusedaschildren.He’dintendedtoskimitinitiallyforanythingthatmight
givehimmoreinsightintohelpingKai,buthadbeensurprisedtoseehimselfinsomeof
thecharacteristicsinthebook.He’dneverreallyseenhischildhoodwithhisparentsas
“abusive,”butboththeirparentsweredefinitelyabsentinonewayoranother,andJon
hadbeenforcedtorealizealotofhispersonality—hisnearlyobsessivedrivetosucceed
inschoolandwork,hisinstinctiveneedtohelpothers,hisguiltwhenhefailed—
probablyalltiedbacktothefactthathe’dbeentakingcareofhimselfandhismother
yearsbeforeKaicamealong.Italsoforcedhimtorealize,morethanever,thatVickywas
theonlypersonhe’devertrulyletintohislife.NowonderJennywouldn’tmarryhim.
“It’sallright.How’sKai?”
Jonsighed.“Doingalittlebettertoday,butI’mnotcountingmychickensjust
yet.”
“CanIcomeover?MymominsistedIbringabunchoffoodtogiveyou,and
I’msureyou’dprefernothavingtoworryaboutwhatyou’regoingtoeatforatleasta
coupledays.Plus,youleftmostofyourinsulinatmyhouse,right?”
“That’sactuallyperfect.Ineedyoutopickupafewthingsforme.”
ThedoorhadbarelyclosedbehindVickywhenJonwaspushingheragainstit,burying
histongueinhermouth,pressingagainsther,kissingherhungrily,desperately,asifhe
265
weredrowningandshewasair.Shedroppedthepackagesshe’dbeenholdingand
wrappedherarmsaroundhim,smoothingherpalmsalonghisbackandmeltinginto
thekiss,lettinghimtakewhatheneeded.
Finally,afterseveralminutes,hepulledback,restinghisforeheadagainsthers,
breathingheavily.Hemumbledafewsyllablesseveraltimes,asiftryingtospeakand
unabletofindthewords.Gently,shepushedagainsthischesttocreateenoughspace
betweenthemsoshecouldseehiseyes.
Hehaddeeppurplebagsbeneatheachthatseemedmorepronouncedsincethe
lasttimeshe’dseenhim,butwhatreallystruckherwashowtroubledhelooked,likea
warwasgoingonbehindhiseyes.
Shecradledhischeek,feelingaday’sworthofstubble.“IsKaithatbad?”
Helaughedharshly,ashortsound,almostacough,ashadeofasmiletryingto
pushuptheedgesofhismouth.Butthenheshookhishead,andashadowcrossedover
hisface,hisbreathhitching,sayingnothing.
Vickykissedhischeek,slidingherhanddowntocuphisneck.“It’snotyour
fault.”
Jonblinked,andshesawnowhiseyeswerealittlesurprised,butglossy,asif
tearswerethreateningtospillout.“I...”Buthecouldn’tseemtospeaknow,either,
shakinghisheadmoreintently,loweringittohidehiseyes.
“Noneofthisisyourfault,”Vickyrepeated,morefirmly,tugginghimcloseand
pullinghimintoatighthug.
“Thiswouldn’thavehappenedtoKaiifIhadbeenthereforhimtwelveyears
ago.IfIhadn’tsaidthosehorriblethingstohimTuesday.”
Vickykissedhisneck.“That’snottrue,Jon.Kaiisn’tsofragilethathecan’t
takeafewangrywords.”
Jonletoutalong,harshbreath.Shesawfearinhiseyesnow,likeshehadn’t
seeninalongtime.“I...”Hehesitated,shookhisheadagain.“Ishouldn’thaveletyou
comeover.Ishouldn’ttalktoyouaboutthis.It’snotmyplace.”
VickysmoothedJon’scheek.“It’sallright.”
Joncrossedtheroom,sinkingdownintooneofthediningchairs,angledsohe
couldjustseeintohisopeneddoorway.Vickycouldbarelymakeoutafigureasleepin
Jon’sbed,assumingithadtobeKai.ItwasstrangeforKaitobeinJon’sroominsteadof
hisown,butshesaidnothing,pullingachairupbesideJoninstead,grippinghishands.
“Kaipretendsthathe’sfine,thatnothingbothershim,butthat’ssofarfromthe
truth,”Jonsaidinapainedvoice.“Hewantedtohurthimself,”Jonsaid,hiseyesvacant.
“Maybeevenkillhimself.”Jonswallowedhard.“IfIhadn’tbeenaround...hemayhave
tried.”
VickyworkedherfingersintoJon’shair.SheknewKaihadbeenhavingsome
problems,butshehadn’trealizedhewassodepressed.“Whyisn’theinthehospital?
Couldn’ttheyhelphim?”
“He’safraidofbeingconfined,beingalone.Icouldn’tdothattohim.”Jon
shookhishead,pushedhimselfbacktohisfeet,andleanedinhisbedroomdoorway,
watchingoverhisbrother.
Vickyapproached,standingbesidehim.Kailookedlikehewasoutcold,heavily
sedated,shesuspected.
“He’sworriedaboutlosingme.Whenthebabycomes.”
Vicky’shandhadbeensmoothingthesmallofJon’sback,butthewordsmade
herstill.“Youtoldhim?”
266
“Secretsarehisthing,notmine.Youknowthat,Vic.Besides—”
Sheleanedherheadagainsthisshoulder.“Ifanyonecankeepasecret,it’sKai.”
“You’renotmad?”Jonwrappedanarmaroundher,holdingherclose,though
hiseyesnevermovedfromhisvigil.
Shesighed.“Iwon’tlieandsayIwouldn’tloveyoualltomyself,”shesaidwith
afaintchuckle,“butIdon’twanttobeawedgebetweenyoutwo.”
JonsqueezedVickytightly.“Iknowhe’sanadult,but...Idon’tknowifhecan
reallylivealone.Betweenhisphysicalandhismentalhealth...”
“You’dbeworryingabouthimconstantly,”Vickyfinishedforhim.
Jonsighedheavily.“I’veneverseenhimlikethis.So...brokendown,like
everythinghe’dbeenkeepingshoredupalltheseyearshasfinallyburstthrough.I’mso
fuckingscared,Vic.WhatifwegotthroughallthetransplantandMLSshitandIlose
himtoanoverdose?”
Vicky’sheartbroketoheartheanguishinJon’svoice,soshegentlytuggedhim,
guidinghimtoturnsubtlytowardher.“Thesepastfewdayshavemademerealizehow
wrongIwas.”
Jon’seyebrowsfurrowed,lookingpanicked.“Vic—”
Sheheldupafingertohislips,shakingherhead.“Wrong,makingyoupromise
you’dalwaysputmeandthebabyfirst.”Shesighed,glancedtowardthebedroom.“If
somethinghappenedtome,I’dhavescoresofrelativesinlinetohelpme.I’dhavetouse
someofthemtoguardthedoortokeeptherestofthemfromassaultingme.Evenwhen
Ilost...Andrew,eventhoughsomewerehostile,Istillhadotherswhosupportedme.I
alwayshadsomewheretogo.”ShereachedupandcradledJon’scheek.Heleanedinto
hertouch,hiseyesfallinghalfclosed,butonlyforamomentsohewouldn’tkeepKaiout
ofhissighttoolong.“Kaidoesn’thaveanyoneelse.AndIknowifyouneededhim,he’d
bethereforyouinaheartbeat,noquestionsasked.”Shetuckedafewstrayhairsbehind
hisear.“Iloveyou.Andpartofwhatmakesmeloveyousomuchishowmuchyoucare
aboutotherpeople.Iwouldn’twanttochangethat,evenifitmeans‘plans’isawordwe
havetoputinperpetualquotationmarks.”Vickyguidedhimintoakissthatwaschaste
butpassionate.
“Iloveyou,”Jonwhispered.“Idon’tknowwhatIwouldhavedonewithoutyou
alltheseyears.”
Vickysmiledagainsthislips,butbeforeshecouldsayanything,sheheard
moaning,makingthembothturntheirheads.
Kaiwasstillsleeping,butobviouslyhavingnightmares,mutteringandcrying.
“We’lltalklater.I’llmakeyouaplatebeforeIgo,”Vickysaid,squeezingJon’s
hand.
“Actually....YoubroughtthesuppliesandmedsIaskedyoutopickup?”
Vickynodded.
“CouldyouputintheIVcath?Itrustyoubetterthanmenottomutilatehim.”
Jonfrowned.
Vickysmiledfaintly.“Sure.”Justbeforesheturnedtograbthematerialsshe
neededfromwhereshe’dleftthembythefrontdoor,sheadded,“Youknowmyhouseis
asinglestory,right?AndIhavetwoextrabedrooms.Oneforthenursery,and...”
Jon’sattentionjerkedawayfromKaiforamomenttomeetVicky’seyes.“Are
yousayingwhatIthinkyou’resaying?”
“It’dtakesomemodifications,especiallytooneofthebathrooms,butIhavea
cousinwho’sacontractor,soitwouldn’tbetooexpensive.”
267
“Vicky?”Jon’seyesglistenedwithhope,mixed,paradoxically,withuncertainty.
“Itsoundslikearecipeforabadsitcom,Iknow,but...”Shesmiled.“Kai’s
goodwithkids,right?Andasmuchaswebothwork,itmightbenicehavingsomeoneto
helpuswiththebaby.”
JonsqueezedVickysuddenlyandsotightlyshestruggledtobreathe,butitwas
aquickembrace,ashesoonpushedherback,grippinghershoulders.“Areyousure?”
Vickyshrugged.“TwoTaylorsforthepriceofone?Three,ifIcountthebaby?
MaybeIshouldforgetthesitcomandgostraighttothescreenplay.”
Jonblinkedrapidly.“Youarethebestthingthat’severhappenedtome.Idon’t
knowhowIdidn’tseeitsooner.”
Vickylaughed.“It’snotentirelyyourfault.Iheldbackforalongtime.”She
sighed,kissedhischestbeforesteppingbacktomeethiseyes.“Especiallythatlastyear
beforeKai’stransplant....Thereweresomanytimesyou’dcometomeinmyoffice,
needingsupportandencouragement...andIwantedtokissyou.”
“Really?”
Vickynodded.“ButIknewhowmuchyouneededafriend,someonetohelp
yougetthroughitall,especiallyif...well,ifhehadn’tmadeit.”Vickyswallowed.“I
didn’twanttoriskdestroyingthatfriendshipnomatterhowmuchIwantedtotaste
yourlipsagainstmine.Icouldwait,ifthat’swhatyouneeded.”
Foramoment,Jon’seyesgrewwide,glassy,andheblinkedevenmore
furiouslythanhehadearlier.HepulledVicky’sfaceclose,kissingherforehead,thenher
nose,thenhermouth,brieflybutdeeply.“Iloveyou,Vicky.Idon’tknowifIcouldever
gettiredofsayingthat.”
Kai’sreturntoconsciousnessfeltlikeadiverslowlyrisingupthroughmurkywater.
Floaty,disconnected,hisfirstattempttoopenhiseyesrevealingablurry,confusing
landscape.Hischestfeltstrange,tight,likeheneededtocough,andnauseaswirledin
hisstomach.Hisbrainstillwouldn’tquiteclickon,sohepushedhimselfupwith
wobblingarms,theroomswayingaroundhim,bilerisinginthebackofhisthroat.He
feltasharppaininoneofhiswrists,butheignoreditfornow,asconfusionandhis
stomachbattledforhisattention.
Upright,theurgetocoughgrew,soheforcedhimself,thecoughsquickly
takingover,becomingmoreintense,turningintodryheavesashisstomachjoinedthe
fray,desperatetoempty.Heheavedafewmoretimes,butnothingcameup,leavinghim
evenmoredizzyandsickthanbefore.Heheldhimself,bentover,swaying,notentirely
surewherehewasorwhyhefeltthewayhedid,hismindfunctioningonlyenoughto
tellhimtostayasstillaspossibleandmaybethenauseawouldpass.
Evenwithhiseyesclosed,hefeltlikehewasbeingbuoyedbywaves,andhe
wonderedifhe’dpassoutagain.
“Kai?”
Vaguely,Kaiheardhisname,buthewassofocusedonjustsittingstill,onnot
throwingup,hehadtroublefocusing.Everytimehetriedtofollowanotherthought,the
nauseawouldsurgeandhe’dhavetoabandonit.
“Kai,canyouhearme?”
Goaway,Kaithoughtvaguelyastheurgetocoughsurged.Hetriedtoresist,
butfinallyhadtogivein,coughing,coughing,coughing,thendryheavingtwice.His
visionwentsparkly.
Handswerepushinghimdown,andhetriedtoresistatfirst,butthenausea
268
wassostrong,hismindsomuddled,hecouldn’tfightit.Thesamehandsrolledhim
ontohisside.Wait.What?Hetriedtosaysomething,butformingwordswastoo
complicatedrightnow.
Kaistruggledtolifthiseyestosee,andsawaface.Aman.Blond.Worriedlook.
Hewasfamiliar.Kai’slimbsfeltheavy.
Kaitriedtoliftahandtohim,asiftochecktoseeifhewerereal,and
somethingpulledinhiswrist,makinghimhiss.Thenhesawit,theIVline.Panic
surged.Whathadhebeendruggedwith?Wherewashe?
ThemanputafirmhandaroundKai’swrist,andKaitriedtopullaway,butthe
drugsweremakinghimweak,andafterafewfeebleattemptsatstruggling,hesagged
intothebed.
“Shh,Kai.You’reallright.It’sjustsalineandglucose.”
Kaisquinted,tryingtofocushisvision,butthemanwasjustablur.Hishead
wasspinning,soheshuthiseyesagain.
“Youhardlyateyesterday,youdidn’teattoday,andwhatyoudideat,you
threwup.Ididn’twantyourbloodpressureorsugartodrop.”
Concentratinghard,hemanagedtounderstandwhatthemanwassaying,but
itwaslikelisteningtoaforeignlanguagethatheknew,butnotwell.
Themansmoothedhisforeheadinawaythathefoundcomfortingdespitenot
clearlycomprehendingwherehewasorwhatwasgoingon.“Howbadisyournausea?I
cangiveyousomePhenergan,butyou’restillalittleoutofitfromthebenzodiazepines,
soI’dprefernottoaddanothersedativeifIdon’thaveto.”
Kai’sbrowfurrowed.Thatwasalotofwords,andheheardthemall,buthe
wasn’tentirelysurehecouldsaywhattheyallmeant.Hemanagedtobringhishandto
hischin,ignoringthepulloftheIV.“What’swrongwithme?”heaskedwithonesign.
Heheardthemansigh.“TheXanaxreallyknockedyouout.You’llbeOK.Why
don’tyoutrytosleep?”
Kaishookhishead.Thenauseahadeasedalittle,butitstillhovered,
preventinghimfromridingthedrugsbackintooblivion.Andatthesametime,a
warinessitchedinhisbrain,warninghimtofightthroughthefog.“Whoareyou?”
Kaisawthemanfrowndeeply.“Jon,Kai.Yourbrother.”
Kaishookhishead.“MYBROTHERLEAVE.HEABANDONME,”Kaisigned
sloppily.“Areyouadoctor?”Kai’seyesfocusedalittlebetter,andhecouldseemoreof
theroom.Itlookedlikeabedroom,notahospitalroom,butmaybehe’dbeensentto
anotherinstitution?Hestruggledtoremember,buthismindwasimpenetrable.
Theman’sfrowngrewevenmorepronounced.“Kai,howoldareyou?”
Kaitouchedhischin,thenwaggedhisfist,thumbup.“TEN.”
Themansighed.Apparently,thatwasthewronganswer.Buthowelsewashe
supposedtorespond?Maybethiswasanotheroneofthoseheaddoctors.P-something.
He’dseenquiteafewofthem,butmostlywithoutinterpreters,sohehadtofocuson
theirEnglish,whichwashard,andtheydidn’tunderstandhissigning,whichwas
harder.Sotheyusuallydismissedhimasbeingstupidandsimple.Butthisdoctor
seemedtounderstandhim.
“I’mconfused.”
Themansighedagain,wentbacktostrokingKai’sforehead,whichfeltsonice.
“Ithinkallthedrugshavefinallygottentoyou.”
Aflashoffearflaredup,butKai’sbodywouldhardlyrespond.Hevaguely
rememberedadoctortryingtoputsomethinginhisnose,downhisthroat.Pain.“Are
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youtheonewhohurtme?”
“No,Kai,no,”themansaid,stillsmoothingKai’shead.Nooneevertouched
himlikethis.Itfeltnice.Itremindedhimofhisbrother,before,thewayhe’ddothat
whenKaiwashavingtroublebreathing,sleeping.Orwhenhispainwasbad.
Kaifelthiseyeswellingupwithtearsthatspilledout,andvaguely,partofhis
mindscreamedthathewasn’tsupposedtocry,thatheneededtostopit,becausehe’dbe
punished,buthecouldn’t.
“It’sallright,Kai.You’resafe.Iwon’tletanyonehurtyou.”
Kaiblinked,lookedupagain.Themanstillwasn’tinclearfocus.“Dr.Fox?”
Thathadtobewhothemanwas.Hewastheonlyonewhohadn’thurthim,whohad
beenkindtohim,whohadmadethebaddoctorwhotriedtoputthetubeinhisnosego
away.Whohadknownalittlesignlanguagewhennooneelsedid.
“No,it’sJon.Yourbrother.It’s2000,not1988.Comeon.Snapoutofit.”The
man,Dr.Fox?,wasgrowingangry,whichfrightenedKai.Whenadultsgotangry,bad
thingshappened.Hiswordsweren’tmakinganysense.Hisbrotherwasgone.Davidand
Kaihaddeterminedthatalready.WhywasDr.Foxbeingmeanlikethis,tryingtotrick
him?
Kaicoveredhisfacewithonehand,areflexive,defensiveposture,feeling
himselfbeginningtoshakesubtly.
Butthemanwalkedaway,leavingKaialone.Somethingwasn’tright,heknew
it,deepinthebackofhismind,buthecouldn’tquiteshakeofftheconfusion.He
touchedhisnose,againmakingsuretherewasn’tatubeinit,feelingtired,buttoo
nervoustosleep.Heremembered,vaguely,Dr.Foxgavehimastuffedfoxtoplaywith
andhold.HehadleanedinandtoldKaiitwastheirsecret,butthatKaicouldkeepit.
SinceKaihadlosthisparentsandhisbrother,noonegavehimanything.Andthe
stuffedfoxwassosoft,andithadalittlesmile,anditmadeeverythingalittlelessscary.
Theman—Dr.Fox?—cameback,andKaiwavedtogethisattention.“Where’s
mytoy?”
Themanfrowned,lookingconfused.Hehadacupinonehand,butnothing
elsescary.Maybehehadn’tunderstoodKai?
“Please,canIhavemytoyback?”
Themanlookedsad.Maybeheknewsomeonehadtakenthetoy,andhedidn’t
haveanotherone.MaybehewouldbemadthatKaihadlostit,eventhoughKaicouldn’t
rememberlosingit.Someone—oneofthenurses,ormaybethatmeandoctor—must
havetakenitwhilehewassleeping.
“I’msorry,”Kaisigned,tearsleakingagain,thoughhestruggledtoholdthem
back.
“It’sOK,”themansaid,hisvoicefriendlyandsoft,takingoneofKai’shands
gentlyinhis.“Here.”HeputsomethingcoldinKai’shand,closinghisfingersonit,
holdingitthere.Kaitriedtopullaway,butthemanwasstronger.
Kailetoutascarednoisethatinsomepartofhismindseemedwrong.
“Shh,Kai.It’sme,Jon.Yourbrother.You’rehere,withme,inmyroom.You’re
twenty-two,notten.Nooneisgoingtohurtyou.You’resafe.”
Theicewasalmostpainfullycold,andasKaifocusedontheirhands,thecube
alreadymelting,hiseyesseemedtofocusbetter,somethingshiftinginhisbrain.“Jon?”
Jonletoutalongwhooshingbreath.“Youbackwithus?”
Kai’sbrowsfurrowed.Jonreleasedhishand,whichwaswetandcold,andKai
realizedhiswristhurt,andheliftedit,seeinganIVcathetertapedtoit,withacouple
270
linesspringingoutfromitsports.ButthiswasdefinitelyJon’sroom.Hefeltlikehe’d
justwokenupfromadream,buthecouldn’trememberthedetails,andeverytimehe
graspedforthem,theyslippedawayevenmore.
Kaiblinkedslowly,keepinghiseyesclosedforafewsecondseachtime,hoping
thatwhenheopenedthem,he’dfeelless...weird.Itdidn’twork.Absently,becausehe
feltlikemaybeithadbeenpartofhisdreamsomehow,hetouchedhisnose,genuinely
surprisedhedidn’tfindafeedingtubecomingoutofit.Hecouldn’tquiteseemtoput
anythingtogether.Aremotepartofhisbraintoldhimheshouldbeinpain,thathe
shouldhavethatfeedingtubeinhisnose,thatheshouldbescared,andpartofhimwas
scared,but....
“Nothingmakessense,”Kaimuttered.Hisvoicedidn’tsoundright,either,his
wordsslurredandbarelyintelligible.
“You’reconfusedfromthedrugsandlowbloodpressure,”Jonassuredhim,
smoothinghisforeheadagain.Kaireallylikedthat.Itwassocomforting,andfora
momenthecouldforgethisconfusionanduncertaintyandjustsinkintothattouch.
“You’llbeOK.”
Forseveralmoments,Kaijustlaythere,nottryingtothink,justfocusingonthe
feelofhisbrother’shandagainsthisskin,thesoundofJon’swordsassuringhimhewas
safe.
“Youfeelanybetter?”JonaskedafterseveralminutesinwhichKaimayhave
dozedoffandon.
“Yeah,”Kaisaid.Hisvoicewasrough,butnotsoslurred.
“Who’sDr.Fox?”
Kai’seyebrowsdipped.“What?”
“YouthoughtIwashim.”
“When?”Kaitriedtopushhimselfup,butthedizzinessswarmedhim,andhe
fellback.
“Easy,”Jonsoothed.“Ithink,withthedisorientationfromthedrugs,itwaslike
youwerecaughtinanotherkindofflashback.YouthoughtyouweretenandIwasDr.
Fox.”
Kaifrowned.He’dnevertoldanyoneabouthim,ever.“Mostdoctorswerecruel
tomebackthen,”Kaiadmitted.“Iwaslabeled‘nonverbal,’whichyouknowisdoctorspeakfor‘tooretardedtocomprehendanything.’”
“Kai...”
Kaisighed,gratefulhewasstartingtofeelmorelikehimself,andaslongashe
laystill,thenauseaanddizzinesssubsided.“BecauseIcouldn’tspeak,manydoctors,
andevennurses,treatedmelikeIcouldn’tunderstandwhatwashappening,likeI
couldn’tfeelpain.”Jonstartedsmoothinghisforeheadagain,andKailethiseyesfall
closed.“ThatwasbeforeDr.J.BeforeevenDr.MacDonald....After...thatsummer,I
wasinbadshape.Idon’trememberittoowell,butIwasreallymalnourishedandIhad
alotofproblemseating....”Kaihesitated.TriedtorecallhowmuchheorDr.Miller
hadtoldJon,anddecidedtokeepthingsvague.“SotheydecidedtoputinanNGtube...
.Butthefirstdoctorwhotried...hedidn’ttellmewhattheyweregoingtodo.Hedidn’t
givemeanykindoflocal,andIguessIwasintoobadastatetogivemeageneral....”
Kaifelthissinusespricklingatthememoryofhowmuchthathadhurt,howterrified
he’dbeen,especiallycomingfromhisauntandnotfullyunderstandingwhathad
happened,convincedhehadbeenreally,reallybadandwasbeingpunished.
“Jesus,Kai,”Jonsaid,squeezingKai’shand.“Howcouldanyonedoa
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procedurelikethatonakidwithouttryingtoexplainitoruseanykindofanesthetic?”
Kaicouldhearangerinhisbrother’svoice.“Myfourthyearofmedicalschool,during
oneofmyrotations,wehadtopracticeinsertingnasogastrictubesoneachother.Those
fuckinghurt,especiallyifthepatientisn’tcooperative.Orifyoudon’tlubeitproperly.
Dammit,Kai.I’msorry.”
Kaishookhishead.“Atfirst,Itriedtobegood,becauseIthoughtIwasbeing
punishedandI’dmakeitworse.”
“Jesus.”
Kaifrowned.“Butmygagreflexkickedin,violently.”Kaicringed.“Ifyouthink
oneofthoseisbadgoingin,especiallywithoutanykindofanesthetic,it’sevenworse
whenyouthrowitbackup.Imaginetheworstthingyou’veeveraccidentlysnortedout
yournosewhileeatingandmagnifyittimesathousand.”Kaiopenedhiseyesandlooked
upatJon,whohadputahandtohisnosereflexively.
“Youmusthavebeenterrified.”
Kaisighed.Nodded.“Icouldn’tscream,butwhenhewantedtotryagain,I
foughthimaswellasIcould.Hegotannoyedenoughhecalledforhelp,andthatended
upbeingDr.Fox.”Kaismiledfaintly.“Hewassokindtome,calmingmedownand
insistingeverythingwasallright.ThatIwasn’tbad.”
Kaiclosedhiseyes,remembering.Hecouldn’treallyrecallwhatDr.Foxlooked
like;itwaslikeadream,wheresomedetailsstuckoutwhileothersremainedhazy.He
rememberedafriendlysmile,dirty-blondhair,andadeepvoicethatwassoothing
insteadoffrightening.KairecalledDr.FoxtryingtoseehowmuchKaiunderstood,
usingpropsandcardswithdifferentcolorstotrytogetKaitotellhimhowbadhispain
was.Howhewaspatientandspokeslowlyandclearly,butnotinapatronizingway;
rather,therichtimbreofhisvoicewascalming,assuringKaihewasn’tbadandhedidn’t
needtobescared,andthatDr.Foxwouldmakeitbetter.
“HekeptcallingmeJoseph,andsoIsignedthatmynamewasKai,and...it
turnedoutheknewthealphabetandafewsigns.HerealizedthatnotonlycouldI
understand,butIcouldcommunicate.”Kaiwipedhiseyes,rubbingthemwiththeside
ofhishand.“Hegavemethislittlestuffedfox,andtoldmetohugitwheneverIgot
scared,anditwouldtakethescaryaway.”Kaisqueezedhiseyestotrytostopthetears
thathadstarted.“Hemadethingsbetter,ifonlyalittle.Iguesshewasaresident.I
didn’tseehimagainafterthathospitalstay.”Kaitookinadeepbreath.“Afterwhat
happened,Icouldn’tbeJosephTayloranymore.”KailookedupatJonthroughblurred
vision,hopinghisbrotherwouldn’taskformoreofanexplanation.KaiwascertainJon
didn’tknowitwastheirauntwhohadhurthim,andeventhoughshewaslongdead,he
didn’tliketoaddanymoreguilttoJon’sshouldersifhecouldhelpit.
“SoyouchangedyournametoFox.Becauseofhim.”
Kainodded.
Jonblewairouthisnose,smoothingKai’shair.“Whathappenedtothelittle
stuffedtoy?Youwereaskingaboutit,earlier,whenyouwereoutofit.”
Kaiwassurprisedtofindhismouthdippingintoadeeperfrown,andfresh
tearswantingtoform.“Oneofthenursestookit.Shesaiditwasunsanitaryanditwas
goingtoexacerbatemyasthma.Ithinksheactuallyliterallysaid,‘exacerbate,’because
sheassumedIdidn’tunderstandheranyway.”Kaisighed,felthisbodyrelaxing,like
tellingJonaboutDr.Foxhadliftedsomeburdenhedidn’tevenknowhe’dbeen
carrying,ormaybeitwassomekindofsecondwindfromthesedativesinhisblood.“I
wouldn’thavebeenallowedtokeepitatCountyHouse,anyway.Weweren’tpermitted
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personalpossessions.CHwasverycommunal.Plus,youknowstuffedtoysarebadfor
kidswithbreathingproblems,especiallyiftheyhaveatrache.”Kaiyawned,stretched,
felttheIVpull,andhissed.Nauseastillhoveredinhisbelly,andherubbedhisstomach
absently.
“Stillnauseous?”
Kainodded,tryingnottothinkaboutit;thinkingaboutitalwaysmadeit
worse.
KaifeltJon’shandspullhispantsdown,wipehisskinonhiship,thenaquick
prickofaneedle.“Phenergan.Alowdose.It’llhelpyoufeelbetterandletyourest.”Jon
tuckedtheblanketsbackup,makingKaifeelwarmandsecure.
“Jon?”
“Yes?”
“I’venevertoldanyoneaboutDr.Fox....NotevenDavid.OK?”
JonsweptsomeofKai’shairoffhisface.“It’llbeoursecret,”Jonsaid,andKai
couldhearthefaintsmileinhisvoice.
Kaifocusedonthegentlesweepofhisbrother’shandagainsthisskinandhair,
letthesoft,deeptimbreofhisbrother’svoiceassuringhimhewassafeandthat
everythingwouldbeOKlullhimbacktosleep.
Kaiwouldhavehadnoideaofthetimeifitweren’tforthelargedigitalclockacrossthe
roomfromJon’sbed,whichinformedhimitwaslateafternoon.He’dbeeninandoutof
consciousnessmostoftheday,andthoughhe’dhadafew“miniflashbacks,”he’dbeen
relativelyOKoncehecamebacktohimself.RightnowhewassittingupinJon’sbed,
proppedupwithpillows,tryingtowillawaythenauseainhisstomach;Jonhadoffered
himZofranthistime,whichwouldn’tsedatehim,inthehopesthathemightbeableto
finallyeatsomething.
HestillhadtheIVinhiswrist,whichwastapedthoroughlytomakeitdifficult
forKaitopullitoutiftheurgetohurthimselfcameoverhim.Hehadtoadmit,though,
hehadn’tthoughtaboutit,notreally,sincethemorning.MaybeitwastheXanax,which
workedspectacularlywell—hecouldseewhypeopletookitrecreationally.Ifitweren’t
forthefactthatitlefthimincrediblynauseated,hecouldseehimselfabusingit,too.But
really,ifhethoughtaboutit,itmighthavejustbeenhavingJonaround,takingcareof
himwithoutbeinghisoftenoverbearing,worryingself.Kaistillcouldn’tbelievehehad
toldJonaboutDr.Fox—benzosinhighdosesdidmakehimmorepronetoconfessions.
Itfeltlikeadream,butthenalotofthepastcoupledaysdid,thankstoinsanityand
drugs.
Jonpokedhisheadin.HehadbeenreluctanttoleaveKaialone,evenforafew
minutes,butKaihadpromisedhe’dshoutifhefelthewaslosingcontroloverhimself.
Ofcourse,theflawinthatplanwasifheliterallylosthimselfinamajorflashback,then
hewouldn’tbeawareenoughtowarnJonbeforehepotentiallyhurthimself,butKai
wasn’tabouttopointthatout.HeappreciatedJon,buthedidn’tneedhisbrother
watchinghimlikeasecuritycameraeverysinglesecond.
“David’shere.Hecametodropoffyourcar,buthe’dliketotalktoyou,if
you’reuptoit.”
Kaipushedsomehairoutofhisface,feelinghowoilyitwasandfrowning
beforehecouldstophimself.Jonhadn’tbroughtupashoweragainyet,andhonestly,
thinkingofthebathroommadehisstomachclench,buthe’dneedtobatheatsome
point.“Yeah,Icantalkforafewminutes.”
273
Jonturnedaroundinthedoor,andKaicouldseehisshouldersworkingashe
signed,thoughitwasimpossibletoknowwhathewassayingfromtheangle.Aminute
later,Davidcamestridingin,hisfaceneutralbuthiseyeslookingatKaiwithwary
concern.
Davidperchedontheedgeofthebed,facingKai.HespottedtheIVbags,which
Jonhadmanagedtohangoffahookonthewall.Hiseyebrowsfurrowed,buthesaid
nothing,bringinghisattentionfullontoKai.“Howyoudoing?”heaskedwithonesign,
acasualflickofhismiddlefingeroffhisshoulder.
Kaishrugged.“Haven’tkilledmyselfyet,”Kaisaidwithawrysmile,gratefulhe
couldsignthatallwithonehand;thecathinhiswristhurt.
Davidrolledhiseyes.“Youknow,ifyouhatedMegan’sfoodsomuch,you
didn’tneedtomakeupsuchacomplicatedstorytogetoutofit.”
Kaiwassurprisedwhenabarkoflaughterescapedhislips,butthenhe
frownedasthememoryofthrowingupMegan’sThanksgivingdinnerflaredattheback
ofhismouth,andnauseasurged.Hegrimaced.“Please.Nofoodtalk.”
Davidfrowned,butnodded.“Look.IknowIsaidIwasn’tgoingtoriskmyass,
butIfoundtherecordsyouwanted.Itwasn’tsimple.”DavidlookedatKaiwitha“you
oweme”glare.“Ilefttheminyourcar,soyoucanlookatthemwhenyou’rebetter.”
Davidscratchedhisnose,anervoushabitthatsignaledhewasuncomfortable.“Iwon’t
tellyouwhattodo,butsometimesignoranceisbliss,OK?I’drathernotknowabout
myfather.Maybeheendedupdrivinghiscarintoatreeayearafterhegavemeup;
maybehemarriedsomerichwomanandlivesinthelapofluxurywithsix‘normal’
kidswhohedoesn’tslaparound.Eitherway,I’drathernotknow.Getit?”
Kainodded,buttherewasnowayhewasgoingtopassupachancetolearn
moreabouthismother,andbyextension,himself.“Didyoureadthefiles?”
Davidlookedoffended.“No.Justaquickglancehereandtheretomakesure
theyweretherightones.Ifigureditwasn’tanyofmybusiness.”
Kairaisedasingleeyebrowinsurprise,butnodded.
Daviddeftlychangedthesubject.“So,howfuckedupareyou?”Davidsignedit
jokingly—hismiddlefingeronhistemplethenshiftingupwardintoathumbsup—but
hiseyesrevealedgenuineconcern.
Kaisighed,pickedatthemedicaltapesecuringtheIVtohiswrist.Notreally
tryingtotakeitoff,butjustgivinghisfingerssomethingtodowhilehedecidedhowto
answer.Finally,heliftedhisgoodhandandreplied,“Prettyfuckedup.”Hetriedfora
wrysmile,butdidn’tquitesucceed.
Davidnodded,signalingheunderstoodandKaididn’thavetoelaborate.“I
knowyouhaveJon,butifyouneedanything...”
Kaismiled.“IhavebeenthinkingofrobbingtheFirstBankofJonesville...”
DavidgrowledandpunchedKaiinthearm.“Anything,aslongasitwon’tget
mearrested,asshole.”
Kaigrinned,heldouthishand,andDavidacceptedit,pullinghimselftoward
Kaiforahug.
“Ifyouareeverfeelingalone,textme,OK?”Davidsaid,oncehe’dpulledback,
hisfacethemostseriousithadbeensincehe’darrived,conveyingthathemeantmuch
morethanthefewsignsdidonthesurface.“Anyday.Anytime.YouknowIwon’task
questions.”
Kaifelttearsspringingupagain.Dammit.He’dprobablycriedmoreinthepast
threemonthsthanhehadinhisprevious20+years.Hehurriedlywipedhiseyes,sucked
274
inabreath,andnoddedenthusiastically.HefeltDavid’shandsqueezehisshoulder,pat
hischeek,thenthebedshift.WhenKailookedup,finallymanagingtoregainsome
semblanceofcontrol,Davidwasgone.
Kaiwasstillfightingnausea,despitetheZofran,andhewasbeginningtofeelrestless
andirritable,sweatbreakingoutonhisforeheadandbackeventhoughhewaschilled.
Hethrewthebookhe’dbeentryingtoreadacrosstheroom;focusingonthetextonly
madethenauseaworse.
JoncamerushinginjustasKaiwastryingtoseeifhecouldpullthetapeoffhis
wristwithoutunwindingit.“Kai,calmdown,”Jonsaid,puttinghishandsonKaitostill
him.Heglancedattheclock,thenatKai’seyes.“Guessit’stimeformoredrugs.”
“I’mfuckingsickofbeingdrugged,”Kaisaid,pushingagainstJon,makinghis
brotherstumble,thoughhedidn’treleasehishold.
“I’dnormallysayit’swaytooearlyforyoutobehavingwithdrawals,but
nothingsurprisesmewithyou.”JonyankedthecollarofKai’sT-shirtoverhisshoulder,
exposingskin,whichhewipedquicklywithanalcoholswabbeforeinjectinghim.
“Valium.Hopingtogetyouweanedoffitsoonthough,”hesaid,cappingthesyringe.He
feltKai’sforehead,frowned,butsaidnothingelse.Instead,hehandedKaihiscell
phone.“Renee’sbeentextingandcallingyousinceyesterday.Ithinkyoushouldtalkto
her.”
“AndwhatthefuckamIsupposedtotellher?”
Jonhadcrossedtohiscloset,whichheopened,reachingupforoneofthe
Ziplocbagsofmedshe’dstashedthereasaprecaution,probablywhileKaiwassleeping.
HeturnedtofaceKaiashedugthroughthebag.“Idon’tknow.You’reabetterliarthan
me.”
KaiglaredatJonasheusedhisgoodhandtoscrollthroughhismissedcalls,
voicemailnotifications,andtextmessages.Jonwasright:Reneewasworriedthathe
hadn’tcommunicatedwithhersinceThursdaymorning.Apangofguilthithim,shortly
followedbyaflashofinspiration.HecouldtellheraboutrunningintoNikki,andmake
upastoryaboutgivingintotemptationandsleepingwithher.Consideringhowbiga
dealithadbeenforReneetotrustKailikethat,certainlythatwouldgethertohatehim
enoughshe’dneverwanttoseehimagain.He’dkeephissecrets,andhe’dprotecther
(andhimself)frominevitablefuturecatastrophe.
ButKaihadpromisedReneehewouldn’thurther,andevenifitwashurting
hertopreventabiggerpain,Kaicouldn’tdoit.Infact,theideathathe’deventhoughtof
itmadehimsodisgustedwithhimself....
Jonwasdistracted;apparentlythefirstbaghadn’thadthedrugshewas
lookingfor.Kaihadenoughstrength,evenwiththemusclerelaxant,whichwas
beginningtohithisbloodasasubtlewavethroughouthisbody,toripouttheIVcath,if
hewasdeterminedenough.
“Fuck,”Kaisaid,hisvoiceforeignsounding.
Jonimmediatelydroppedwhathewasdoing,obviouslyhearingthefrustrated
anguishinhisbrother’svoice.“Kai...?”
Kaiwasbreathingheavily,thedoseofValiumJonhadinjectedhimwithnot
enoughtoreallyaffecthim,sinceitwasprimarilytopreventwithdrawal.“Talkme
down.Talkmedown,”Kaimutteredfrantically,pressingonthepointwheretheneedle
enteredhisskin,thejoltofpainshootingdownintohishandanduptowardhiselbow.
Jon’seyeswidened,buthesankontothebed,grabbingKai’shandsand
275
holdingthemtightly,asmuchforreassuranceastoassureKaiwouldn’tdoanything
stupidwiththem.“Talktome.”
Kaisqueezedhiseyestight,clenchedhisteeth,tryingtowillthenegative
thoughtsaway.“Whyareyouhere?”
Kai’squestionseemedtocatchJonbysurprise.“What?Whatdoyoumean?”
Kaiopenedhiseyes.“Imean,whyareyougivingupyourtimewithVickyto
makesureIdon’tkillmyself?Whydoyoucareaboutme?”
JonlookedatKailikehewascrazy,which,despiteDr.Miller’sinsistence,he
knewhewas.“Becauseyou’remybrother.Andyouneedme.”
“EvenaftereverythingbadI’vedone?EventhoughIliedtoyouaboutmy
breathing?Eventhoughthecommitteeisgoingtovoteagainstyou?”
Jonsighed.“Kai,wewentoverthisalready.It’sfine.Iforgiveyou,andthe
committeeisn’tyourfault.LetmefinishgettingyousomeXanax,OK?”
Kaishookhishead.“I’msofuckingworthless,”hesaid,tryingtopullhishands
away.Hewantedtotuckhislegsup,buryhisfaceinhisknees,screamintothemuntil
helosthisvoice,butJonwouldn’tletgo.“IpromisedReIwouldn’thurther.Shetold
meImakeherfeelsafe.Shetrustsme.ButIwillhurther,Jon.You’reright;Iam
selfish.”
“Kai—”
“Iam,”Kaishouted,realizinghewashystericalbutnotabletocontrolhimself.
“Iam.Becauseapartofmewouldratherripherheartoutrightnowthanrisksubjecting
hertothis.”Kaibrokedownintosobsthatweremorejerksofhischestthantruetears,
likehisbodywasbattlingitselfasmuchashismindwas.Hefeltliketearinghimself
apart,likethemomentarylullhe’dexperiencedearlierhadbeennothingbuta
hallucinatorydream.
Thiswashisnewreality.
Kaididn’tevennoticethatJonhadreleasedhishands,sincetimeseemedto
havedisappeared.Hewastrappedinthisout-of-controlworldinwhichhewastoo
chickenshittotalktothewomanheloved,wherehe’dratherhurthertoprotecthimself
thantellherthetruth.Andknowingthatabouthimselfmadehisself-loathinggrow
exponentially.
Ifhewasquick,hecouldyankoutthecath;theneedlewouldbesmall,butifhe
jabbedwithenoughforceinjusttherightspot....
“Jon,”Kaisaiddesperately.
“Here,”Jonsaid,practicallyshovingpillsintoKai’smouthwithonehandwhile
hesecuredKai’swristswithhisother.“Swallow.”Jon’stonewasuncharacteristically
commanding.
Kaidryswallowed,thepillswantingtosticktohistongue.Hewishedthey
workedinstantly;hispulsewasracinginhisthroat,hismindwasspinningwithallkinds
ofconflictingthoughts,andaboveitall,hestillwantedtohurthimself.Asifdoingso
wouldsomehowreleasethenegativityandinsanitylikewaterleakingfromaspigot.
“Kai,”Jonsaid,holdingKai’sheadtoforcehimtomakeeyecontact.“Youare
notworthless.Youarenotunlovable.Icareaboutyou.Davidcaresaboutyou.Renee
caresaboutyou.Repeatafterme,‘Iamnotworthless.Iamnotunlovable.Peoplecare
aboutme.’”
“AndI’mgoodenoughandsmartenoughanddoggoneit,peoplelikeme?”Kai
snapped.He’dneverseenSNLgrowingup,butJakehadbeenahugefanandquoted
fromtheshowallthetime.Kaiwasso,soangry,mostlyathimself,butreally,itwasjust
276
moreemotionragingoutofcontrol,withnorealrhymeorreasonanymore.“Dammit,
dammit,dammit,”Kaisaid,reachinguptotrytobeathisfistsagainsthishead,asifthat
wouldmakeeverythingjuststop.
Jongrippedhisforearms,pullingthemawayandpushingKaidownonthebed.
ThepositionmadeKai’salreadyracingpulsespikeuntilitwasalmostallhecouldhear,
thunderinginhisears.“Kai.Calmdown.Closeyoureyes.Focusonyourbreathing,OK?
Idon’twantyoutothinkaboutanythingelseexceptthat.”JonreleasedoneofKai’s
arms,theonewiththeIV,andlaidhishandonKai’schestasheguidedhimthrough
slow,measuredbreathing.
Kai’smindkepttryingtoscreamathimhowuselesshewas,triedtoremind
himofwhatafuckuphewas,ofallthepeoplehe’dhurtordisappointedinhislife.A
mockeryoftheCircleofForgivenessfromtheexerciseDr.Millerhadguidedhim
throughearlier.(Whichfeltlikeforeverago.)Aringofpeople,somenotevenclearfaces,
circlinghimandshoutingepithets:disgusting,worthless,retard,selfish,freak.
Darkness.Thosewords,muffled,comingthroughalockedbathroomdoor.
Then,suddenly,hisperspectiveshiftedandhefeltthecold,hardmetalofa
lockerupagainsthisback,hisarmspinnedastheywereheldoutathissides,crucifixion
style.
“Theyshouldn’tallowretardsandfreaksinthisschool,”Jeremysaid.Thehigh
schoolbullystillhadbruisingaroundhishealingbrokennoseandglaredatKaiwith
killereyesfullofloathing.
“Thenwhatareyoudoinghere,asshole?”Kaispokethewordsslowly,proudhe
gottheEnglishrightandthepronunciationclearonthefirsttrydespitethefactthathe
wasstrugglingtobreathe,onthebrinkofanasthmaattack,thepositionnotdoinghim
anyfavors.
Thefirstpunchtohisgutsnappedhimbacktoreality.
Sortof.
“Don’ttouchme!Don’tfuckingtouchme!”Kaiscreamed,jerkingviolently
awayfromJon.
Heheardacrashandacurse.
Kaiwasbreathingheavily,hiseyeswild,searchingtheroom,tryingtofigure
outwherehewas.Notthebathroom.Notthehighschool....Jon’sroom.Jon’sroom,
heremindedhimselfashepulledhislegstowardhischest.Hewasshakingnow,
practicallyvibrating.Hedippedhisforeheadtohiskneesandrockedhimself,willingit
alltostop.Tojuststop.Juststop.
“Kai.Areyouthere?Canyoutalktome?”
KailiftedhisheadandsawJon,hoveringnearthebed,thoughhewaskeeping
asafedistance,hishandonhisface.Whenhedroppedit,Kaicouldseeabruisealready
beginningtoformonhisbrother’scheekthatcouldpotentiallyturnintoablackeye.
Kai’seyeswidened,freshtearsspilled.“Oh,fuck.Oh,fuck,”hemutteredasherealized
hehaddonethat.WhatifthathadbeenRenee?Shewassotiny.Whatifhewaswithher
andhefreakedout?Hecouldhurther.Hecould...killher.“OhGod,Jon.I’msorry.”
Jondidn’tsayanything;hejustwatchedKaiwarily,notthatKaicouldblame
him.Theself-loathingofearliersurgeduntilitwasoverwhelming,almostlikeapoison
gasfillinghislungsandcuttingoffhisair.Kaicurledupintoatightball,usingonehand
tokeephislegstuckedtohischestandhisothertoburyhisheadinhisknees.Maybeif
hewilleditstronglyenough,he’ddisappear.
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VickylistenedtothesoundofthewaterinJon’sbathroomasheshowered,takinga
hesitantseatononesideofJon’sbed.Kailayonhisside,curledintothefetalposition,
deepinadrug-inducedsleep,barelybreathing,thoughhedidn’tlookrelaxed.Hisface
wasalmostpained,hisnosetwitching,hiseyesmovingbehindhislids,likelyhaving
nightmares.Despitethestubbleonhischeeks,likethisshewasremindedhowvery
youngKaiwas,almostyoungenoughtobeherson,andshecouldn’thelpthinkingof
Andrew.Partofherwantedtoreachupandnudgesomeofthesweat-drenchedbangs
offhisforehead,butJonhadwarnedhernottotouchKai.
Jonhadrefusedtogointodetail,respectingKai’sprivacy,buthehadexplained
thatKaihadbeenhavingsomeproblemswithhisnightmaresbleedingintoreality,
whichwaswhyKaihadattackedJoninthefirstplace.It’salsowhyJonhadaskedVicky
tobravetheBlackFridaycrowdsheknewshehated(evenifitwasayearlytraditionfor
manyofherfemalecousinsandafewofhersisters)tobuyastrangeassortmentofitems
forKai,tohelpgroundhiminreality.
“Kai,”Vickysaidinalowvoice,partofherwonderingifshewasacowardfor
speakingtohimwhilehewasunconscious.ButJonhadinsisteditwasbetterifshe
wasn’taroundKaiforafewdays,andshe’donlystayednowtogiveJonachanceto
shower,shave,andeatwithoutworryingaboutleavingKaiunsupervised.
Vickystretchedherhandoutonthebed,herfingersrestingonlyafewinches
fromKai’s.“I’msorry,”shesaid,focusedontheirfingers.“I’msorryifI’mtoblamefor
anyofthis.IknowhowimportantJonistoyou,andviceversa,andItrynottobeselfish
withJon,but...”Shetookinaharshbreath.“It’shard,withthebaby,youknow?”
Vickychuckledsoftly.“Ofcourseyoudon’tknow.Howcouldyou?Ijust...Iloveyour
brother.Verymuch.AndIwantthisbaby.Iwantmyownfamily.AndIguess,foralittle
whileIthought...”Vickyshookherhead,rolledhereyesatherself.“It’ssilly,butI
guess...Iwasjealousofyou.IthoughtJonlovedyoutoomuch.Thathecouldn’thave
roominhisheartformeandthebaby.”Vickytuckedsomestrayhairthathadfallenout
ofherbraidbehindherear.“ButIrealizedlovedoesn’tworkthatway.Especiallyfor
someonelikeJon.Themoreyoulove,themoreyoucanlove.SoIhopeyouwon’tseeme
asstealingJonfromyou.Instead,Ihopeyou’llseeitasyourfamilygrowing.”
Kai’seyesopenedslowly.Hefeltheavy,lightheaded,andutterlyexhausted,butthatwas
parforthecourse.Eventhoughtheykeptthesedationlight,athisrequest,andeven
thoughhewasonthemostleak-freetrachetubetheyhad,therewasnogettingaround
thefactthathislungscouldbarelykeephisbloodoxygenated,evenwiththemachine
endlesslypuffingawayforhim.
Everypartofhimhurt,atinglingnumbnessfromnervesangrilycryingout
againstthelackofoxygen,andoneofthedoctors—Kaicouldhardlykeepthemstraight
anymoreifitwasn’tDr.J—hadexplainedhiskidneyswereprecariouslyclosetoshutting
down.Andanother,thathisheart—whichhadalwaysbeenhealthy—wasbeginningto
feelthestrainofoverwork.Kaihadtechnicallybeendyingforyears,butnowitwas
morerealthanever.Hewastired,andhewasreadyforthisalltofinallyend,butatthe
sametime....
Hewasafraid.
Kai’slifehadn’tbeenterriblywonderful,andthebriefmomentofhappiness
he’dfoundwithBeccahadbeenshatteredweeksago.Hereallyhadnothingtoliveforor
lookforwardto,andyet....Hewassovery,veryafraid.
Andtheworstpartwashecouldnever,wouldnever,admitthattoanyone,
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includingandespeciallyJon,andthatmadehimfeelsoachinglyalone.
“Hey,”asoftmalevoicewhispered.
Kai’sheadthrobbed.Beforeheopenedhiseyes,hewasassaultedbythestrong
scentoffragrant,burningwood,followedbythewhineofviolins.Vivaldi?Tchaikovsky?
Beethoven?JonhadexposedKaitosomeoftheclassicalstandardswhilewaitingforhis
transplant,buthehonestlycouldn’trecognizeacomposerbasedonthetune,exceptifa
particularsymphonyorconcerto(orwhatever,hedidn’tknowwhatthedifferencewas)
wasfamiliar.Hefeltalargehandsmoothinghisarm,thenplacingsomethingroughin
hisgrip.Confused,hefinallyraisedhislids,hisvisionalittleblurryandhazyfromthe
lingeringdrugs.Hesawwhatlookedlikesomekindofprojectionnightlightcastinga
faintpatternofrotatingstarsononewall.Maybeitwasthedrugs,buthefoundhimself
entrancedbyit.
“Youwithme?”
Kaiblinkedslowlyafewtimesbeforeguidinghiseyestowardthevoice.Kai
realizedhelayonhisside,carefullyarranged,andJonsatontheedgeofthebed.He
lookedbetterthanKairemembered,alittlemorerested,notsohaggard.He’dshaved,
andprobablyshowered,fromthelookofhishair,whichseemedlikehe’dwasheditbut
forgottentobrushit.Kai’sstomachstillroileduneasily,andhewonderedifitwasthe
smellnothelpingmatters.HisfingersbrushedalongtheobjectJonhadplacedinhis
hand.Hehonestlydidn’tknowwhatitwas;itwasalmostlikeascouringbrush,but
aboutafootlong,withastringononeend,andmadeofasofter,plasticmaterialthat
stretchedifhepulledonitbutwasroughwhenherubbeditbetweenhisfingers.Again,
maybeitwasthedrugs,buthefoundhelikedthefeelofit,thewaythefibersshiftedas
hefiddledwithit.ItmightbeaniceproptotaketohissessionswithDr.Miller,he
thoughtidly.Hisbrowsfurrowed.Howmuchtimehadpassed?Theclockacrossthe
roomrevealedthetimeasnearlyeight,whichmeanthe’dlostalmosthalfadaysincehis
lastfreakout.Unless...wasitstillFriday?Hadhealreadytakenhisnightlymeds?
Everythingwasablur.
“Kai?”
Kaiforcedhimselftolookathisbrotheragain,whohadturnedmoretoface
him,andthistimeKaisawtheredishpurplebruiseonhisbrother’scheek.Toofreshfor
Kaitohavelostmorethanaday,then.“AmIhallucinatingagain?”
Jon’seyebrowsquirkedup,butthenheseemedtorealizeKaiwasaskingabout
thestrangeobjectsandthescent.Incense,maybe?Kaihadneveractuallysmelledany,
buthehadreadaboutit.“Thisisalltohelpkeepyouinreality,sono,”Jonsaidwitha
friendlysmile.“It’spasttimetotakeyourmeds.Youuptoit?Itriedtowakeyouearlier,
butyouweretoooutofit.”
Kaihadavaguememoryofdreamingabouthisfinaldaysbeforehistransplant,
andtellingJonaboutDr.Fox,ofJeremybeatinghimwhilehewaspinnedtotheschool
locker,ofDavidvisiting,andVicky’svoicetellinghimhowmuchshelovedJon,though
hewasn’tentirelysurewhatwasrealandwhatwasn’t.Hemanagedafaintnod,andJon
helpedhimsitupslowly.
Kaitookhisinhaledmedicationsfirst,coughingmorethannormalafterward.
Foraminute,whilehewascoughing,hehadaflashofamemory:coughingviolently,
unabletostop,unabletobreathe,whileJontriedtohelphimandtheirmothershouted
atJontoshuthimup.Kai’seyeswidened,butdidn’thavetoolongtodwellbeforeJon
slippedsomethinginhismouth.
279
“Suckonthat.It’snotmedicine.”
Itwasstronglysour,anditpulledhimawayfromthesurprisememorybefore
turningsweet.Hechewedandswallowed,lookingatJon,confused.
“Wereyoustartingtogetlostthere?Didthecandyhelp?”
Kaiblinked,wonderingifsomethinginhisfacehadshowedtoclueJonin.He
nodded.
“Good,”Jonsaid,soundingbothhappyandrelieved.“Here.”HeofferedKai
severalpills,allofwhichKairecognizedexceptforone.
“Whatisthat?”
“Celexa.ItalkedwithDr.Millerwhileyouwereout,andweboththinkyou
shouldstartitnow.”
Kaifrowned,pluckingallthepillsbutthatoneandswallowingthemwithafew
drinksofGatoradethatJonofferedhim.“I’malreadynauseousenough.”
Jonsighed.Helookedsad.“Iknow,Kai.ButIdidsomeresearchonitwhile
youweresleeping,andItalkedtoDr.Milleragain,andwebothagreeitcouldreallyhelp
youranxiety,andmaybe,long-term,yourdepression,bothofwhichcouldhelpwith
yourPTSDsymptoms.”
Kai’seyesfurrowedangrily,buthisemotionsdidn’tswirloutofcontrol.Hejust
felthungover,dizzyandsick.“DidIhallucinatehertellingmeshedidn’twanttostart
meonadrugtocontrolmysymptoms?”HethoughtherememberedJonforcinghimto
talktoherafterKai...afterKaihithim,buthecouldn’tbesureanythingwasreal.He
frowneddeeply,theuncertainty,theinabilitytotrusthimself—inmorewaysthanone—
swirlingaroundinhisbellylikeanunhappybeast.
Jonsighedagain,moreexasperated.“No.Ididcallher,andyoudidtalktoher.
Butthatotherdrugwillmeanyouhavetogointothehospitalsinceit’llaffectallyour
othermedicationsandcouldpotentiallyputyouatriskforinfectionorrejection.The
CelexaonlyaffectstheZofranandtheMexitil,anditcouldstarthelpingyouwithinafew
days.”AtKai’scontinuedscowl,Jonadded,“Reneecomeshometomorrow.Ifyoudon’t
wanttoseeheryet,Icankeepherawayforafewdaysontheexcusethatshe’scovered
withgermsfromhertrip,which,honestly,istrue.Ifyoutakethisnow,maybeyou’llbe
moreofyourselfbythetimeyouhavetofaceher.”Jonpushedhishandwiththepill
towardKai.
Kai’sshouldersslumped.HemissedReneesofuckingmuch,yetatthesame
timewasterrifiedoffacingher,especiallysincehecouldhurther,notonlyemotionally,
butphysically,andhehatedhimselfforit.
JonpushedanothercandyintoKai’smouthandwaited.
Focusingonthetasteofthecandy,ontheincense,ontheweirdplasticloopy
thinginhishand,onthemusic,insteadofthenegativethoughtshelpedcenterhim,and
hetookadeepbreath.“OK,”Kaisaid,acceptingthepillandpoppingitintohismouth.
“Good,”Jonsaidwithastrangesmile,almostproud,maybe?“There’s
somethingIwantedtotalktoyouabout.Ifyouaren’treadytodealwithitrightnow,I
getit,butI’mhopingitmighthelpyoufeelalittlebetter.”
AhalfdozenpossibilitiesracedthroughKai’shead,thoughtheywereall
negative,soheknewhewasn’tright.“OK,”hesaidtentatively,decidingtotakeafew
moresipsofGatorade.
Joncardedhisfingersthroughhishairafewtimes.“Iknowyou’renervous
aboutVicky’spregnancy,andhowthat’llchangethingsbetweenus....ItalkedtoVicky
aboutitalittle—don’tgetmad,please,letmefinish—andsheofferedtomodifyher
280
house.”Jonletthathangforamoment.
Withthedrugs,Kaiwasn’thissharpest,soittookhimalittlelongerto
understandwhatJonwassaying.“Doesthatmeanshe...wantsusbothtomovein?”
Hisbrowsfurroweddeeply.
“It’sanoption.Youcouldhelpuswiththebaby.Wecouldallbeafamily,and
youwouldn’thavetobealone.”
KaishuttheGatoradesohecouldusehishandstopullhiskneesuptohis
chestandresthischinonthem.PartofhimwastouchedbythefactthatVickyobviously
caredenoughaboutJontobewillingtoputupwiththeparasitethatKaiwas,buthe
knewthiswaslikelyjustanotherrecipeforKaitodestroyJon’slife.Hewantedtosay
something,anything,buthecouldn’tevenseemtoformthetruthintowords.
“Ithoughtyou’dbehappy,”Jonsaid,soundingheartbroken.
Dammit.Evennotsayinganythinghewasfuckingthingsup.“Iruin
everything,Jon,”Kaisaidinasmallvoice.
“That’snottrue.Vickycaresaboutyou,too.”
Kailaughedandrealizedhewasfuckingcrying.Again.“Shebarelyknowsme,
Jon.Butshe’ddoanythingforyou.I’veseenthewayshelooksatyou.Andsheobviously
putsupwithalltheshitIcreateinyourlives,sothatrighttheresaysalot.”Kailethis
foreheadhithiskneeswithathud.“God,I’msosickofthis.”
HeheardJonsigh,andtheshiftofthemattress,andamomentlater,
somethingwasnudginghisshins.
Reluctantly,Kailookedupandsawastuffedfoxthatlookedeerilyliketheone
Dr.Foxhadgivenhimadozenyearsago.“What...what’sthat?”Kaiasked,barelyable
togetoutthewords.
“IknowI’msupposedtobegroundingyouinthepresent,but...Ithought...”
Jonpushedhisfingersthroughhishair,grippingthestrands.“Shit,itwasaterrible
idea,wasn’tit?I’msorry.Idon’tknowwhatIwasthinking.”
Kaiwasn’tevensurewhatexpressionwasonhisfaceashedroppedonehand
fromhislegsandreachedoutfortheanimal,cradlingitclosetohim.Itevensmelledthe
same,butforsomereason—maybebecauseofthemusicandtheincenseandthelights—
hedidn’tflashback.“Vickyboughtthis,didn’tshe?Andeverythingelse?”Kai’svoicewas
heavywithtears,thoughonlyafewescapedhiseyes.
“Ididn’ttellherwhy.Notreally,anddefinitelynotaboutthat—”
“Idon’tdeserveanyofthis,”Kaisaid,beginningtoloseit.“Ihurtpeople.That’s
whatIdo.”Hethoughthowifhe’ddiedlastyear,hewouldneverhavehurtanyoneever
again,buthedidn’tvoicethat,becauseheknewthatwouldhurtJonmorethananything
rightnow.
“That’snottrue.CallRenee.Ithinkyou’llfeelbetterifyoutalktoher.”
Kaitookafewminutestoregulatehisbreathing,togetthetearsundercontrol,
atleastforthetimebeing.Hesnuggledthefoxwithonearm,knowingitwasridiculous
butstillfindingitdisturbinglycomforting,andacceptedhisphonewithhisotherhand.
Takinganotherdeepbreath,hedialed.
Reneewascarefullywatchinghermawmawdropsquaresofdoughintoapotofboiling
oil.“Remember,thesecretisthetemperatureoftheoil.Ifit’snothotenough,the
beignetswon’tcomeoutright,andifit’stoohot,they’llburn.”
EvangelinewasconvincedthatReneecouldmakethebeignetsforKaiwhen
shegotbacktoJonesville,andhadspentachunkofthedayteachingher,including
281
makingthemfromscratch.ReneewasworriedenoughaboutmakingthemfromaCafe
duMondemix,letaloneifshehadtostartfromrawingredients.Still,shewasdoingher
besttopayattention,becauseshereallywantedtodothisforKai.
Reneewatchedthedoughsizzlingintheoil,barelyhearingherphonering
abovethenoise.Surprised(andhopingitwasn’toneofherhighschoolclassmates
hopingtohitthecollegebarsonherlastnightintown),Reneepulleditoutofherapron
pocket.HerfacelitupinasmilewhenshesawKai’snameonhercallerID.“Kai!I
hadn’theardfromyousinceyesterdaymorning.Imissedyou.”
“Hey,Re,”Kaisaid.Hisvoicesounded...off,somehow.Sad,maybe.
Sherememberedhisconfessioninthecarenroutetotheairporttheotherday
andwonderedifthathadanythingtodowithit.Still,shedecidedtobedelicate.“How
wasyourThanksgiving?”
“...Interesting,”Kaisaidafteralongpause.Hehesitatedagainbeforeadding,
“It’sbeenaroughcoupledays.”
PartofReneehurtthatKaiobviouslyhadn’tfelthecouldcallherandtalkto
heraboutit,butsheknewthat“beingforthcomingwasn’tKai’sdefaultsetting”ashe’d
toldhermorethanonce.“I’msorry.You’llseemesoon,though,right?Thatmakes
everythingbetter.”Sheletthesmilecomethroughinhervoice.
Kaisighedheavily,whichsurprisedandworriedher.“Actually,I...Ican’tsee
youforawhile.That’swhyIcalled.”
Renee’sheartfell.“What?”
“Betweentheairportandtheplanes,andbeingaroundsomanypeopleina
strangecity....”
“Oh.”EvangelinewaswatchingReneesurreptitiouslyassheremovedthe
cookedpastriesfromthepotwithawireskimmer,settingthemonpapertowelsnearby.
“Ihadn’teventhoughtaboutthat.Idon’twanttomakeyousick.”
Kaitookinasharpintakeofbreath.“Re...youknowIwouldn’thurtyou
intentionally,right?”Kai’svoicewaspained.
“Kai?”
“I...youknowItoldyouI’mcomplicated,right?”
ThatmadeReneesmilefaintly,thoughshewalkedfartherawayfromthestove,
concernchurninginhergut.“Yeah?”
“There’s...there’salotaboutmeyoustilldon’tknow,andI...”Hisvoicewas
trembling.
“Kai?What’swrong?”
“I’minabadplacerightnow,Re,”Kaiadmittedafteralongpause.Shewas
surprisedbyhowmuchemotionsheheardinhisvoice.“It’sprobablysaferforyouifyou
stayawayfrommeforawhile.”
“Idon’tunderstand.”
“Idon’teither,andthat’stheproblem,”Kaisaidinadefeatedvoice.“I’mso
sorry.”Shethoughtsheheardwhatsoundlikehimbreakingdownintotearsbeforeher
earsweremetbytheharshsoundofthedialtone.
Reneestood,bewildered,staringatherphoneforseveralminutes,tryingto
processwhatjusthappened.
“Sugar?Areyouallright?”
Renee’sbrowsfurrowedandsheshookherheadslowly.“Ithink...IthinkKai
justbrokeupwithme.”
Evangelineguidedhertoachairandsatdownbesideher.“Whatdoyoumean
282
you‘think’?”
“Itwassostrange.Somethingwasclearlybotheringhim.Hesaidhethoughtit
wouldbebetterifIstayedawayfromhim,andthathewassorry,andthathedidn’twant
tohurtmeintentionally.Ihavenoideawhathe’stalkingabout.”Reneeblinkedrapidly.
“IalreadytoldhimIacceptedeverythingabouthim,hishealth....”Reneeseemedtobe
talkingtoherself.
“Whatareyoutalkingabout?”
Reneesighed,fiddledwiththeapronstring.“Iwasgoingtotalktoyouaboutit
atsomepoint,buteverythingwastoohectic....Iguessnowitdoesn’tmatter.”
Evangelinefrowned.“Isawthewayhewaslookingatyouinthatphoto,hon.
I’msurewhateverhesaid,youprobablyjustmisunderstood.”
Reneewantedtobelievehergrandmother;afterall,Kaihadsungforher,
whichhe’dconfessedafterthefactwasnotsomethingheeverdid.Ever.Hewasstillself
consciousenough,he’dadmitted,aboutspeaking,letalonetryingtoputatunetoit.“I’d
doanythingforyou,”Kaihadtoldhersincerely.Maybehewassick?Hehadn’tsounded
likeit,butmaybethatwaswhyhetoldhertostayaway?Butthatdidn’tmakesense.
He’dspokenasifbeingaroundhimwouldbedangerousforher,nothim.Andhe’d
clearlybeenextremelyupset.
“Hon?”
Reneesnappedoutofherthoughtsandmanagedafaintsmile.“Kai...hehasa
neuromusculardisease,”shesaidbluntly.
“Whatdoesthatmean?”
Reneeleanedbackinherchair,shovingherhandsintoherapronpockets.“His
legsdon’tworkright,”Reneesaidsimply.“Heneedsbraces,andcrutches,too,
sometimes,towalk,orheusesawheelchair.”Reneelookedoverathergrandmother,
bracingforsomekindofcastigation.
“Isee,”Evangelinesaidwithanod,completelynon-judgmental.“Therewasa
boyIlikedwhenIwasyounger,beforeImetyourpawpaw,who’dhadpoliowhenhe
wasachild,andneededbracesandcrutchestowalk.Ithoughthewassointeresting,
though.Handsome.But,believeitornot,Iwastooshytodomorethansayafewwords
tohim.”
ThatcaughtReneecompletelyoffguard,andshefoundherselfremembering
theirnightatthemovies,howincrediblysexyKaihadbeen,standingsotallandstrong,
leaningonhiscrutches.Shesighedsoftlyattheimage,thoughawaveofsadness
overtookherwhensherealizedshewouldn’tgettoseeKaiwhenshegotback.Forhow
long?Didthatmeanhewasn’tgoingtocometoclass?
“Ibetyourparentswon’tapprove,butaslongashetreatsyouright,yourpaw
pawandIwon’tcareifhecanwalkornot.”
Reneetriedtosmile,butitwasweak.Shedebatedaboutwhethersheshould
explaintherest,butknewshehadto.HopefullywhateverKaiwasgoingthroughwas
temporary,andifso,shewouldwanttobeabletotalktohergrandmotherabout
everythingKai-related,andshedidn’twanttohavethisconversationoverthephone.
“Thanks,MawMaw.But...Kai...”Shestruggledtofindawaytoputit.“Kaialsohasa
lungdisease,andhehadatransplantlastyear.Sohe’shealthynow,buthehastotakea
lotofmedications,andhehastobecarefulaboutgettingsick.That’spartofwhyhe
calledme,totellmeIcan’tbearoundhimforafewdayssinceI’llbeallgermy.”
ThisinformationseemedtogiveEvangelinepause,andshespentseveral
minutesinsilencebeforespeaking.“Idon’tknowmuchaboutthesethings,butpeople
283
don’tlivelongaftertransplants,dothey?IthoughtIsawsomethingaboutthatonthe
news,orPBS,orsomething.”
Reneesighed.“Hewarnedmebeforewegotseriousthathecouldgetreally
sick,andhecoulddie,buthealsomightnot.ItoldhimIwantedtotakethatrisk.”
Reneehesitated,twistingthefabricofherapronaroundandaroundherfinger,making
aspiralshapethatremainedevenaftersheletitgo.“Ilovehim,MawMaw.”ThenRenee
suddenlyburstintotears.
“Shh,”Evangelinewhispered,pullingReneeintoahug.“It’llbeOK.It’llallbe
OK.”
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November25,2000
Jonhadtried,onceagainunsuccessfully,togetKaitoshower.Itwasn’tevensomuch
thatthebathroomscaredhim(though,honestly,he’dstillbeenavoidingit,notwanting
topresshisluck),justtheweightofdepressionthathadsettledonKai’sshoulders.He’d
mostlysleptthroughthenightbecauseofheavysedation,whichhadlefthimtrappedin
anendlessstreamofnightmares,bitsandpiecesofmemorymergedwithstrange
metaphorandvisionsofhimselfhurting,orevenkilling,Reneebymistake.Whenhe’d
finallybeenpulledoutofsleepforhismorningmeds,itwasasifhehadn’tsleptatall,
andhefeltevenworseabouthimselfthanhehadafterhanginguponReneethenight
before.
KaihadthenenduredJon’slectureabouthowKaiwasgoingtogetserious
cutaneouscandidiasis(essentially,Athlete’sfootalloverhisskinbecauseofhis
immunocompromisedcondition),whichcouldturnsystemicifhedidn’twashhisbody.
AfterKai’scontinuedapathy,evenafterthreatsthatJonwouldwashhimhimselffailed
tochangeanything,JonhadtakentostrippingKaiandwipinghisskinwithan
antimicrobialwash.Undernormalcircumstances,itprobablywouldhavebeen
humiliating,butKaiwasabout250milespastCaringandheadingstraighttowardDon’t
GiveAShitat100mph.
“I’mnotshavingyou,”Jonhadtoldhim,andpartofKaihadwonderedifhe
couldfigureoutawaytoconvinceJontolethimshavehimselfwithoutwatchinghim
constantly.Heuseddisposablesafetyrazors,sinceitwasmorehygienic,butwhenthey’d
firstmovedintotheapartmentfouryearsago,Kaihadfallenintooldhabitsof12years
ofinstitutionallifeandhiddenthingseverywhere.Includingacoupleboxcutterblades,
oneofwhichwastapedtothebackofthemiddlerightdrawerofhisbathroomvanity.If
Kaihadafewminutesunsupervised,it’dbeeasytopullthedraweroutjustenoughto
extractit.
Kaiknew,inadimpartofhisbrain,that,liketheglassshardthedaybefore,
evenhavingthebladewouldbeverybadidea,buthewantedit,desperately,likeajunkie
needingafix.Hedidn’twanttokillhimselfwithit.Notthathecoulddoitrightnow
sinceJonhadseizedhismedsandputthemoutofhisreach,buttherewerealotmore
efficientwaystocommitsuicide,inhisopinion,thanslittingone’swrists.No,hejust
wantedtofeelthepain,tobleedoutsomeofhisguiltandshame.
Unfortunately,ithadn’tworkedthatway,sonowKaisatonthecouchinDr.
Miller’soffice,sullen,unshaven,hisstomachempty(he’dmadeanattempttoeatsoJon
wouldleavehimaloneonlytothrowitupagainalmostimmediately).JonhadlefttheIV
cathinKai’swrist,whichstillhurt,andvaguely,Kaiwonderedifhewasgetting
phlebitis,buthedidn’tcare.JonhadtapedthecathwellenoughthatKaicouldn’tpullit
outwithoutalotofeffort,buthecouldstillpressonitifhewantedtofeelalittlejoltof
pain.Whichhewasdoingrightnow.He’dbeensittingthereforatleastfiveminutes,
absentlypickingatthetapejusttogivehisfingerssomethingtodo.
“Kai,doyouwanttojoinus?”Dr.Millerasked.
Kaididn’tlookup.Heshrugged.“Whydoesitmatter?”
“Ifyoudon’ttalktome,wecan’tmakeanyprogress.Don’tyouwanttoget
better?”
Kaishookhisheadasheshruggedasingleshoulder,abandonedhiswrist
becausethatpainwasn’tenoughanymore.“I’mprettysureIbrokeRenee’sheartlast
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night,becauseI’maselfishasshole.”
Dr.Millerdidn’tsayanything.Oneofherpointedsilenceswhereshewas
waitingforKaitoelaborate.ButKaididn’tfeellikecooperatingtoday.Hisheadwas
throbbingfromtheZofran,whichhaddonelittletoquellhisuneasystomach,andreally,
hejustcouldn’tseethepointtoanyofthis.Heabsentlymassagedthesideofhis
foreheadwithhisthumb,pressinginandmovingitincircles.
“WhatdidyoutellReneelastnight?”Dr.MillerpromptedaftersherealizedKai
wasn’tgoingtosayanythingelse.
“Tostayawayfromme,”Kaisaidinadefeatedvoice,stillworkingonhis
headache.Jonhadn’tgivenhimthathighadoseofbenzosthismorning,butitwasstill
enoughthathisheadfeltheavyinadditiontotheache.Heshiftedonthecouchsohe
couldlazilydrapehisheadonthebackofit.
“Whatisthatsupposedtomean?”
Kaiscowled,butthatmadehisheadacheworse,soherelaxedintoafrown.
“DidyouseeJon’sface?Ididthat.”KaimetDr.Miller’seyesforthefirsttimesincethe
sessionstarted.“Reneeislike,fivefoot,one-hundredpounds.Icouldseriouslyhurther,
andnotjustemotionally.”Kaisighedheavily,givinguponhisheadache.Maybefocusing
onthethrobbingjustabovehiseyecoulddistracthimfornow.“She’sbetteroffwithout
meanyway.Everyoneis.”
Dr.Millerdidn’tsayanythingimmediately,butKaicouldhearherpen
scratchingagainstthepaper.Hewonderedwhyshebotheredwithhim.Onceitwasclear
Kaiwasn’tgoingtosayanythingelse,Dr.Millerspokeup.“Youdorealizethatyou’ve
essentiallydonetoReneewhatNikkididtoyou?”
Kaiblinkedatherbutremainedquiet.
“IthinkyouandNikkiweredrawntoeachotherbecauseyou’rebothvery
muchalike.Youbothneededescape,youbothdidn’tthinkyoucouldtrust.Andshe
decideditwouldbebettertorunthanpotentiallysubmityoutoemotionalandphysical
harmwhileatthesametimeshieldingherselffromhavingtosharetoomuchofherpast
withyou.Thatdoesn’tsoundfamiliar?”
Kai’sstomachknottedasherealized(asusual)Dr.Millerwasright.When
framedthatway,KaihaddoneexactlythesamethingasNikki,minustheadmissionof
love,thoughtheirlastnighttogetherhadprettymuchcementedthesentiment,without
words.“Fuck,”Kaisaid,finally,butitwasn’tangry.Hefeltsomeofhiscarefullycrafted
nonchalance,hiscold,dispassionate,protectiveframeofmindchipping.“Dr.M,I...”
Kaistruggledtobreathe.“Idon’tknowwhattodo.Yesterday...Ihardlyevenknow
whatwasrealandwhatwasn’t,”Kaiadmitted,lettinghisfrustrationandanguishseep
intohisvoice.“Idon’tknowwhattodo.”
Dr.Millershiftedherweight,andshesighed,butitwasasoftsound,not
exasperatedthewayKaiwouldhaveexpected,knowinghowdifficulthewas.“That’s
whyyou’rehere,Kai.SoIcanhelpyoulearnhowtodealwitheverythingandget
throughthis.”
Kainodded,broughthislegsuptohischest,holdingtheminatuck.
“Howmuchoftheseflashbacksanddreamsdoyouremember?”
Kaishrugged,squeezinghislegstopullthemtightertohischest.“Bitsand
pieces.”
“Canyoutalkaboutanyofit,oristhattoodifficultrightnow?”
Kailaidhisheadonhisknees.HecontinuedasifDr.Millerhadn’tspoken.
“Notjuststuffwithmyaunt.Allkindsofthings.Likemybrain’sbeenthrowingupall
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sortsofmemories,someofwhichIdidn’tevenknowwerethere.SomeofwhichI’mnot
even100%surearereal.”
Crossingherlegs,Dr.Millerasked,“Whatdoyoumeanbythat?”
Kailethislidsfallclosed,focusingonthecolorsdancingbehindthem.“Iwas
rememberingstufffromwhenIwaslittlelittle,beforemyparentsdied.Orfromright
beforemytransplantwhenIwasreallyoutofit.Orfromthehospitalaftermytimewith
myaunt.SomeofthatstuffIdon’tthinkIcouldpossiblyremember.”Kaibithislip
hard,thoughnotenoughtodrawblood,andforcedhimselftolookatDr.Miller
sincerely.“WhenIhurtJonyesterday,Ididn’t...Ithought...”Kaisighed.“Iwas
pickedonrelentlesslyinhighschool,especiallymyfirstcoupleyears.”
Dr.Millerwaswriting,butstilllookingatKai,noddingtosignalheshould
continue.
“Itwasn’tlikethatwasthefirsttimeI’deverbeenmocked.Therewereplenty
ofpeopleatJSDwhohatedmebecauseIwashearing,orteasedmebecauseofmy
crutches.EvenatCountyHouseIwasanoutcast.Buthighschool...”Kaishookhis
head.“Forgetit.”
“Kai,”Dr.Millersaidinhermildlyreproachfultone.Itmanagedtobefirm
withoutbeingmean,andsheuseditwhenevershewasn’tgoingtolethimgetawaywith
backtrackingorweaselingoutofsomething.
Kai’sheadachewasspreadingalongthebonefromonesideofhisforeheadto
theother.“Highschoolwasreallyhardforme.Iwasjustlearninghowtospeak,Iwas
separatedfromthelanguageandthecommunityIhadknownmywholelife.Andontop
ifitall,myMLSwasflaringhorrendously.TheMexitilmadewalkingdifficult,andgave
metheworstandmostconsistentchronicnauseaofmylife.”
“That’swhenyouwereflaggedforhavinganeatingdisorder?”
Kainodded.He’dmentionedit,inpassing,atsomepoint,whenDr.Millerhad
suggestedthathisstomachissuesmightbeatleastpartiallytiedtohisanxiety.“Eating
DisorderNotOtherwiseSpecified,”Kaisaidwithafrown,ashefingerspelledthe
acronymtostirhismemory,relatinghispreviousdiagnosis.“I’veneverlikedeating,but
notbecauseIhadsomeridiculousnotionthatfoodwasbadoranything.It’sjust...”Kai
shrugged.“EvenwhenI’mnotfeelingsick,Iguessthat’salwaysinthebackofmymind,
andit’shardtoreallylikefoodwhenyou’vespentsomuchtimethrowingup.”Heknew
hewasn’texplainingitwell.
“IthinkIunderstand,”Dr.Millersaid.“Jontoldmeyouhaven’tbeeneating.”
Kaireflexivelytouchedhisnose,thenhiswrist,wherethecathwas.“Ijust...
can’t.Mystomachwon’tsettle.It’seasierempty.”Hisstomachgurgledangrily,
painfully,asiftopunctuateitsdisagreement.
“It’seasier,likeit’seasiertostaydruggedsoyousleepthroughyour
problems?”
Kaishookhishead.“LastnightIwassoheavilydruggedIdidn’twakeup,but
thatdoesn’tmeanIdidn’thaveastringofnightmares.”Kaicoveredhisfacewithone
hand,theotherarmstillhugginghislegs.“I’msofuckedup.IattackedJonbecauseI
thought...Ithoughthewasthiskid,Jeremy,fromhighschool.He...weusedtoget
into‘altercations’frequently,”Kaisaid,usingairquotes,hisvoicedrippingwithscorn.“I
don’tknowwhatthefuckhisproblemwaswithme.Maybebecausehereallywasn’tthat
bigaguybuthehadthiswholemachobullshitpersonahewastryingtoexpress,sohe
pickedonthekidthateveryonecouldagreewasafreak,andwhohefiguredwouldnever
beabletofightback.”
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Dr.Millerseemedreallyinterested,sinceallofthiswasn’tsomethingKaihad
evertalkedaboutwithherbefore.“I’mguessingyoudidfightback.”
“Fuckyeah,Idid,”Kaisaid.“Ineverwasgoingtowin,butIwasornery.Ifelt
worsethanshitmostofthetime,alwaysexhaustedfromhavingtodragmycrippledass
alloverthathugeschool,anditwasfuckingannoyinghavingtoputupwithJeremyand
hisfriends’crapconstantly.Doyouknowhowmanytimestheymanagedtostealthe
pinsfrommycrutchesduringclass?Itgotsobadtheteachershadtostartkeepingthem
leanedagainstthewallneartheirdesksduringtheperiod,whichleftmetrapped.Butat
leastIwasn’tfallingandmakingmyselflooklikeevenmoreofanasshat.”Kaiwas
beginningtogetangry,thoughitwasadifferentangerthanhe’dbeenusedtothepast
fewmonths.Thiswasmorelikeaslowburnthatradiatedoffhimlikeafever.
“Soyourauntwasn’ttheonlyonewhomanipulatedyourmobility?”
Kaisighed,whichwasmoreofagroan.Hisheadachewasalow,steadythrob
now,hisstomachswirling.HesuspectedDr.Millerwaspurposefullytryingtoleadhim
somewhere,andhereallydidn’twanttofollowthatbreadcrumbtrail,butthepast
coupledayshadmadeitpainfullyclearthatheneededtofiguresomethingout,soon.
“No,”hefinallyadmittedthroughgrittedteeth.
“OtherthanthisJeremy,whoelsemayhavedonethat?”
Kaipickedataloosestringonhissweats,notwantingtoanswer,notliking
howhecouldalreadyfeeltheintenseemotionsbubblingupinsidehimlikeageyser
waitingtoexplode.“IthappenedatCHsometimes.PartiallybecauseIdidn’thavemy
ownwheelchair.”Kaihesitated.Someoftheorderlieshadbeenrealsadisticassholes,
someofthemmoreovertlyabusivetothekidsthanothers,andhedidn’twantto
remember.Therewereothermemorieshedidn’twanttocallupnow,especiallysincehe
couldn’ttrusthisfuckedupbrainnottobringthemtolifebeforehiseyes.Kaisqueezed
hislidsshuttomimicthewayitfeltlikehischesthadcavedin.“Becca...”Hefinally
added,buthecouldn’tfinishthesentence,shakinghishead.
Dr.Millerbarelyseemedtoreact,asifshe’dbeenexpectingbothadmissions.
“Didyoueverhaveanyintrusivememoriesoroverwhelmingemotionsanyofthose
othertimes?”
Kaiopenedhiseyes,narrowedthematthedoctor.“Whatthefuckdoyou
think?”heasked,familiarangerwonderfullysurgingtoreplacetheself-loathing,fear,
anddespairthathadstartedcreepingup.
“Kai.”
“Noone.Notyou.NotJon.NotNikkiorReneeorDavidoranyoneablebodied
canunderstandwhatthat’slike,allright?No,Ididn’tstarthallucinatinglikeIhave
lately,butyeah,itreallyfuckinggottome.Isthatwhatyouwanttohear?”Kaifeltthat
indescribablesensation,thatchurningdeepinsidehim,thatcombustible,overpowering
rawemotionthatusuallyprecededfreakingout,bigtime,buthedidn’tfightit.Instead,
hejustrodeit,becausehehadtogetitout,hadtomakeDr.Millercomprehendwhat
shecouldnevertrulyunderstand.“ThatIcan’thelpthinkingthatifIhadbeenableto
walklikeanormalfuckinghumanbeingthatmyauntwouldn’thavebeenabletolock
meup?Thatmaybeshewouldn’thaveseenmeasso...repulsive?OratleastthatI
couldhavestoppedher?”Kaihadmoreheknewhewantedtosay,buthewasshaking,
almostvibrating,andhisthoughtswereracingsofasthecouldn’tquiteputthemall
together,letaloneintowords,andhejustscreamedinfrustration,needingsomekindof
releaseandunabletofindit.
Vaguely,heknewDr.Millerwastalkingtohim,tryingtosoothehim,buthe
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wasjustlost.Hewasgone.Hewaspinnedtothatbankoflockers,thehandlesdigging
intohisback,gasping,hisshouldersachingfromstrugglingtobreatheandfromthe
angleatwhichhewasheld,whileJeremyandhiscrewberatedhimandlaughedwhen
hetriedtocussthemoutinreturn.
I’mnotworthless,I’mnothelpless,I’mnotafreak.Kaikepttryingtotell
himselfthesethings,butitwasdifficultwhenhewashelpless,whenhewasafreak,
whenhewasworthless.Whenherealizedthatnoonereallygaveashitabouthimon
thisplanetexceptmaybe,inpassing,DavidorJakeorArtorJo.Butnoneofthemwould
reallycareifJeremykilledhim,eitherdirectlyorindirectly.Hewoulddieandhisbody
wouldbecrematedandthenthrownaway,likegarbage.
“Kai.”Thatvoicedidn’tfit—especiallysincenoneofthekidsatschoolever
calledhimthat,notwithoutmockingthewayhestruggledtopronouncehisownfucking
name.Howcouldhehaveeverknownwhenhe’dmadeithislegalfirstnamehow
fuckinghardthatslidingAtoIsoundwastomake?
“Kai.”
Kaiwaswaitingfortherealpunchestostart,theonesthatwouldstealhis
breathandmakehimhurlandprovehimevenmoreofafreak.Theonesthathe
somehowknewwouldlandhiminthehospital.Thatwouldcollapsehislungandbreak
hisribsandleavehiminexcruciatingpainforweeks.
“Kai.”
Jeremy’sfistmovedinslowmotiontowardKai’sside,Kaisqueezinghiseyes
shuttobracehimselffortheimpact,forthesearingpainofbrokenribs.Butsuddenly
somethingsoftappearedinKai’shands—whichdidn’tmakesense.Fluffy,smellinglike
artificialfur.How—?ItwassojarringthatKaiblinkedseveraltimes,andwhenhe
openedhiseyesagain,thehighschool,thelockers,Jeremyandhisganghadallmelted
awaytoDr.Miller’soffice,warmandinviting,andDr.MillerandJon.Hefeltlike
DorothyattheendofTheWizardofOz.
“Ithappenedagain.Fuck,”Kaisaidashecamebacktohimself,realizingJon
hadgivenhimthestuffedfox.Kaiwassittingonthecouch,hislegsspreadoutinfront
ofhim,hisheadreclinedonthetopofit,breathingheavily.Thoughpartofhimwanted
totossthetoy,tonotadmithowmuchhelikedthewayitfeltinhishands,howit
broughtupoldmemories,butnotintrusively;instead,theywarmedhimfromthe
inside,remindedhimthatnoteveryonewasbad,noteveryonemistreatedhim.That
sometimes,evenpeoplewhodidn’tknowhimwellcouldtakeafewminutestomake
himfeelbetter.
Dr.MillerandJonweretalkingsoftly,thoughKaiwasn’tentirelysureifitwas
tohimortoeachother,becausehewasstillnotentirelyinthepresent,hishead
swimmingalittle.Hesawahandwavingathim,andfollowedthebluroffingers,his
armsstillcradlingthestuffedtoyunderhischin.
“Youhere?”
Kai’seyeswanderedaroundtheroomagain,pickingoutfamiliardetailsofDr.
Miller’soffice,likeherlargemahoganydesk,thespiderplantnearthewindow,thefiling
cabinetstoppedwithbooksandmementos,thebookshelffilledwithtextbooksandself
helpbooks.Finally,henodded,butakerneloffearstillcoursedthroughhisblood.
“Doyouwantmetostaywithyou,orgobacktothewaitingroom?”
BothJonandDr.Millerseemedtobewaiting,calmly,forhimtoanswer.
“I’mgettingworse,”Kaisaidflatly,surprisedhewasn’tmorepanicky.Perhaps
theXanaxfromthismorning,perhapshisbodyjustcouldn’tproducethestress
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chemicalsinhighdosesanymore,hisglandsexhaustedfromthepastcoupledaysof
overwork.“Willthiskeephappening?”
Dr.Millersighed,signaledforJontositsinceKaihadn’tdismissedhim.“There
aretechniqueswecantrythatcanhelp,butIcan’tsnapmyfingersandmakeeverything
stop,Kai.”
Kaishookhishead.“Iknow.Ijust...there’snowarningsometimes.One
minute,I’mhere,andthenext...”Kairolledhisneck.Hefeltsoweary.Evenwhenhe
couldn’ttrustanyone,includinghisownbody,healwayswasabletomasterhismind,
hisemotions,hismemories.Andnowhecouldn’tevencontrolthat.“Ican’tstayinmy
roomforever,blastingmetal,burningsage,watchingaflashinglightshowwhileIchew
onsourcandyandcuddleastuffedanimaltotrytokeepmyselfgroundedinreality.”Kai
lookedatJon,whohadavoidedafullblackeye,thankfully,thoughhischeekwasdeeply
bruisedandpuffy.“Ican’ttrustIwon’tattacksomeone.ThatIwon’thurtmyself.
WithoutevenrealizingwhatI’mdoing.”Helookeddownatthelittlefox,whowas
smiling,andhefeltasharpacheinhischest.“Ithink...”Heburiedhisfaceinthefur
foramoment,inhalingthesmell,tryingtoclingtoagoodmemory,tohope,foronce.“I
thinkmaybeIshouldgointothehospital.”
Jonletoutanabbreviatedgasp.
“Idothinkthat’sthebestcourseofactionatthemoment,Kai.”
“Just.Promiseme...”Helookedoverathiswheelchair.“ThatIhavemyown
chairforwhenI’mnot...”Kaishuddered.“Restrained?”
Dr.Millernodded.Kaisuspected,thoughhedidn’treallyhaveanyevidence,
thatDr.Millerwouldhaveunderstood(aswellasanyonewalkingcould)whythatwas
soimportanttohim,evenwithouthisearlieradmissions.“Theywon’tbehappyaboutit,
butI’llseewhatIcando.”
Kai’sstomachcrampedupashelookedfromJontoDr.Millerandadmitted,
“I’ll...I’lltrytobecooperative,evenifIhavetodo...group.Idon’t...Idon’twant
thistobemylife.”
Dr.Millersmiled,andthatmadehisheartsoar,becausehecouldfeelthatshe
wasproudofhim,andasridiculousasitwas,thatwasimportanttohim.“That’sreally
good,Kai.Iknowhowdifficultthisisforyou.You’llhavesessionswithmedaily,butyou
willalsoseeotherdoctors,too.I’lltrytoseeifIcangetpeoplethatItrustwillbe
compatiblewithyou,tomakethisaseasyaspossible.OK?”
KainoddedandlookedtoJon,thenbackatDr.Miller.“WillIgettoseeJon?”
Dr.Millersighed.“Probablynot.It’lldependonhowlongyou’rethereand
whatyourdoctorsandIthinkisbestforyourstability.”Kainoticedshedidn’tsay
“recovery,”anditmadehimdoubthimself.
“DoyouthinkI’llhavetobetherealongtime?I...”Kaishivered.“IknowI’m
innoshapenowtogotoschoolanyway,but—”
“Thisisn’tlikethemovies.Youwon’tbethereindefinitely.Mostlikely,
consideringhowunstableyou’vebecomethepastday,I’dguessafewdaystoaweek.
That’llgivetimefortheCelexatowork,foryoutogetawayfromanystressfulsituations
thatmightbeexacerbatingyoursymptoms.”
Kainodded,huggedthefoxagainsthischesttightly.“I’mreallyscared,”he
admitted,notbotheringtodenyorhideit,feelingthattensionasanuncomfortable
tingleinhisbody,liketheacidthatwasgnawingathisstomach.
JonmoveduntilhewassittingbesideKai,pushingsomeofKai’shairoutofhis
faceaffectionatelyandstaringdirectlyintohiseyes.“Braveryisdoingsomethingyou
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needtodoevenwhenyou’reafraid,”Jonsaid.“You’rethebravestpersonIknow.I’m
proudofyou,Kai.AndIadmireyousomuch.”JonpulledKaiintoahug.“Iloveyou.I
neverstopped.AndIneverwill.OK?”
Kainoddedenthusiasticallyagainsthisbrother’sneckastearsbegantoblurhis
vision,squeezingJonbacktightly.“I’msosorryIhurtyou.Please...tellReI’msorry,
too,andI’lltalktoherwhenI’moutofthehospital.”
Jondidn’tletgo.“I’llpickherupthisafternoonandsitdownwithher.I’ll
explainthesituationasbestIcanwithoutgivingtoomuchaway.Allright?”
Kailetthesobbingtakehim,notfightingitthistime,clutchingJondesperately
asifhewerehislifeline,gratefulforthesecurewayhisbrotherheldhimback.
“You’llbeOK,”Jonsoothed.“You’llgetthroughthis.AndI’llcomevisityouas
soonasIcan.Ipromise.”Jonpulledback,holdingKai’sshouldersandkissinghis
forehead.“You’renotalone,Kai.Neverforgetthat.”
EventhoughReneeknewJon,notKai,waspickingherup,shecouldn’thelpthehopeful
flutterthansprangupinherchestwhenshesawablondheadabovetheseaoffaces.It
feltcrushingasshewoveherwaythroughthedepartingpassengersandeagerfamily
membersallstrugglingtocrowdintothelimitedspacetostayoutofthecold.Jonwas
reclinedagainstthewall,hishandsshovedintothepocketsofhiswoolcoat,anddespite
thefacialresemblance,otherwiselookingabsolutelynothinglikeKai,somuchitwasa
shock.Shenoticedthebruiseonhischeek,whichlookedincrediblypainful,wondering
ifJonwouldexplainitatsomepoint.
Henoddedather,strugglingandfailingatafaintsmile,beforeturningand
silentlyleadingheroutintothecoldparkinglot.ItbecameprettyobviousthatJon
wasn’tgoingtoattempttospeakovertheharshwind,whichatethroughherjeansand
nippedatherskin.Again,partofherhalfhopedtofindKaiwaitingfortheminthecar,a
waveofdisappointmentwashingoverherwhentheywalkedthroughthehandicapped
spotstowardthebackofthelot,whereJonhadparked.
Again,withoutaword,Jonunlockedthecarandclimbedin,soshefollowed,
sinkingintothepassengerseat,whichwaspushedasfarbackaspossible.Herheart
achedassheadjustedit,realizingKaiwasprobablythelastonetositthere,andthough
Jondidn’tseemlikehewasgoingtospeakanytimesoon,Reneecouldn’thelpsaying
something.
“WhathappenedtoKai?”JonhadonlysaidthatKaiwasinthehospital,and
probablywouldbeforaweek,thatJonwouldpickherupandexplainaswellashe
could.SoReneehadspentthelastdayworryingandwondering,stillpuzzlingoverthat
finaltelephonecallandunabletoreconcilehermindandheart.
Jonsighedashepulledoutoftheparkinglot.“Isyourroommatehomeyet?”
Thenonsequiturcaughtheroffguard.“Uh,sheshouldn’tbehomeuntil
tomorrow.”
“Good,”Jonsaidwithanodashemaneuveredontothehighway.“We’lltalkat
yourplace.”
Afterseveralmoreminutespassed,ReneerealizedJonwasn’tgoingtosay
anythingelse,sosheshiftedinherseatandforcedherselftofocusonthescenery,trying
desperatelynottocry.
“Coffee?”Reneeasked,gesturingwiththecarafe.
Jonstaredatitforalongmomentashemechanicallystrippedoutofhiscoat
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beforefinallynodding.Heseemedtired,distracted,buthewassostrikinglyunlikehis
brotherinsomanywaysthatshecouldn’treadhim.Itwasawkwardanddisconcerting,
becauseeverytimeshecaughthiminherperipheralvision,she’dexpecttoturnandsee
goldenhairandbrightblueeyes,strongarmsleaningoncrutchesandalopsidedsmile.
Instead,shesawafarlankier,narrowerframe,armsfoldedonhischest,grayeyes
distantandwheatenhairstickingupatoddanglesfromwhereherepeatedlycardedhis
fingersthroughit.
“Howdoyoutakeit?Themilk’sspoiled,butIhavesomeCoffee-Mate.”Renee
asked,andittookseveralrepetitionsbeforeJonfinallyresponded.
“Uh,justblack,thankyou.”He’dgonebacktoleaningagainstthewall,pulling
hisfingersthroughhishairoverandoverinwhatwasevidentlyanervoushabit.
Reneehurriedlypreparedeachcup,addingcoffeebeforethemachinehadeven
fullyfinished,dripshissingonthehotplate.“Let’ssit,”shesaid,offeringJonhismug.
Henoddedandwalkedtowardthecouches,longstridesthattookhimthere
quickly,thoughhehesitatedtosituntilReneehadcurledupinherfavoritespot,elbow
supportedbythearmrestasshecradledhermuginherhands.
Jongulpedthecoffee,seeminglyunperturbedbyhowhotitwas,finishingmost
ofitinafewswallowsbeforesettingitasideandtakingaseatdiagonaltoher.“BeforeI
begin,IwanttomakeitclearthatKaiaskedmetopickyouupandtotalktoyou,soIam
doingthisasafavortohim.Thatsaid,I’monlygoingtotellyouenoughsothatyoucan
understandwhatKai’sgoingthroughrightnow.Youcanaskmequestions,butIcan’t
promiseI’llbeabletoanswerthem.”JonpausedonlylongenoughtoseethatReneewas
listeningbeforecontinuing.“SomeofwhatIsay,andespeciallyinlightofthelastcall
youhadwithKai,mightupsetyouormakeyouangry,butIaskthatyouletmefully
explainbeforeyouletyouremotionstakeoverandstopyoufromlisteningtome.”
ItfeltstrangetohearJonspeaksomuchafterthelongsilenceofthedrive.“All
right,”shesaid,notsurewhatelsetosaytothat.Hergutwaschurning,andshefound
shecouldn’treallystomachthecoffee,especiallywithoutmilk,soshemostlyhelditfor
thewarmth,togivehersomethingtofocuson.Hermindcouldonlycomeupwiththe
worstpossiblescenarios—afterall,Kaihadwarnedherhecouldgetverysickatanytime
—thoughshetriedtotakeafewsteadyingbreathsandkeepherselfreceptivetowhatever
Jonwasabouttotellher.
Jonpushedhisfingersthroughhishairandsighed,asiftryingtoworkouthow
tobegin.“YouknowourparentsdiedwhenKaiwassix,andyouknowhegrewupinan
institution.”
Reneenodded.“CountyHouse.IwentwithhimonHalloween.”
Jonsmoothedhishairdown,speakingslowly.“AndyouknowKai;youknow
hetriestoactlikenothingbothershim,likehedoesn’tfeelpain,physicaloremotional.”
Reneerememberedtheafternoonwhenshe’dfinallyfoundoutaboutKai’s
transplant,howincrediblydifficultithadbeenforhimtotalkaboutit.Shealso
rememberedtheirHamletmovienight,howhehadobviouslybeeninalotofpainbut
haddenieditvehemently,insistingitwasn’tabigdeal.Howmanytimeshetriedtotake
backsomethinghe’dsaidorhidebypassingitoffasajoke,orbymakingfunofhimself.
Overthepastfewweeks,he’dgottenbetteratbeingopenwithher,butthosebehaviors
weresoingrained,itwouldtaketime.Timeshehadbeenwillingtogivehim.
“Ican’tgointospecifics,butKaiwentthroughthingsasakidthat...”Jon
seemedtobestrugglingtofindawaytoexplain,perhapswhilestillremainingvague.He
sighedheavily,reachedforhismuganddownedtherestofhiscoffeeinonegulp.“Do
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youknowwhatPTSDis?”
Reneeblinked,partiallydistractedbyheringrainedmannerswantingtoaskif
heneededarefill,butsheforcedherselftofocus.“Uh.Post-traumaticstressdisorder,
right?Isn’tthatthethingthatlike,soldiersgetandstuff?”
Jontracedhisfingeraroundthelipofhismug,focusingonitinsteadofher.
“Yes.Sometimes,whensomeonegoesthroughatraumaticexperience,theysequester
thememoriesandthefeelingsassociatedwithitsotheycansurvive.Butthismeansthe
individualneveractuallydealtwithhisproblems.They’restillthere,insomewaysworse
thanifthey’dbeentackledoriginally.”JonraisedhiseyestofinallymeetRenee’s,andit
struckherthatasdifferentastheywerefromKai’sbrightblue,thepalegraywas
disturbinglybeautiful,yetsad,likeadeadtreecoveredinfreshsnow.“Thinkofitlike
cleaningyourroom,butinsteadofactuallytacklingthemess,yousimplystuff
everythingintothecloset.Aslongasyouignorethecloset,youcanpretendyou’refine.
Butifsomethingmakesthatdooropenevenacrack,suddenlyallthatcrapfallsonyou
andcancompletely,totallyburyyou.”
ReneehadbeensurprisedbyJon’sattempttouseananalogytoexplain;from
thelittlecontactshe’dhadwithhim,andeverythingKaihadtoldherabouthim,she’d
expectedsomekindofsciencerobotwhoforgotthatnoteveryoneknewmedical
terminology.“Thanksforexplainingitlikethat,”shesaid,takingasipofhercoffee.
“Thatmakessense.”Shetookadeepbreath.“Soareyousayingthat’swhat’swrongwith
Kai?Hehadthisclosetandsomethingopeneditandhegotburied?”
Jonnodded.“Kai’sbeenhavingmajoranxietyproblemsforthepastfew
months,butitwasn’tsomethinghewasreadytotellyouabout.He...well,youknow
Kai.Heworriedifyouknewaboutthat,you’dthinklessofhim.Maybeevennotwantto
bewithhimanymore.”
“Iwouldnever.That’snot—”Reneeinstantlystartedtodefendherself,butJon
heldupahand,shakinghishead.
“I’mjusttryingtogetyoutounderstandwhyhekeptitfromyou.”
Reneesighed,sethermugasideandcurleduptighteronthecouch.She’d
noticedKaioccasionallygottense,distracted,andhe’dbeenasurprisingmessabout
theirmidterm,buthereallywasamazinglygoodathiding.Itmadeherangryatherself,
thatshehadn’tpickedupmorethatsomethingwasbotheringhim,butthenshe
rememberedhowgoodKaiwasatconcealingemotions.“Didhekeepitfromyou,too?”
Jonnodded.“Atfirst,yes.Heprobablywouldhaveletitgoevenlongerif
thingshadn’tworkedoutdifferently.Andeventhen,Ionlyfoundoutsomeofthedetails
afewdaysago.Again,outofnecessity,morethananything.”
“So...whatdoesthismean?Why...whyisheinthehospital?”
Jonabsentmindedlytouchedhischeek.
Renee’sthoughtsbegantorace,andshestrugglednottofreakout.Afterall,
Jonhadwarnedherthatshemightgetupsetprematurely.SomeofKai’swordsfromhis
lastphonecallsurfaced.“YouknowI’dneverhurtyouintentionally....It’ssaferifyou
stayawayfromme.”“Hehityou?”
Jon’sshouldersslumped,maybeinembarrassment,maybeindefeat,she
couldn’ttell,becausehe’ddippedhisheadtomaskhisface.“Kaihasn’tbeenwellthe
pastfewdays.Notentirelyhimself,”Jonsaid,lookingupwithawinceasifknowingthat
wasanunderstatement,butunwillingtosaymore.“Hedecideditwasbestforeveryone
ifhewentintothehospitalfortheweek.”
“Buthedidhityou,”Reneerepeated,notmakingitaquestionthistime,unable
293
topreventtheshiveroffearcoursingthroughherbody.She’dtrustedKai,despitehow
stronghewas,howmuchlargerhewasthanher,andalittlevoiceinherheadcouldn’t
helpscreamingthathecouldhavehurthertheothernight.JustlikeJude.Whatifhe
had?
JonseemedtoseetheemotionsclearlyonRenee’sface.“Iaskedyounottoget
upset.”Buthesighedwearily.Hepulledhisfingersthroughhishairagain,overand
over.“Kaicaresaboutyou,andthelastthinghewouldeverwanttodoisharmyouin
anyway.Thatphonecall—it’spartiallymyfault;Ithoughthearingyourvoicewould
helphim,andIpushedhimintoit—hejustwantedtoprotectyou.”Jonpulledatthe
strandsofhair,clearlyfrustrated.Hehesitatedalongmoment,pushinghimselftohis
feetandpacingrestlesslyinatightloopbetweenthecouchandcoffeetable,hishand
constantlyinhishair,asifheweredebatingsomethinginternally.
JustwhenReneewasaboutsaysomething,Jonstoppedsuddenly,lookedat
herdirectly,hiseyessincere,thoughstilltroubled.Onefoottappedthefloor,asifhe
wereimpatient,beforefinallysinkingbackdownintothecouch.Heletoutalongsigh
throughpursedlips,lookedupattheceilingbeforefinallydecidingtospeakagain.
“That’sallKaiwantedmetotellyou,but...I’mgoingtogoalittlebeyondthatbecause
Ithinkit’ssomethingyoudeservetoknow,soyoucanmakeyourownmindupabout
thewholesituation.”
WhenReneerealizedJonwaswaitingforsomeresponsefromher,shenodded.
“Thankyou,”shesaidinasmallvoice.
Joninhaleddeeplythroughhisnose,lookingworried,asifhewere
contemplatingchanginghismind.Afterseveralmoreuncomfortableminutes,he
continued,“Kaihasbeenhavingalotofintrusivememories—thinkofthemlike
particularlyvividnightmares,onlyhe’sawakewhentheyhappen.Andhehasn’talways
beenabletodistinguishbetweenthoseandreality.”Jonwincedagain,andwhenhe
lookedup,shesawinhiseyessomethingfamiliar,likehewasexpectingReneeto
immediatelyrejectKaiafterthisrevelation.“Hehitmebecausehedidn’tknowitwas
me.Hewasscaredandlostandhelashedoutreflexivelytotrytoprotecthimself....But
that’swhyhedecidedtogointothehospital.Sohecangethimselfbackundercontrol,
becausehespentmostofyesterdaynightterrifiedbythepossibilityofhurtingyou.”
Reneefelttearswellingup,andshestruggledtoblinkthemaway.“Willhebe
OK?”Shewantedtoask,“WillIeverbesafewithhim?,”butsheheldthatback.
Jonnodded.“Intime,yes.He’salreadybeenintherapyforseveralmonths,but
thisisn’tsomethingthatcanbefixedovernight,especiallysinceKai’sspentmostofthe
lastsixteenyearssuppressinghisemotionsandmemories.”
Despiteherworryandfear,Reneeasked,“WillIbeabletoseehim?”
Jonshookhishead.“Whilehe’saninpatient?Probablynot.Andpartofthe
reasonI’mhereistomakeyouunderstandthatifKaikeepshisdistancefromyoufora
while,it’slargelybecausehedoesn’ttrusthimself,andthoughIknowhemissesyou,he
doesn’twanttoriskhurtingyou.”
Reneenoddedasafewtearsdottedhercheek.“Tellhimtojustgetbetterfor
me,OK?AndthatIdon’tcareaboutanything.Ijustcareabouthim.AndImisshim,
andIwanttoseehimassoonashe’sready.OK?”
Jonsmiledfaintly,andwhenhedid,shecouldseemoreoftheresemblance.
“Kaicaresaboutyou.MorethananyoneelsesinceI’veknownhimasanadult.Whatever
happens,rememberthat,please?”Jon’sgrayeyeslookedparticularlysadforamoment
ashelethiswordssinkin.“Youmaynotbelievethis,butyou’regoodforhim.Ihaven’t
294
seenhimhappythewayhe’sbeenlately...”Jonshookhishead.“Sincebeforeour
parentsdied.I’mnottryingtopressureyou,becauseIknowthisisalottotakein,andI
havenoideahowKai...Idon’tknowwhatthings’llbelikewhenhe’sdischarged.But
hereallyneedsfriendsrightnow,peoplehecantrustwillbethereforhim.”Jondipped
hisheadandjustbreathedforseveralminutes,asifheweretryingtocomposehimself.
“Youhavemynumber,butI’llkeepyouuptodateifanythingchanges.”Jonpushedhis
waytohisfeet.“Thankyouforthecoffee.”
ReneestoodandwrappedherarmsaroundJoninaquick,gratefulhug.
ThoughhewasequallytallasKai,hisbodyfeltentirelydifferent;softyetbony,notthe
hard,leanmuscleshewasusedto.“Thankyoufortellingmeeverything,soI’mnot
worryingorthinkinghewasbreakingupwithme,or...youknow,”shesaid,leavingout
“feelingbetrayed.”
Jonpattedherbackawkwardly,clearlyuncertainwhattodo,beforefinally
steppingback.Hisfacetwitchedinanotherattemptatasmile,andhecardedhishair
onemoretimebeforegrabbinghiscoatandheadingtothedoor.
Beforehecouldpullitopentoleave,Reneerushedup,stoppinghim.Shetilted
herheadtolookupathim,needingtomeethiseyessohecouldseethesincerityinhers.
“Canyougivehimamessageforme?Whenyouseehim?”
AsubtlefrownpulledatJon’slips,buthenodded.
“Tellhim...”Reneesuckedinahugebreathasherheartandmindraced.“Tell
himI’llwaitforhim.”TellhimIlovehim,shethought,buthelditback;itwasn’tthe
kindofthingshewantedhimtohearsecondhand.“I’llwait.Aslongasheneeds.”
ThedoorclosedwithafinalclickthatcausedacoldsweattobreakoutalloverKai’s
body.Thenthelightsdimmed.Notpureblackness,butclose,definitelydarkerthanany
otherhospitalroomhewasusedto.Thankfully,Dr.MillerhadinsistedKaionlybe
restrainedifabsolutelynecessary,thoughhishandshadbeenslippedintothesepadded
mittstokeephimfromhurtinghimself.Themittskepthishandsopenandseparatedhis
fingers,takingawayhisabilitytogripanythingandanydexterityhemighthave,buthe
couldstillusehishandstoshifthisbodyinthebed,soitdidn’tcompletelystriphis
freedomofmovement.
Hehadmanagedtopushhimselfontohisside,albeitratherawkwardly,since
hecouldn’tgriphislegs,justkindofshovethemintoplacebypushingagainstthem.But
heatleastmanagedtomoderatelycurlhislegsupandfacethedoor,whichdidn’tdo
muchtoeasetheterror,butmadehimfeelalittlebetter.
TheIVcathinhiswristhadbeenremovedandreplacedwithaCVCinhisneck,
throughwhichaslow,steadydripofsomethingsedatingflowed.Enoughthatitkept
himfromgoingfullpanicrightnow,despitethefactthateverythingabouthiscurrent
situationwastriggeringhisphobias:thedark,thecloseddoor,beingseparatedfromhis
wheelchair,beingalone....Thatwassomethingelsehehadn’texpected.Thepsych
wardwasso,soquietcomparedtotherestofthehospital.Eerilyquiet.Perhapsthe
roomsweresoundproofed.Whateverthecase,thequietmighthavebeenenoughtokeep
Kaiawakeifitweren’tforthedrugs.Still,thedosagewasn’tenoughtoimmediately
knockhimout,andhewonderedhowlonghe’dliethere,trembling,hisstomach
knotting,tryingnottobeterrifiedandfailingdesperately.
Inadditiontothecath,he’dalsogottenanasogastricfeedingtube,thesame
kindhe’dkeptfeelingimaginarysensationsofthedaybefore,flashingbacktohis
hospitalstaywhenhewasten,andhekeptwrinklinghisnoseasiftoproveitwasreally
295
thereandnotanotherhallucination.Itwasannoyingandunpleasant,butarequirement
ofhisadmission,he’dbeeninformed,andpartofKaiwasgratefulforit,becauseit
meanthewouldn’tbeforcedtoeat,atleastforafewdays.Theovernightfeeding,plus
theIV,plusthefactthatevenKaididn’ttrusthimselfnottoloseitwasthereasonforthe
mitts,whichwereawkwardanduncomfortablebutbetterthanfullrestraints.Theywere
strappedsecurelytohiswrists,butnotlocked,andKaiknewifheweredesperate
enough,hecouldprobablyusehisteethtoloosenthedoublelayerofVelcroandbelts
enoughtopullahandout.Andtheywerepaddedonthepalmside,tominimizeany
kindofblunt-forceinjuryhemightattempttodowiththem,butagain,Kaiknewifhe
wereagitatedenough,lostinamemory,nothingshortoffullyrestraininghisupper
bodycouldstophimfromhurtinghimselforsomeoneelse.
Andthatterrifiedhim.
Thedarkness,theisolation,thequietallweighedheavilyonKai,suffocating
himashestruggledtotakeslow,evenbreaths,tofocusontheroughsheetsbeneath
him,onthefabricofthemittsbeneathandbetweenhisfingers,onthesilence,allas
waystokeephimselfgrounded,totrynottopanicorfindhimselfsuddenlyinthat
horriblebathroom.AstearstrailedfromKai’seyes,hisheartthunderinginhischest,his
bodytrembling,hewonderedifmaybehe’dmadeamistake.
EndSeason2.
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AppendixI:Faux-WikipediaEntry:FS
FS
FS,previouslyknownasFOXSyndromeorFailureofXcomponent,isacongenital
geneticobstructivepulmonarydiseaseofwhichlittleisknown.Neitherthemechanism
norgeneticsofthediseasearewellunderstood,andthereissomedebateinthescientific
communityastowhetherFSshouldbeclassifiedasadiseaseseparatefromother
pulmonaryconditionssuchasasthmaandcysticfibrosis.
Symptoms&Signs
TheprimarysymptomsofFSarereminiscentofsevere,brittleasthma,includingacute
paroxysmsofwheezing,chestpainandcongestion,accompaniedbyacorresponding
dropinforcedexpiratoryvolumeinonesecond(FEV1),usuallytheresultof
environmentaltriggerssuchasallergens,ozone,cigarettesmoke,andcoldair.However,
unlikemostasthmatics,FSpatientssufferfromgreaterperfusiondiscrepancies,often
sufferingfromsignificantdropsinoxygensaturation(SaO2)notnormallyseenin
traditionalasthma;infact,itisnotuncommonforFSpatientstohaveabnormallylow
(>90%)SaO2evenoutsideanexacerbation.Asaresult,clubbingdeformitiesofthe
fingersarecommonlyseeninFSpatients,asigntypicalofthosewithcysticfibrosis,but
notasthma.
ClubbingofFingers
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Althoughpsychologicalandphysicalstresshasbeendiscoverednottoplayarolein
asthmaattacks,theslightlydifferentmechanismofFSattackssuggestthatstressmay
affectexacerbationsofthedisease,lendingcredencetothehormonalmechanismof
diseasetheory(seebelow).
FSpatientsalsooftenexhibitexcessmucusproductionintheairways.Althoughthe
mechanismforthisisnotrelatedtoCF,theresultingsymptomsandsequlaearesimilar.
Theseincludeexcesscoughing,severechestcongestionanddifficultyclearing
secretions,andincreasedsusceptibilitytopneumoniaandfibrosis.
Airwaysnarrowedbyinflammationandexcessmucusincreasetheworkofbreathing,so
thatmanypatientsmustuseaccessorymusclestobreathe,andinadvanceddiseasewith
theadditionoffibrosis,maysufferfromfatigueoftheirrespiratorymusclessothat
mechanicalsupportmaybenecessary.Additionally,theseeffects(narrowedairwaysand
musclefatigue)sometimesleadtoaphoniaordysphoniainsomepatients,particularly
inchildhood.
Somepatientsalsoseemtoexhibitcertainhematologicalabnormalitiesthatmayaffect
bothoxygensaturationcapacityandimmunefunction,althoughitisn'tyetclearifthese
abnormalitiesarecomorbidconditionsorsymptomsofFSitself.
MechanismofDisease
TheexactmechanismofFSisunknown,althoughseveraltheoriesexist.Onesuggestsan
autoimmunemodel,inwhichdysfunctionofthepatient'sownimmunesystemisthe
causeofsymptoms.However,limitedstudiessuggestthatevenwith
immunosuppression,symptomsaren'tentirelyresolved,sothatitmaybepossible
immunologicalproblemsareonlypartiallyresponsibleforsymptoms.
Thesecondtheoryishormonal,suggestingthatsomeerrantfeedbackloopinthebody's
inflammatoryresponse(perhapscombinedwithaheightenedsensitivityto
inflammatorymediatorssuchashistamine)mightberesponsiblefortheasthma-like
attacksaswellastheexcessmucusproduction,althoughresearchinthisareaisstillin
theearlystages.
Diagnosis
Mostpatientspresentwithsymptomsofrespiratorydistressorrecurrentpneumoniain
infancyorearlychildhood,withmostpatientsdiagnosedaseithersevere,brittle
asthmaticsoroccasionally,withcysticfibrosis.
Becauseofthecomplicatednatureofthediseaseandthemysterybehinditsmechanism,
diagnosisofFSischallenging,anditisbelievedtobevastlyunder-diagnosed,withmany
asthmatics—particularlythoseexhibitinguncharacteristicfibrosis—likelybeing
misdiagnosedFSpatients.
298
Athoroughhistory,combinedwithpulmonaryfunctiontestsandbloodsaturation,
alongwithlungbiopsyandsputumanalysisarethebestmeansofarrivingatadiagnosis
ofFS,especiallyifcysticfibrosisandasthmacanberuledout.
Thephysicianwhoisfacedwithintractableasthma,particularlywhenassociatedwith
signsofchronichypoxia(suchasroutinelylowoxygensaturationandclubbing)and
recurrentpneumonia,mayconsideradiagnosisofFS.
Treatment
CurrenttreatmentforFSissimilartothatofasthmaandCF.Mostpatientsrespond
decentlytotraditionalasthmamedications,includingoralandinhaledcorticosteroids,
andshort-andlong-termactingbeta2-adrenoceptoragonists,anticholinergicagents,
deliveredviainhaler(metered-doseordry-powder)ornebulizer.Theophyllinehasalso
showntobeeffectiveinsomepatients.
FSpatientsshouldmonitortheirpeakflowregularly,aschangescansignalanupcoming
attack.Inaddition,manypatientsmaybenefitfromaportablepulseoximetertobealert
toanysignsofoxygensaturationchanges,evenbeforesymptomspresent.
Additionally,Amphigarol,thefirstmedicationapprovedbytheFDAtotreatFS,can
ameliorateexcessmucusproductionandhelpminimizeopportunisticpulmonary
infection.Somepatients,particularlythosewithmusclefatigue,maybenefitfromcough
assistance,eitherviamanualpercussionormachinetoaidinlooseningandexpelling
secretions.
Oxygen,deliveredviamaskorcannulae(orviatranstrachaeldistributioninmore
advanceddisease),mayalsobehelpfulineasingdyspneaanddiscomfortandresolving
cyanosis.
Inlaterstagesofthediseaseinwhichextensivefibrosishasleadtosignificantlung
dysfunction,andincasesofmusclefatigue,ventilatorysupportvianoninvasive(biPAP)
orinvasive(endotrachealintubation)mechanicalventilationmaybeneededinthe
short-orlong-term.However,becauseofthepropensityforexcessmucusproduction,
intubatedpatientsmustbecarefullymanagedandsuctionedfrequentlytoprevent
mucusaccumulationandplugs.
Itisstillunclearwhetherlungtransplantation(eitherasingleordouble-lung
transplant)canbebeneficialinthelong-termforFSpatients,asfewpatientshave
undergonesuccessfultransplantation.
Prognosis
BecauseFSpatientsaresusceptibletorecurrentpneumoniaaswellasfibrosis,in
additiontochronicallylowSaO2,lifespanformostisshort,withmanypatients
299
succumbingintheirlateteenstotwenties.Deathresultsfromasphyxiationasaresultof
anacuteattack,sepsisduetoinfection,organfailureduetoinsufficientperfusion,
respiratoryfailureduetobronchiolitisobliterans,orsecondaryheartfailureasaresult
ofpulmonaryinsufficiency.
Patientsmayexperiencesecondaryeffectsduetooxygendeprivation,suchasbrainand
organdamage,especiallyifnottreatedappropriately.
Dr.JonTaylor
AlongwithDrs.BenjaminJohnsenandDavidMacDonald,Dr.JonTaylorisresponsible
foridentifyingFSasadistinctconditioninthemid-90swhilestillafellow.Today,he
runstheJonesvilleMemorialFSClinicandResearchCenterinJonesville,IA,which
focusesontheresearchandtreatmentofthedisease.In2008,partiallydueto
additionalgrants,theclinicwasabletoopenitsownbuildingwithdedicatedlabsand
examroomstoexpanditsresearchandtreatmentofpatientswithFS.
Dr.Taylorandhisstaffwilldiagnoseandworkupatreatmentplanforanypatientwho
walksthroughtheclinicdoors,regardlessoftheirabilitytopay.
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AppendixII:Faux-WikipediaEntry:MLS
MLS
MLS,previouslyknownas“MuscularLatencySyndrome,”isacongenital,genetic,
progressiveneuromusculardisease.Althoughthemechanismofdiseaseiswell
understood(dysfunctionofacetylcholinesteraseattheneuromuscularjunction,see
below),thegeneticsarenot.MLStendstoaffectmalesmorethanfemales,soitislikely
sex-linked,butscientistshaven'tyetidentifiedtheexactgenesinvolved,andsuspectitis
probablyduetomultiplegeneticfactors.
Symptoms&Signs
Thediseaseusuallypresentsinearlychildhood,althoughduetoitsrarity,itisoften
misdiagnosed,orgoesundiagnoseduntillaterchildhood,asearlysymptomscanoften
bemistakenfor"growingpains."Childrenexperiencemusclepainandcramping,
usuallybeginninginthelowerlimbsandworkingupwardovertime.Painisoften
accompaniedbymuscleweakness,andultimatelyparalysis.Althoughearlyinthecourse
ofthediseasereflexesmaybeintact,overtimereflexesdiminishandultimately
disappearintheaffectedareas.
Mostchildrenneedsomekindoforthoticorotherwalkingaidearlyinlife,withthe
majorityusingwheelchairsbytheirlateteenstomid-twenties.
InstageIofthedisease,onlytheskeletalmusclesareaffected,usuallybeginningwith
thefeet,progressingupwardtotheankles,calves,thighs,hips,andthenarmsinadistal
fashion.Progressionisnotperfectlysymmetrical.Patientsexperienceparoxysms,often
precipitatedorexacerbatedbyemotionalorphysiologicalstress,inwhichthey
experienceasynchronous,asymmetricalfasciculations(musclespasms),often
accompaniedbymyotonia(delayedrelaxationofthemuscleduetooverstimulation).
Occasionally,spasmscanbesevere(andviolent)enoughastobeconsideredtetantic.
Especiallyintheearlystagesofthedisease,attacksareoftenfollowedbyextended
periodsofextrememuscleweaknessandhypotonia.Repeatedoverstimulationofthe
neuromuscularjunctionresultsindecreasedsensitivitytoacetylcholine,ultimately
leadingtoparalysisoftheaffectedmuscles.
InstageIIofthedisease,smoothmuscleandcardiacmuscle(aswellasthediaphragm)
areaffected,resultingincardiac(bradycardia),circulatory(hypotension),and
respiratorydysfunction(bronchoconstrictionandincreasemucosalsecretions),in
additiontoGIdisturbancesandincontinence.AsinstageI,thediseaseisprogressive,
withsomepatientslosingfunctionmorequicklythanothers.Onceapatiententersstage
II,lifespanisusuallynomorethanfiveyears,withmostdyingofrespiratoryorcardiac
failure.
301
MechanismofDisease
ThesymptomsofMLSarecausedbyadefectinacetycholinesterase,theenzyme
responsibleforbreakingdownacetylcholine,theprimaryneurotransmitterinvolvedin
musclecontraction.
Innormalmusclecontraction,anerveimpulseresultsinthereleaseofacetylcholine,
whichstimulatesthemuscletocontract.Acetylcholinesteraseisthenreleasedtorapidly
(andefficiently)metabolizeacetylcholineinordertoterminatethecontraction.
However,duetothedysfunctionofacetylcholinenesteraseintheneuromuscular
junctionofMLSpatients,acetylcholineisnotbrokendownefficiently,causingittobuild
up,resultinginoverstimulationofthemuscle.
Althoughacetylcholineisfoundinthecentralnervoussystem,itisunaffectedinMLS,as
thedefectisonlyintheneuromuscularjunctionsandacetylcholinedoesnotpassthe
blood-brainbarrier.ThisdistinguishesMLSfromotheracetylcholinesterase-deficiency
syndromesorneurotoxinpoisoningsuchasorganophosphatepoisoning.
HowthediseaseprogressesfromstageItostageIIisnotfullyunderstood,butitis
theorizedthatitmayhavetodowithadecreaseinqualityofacetylcholinesteraseover
time,perhapsduetosecondaryfactorsaffectingacetylcholinesteraseproduction.
Insomeveryrarecases,patientsactuallyproduceandreleasemoreacetylcholinethan
normal,exacerbatingsymptoms,andleadingtoseepageofacetylcholineintotheblood
stream.Inthesepatients,excessacetylcholinecanreachareasofthebodynormally
unaffectedbythedisease(atthecurrentstage),suchasthebloodvessels,heart,
diaphragm,andGI.Thesepatientsthusdon’tpresentaspurestage-Iorstage-II
patients,butratherasahybridofthetwoduringsevereexacerbations.Althoughwith
currentenzymetreatmentsthisformofthediseaseismoreeasilymanaged,itis
consideredamoreseverepresentationthantraditionaldual-stageMLS.
Diagnosis
Beforetherealizationthatacetylcholinesterasedeficiencywasthemechanismofdisease,
diagnosisofMLSwastricky,withmanypatientsbeingmisdiagnosedashavingcerebral
palsyorsimplymusculardystrophyofunknownetiology.Diagnosiswasoftenoneof
elimination,afterotherdisordershadbeenruledout.
Today,asimplebloodtestforacetycholine(alongwithhistory)isoftenenoughtomake
adiagnosisofMLS.
Treatment
Until2006,treatmentwaslargelydevotedtomaximizingfunctionandminimizingpain
throughphysicaltherapyandvariousmusclerelaxants(includingValium,Pavulon,
302
Mexitil,andDantrolene).Today,however,patientshaveaccesstoenzyme-replacement
therapy,whichhasrevolutionizedtreatmentofthedisease.
Muchlikeinsulinfordiabetics,MLSpatientscandosethemselveswithreplacement
acetycholinesterase,decreasingbloodandlocalacetylcholinelevels,andminimizing
symptoms.Earlystudiesindicatethatchildrenwhoarediagnosedearlyandwhobegin
rigoroustreatmentwithenzymereplacementcanminimizesymptomsenoughastolead
nearlynormallives.Sofar,earlyevidenceindicatesthatenzymereplacementcanvastly
extendthelifespansofthosewiththedisease,sincestageIIonsetisgreatlydelayedand
evenpossiblydivertedinsomepatients.
However,accesstoenzymetherapyislimitedduetotheinherentinstabilityofthe
enzymeanddifficultyinproducingitenmasse,meaningmanyMLSpatientsmustsuffer
withoutituntiladvancescanbedevelopedinitsproduction,distribution,andcost.
Manypatients,especiallythosesufferingfromtherarervariantinwhichexcess
acetylcholineisproduced,canbenefitfromalow-cholinediet,whichminimizesthe
body’sabilitytosynthesizeacetylcholine.However,acetylcholineisessentialforproper
nervefunction(andcholineisanessentialnutrient),andthuscannotbecompletely
eliminatedfromthediet.Likewise,duetotheeffectssevereshiftsofacetylcholinecan
cause,dosageofenzymetherapymustbecarefullymonitoredandadjustedtoprevent
untowardsideeffects.
Dr.IraSchwartz
ConsideredoneoftheforemostexpertsonMLSintheworld,hefoundedaresearchand
treatmentclinicinManhattanin1980,devotedtoresearchingnewtreatmentsforthe
diseaseaswellastrainingnursesandtherapiststoamelioratethelivesofthoseafflicted
bythedisease.Largelyduetoasignificantinfluxofprivatefundingin2005,Dr.
Schwartzwasabletodevelopanenzyme-replacementtherapy,thefirsttruetreatment
forMLS.Hecurrentlyhasexpandedhisclinictobothincreasetheamountofresearch
aswellasnumberofpatientsunderhiscare,andiscurrentlyworkingonanimproved
enzymetreatment.Inaddition,hisresearchersarecurrentlyexploringthepossible
geneticoriginsofthediseaseinthehopesofonedayfindingacure.
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AppendixIII:OnWritingASL
You’llseealotofASLinIn/Exhale,especiallyinSeason2.BecauseASLisavisual
language(withnostandardwrittenform),ithastoberepresentedinEnglishinsome
way.Ofcourse,youcanneverfullyrepresentASLinwrittenwords,butItrymybestto
conveythisbeautifullanguageasbestasIcan.
You’llseemedosoinseveralways:
1-Descriptionsofsigns.Thishappensoccasionallywhenwe’reinthePOVofa
characterwhodoesn’tknowASL,andI’mdescribingwhatthey’reseeingastheywatch
thesigns.Sometimes,they’llbeabletoclearlyseeindividualsigns,othertimes,notso
much.I’llalsousethisoccasionallywhenI’minacharacter’sPOVwhodoesknowASL
tohelpthereaderappreciatemorewhatthesignslooklike.
Example:“Drawthedrapes,”Kaisaidashesigned,makinganoutlineof
curtainsintheairwithhisspreadfingers,bringingthemout,thendown.
Next,heheldhishandsup,flat,palmsout,bringingthemtogethersohis
thumbstouched.
2-Descriptionsofbodylanguage/facialexpression.ASLisavisuallanguage,
andalotofitsgrammarandmeaningcomesfrombodylanguageandfacialexpression
(thesearecalledNon-manualSignals,orNMS).Forexample,eyebrowpositioncantell
youifyou’reaskinganopen-endedquestion,ayes/noquestion,orthetopicofa
sentence.Bodypositioncanindicateyou’reaskingaquestion,you’resaying“and,”and
more.Negatingasentenceorsigncanbeassimpleassigningwhileshakingyourhead.
Expressingamodifier(asin,somethingis“really”or“very”)canbedonethroughfacial
expressionsandthewayyousignaparticularword.I’lldomybesttoconveythis
informationinthedescriptionsfromtimetotime(especiallywhenimportant),butyou
mightalsoseemeuseboldtoindicateamodifierwhenwritinginEnglish,oran
exclamationpointafteraglossedwordtoillustratethesamepoint.
Example:“MANVERY-TALL,WHEELCHAIR,HAIRYELLOW!,EYESBLUE!”or“I
reallywanttolearn,”Reneesigned,doingherbesttoputheremphasison
the‘want’toshowhowmuchshewantedtolearn.
3—English.Thisiswhatyou’llseemost,especiallyforlongerconversations,because
it’sjusteasierforthereader.IrecognizethatEnglishisadenserlanguage(intermsof
itslexicon)thanASL.IalsorecognizethatsomewordsinEnglisharethesame,yetare
representedbydifferentsignsinASLdependingonmeaning/context(like“love”and
“like,”forexample).However,I’mnotgoingtostresstoobadlyoverthingslike“thereis
nosignfor___”-becauseasinglesigncanhavealotofequivalentmeaningsinEnglish,
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somesignsaremodifiedwithintentormouthmorphemes(howyoumoveyourmouth)
togiveshadesofmeaning(ex:thesignforneed,must,andshouldisthesamedepending
onhowyousignitandwhatyourmouthdoeswhenyoudo),andsomewordsare
fingerspelled(ordescribed/explainedwithgestures)ifnosignexists.IfIfeellike
pointingoutthedifferencesbetweenEnglishandASLareimportant,Iwill,butkeep
thatinmind.ASL,becauseitisanotherlanguage,willalwaysberepresented
initalics.
Example:“Idon’tknow.Maybesomeday,”Kaisigned.
Icouldhaveeasilyglossedthat,too,butreadingalotofglossingcanbecumbersome,
especiallyifyou’renotfamiliarwithASL,soItrytolimitwhenIusethat.
4-VisualdescriptionsofASLstorytelling.Alongtheselines,I’lltrytoconveythe
visualnatureofASLasmuchaspossible.PartofwhatmakeswritingASLinEnglishso
difficultisalotofinformationisportrayedinASLinawaythatyoucan’tfullyconveyin
English.I’lldomybesttotrytomakethiscomethroughinthetextwheneverpossible,
togiveyouabettersenseofwhataparticularconversationwouldlooklike.
Example:“Besides,Meganhasathingforstrays,soyouwon’tbetheonly
onetherebesidesus.”HeindicatedMegan’saffinityforthosewithout
familiestospendtheholidaywithbyfirstsigningMYHOUSE,thenusinga
classifierfora“person”(thehandshapefor“D,”indexfingerstandingup)
withhislefthand,movingitaroundinfrontofhiminasemicircle,whilehe
usedhisrighthandto“pluck”theminthesignforpick/findtowardthespace
wherehe’ddrawnhishouseearlier,asifshewereliterallypluckingstraysup
andputtingthemintheirhouse.
5-Glossing.ItispossibletowriteASL—kindof.It’scalled“glossing.”Youuseacapital
Englishwordtorepresentthesign.IfthesignencompassesmorethanoneEnglish
word,youhyphenate,likeDON’T-KNOWorDON’T-WANTorCLOSE-DOOR.Intrue
glossing,youhavealineabovethewordsthatwillindicateNMS.
Example:TheEnglishsentence"Idon'tunderstand"couldbeglossedthisway:
_____________N
UNDERSTAND.
Wherethe"N"abovemeansyounegatethesentencebyshakingyourheadand
frowning.
Thisisasimplification.Trueglossingcangetverycomplicated.
Because,asImentionedabove,glossingcanhurtreadability(andstilldoesn’t
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fullycapturethevisualnatureofASL),Idon’twanttouseittoomuch.Forexample,
ASLusesaverydifferentwordorderthanEnglish;thetopicusuallycomesfirst,
adjectivesusuallyfollowthenoun,andquestionwordsareattheend,ratherthanthe
beginning,ofmostsentences.Additionally,conceptslike“because”areusuallyframed
inrhetoricalquestions,sotheEnglishsentence“I’mgoingtothestorebecauseIneeded
milk”mightbesaidinASLlike,“STOREIGOWHY?NEEDMILK.”
Also,intrueglossing,youindicateafingerspelledwordwiththeprefix“fs,”so:
“fs-MUTE”wouldmeanthatthewordwasspelledout.I’mgoingtosticktothemore
Englishyconventionofeithersayinginthetagthatawordorwordswerefingerspelled,
orwritethemlikethis:“M-U-T-E”asIthinkthat’smorereadilyunderstandableby
morereaders.
Also,keepinmindthatsomewordsarefingerspelledinsteadofsignedfor
emphasis.I’lltrytomakeanoteofthiswheneverithappensinthetext.
Additionally,I'mnotanexpertonglossing,andtrueglossingisimpossibleto
formatontheblog.Mostly,I’lluseglossingifIwanttobeclearwhatversionofasigna
characterused(likeLEAVEversusABANDON),orifIwanttoemphasizethe
grammaticalstructureofanASLsentenceasopposedtoitsEnglishcounterpart.
Example:“IfIwantedtoaskyouyourname,I’ddoitlikethis:YOUNAME
WHAT?”
SomeASLresources:
SigningSavvy
http://www.signingsavvy.com/
LifePrint.com
http://lifeprint.com/
ASLPro
http://aslpro.com/
DeafVideoTV(Deafievloggers,includingvideocomments,allinASL)
http://deafvideo.tv/
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AppendixIV:ABriefNoteOnDeafCulture
IamnotgoingtotrytodojusticetothecomplexityofDeafcultureandtheDeaf
communityinonlyafewsentences,butIwantedtosayafewthingsforclarification
purposes.
Oneoftheaspectsyou’lldiscoverinIn/Exhaleisthesometimescultureclashbetween
theDeafandhearingcommunities.
Atthispointinthestory,Ihaven’tdiscussedterminologydirectly,soI’lltakea
quickmomenttodiscussthedifferencebetween"deaf"and"Deaf."Theformerrefersto
aninabilitytohear,whereasthelatterreferstoculture.Someonecanbedeafbutnot
Deaf,andKaiwasraisedculturallyDeafdespitehisabilitytohear.
Tosimplify,"Deaf"usuallyreferstopeoplewhouseASLastheirprimary
languageandisassociatedwithitsownculturalnormsthatmaybeverydifferentfrom
thoseofthesurroundinghearingcommunity.
SomeDeafCultureresources:
DeafinAmerica:VoicesfromaCulture(Padden,Humphries)
DeafPeople:EvolvingPerspectivesfromPsychology,Education,andSociology
(Andrews,Leigh,Weiner)
ForHearingPeopleOnly:AnswerstoSomeoftheMostCommonlyAskedQuestions
abouttheDeafCommunity,ItsCulture,andthe“DeafReality”(Moore)
TrainGoSorry:InsideADeafWorld(Cohen)
*Ofcourse,thebestwaytolearnaboutDeafcultureistogointotheDeafcommunity
andlearnfirst-hand!
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AppendixV:ABriefNoteontheUSFosterCare
System
I’vehadafewpeopleaskmeabouthowaccuratetheportrayaloftheUSfostercare
systemisinIn/Exhale.Likemostthingsinthestory,Idomybesttouseafoundationof
realityandthentakethestoryfromthere.
OneofthequestionsI’vebeenaskedrelatestoKaibeingseparatedfromhis
siblings,aplotpointintegraltothestory.Firstly,onemusttakeintoaccountthatKai
wasinthesysteminthe‘80sand‘90s,twentytothirtyyearsago,andthingshave
changedsincethen.Foronething,mostprogramsdomakeaconcertedefforttokeep
siblingstogether,evenifoneofthosesiblingshasadisability.Themodernsystemhas
alsoincreasinglymovedawayfromorphanages,grouphomes,andinstitutionstoward
morefamily-orientedsettings.Still,itwasn’tuncommoninthepastforchildrenwith
disabilitiestoberelegatedtoinstitutionslikeCountyHouse.Ifyou'recuriousabout
whatlifewaslikeinaninstitutionfordisabledkids,youshouldreadSmartAssCripple
(http://smartasscripple.blogspot.com/).Theauthorgrewupinahomefordisabled
childrenandhispostsarehilarious.
Kai’sexperiencewithabuseisalsobased/inspiredbyfact.Figuresstatethatat
least10%ofchildreninthefostercaresystemareabused,thoughit'slikelyactual
numbersaremuchhigherthanthat,especiallyforchildrenwithdisabilities.Infact,
childrenwithdisabilitiesinthesystemare2xmorelikelytobeabusedthanable-bodied
children,andarealso1.5xmorelikelytobeseriouslyharmedbythatabuse.They’realso
justaslikelytosuffersustainedabusegreaterthantwoyears.Infact,insomestates,a
childwithadisabilityhasuptoa10xgreaterchanceofbeingabusedrepeatedly(by
morethanoneperson!)thananable-bodiedchild.
Thinkaboutthatforaminute.
Whysuchhighratesofabuse?Manyfactorsplayin,thoughonesadfactis
somefosterparentsmilkthesystem.Moststatesofferahigherstipendforcaringfor
childrenwithdisabilities,plusstateandfederalbenefits(suchassocialsecurity)that
unscrupulouspeoplecantakeadvantageof.
Additionally,thesadtruthisthatonceachildpassestheageofsix—six!—the
ageKaiwaswhenheenteredthesystem—theirchanceofadoptiondropsdrastically.
Mostchildrenspendatleasttwoyearsinfostercare;many,theirentirechildhood(like
KaiandDavid).Childrenwithdisabilitieshaveevenfeweropportunitiesforadoption.
Therealityisthatmanyadoptiveparentswantinfants,notchildrenwhoalready
potentiallyhaveproblems.
Aswithanything,therearealwaysexceptions.Plentyoffosterparentsare
loving,caringpeople,andnotalllookingtoadoptdiscountolderchildren.But,like
everythinginIn/Exhale,Iliketotakeelementsoftruthandweavethemintothestory,
evenifoverallit’safictionalexperience.
Lastly,Iwantedtoaddresstheissueofagingout.InIn/Exhale,animportant
partofKai,Jon,andDavid’sbackstoriessurroundsgraduatingoutofthefostersystem.
InSeason3,you’lllearnmoreabouthowDaviddealtwithbeingsuddenlyonhisown
whilestillinhighschool,butit’swellestablishedthatifJonhadnotcomeforKai,he
wouldhavebeeninserioustrouble.Agingoutmeansachildisnolongerthestate’s
concern,andthesechildrenarekickedoutofhomes,oftenwithnojob,noplacetolive,
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oranykindofhealthcare.
ThesadfactisthatelementofIn/Exhaleis100%inspiredbyreality.According
tostatistics,51%ofchildrenwhoageoutareunemployed.Sixty-fivepercentageout
withoutanywheretolive,andinsomeareasasmuchas40%ofthoselivinginhomeless
sheltersareformerfosterchildren.Additionally,themajorityofchildrenwith
disabilitiesgraduatethesystemwithoutanyaccesstoservicesorhealthcare.
Infact,thecharityOneSimpleWishwasfoundedtohelpchildrentransition
fromfostercaretoadulthoodbyprovidingsupportservices,mentoring,andmore.You
cancheckouttheirprogramsontheirwebsite,http://onesimplewish.org.
Soyes,IhavetakensomelibertieswithIn/Exhale,butingeneral,Kai’sand
David’sexperiencesareinspiredbyfact.
AfewresourcesontheUSfostercaresystemandabuse:
https://www.childwelfare.gov/can/statistics/stat_outOfHome.cfm
http://www.childrensrights.org/wpcontent/uploads/2008/06/forgotten_children_children_with_disabilities_in_foster_care_2006.pdf
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AppendixVI:JonesvilleMemorialHospitalFloor
Guide
Thisguideistogiveyouaroughideaofwhereyou’llfindwhatinthemainbuildingof
JMH,incaseyou’rethatkindofdetail-orientedperson.
——————-15———————
Administration
——————-14———————
PsychiatricUnit
——————-13———————
SecondaryCafeteria
Chapel
——————-12———————
Oncology
——————-11———————
OperatingRooms(OR)
Recovery
SurgicalICU(SICU)
——————-10———————
IntermediateCareUnit(akaStep-DownUnit,SDU)
———————9———————Medicine(Outpatient)
———————8———————Medicine(Inpatient)
———————7———————
Cardiology
CardiacCareUnit(CCU)
———————6———————
Pulmonology
RespiratoryCareUnit(RCU)
———————5——————MedicineICU
Neurology
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———————4——————Maternity
Nursery
NeonatalICU(NICU)
———————3——————Pediatrics
PediatricIntensiveCareUnit(PICU)
———————2——————MainCafeteria
Long-termCareUnit(LTCU)
RehabilitationInpatientUnit
———————1——————Lobby-Giftshop-Pharmacy-Starbucks
EmergencyRoom(ER)
Radiology
OutpatientServices
RehabilitationCenter(separatebuilding)
——————-B1——————
Pathology
Morgue
——————-B2——————
Records
——————-B3——————
Utilities
311
OtherTitlesbyChieAlemán
In/Exhale:SeasonOne
UnConventional
312
AboutTheAuthor
ChieAlemánhaslivedallovertheUS,thoughinmanyways,NewOrleanswillalwaysbe
home.Herworkexploresthemesoffamily,personalresponsibility,andidentity,often
pullingfromherculturalbackgroundasthedaughterofCubanimmigrants.Sheis
particularlydrawntoportrayinguniquecharacters,who,despitetheirdiseaseor
disability,arestillinterestingandsympatheticindividualsdeservingoflovelikeanyone
else.ShecurrentlyresidesinHoustonwithherhusbandandfourcrazyChihuahuas.
[email protected],
http://chiealeman.com
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