“With every breath, the old moment is lost; a new moment arrives. We exhale and we let go of the old moment. It is lost to us. In doing so, we let go of the person we used to be. We inhale and breathe in the moment that is becoming. In doing so, we welcome the person we are becoming. We repeat the process. This is meditation. This is renewal. This is life.”
― Lama Surya Das, Letting Go Of The Person You Used To Be
"Do you have your cell phone?" Jon stood in front of Kai in the small kitchen of their shared apartment, stuffing papers into his briefcase, his white coat bunched up on the counter beside it, his slightly damp medium-length wheat-colored hair uncombed and frazzled.
"Yes," Kai sighed, leaning on his crutches. Unlike his brother, who always seemed to have his mind occupied, considering his appearance secondary to his work, Kai was dressed neatly in a short-sleeved button-up and jeans, making sure the collar hid the remains of his tracheostomy scar. He wasn't ashamed of it, like his other scars, but it was ugly and a bit intimidating and college was supposed to be a fresh start. He didn't need everyone immediately zoning in on the pink navel-like scar on his neck and asking questions.
"And your inhaler?"
Kai shifted his weight and tried not to sigh again. He knew his brother worried, and he was just trying to tell Kai without so many words that he loved him and hoped his first day of classes went well.
"I haven't had an attack since the transplant," Kai reminded him.
"I know," Jon said, distracted for a moment as if he'd forgotten what he was doing. After a pause, he shrugged, shut his briefcase, and slipped on the strap. "But you're the only patient we know of with confirmed FS who had a successful lung transplant of any kind. It's impossible to say how your body will react." Jon snatched his white coat and flung it over his shoulder. "I'd just feel better if you had your rescue inhaler with you, just in case."
Kai adjusted his weight, slipped his right hand off the grip and pushed it into his pocket, pulling out an inhaler just enough for Jon to see it, before shoving it back in. "I'll be fine, Jon."
Jon frowned, his thin lips pursing together, but he nodded.
"I'd tell you to relax, but I don't think you understand the meaning of the word."
Jon's frown deepened. He managed to free one hand enough to place it on Kai's shoulder. He could hardly believe his little brother was actually taller than him by an inch or two. Glancing at Kai's crutches, he added, "I know Troy said you could go without those for a while, but don't overdo it, OK?"
Kai sighed. "Yes, Dad. I promise. If you promise to make sure you eat." It was Kai's turn to frown as he noticed Jon was leaving the apartment yet again without eating or even drinking anything. "Doctors really do make the worst patients," Kai muttered as Jon headed out the door.
"I'll probably be home late, but page me if you need anything," Jon called just before Kai heard the front door slam.
It wasn't his first time on campus, or even his first college class, but a flutter of nervousness still floated in his stomach as Kai pulled into the closest available handicapped space to Thomas Hall, where he had his first two classes. Kai sat in his car for a moment, the engine tinking as it cooled down, his eyes shut, focusing. This time would be different, he told himself. He was different. As if to remind himself of the fact, he took a slow deep breath, letting it out easily. Kai opened his eyes one by one, noticing the students, all of them younger than him, milling about, bags slung over shoulders as they hurried off to their classes, and glanced over at his crutches. Troy, his physical therapist, had encouraged him to spend a few hours a day without them, and Kai was anxious for the anonymity not needing them would bring.
He was old enough now that probably none of the students would know him, and he'd have the chance to make new friendships, he hoped. The new start he desperately needed. Still, he hadn't yet tried to manage much without them outside of the apartment, and it made him nervous to leave them in the car. Kai sucked in a satisfyingly easy breath, grabbed his bag, and pushed the door open.
Jonesville University had a large campus, spread out over miles, with lots of space between buildings, with plenty of parking nestled around each one. Due to the intensity of the cold winters, and partially because the campus had expanded gradually over the years, it was a necessity for many students to bike or even drive to each class, and Kai was grateful for that fact, knowing he could never manage on his feet for long, especially if he couldn't rest in between.
The buildings of Jonesville U had been built over the years; the oldest, from the founding of the university, were a more traditional style--serious stone buildings that spoke to tradition and expectation of what a college should look like. The newer buildings ran the gamut from artistic and modern to plain and efficient. Thomas Hall had been built only ten years previously, and was five stories of square red brick that had little architectural character to its many square windows. But new meant the elevator almost never broke down, and didn't take an eternity to take you from the first to fifth floor, unlike Jones Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus, named after Horatio Jones who'd founded the town.
Kai had been relieved he didn't have any classes there this year as he carefully entered the building, glad that no one seemed to notice him, even if he did have a slight limp from his weaker left leg. He'd hoped Troy could help him with it, but he knew it was gone. It was a small price to pay, and the AFO he wore helped. And it didn't really matter, if he could slip into a crowd like this and go completely unnoticed. It pushed a smile to his face as he stepped into the elevator. He hit the button for three and watched as a few other students mingled in. Freshmen, they looked like. They were only four years younger than him, but they looked so youthful. Kai sighed and leaned against the side of the car as the doors shut and they began to rise. Had he ever looked that young?
It only took a few minutes to reach the third floor, and Kai shuffled out behind a couple of cute girls. He wondered if he could ever bring himself to get close to someone again. Not just in bed--he had Nikki for that, and what they had was incredible--in fact, he planned on seeing her tonight after his classes. But growing up as an orphan in a home, he'd always dreamed of having a family someday. A wife whom he loved, and who loved him, some kids. Most of his life that had been as big a fantasy as flying, but then he'd met Becca. Becca, who he'd thought could maybe be the one, who would stick with him despite everything.
Kai felt his hands balling into fists as he wandered down the hall for his first class. New start, new start, he thought, fighting his fingers' instinct to sign the words as he finally found room 312, shuffling in behind a few other students.
Room 312 was one of the large auditorium-style lecture halls on campus, with stadium seating leading up in tiered rows, divided into three sections by stairs. It was still early; class didn't start for at least another twenty minutes, so plenty of seats lay empty. Kai glanced at the front row, where there were gaps obviously intended for wheelchairs and sighed despite himself before turning his attention to the stairs and the far top back of the room. Troy had told him to push himself as far as he reasonably could, and although he had avoided stairs as a general rule for most of his life, he decided to give them a try.
Without his crutches or a handrail it was harder than it could have been, and halfway up Kai debated stopping. But he'd been trapped at the bottom of rooms like this so often in his life, and the thrill of his breath coming so easily even as his exhalations and inhalations grew quicker and shallower, encouraged him to keep going.
When he finally reached the top, he collapsed in the first available seat, staring down and reveling in his achievement. He knew it was silly, and it wasn't like he'd ever seen a mountain, but he realized this must be what it felt like to climb one and look down, admiring the view, knowing what you did to earn it. It wasn't the most practical seat for various reasons, and Kai wondered to himself if they had large lecture halls like this at Gallaudet, and if so, if they had some kind of camera and projection system so you could still see the professor's signs even from far up in the back row.
Although Kai had grown used to spoken language by now, and had even come to appreciate the benefits of not needing to use your hands to speak, he missed ASL terribly. Jon had lost most of his ASL fluency over the years they were apart, and Kai hadn't really kept in touch with David, his old roommate from County House, or any of the other kids he'd gone to school with before the state had forced him into the hearing high school. There'd been a few times while he was recovering after his transplant he'd considered looking David up, but that was part of his old life. Maybe if he were able to graduate he could become a teacher at the deaf school here—or maybe even somewhere else. The thought of leaving the town--the state--was exciting. Kai had lived in Jonesville his entire life, and although he loved the place--it was home—he wondered sometimes about the rest of the country, the rest of the world. Jon had traveled with his adopted father, had gone to college at some fancy school on the East coast, but he'd still come back home. And Kai knew, even if he somehow managed to leave Jonesville, that Jon never would leave again.
Kai was so lost in his own thoughts he hadn't realized a girl had sat down beside him. It was her smell that got him first; one of the things Kai had enjoyed most since he'd been extubated post-transplant was getting his sense of smell back. She smelled delicate and floral; he couldn't quite place the exact scent, but it was subtle and lovely. A body spray, perhaps, instead of a perfume. Certainly not pungent enough to provoke an attack if this had been before.
When he turned his head, he realized she'd been staring at him, and for a moment, he grew nervous. Had his collar dipped or come undone and she could see his trache scar? He knew it was kind of creepy looking, especially if you'd never seen anything like it before. Reflexively, he brought his fingers to his neck, and maybe she sensed she'd been staring, because she blinked, shook her head, and smiled.
"Sorry." She cleared her throat. "I'm Renee Poche," she said. Her voice was soft and sweet like her scent; clearly, she wasn't from the Midwest.
"Kai Fox," he replied, offering his hand, reluctantly dropping it from his throat.
She smiled. God, she had a beautiful smile. She was petite; it was hard to tell how tall now that they were sitting, but it was yet another indication that she wasn't from around here. Her hair was dark—almost black—and curly. Kai didn't know much about women, but it looked natural, her thick tendrils perfectly framing her face in a managed chaos he found entrancing despite the fact that Becca also had curly hair.
"That's an unusual name. You a freshman?" She asked as she pulled a notebook and pen out of her bag.
Kai flushed slightly, realizing how silly it was for his body to react this way. "Yeah." He couldn't manage to say more than that.
She flipped her desk out and laid her supplies on it, smiling the whole time. "I'm an architecture student, so my program's five years. I'm a second year right now. But I put off most of my core classes last year, so here I am."
Kai grinned despite himself. He wanted to touch her curls, feel their softness on his skin, never stop smelling her unique floral scent. His stomach churned and he knew immediately he wanted to know more about her--everything. Suddenly, his chest grew tight, and his face paled. No. This hadn't happened since. . . . Reflexively, he dropped his hand to his right pocket, feeling the inhaler beneath his palm.
"You OK?" Her face was so concerned and sincere, and she'd reached for him, placing a warm, tiny hand on his arm.
He stared at it, forced himself to take a few slow breaths, realizing he was OK. Maybe it was just nerves. How was it that this girl he hardly knew, whom he'd just met, could make him feel so off kilter? He eased his lips into a smile to reassure her and give backing to his words.
"Yeah. Sorry." He swallowed. "First day jitters, I guess," he added with a bit of a blush.
She laughed, a musical, lilting sound that made him grateful for his hearing. "So what classes are you taking this semester?"
Kai thought a moment. "World History I, English Comp, Intro to Philosophy, Intro to Psych." The professor had arrived and was setting up for the lecture, writing "World History I, H101, MILLER," on the white board.
"Cool," she said with that same warm smile. "Who do you have for Comp and Philosophy?"
Kai tilted his head, thinking for a moment. "I think it's Boer and . . . Mc-something."
Kai nodded. His left calf had begun to spasm slightly, enough to be painful but not so much he couldn't ignore it. "Yeah, I think that's right."
"Me too," she said. "I mean, I have those same classes. We should sit together in them, too."
Kai felt a warm flutter in his stomach. "I'd like that."
Renee looked as if she were about to say something else when the professor cleared his throat and began to speak.
"Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to World History I. This course will fulfill your common curriculum requirement, but only if you study hard and pass my exams."
Kai knew he should be taking notes, but he'd nearly forgotten himself, so entranced by Renee, so he fumbled for his bag to grab a notebook and his own pen. It could have been his imagination, but she seemed to be casting glances at him every few minutes, smiling the entire time.
"Many people ask, 'why study history?' Of course, the easy answer is 'because then we're doomed to repeat it.' However, I think life is far more complicated than that. I believe it's more that the past, however behind us it may seem, is never truly gone. It is always a part of us, and as much as we may like to forget that, not only can't we, we mustn't."
Kai knew Miller wasn’t speaking to him, couldn’t be speaking to him, but why did his words feel so personal? And why couldn’t one forget the past? Kai had done it before, shifting dark memories into the deep recesses of his brain, never talked about, never thought about. Why should now be any different?
Kai was grateful once again that Nikki lived in a first-floor apartment. Renee apparently preferred the back row in every class, which had meant far more stairs than Kai had anticipated, and his legs were sore. He couldn't decide which one ached more, his weaker, left leg, or his stronger, right leg for compensating for the left. He leaned heavily on his crutches as he waited for Nikki to answer.
The door opened, and Nikki stood, one hip cocked out, wearing nothing but boyshort panties and a tight-fitting babydoll tee that stopped a few inches above her navel, revealing her delicious flat belly. She smiled at him, licked her lips, then stepped back to allow him to enter.
"I thought you were done with those," she said, sauntering in.
Kai watched her move, the way she purposefully exaggerated the sway of her hips for his benefit, the way her heart-shaped ass fit so perfectly in those panties. "I am, mostly. But I went all day without them."
Nikki turned around, fingers resting on her chin, her index rubbing over her lips as she looked at him, appraising him.
"Besides, I thought you liked them," Kai said, his breath starting to come fast and short as he felt blood rush to his cock. Nikki could eye-fuck him like no woman he'd ever known.
She tilted her head and grinned, but said nothing, slinking toward him instead.
Nikki lived in a simple studio apartment, furnished with mere basics--a mattress and boxspring, a small table and chairs, a 13" TV, and little else. The first time Kai had visited her here, he'd remarked at the sparsity; Nikki, despite the fact that she worked full time at the diner, had always struck him as someone material. Instead, Nikki had pointed out that the only thing a girl really needs is food, fucking, and, well, occasionally Oprah. She had a sense of humor, yet something else Kai found so attractive about her.
His cock throbbed as she crossed her arms and pulled her shirt over her head, revealing her breasts, two large stripper-quality orbs still perky due to her youth, with two pinkish purple alveolas and long nipples that begged to be sucked. Kai's legs ached, and he glanced over at the bed, but somehow felt trapped by her spell, unable to move.
"I do," she finally said in answer to his earlier statement, smoothing her hands on the metal of his crutches and sinking down to her knees in front of him, beginning to undo the belt and button of his jeans.
"Nikki . . ." he started to protest, as she jerked his jeans open. "Nikki, I'm ti--" But his voice immediately cut off as she took him in her mouth, sucking softly, gently, urging him to harden against her tongue. She gave him a gentle push so that he was leaning against the wall as she eased his jeans and boxers down farther, better exposing him.
Nikki caressed the bottom of his cock, which had swollen to his full length in her mouth, while she eased a hand around his balls, smoothing them with her fingers. Kai let his head fall back against the wall and his eyes closed, suddenly forgetting the ache in his legs, forgetting everything. Nikki had a way of doing that--of making everything disappear, even if only for an instant--so that you lived in the moment. And this moment was incredible. Her mouth was so warm and tight yet soft; she knew exactly when to stroke with her tongue and when to suck, when to take his full length and swallow against the head, when to ease him in and out with little flicks against his slit.
She pulled off with a long lick, then grinned up at him, smoothing her tongue over her lips seductively. "Feeling better?"
Kai nodded, unable to form words. The cool air teased the delicate skin of his cock, bringing him back to reality for the moment as he remembered his arms still rested in the cuffs of his crutches, even if the wall was supporting him now. He watched as Nikki carefully removed one, than the other, smoothing her hand over his forearms so lightly it brought up gooseflesh, sending a tingle of electricity up his spine and making his cock jerk and leak in anticipation.
Kai vaguely heard the sound of his crutches being set aside, and now that his hands were free, he brought his right to his cock, his erection painful with need, but Nikki batted his hand away, shaking her head. He let out a faint whine of complaint, but let her push him away, her hot breath teasing him.
"I don't know how someone this big can be so . . . adorable," Nikki said in a husky voice, inching her fingers over the skin of his thighs, grazing his balls, up his belly, sliding under his shirt. Standing at full height, Kai was over 6'3", just slightly taller than his older brother Jon. And now that he'd had time to put on weight and muscle post-transplant, he was a healthy 210 pounds, his broad shoulders well muscled and strong, making him seem more imposing than his naturally slight figure.
His only response was a grunt as she took his balls in her mouth, rolling them over with her tongue, sucking playfully with a chuckle, the vibration of which made an electric pulse of sensation flow up from them to his dick and settle somewhere in the base of his spine. Nikki wasn't just good at this, she enjoyed it, smoothing her hands on his thighs, tickling her fingers back to the sensitive skin behind his sac, forcing him to press his shoulders against the wall to keep himself from sinking into the ground.
He watched as she pulled away with a grin, lapping at the golden hair that coated his groin, just a shade darker than the delightful fine mop that fell down past his ears on each side of his head. Nuzzling him with her nose and the soft heat of her breath, she eased her hands up his legs, under his shirt, fingering his firm stomach, searching for the scars she knew were there, one long pink, waxy mark in the center of his chest, and two smaller shifts in skin beneath his pecs. His cock pressed at her face anxiously with each shuttering breath, and she was forced to drop her hands so she could brace him as she took it deep again, swallowing once and making him giggle and moan.
Nikki was the first person that wasn't a medical professional--his brother included--who he'd let see his transplant scars. It wasn't so much that they embarrassed him; Kai had been forced to abandon that emotion years ago. Perhaps it was more the fact that as long as they remained hidden, with his new ability to breathe so easily, he could pretend, if only to himself, that he were normal. Or at least as close to normal as he could be.
Fuck, that feels good, he thought, closing his eyes as Nikki worked her magic, cradling his balls in one palm while she used her other hand to guide him in and out of her mouth at an increasing pace, adjusting the suction and the caress of her tongue until he felt his stomach tensing and his nerves ignite in a combination of numbness and electricity, a feeling he knew well from oxygen depravation but which, in this context, was anything but frightening.
Moaning and humming to increase the sensation as she moved faster, taking him deeper, letting his head hit the roof of her mouth, Kai pressed his hands back against the wall to help keep himself upright as his hips jerked reflexively into her mouth, a surge of heat flowing out of him as he came hard into the back of her throat. She pressed her hands against his thighs to help keep him upright as she swallowed, sucking gently on the tip, lapping at the last of his come with her tongue before pulling back.
"God, how is it you taste so fucking good? You're sweeter than most guys," she said, pushing herself to her feet, easing his pants and underwear back up his hips before wrapping herself around him so they were both leaning against the wall.
Kai was too lost in his orgasm, eyes glazed, heart slowing, to let the reference to Nikki's experience bother him. He knew he was far from her first; it wasn't like she was his, either, and they had no illusions of being more than a fun fuck. After the disasters of Diane and Becca--especially Becca--he wasn't ready for anything serious, and Nikki had made it pretty clear she wasn't interested in an emotional relationship. Yet it still bothered him on a certain level to know that what they had wasn't special. Not special in the "let's get married sense"; yes, Kai wanted that someday, with the right girl--but more like the feeling that what they shared together was unique to the two of them. Maybe it was. Rather than being turned off by his scars or his crutches, Nikki seemed to embrace them, realizing they were as much a part of him as anything else.
"You're exhausted," she said finally, and he heard a note of warmth in her voice he hadn't noticed her use before. "Come on."
Expecting her to hand him his crutches, he was surprised when she helped him hobble the short distance to her bed, easing him onto the mattress with a unexpected tenderness. She was much stronger than she looked despite her thin frame and the fact that the top of her head barely cleared his shoulders when he stood at full height. With a sigh, he let himself fall back, willing himself to stay awake and not succeeding very well as his eyelids grew heavy and nearly impossible to keep open.
Wordlessly, Nikki eased off his shoes and jeans, working quickly but delicately. Once he was half naked, she turned to the ankle brace he wore on his left foot, tearing off the velcro so carefully that the ripping made only the faintest sound--or maybe sleepiness was dulling his senses. She gripped his calf and carefully eased his foot out of the orthotic, removed his sock, and set them aside with his clothes. Her fingers worked into the tight, sore gastrocnemis muscle, then cradled the arch of his foot, soothing it, knowing the muscles and tendons tended to seize there, especially after a long day on his feet. The tenderness of her touch felt more like a wife than a sexual partner, especially since he knew post-release it was meant to comfort him and not arouse.
"That feels good," he muttered, keeping his eyes shut, letting his breathing down shift. Even though more than a year had passed since his transplant, it still felt strange to not have to struggle for breath, for his chest to fill easily and release with even less effort.
After a moment, she shifted her attention to his right leg, massaging his calf and feet carefully before finally crawling onto the bed beside him, pulling a quilt over them and snuggling up against him, her arm draped over his chest, snaked up through the bottom of his shirt, fingering his scars and pecs, gentle, soft strokes of warm flesh against flesh.
"Why don't you stay," she whispered, her breath hot and tickling against his neck. "I can order a pizza."
He shifted his head to kiss the top of hers, where her hair met her forehead, reaching up to smooth some of it. He wasn't sure what exact color or texture Nikki's hair was naturally; she seemed to be in a constant state of flux as to its style and shade. Right now it was cropped short and straight, angled toward her face so that it lengthened as it approached her chin, dark brown with severe platinum highlights interrupting at intervals. He wondered if the brown was close to her natural hue based on the trimmed landing strip nestled above her slit.
He sighed into her hair, inhaling her scent, a mixture of fruity shampoo and body spray; Nikki always seemed to smell sweet, even after sex. "You know I can't."
Nikki sighed angrily but didn't move. "You're twenty-two years old. I think you're old enough for a sleepover."
He couldn't resist a chuckle despite her annoyed tone. "True. But Jon'd worry."
After aging out of the orphanage he'd called home most of his life, County House, Kai had moved in with his older brother, Jon, a physician-in-training at Jonesville Memorial. Separated since their parents had died years earlier, the two brothers were anxious to reconnect. Unfortunately, it wasn't long after that Kai's health began to nosedive as his lungs rapidly began to fail. Last year, just when they'd just about given up hope, Kai had matched with a cadaveric double-lung, receiving a transplant that had saved and changed his life.
Kai had spent nearly a year recovering, and although his health had improved to the point at which he could afford his own place, he'd decided to stay in the apartment he shared with his brother, partially hoping to make up for some of the time they'd lost over the decade they'd been apart.
Nikki laughed, a harsh exhalation of air. "You're a big boy. Besides, it's not like he's ever there, anyway."
It was true; Jon was a notorious workaholic, dedicated with a passionate intensity to his work as a clinician and researcher for FS, the respiratory disease that had forced Kai into needing a new set of lungs. Kai sighed against her again, debating about how nice it would be to take Nikki up on her offer, knowing she'd do more than warm his bed before the sun rose the next morning. But reality soon set in.
"I can't. I don't have my meds with me."
Post-transplant, Kai had been put on a litany of drugs, half to stave off rejection, the other half to ward off the side effects of the powerful medications that kept his immune system in check. Part of the first months of recovery had simply been adjusting the dosages of the various immunosuppressants, trying to find a balance between maintaining the stability of his new lungs and keeping the powerful side effects--among them severe nausea and vomiting--at bay. He was stable now, and grateful he hadn't lost his hair, but he couldn't afford to miss a single dose of any of the important drugs, which he took twice a day, everyday. Nikki knew this, but still, she clung to him, wrapping a leg around him tightly.
He laughed, shifting a hand until it cupped her breast, his thumb brushing gently over her nipple. She gasped with the sensation, which made him smile.
"I'm not leaving yet, though," he said, leaning in to tease her ear between his teeth. He felt her hand pressing against his chest, pushing him away, and frowned.
"Let's nap. I want you fresh and ready for me," she said with a glint her eye, licking her lips. "Besides, you're fucking beautiful when you sleep."
He laughed, looking at her, amazed by how sexy she was, by how sexy she thought he was, and let his body sink into the bed. He was tired, and it didn't take long for him to give into her suggestion and slip into sleep.
Nikki didn't sleep long. After only a few minutes, she woke, feeling the warmth of Kai's body near hers, the sound of his breathing--not quite a snore, but not quite normal, either. The only light filtered in from the window across the room; it was barely enough to illuminate his face as he slept on his side, facing her, one knee slightly tucked up. She watched him for several minutes; she hadn't lied when she'd told him he was beautiful when he slept. He really was, with his gold hair falling across his face, his lips slightly parted, his long fingers resting beside his stomach.
She wanted to reach over, stroke her hand over his body, a light touch over the skin of his arm. To use her fingers to ease the lock of hair behind his ear and kiss him there, in the soft spot along the nape of his neck. She even wanted to kiss his trache scar, because it was part of him, and not nearly as ugly and repulsive as he imagined it to be. It was a sign of where he had been and where he was now, and a part of her hated that he felt the need to cover it. A guy she'd dated had been a body modification artist and one day when she'd been flipping through his portfolio she'd seen a strange picture. It almost looked like a belly button piercing at first, but as she continued to flip, she realized it was a woman's neck. It was the strangest and yet most beautiful thing she'd ever seen, and when she'd asked her--well, boyfriend wasn't really the right term, was it?--about it, he'd explained it was a tracheostomy scar, healed from having a tube in her neck so she could breathe, and she was proud of it, so she'd had him pierce it for her.
Nikki sighed, resisting the urge to trace a finger down Kai's chin toward his neck, and decided to ease out of bed instead, pulling on a shirt and slipping quietly into the kitchen a few feet away. As noiselessly as she could, she filled her kettle and set it to boil, standing beside it so she could catch it right before the whistle sounded. Why did she like to do this? Watch him sleep? She wondered to herself as she fished out two mugs and her box of teabags from the counter above and to the left of the stove. Normally she was the type of girl who fucked a guy quick and left, or kicked him out. Not that she usually had to tell them to go, because she normally picked the type of guys who weren't interested in staying. But Kai was different. She'd known that the first time she'd seen him come into the diner, walking stiffly with his crutches, his strong arms bearing most of his weight as he eased toward the counter to wait for Becca.
It wasn't just his walk that made him different from the string of bikers and losers she normally fucked. They always had a kind of carefree arrogance, like they knew they were the best fucks in the world, even if they had a pinky dick they wouldn't know what to do with if it had the directions tattooed on it. She remembered watching Kai as she'd refilled coffees of the patrons on the far end of the counter, watching him talk to one of the older waitresses. He had a confidence to him, certainly; she could see that clearly by the way he flirted with Marge, causing her to blush since a twenty-something guy hadn't flirted with her in probably thirty years. But there was a kindness, too; not just because he was humoring a middle-aged waitress, but because the attention he paid to her was obviously not feigned, but genuine, like he honestly believed everyone deserved a little sugar in their coffee, as Marge would have put it. But Nikki saw a shyness, too; she didn't know how someone could be both confident and shy at the same time, but Kai was. Not that he was easily embarrassed; it was more reserved than anything else. And she still remembered how his skin had pinked when she'd sashayed her way toward him, laying a hand on his thick bicep as she leaned over to offer to refill his cup.
He'd looked up at her with those bright blue eyes, and she'd never imagined getting lost in someone's eyes like that. She'd heard the expression of course, but never believed it. Nikki was the type of person who didn't believe what she couldn't see or witness herself, but his eyes had captured her in that moment, and she knew immediately why Marge had been smiling like a school girl while they talked.
It was those eyes that had prompted Nikki to take her cigarette break a few minutes early when she saw him leave with Becca, to duck out to the alley behind the restaurant, hidden by the dumpster. To hear the end of an argument, voices raised and heated, Becca's angry and hurtful, Kai's strained and wounded. To see Becca storm off toward the parking lot and Kai lean forward, head bent against the wall, his strong shoulders, perfectly framed by his shirt, shuttering.
Every instinct in Nikki's body had told her to turn back, forget the pack of cigarettes clenched in her hand--she'd been meaning to quit anyway, right?--and get back to work. But instead, she'd stepped around the dumpster, one hand in front of her as if she were approaching a wounded stray dog, and she'd spoken to him, asking if he was OK.
He'd turned his head so quickly she'd expected to see anger in his face; instead, she saw those eyes. It could have been a trick of the light, the shadows of the alley, but their color had shifted from the bright, piercing blue of the ocean to something subtler, darker, grayer. And despite her question, neither of them had spoken for what had to be a minute or more, the two of them just looking at each other, as if neither of them understood the English language, and they needed some other form of communication.
Again, instinct kicked in, and Nikki had made a joke, something like, "She's a bitch," and his face had flinched. For an instant, she'd thought he'd grow angry, but instead, he'd smiled, laughing a bit, his eyes lighting, and God, she wanted nothing more in that instant than to press him up against that wall and lick every part of his body. Instead, she'd pulled out her ordering pad and a pen from her apron, had quickly scrawled her name and number, and pressed it into the pocket of his jeans, resisting the urge to linger. Instead, she'd whispered, "If you need a friend," unable to hide the seduction in her tone or eyes as she'd forced herself to turn back, jogging through the door and into the diner.
Nikki heard the gurgle of fast-boiling water and quickly shut off the heat, pouring the hot water onto the teabags in each mug, eying the clock to time how long it steeped, looking over at Kai in the darkness, feeling something in the pit of her stomach she didn't recognize, and it scared her. She frowned, concentrated on dipping her teabag, pulling the string up and down to speed the steeping, relieved he hadn't taken her up on her offer to stay. She knew she was crazy. They'd only known each other a few months, and Nikki never asked anyone to stay. That had always been her rule. Her apartment was hers, and hers alone.
He stirred, felt for her in the bed before opening his eyes. "Nikki?"
Even though she knew he probably couldn't make out her expressions in the dim light, she forced a smile. "I made tea. Don't worry; it's decaf."
"Thanks," he said, and she heard the smile in his voice, then saw him lean forward to stretch his legs.
After a few moments, he pulled on his boxers, then found his crutches where she'd left them leaned against the wall, and slipped them on, pulling himself to standing and crossing toward the kitchen, keeping most of his weight off his left leg. She pretended not to notice, and shifted the tea toward him, turning to grab the honey out of the cabinet for him.
He'd sunk down into the chair, cupping the mug in his hands, staring at the liquid as if trying to divine the future from it. She was tempted to make a joke, but he seemed so serious, she couldn't bring herself to disturb his pensive mood, so instead, she plucked the bag out of the tea, upended the honey, and squeezed enough of it into his drink to give her a vicarious toothache.
"Thanks," he said again, grabbing a spoon from the set she kept in a jar on the counter and stirring.
Nikki tasted her tea; she normally drank only coffee, but Kai didn't drink anything caffeinated, and she'd found herself buying and drinking this herbal stuff that tasted more like medicine than a beverage. Maybe that's why Kai put so much honey in it. But like watching him sleep, she found she'd come to enjoy these quiet moments with him, bent over their mugs, steam warming their faces.
"I work the nightshift tomorrow," Nikki said, simply for something to say.
Kai sighed, his shoulders rising toward his ears before slowly falling back down. "I'm sorry," he said softly without looking up from his mug. "I could go home, grab my meds, and come back . . ."
Nikki shook her head, laid a hand on his wrist, forcing another smile. "It's OK. I was being silly. You've got class tomorrow anyway, right? You should go home, relax, and give me a call when you want to see me again." Nikki forced herself to drink some of the tea, hoping its bitterness would erase the taste in her mouth.
Kai's eyes were a blue-grey, his eyebrows slanted above them, his lips pursed together in the beginnings of a frown. "I don't have to leave yet, I mean . . ." He paused. "I don't want to be selfish."
Nikki hadn't had an orgasm today, not that she'd given him the opportunity to give her one, but it made her smile; that was another thing about Kai that made him different from the usual losers she picked up. They watched too many pornos and didn't understand the first thing about proper foreplay or how to get a woman off the right way.
"It's OK. You can make it up to me later," she said with a twinkle in her eye, leaning in to kiss him, their tongues licking across each other. And God, she didn't want to let him go, but she knew she had to.
The words on the chart in front of him started to grow blurry, and Jon began to get that anxious, restless feeling that signaled he was heading for a hypo crash. Annoyed, he sighed and pulled open his top desk drawer, removing a small zippered black case. Setting it on the desk, Jon opened it carefully, removing his glucose monitor, threading a test strip into it before pricking his finger. After over twenty years of this, he barely even felt the lance, frowning as he squeezed the droplets onto the paper.
While he waited for the reading, he fished a glucose candy out of the same drawer, tapping it lightly on the desktop. His hands were shaking, which didn't help his annoyance, not to mention the fact that Jon's mood always soured when his blood sugar was low. Sometimes he hated being diabetic, even though he'd dealt with it since he was a kid, and it was old hat by now. Jon was like an express train, rolling quickly, focused, and he hated having to stop to do anything, and that included eating, checking his sugar, taking his insulin. It wasn't the disease so much that bothered him but the way it interrupted the flow of his life. Kai suggested it was probably God's way of ensuring Jon ate; Jon had the habit of being so focused on his work he'd skip meals, bad enough for someone with a normally functioning pancreas, potentially fatal for someone with type-I diabetes.
Jon sighed as the reading displayed at last, frowning at the low figure, popping the candy in his mouth and chewing it carefully to give him a temporary boost. He knew it wouldn't be enough; he had to eat something, and soon, but it would at least prevent him from going fully hypo and passing out. As he chewed, he glanced at his watch; his vision was already clearing a bit, and his unease was settling as the sugar entered his blood and fed his starving brain. 11:03 PM. Jon was grateful he didn't need an endocrinologist to get his insulin prescription, so he didn't have to hear a lecture about how bad his hemoglobin a1c numbers were.
Sighing, Jon packed his kit and replaced it in his desk, pushing himself up wearily. He knew he should take better care of himself; if Kai was as neglectful of his body as Jon was of his, Jon would never let his brother hear the end of it. But Taylors were stubborn, and Jon was the worst of them all in some ways. Annoyed that he'd have to leave the rest of the work on his desk for the morning, Jon grabbed his briefcase and keys and headed out of his office toward the employee parking garage.
Jon knew he probably shouldn't have driven himself home, but the candy had boosted him at least temporarily and his apartment was only a five minute trip from the hospital at this time of night. After he was separated from his siblings when their parents died, Jon had spent time in several foster homes before finally--and surprisingly due to his age--being adopted by an older man who'd lost his son only a few years earlier, and Jon had reminded him so much of his dead child he'd immediately taken Jon in as if he were his own.
Although Jon had been initially disturbed a bit, he could commiserate on some level, because he'd never gotten over being separated from his brother, whom he'd taken care of almost as if he were his parent instead of his sibling. And the adoption had been good for Jon; the man was kind and appreciated Jon's natural intelligence and inclination to knowledge. He'd taken Jon away from the small town in which he grew up, steeped with heavy memories of the family he no longer had, and encouraged him to pursue medicine.
But Jon had returned to Jonesville as soon as he could, hoping, praying to find his siblings again--especially Kai--and reconnect. He'd been too late for Sara, the youngest, who he learned had died of leukemia when she was only ten, ironic, Jon always thought, since she had been a healthy child before their parents were killed. Unlike Kai, who had struggled simply to breathe since the day he was born.
Jon sighed heavily at the memories of cradling his brother to sleep, doing his best to ease Kai's ragged breathing. They'd had a connection, the two of them, that even their parents hadn't understood. Jon had always thought of it as a kind of sixth sense, or perhaps it was simply intuition of the kind you read mothers having for their children, knowing instinctively when something was wrong with one of them. It was a feeling Jon had always carried around with him, even before Kai was born and was still in their mother's womb. Maybe it was simply Jon's natural proclivity toward worry and anxiety, but at least when they were younger, before their parents' deaths, Jon had always seemed to know when Kai would need him and what he needed. Much the way some people could predict and sense a change in the weather, Jon seemed to know his brother.
As Jon pushed his way into the dark apartment, he realized that now that Kai was potentially cured of his FS, and with his MLS not posing anything life-threatening, at least not for several years, he could relax. Kai would be OK. But still, that worrying part of him buzzed, as if it weren't ready to be set aside. Jon tried to convince himself it was simply a matter of habit, that vigilance that Kai would have a major attack or develop a deadly pneumonia at any time a remnant of so many years of tension. But then Jon would reassure himself again that he was simply channeling the risks of being a transplant patient into his usual anxiety, something to fill the void. Kai still had the chance of rejection, of fibrosis, of opportunistic infection, but while these were all real threats, Kai had already survived the most treacherous periods--the first hours post-surgery, the first month, the first three months, the first year, and so far, Kai had been healthier than he'd ever been in his life.
Jon knew he should find all of it comforting, but he couldn't. Instead of being the calm after the storm, it felt more like the eye of the hurricane, the storm behind him, but also swirling dangerously toward him again, threatening to bring even more chaos in its wake. Kai was already asleep; unlike Jon, he was pretty responsible with his health on most days, dutifully taking his medicine on time and resting when his body called for it, but he'd left a note, indicating there was leftover cheese pizza in the fridge if Jon was hungry. Jon laughed as he read the postscript, scribbled in Kai's slanting caps, underlined for emphasis, "CHECK YOUR BLOOD SUGAR."
Sighing, Jon pulled open a drawer and took out the kit he kept in the kitchen, quickly pricking his finger and waiting for the reading while he grabbed a slice of pizza out of the fridge. He knew the carbs in the pizza would spike his blood glucose, but as low as it was right now, the candy wearing off, he could afford it. Not in the mood to wait for it to heat, he took a bite of the cold slice just at the reading registered.
The apartment was quiet; the only sound the soft hum of the fridge behind him as he chewed on the cold pizza. As he expected, his sugar was low, but not dangerously so, and the pizza would ameliorate that quickly. The silence surrounded him, reminding Jon why, especially while Kai was too sick to live here, that he so often fell asleep at his desk or curled up on the small couch in the corner of his office. Not wanting to risk a full second slice, Jon ate the cheese off instead, then checked his sugar yet again, a yawn stretching his mouth as his exhaustion began to sink in. He had a presentation to make to some of the medicine residents tomorrow morning. It wasn't officially a Ground Round, especially since some of the internists frowned at Jon's eccentricities, but despite his youth, he was considered one of the best pulmonlogists on staff, and pulmonology and critical care were essential parts of the internal medicine curriculum.
Tossing the tester back in its bag, Jon grabbed an insulin syringe from the fridge, lifted his shirt, pinched the skin, and injected himself, remembering he'd have to switch sites for his morning dose. Carefully disposing the needle in the sharps container he kept for the purpose, Jon trudged toward the back hall where their bedrooms were.
As he passed, Jon noticed Kai's door was slightly ajar. He could hear the soft, subtle snore of Kai's breath as he slept; even post-transplant, Kai's breath was noisier than most, although it was low and even and not labored the way it once was. Jon resisted the urge to pop his head in and confirm that Kai was OK. Again, after so many years, it was a struggle for Jon to remember that Kai was all right, that perhaps the worst was behind him. Reflexively, Jon pulled his fingers through his hair as he turned toward his own bedroom.
Jon's room was small and neat, spartan, Kai had teased him when Jon first brought his brother to the apartment. Kai knew Jon's adoptive father had made some money in various business interests and Jon had been fortunate enough to grow up in a comfortable environment--a far cry from the home where Kai had lived as a child. Still, Jon spent very little time here, and as it was, was a man of few needs and desires.
Jon finally slipped out of his white coat, its pockets heavy with small reference books, hanging it on the coat hanger that stood near his single dresser. He toed off his shoes, nudging them toward the base of the rack, and stared at his face in the mirror for a moment. During the decade of their separation, Jon had hated to look at his reflection, because he saw Kai in it every time he looked, and for years Jon had been unable to determine if Kai was even still alive, so that it was almost as if his brother haunted him in every mirror.
Like Kai, Jon was tall and lean, although his frame was narrower and less muscular, and despite years of insulin treatment for his diabetes, extremely thin. But their faces were nearly identical; Jon's nose perhaps angled a bit sharper, his lips finer, his jaw just a hint more square. Jon's eyes were nearly twins to his brother's as well, but older, faded, less the brilliant Caribbean-sea blue of Kai's and more of a misty grey, with lines of age and worry marking their corners. Like his eyes, Jon's hair was also a softer mirror of Kai's; less golden and more wheaten, like a brilliant fabric left too long in the sunlight, stripping it of its once lustrous color. And though Jon was only eight years older than Kai, he seemed much older, especially when he was tired like this, dark circles under each grey eye, the shade of stubble on his cheeks.
In fact, they looked so much alike, their differences so subtle, that if it weren't for age, they could easily pass as identical twins. As Jon shrugged out of his tie, shirt, and pants, he wondered what the two of them may have been like if things had been different; would Jon have been able to table his anxiety over his brother enough to keep him youthful so that their age difference narrowed, at least in Jon's face? Jon shook his head as he realized Kai's lungs had begun to fail him at just 18, and even their parents, even being together as a family for those twelve extra years, wouldn't have changed that.
Jon collapsed in his bed, pulling the sheets over his naked body as he shut out the light. He disliked teaching residents, mostly because most internists planned on becoming GPs who didn't care about critical care and whose only pulmonary concerns were asthma, occasionally pneumonia or COPD. Or, worse, they had their eyes on a fellowship, something glorified like interventional cardiology and yawned behind their hands when Jon stressed the importance of understanding the pulmonary curves and how that related to proper ventilatory management. As much as he tried to stress the importance of understanding, preventing, and treating ARDS--the subject of tomorrow's lecture--he knew most of them only wanted to know the minimum required for their boards, content in the fact that someone like him would be managing their patients' respiratory care.
Jon rolled over, a sigh mixed with a groan escaping his lips. Maybe he should take Kai up on his suggestion of a vacation. A few days of relaxation might do him good. Jon laughed as he adjusted his pillow. Relaxation. Kai was right. That was a word Jon had no understanding of.