“The coffee ready yet?” Art called, coming in from the back room.
“Almost,” Renee said, standing on a step ladder, pouring the water into the machine.
“Good. The ASL story hour is at ten, and a lot of people from the Deaf Community come out of the woodwork. I want to make sure everyone has coffee if they want it.”
Renee finished and started climbing down, glancing over at Art, who was pushing a little rolling cart stacked with folding chairs. “Is this something you do often?”
Art sighed. “I used to do it monthly, but the volunteer had her own baby and had to stop. This is the first month in a long time that I was able to find someone else to fill in.”
“I’ll get this started and meet you in the children’s section to get those set up?”
“Sounds good,” Art said, calling over his shoulder. “Make sure there are plenty of cups and sugar and all of that before you do.”
“Of course, si—Art,” Renee said. Even after a couple months, she still sometimes slipped into “sir” instead of the requested first name; her grandparents manners were drilled into her brain.
A few minutes later, Renee was just finishing setting up the chairs for the parents when she heard the chime of the front door, indicating someone was here. It wasn’t quite nine yet, when they officially opened, so she jogged out to the main area of the store to investigate. Her heart did a delightful skip when she saw a familiar blond figure in a wheelchair roll in.
He didn’t notice her immediately, but when he did, his face lit up, and he pushed closer, gliding to a stop just a foot away. “Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” she echoed, her chest suddenly tight and her cheeks flushed. “We don’t open for another ten minutes, but I suppose I can help you if you need anything?”
Kai smiled, shook his head. “I know I’m early, but I figured that gives me time to pick out the books.”
Renee’s eyebrows crawled together in confusion. “Books?”
Before Kai could respond, Art appeared, rushing up to Kai and patting him enthusiastically on the back. “So glad you could make it. The kids have really missed out the past few months.”
Kai and Art shook heartily, but Kai laughed at the bewilderment that was evident on Renee’s face. “I’m guessing he didn’t tell you I’m the replacement.”
Art shrugged. “I try not to get involved,” he said, but he flashed a crafty smile as he muttered something about double-checking the register and disappeared, leaving them alone.
“So . . . when did Art ask you about doing this?”
Kai pushed toward the children’s section. “Last week.”
“And you said yes? I thought you were avoiding here because of me.”
“I was. I didn’t tell him yes until yesterday.” Kai disappeared into the shelves, his back to her, so she couldn’t read his expression. Although, with Kai, even seeing his face may not have clued her in. But surely it meant something if he had only agreed to do this after reconnecting with her, right? And as good an actor as Kai may be, he couldn’t possibly have faked the look on his face when he first saw her. It made Renee smile.
The space between the children's’ bookshelves was a little tighter than elsewhere in the store, and Kai pulled himself along slowly by gripping the shelves on each side as he scanned the titles.
“What are you looking for?”
He paused, dipped his head back to look up at her. “Something to read to the kids?”
She stuck her tongue out. “What about Dr. Seuss? All kids love him.”
“Yeah, most deaf people can’t appreciate rhyme in the same way that hearies can,” Kai explained, pulling out a book and flipping through it. “I can interpret, of course, but I’d rather do something else that translates better. Preferably something that will help reinforce signs they already know and maybe teach them some new ones.”
“What about Amelia Bedlia? I used to love those when I was a kid.”
Kai replaced the book he’d been skimming and pulled himself farther down the row. “I don’t know those. Jon read to me before our parents died, but after that, my access to books was more limited.” Kai shrugged.
“Oh, it’s about this maid who takes everything literally, so like, she’s told to draw the drapes, so she takes a sketch pad and draws them. Or she’s told to dress the chicken for dinner, so she puts clothes on it.”
Kai reached the edge of the row, so he was able to turn around. She couldn’t read his expression, but his head was tilted to the side slightly. “Draw the drapes,” Kai said as he signed, making an outline of curtains in the air with his spread fingers, bringing them out, then down. Next, he held his hands up, flat, palms out, bringing them together so his thumbs touched. “Draw the drapes,” he repeated in English, this time holding his left hand out and guiding his pinky along his palm, as if he were scribbling on it. “Wordplay like that rarely translates from English to ASL.”
“I’m sorry,” Renee said, staring at her foot as she toed the floor, embarrassed.
“Hey,” he said, reaching out for her, his fingertips just touching her; it was enough to send that wonderful tingle coursing through her, taking away some of her embarrassment. “You’re used to thinking in English. It’s OK. Just . . . imagine you were going to read one of these books, but in French instead of the way it’s written, in English. Think visually. Books where there’s a lot of visual storytelling. Or books that teach colors and numbers and things like that.”
“You act like you’ve done this before.”
Kai shrugged. “Something like that.”
Renee held in a sigh at Kai’s usual noncommittal response, but she let it be. With Kai, it seemed she’d have to choose her battles, and this wasn’t one worth pursuing, at least not right now. Renee followed Kai to an endcap, where a few new releases were displayed alongside some classics.
“Oh, I was obsessed with this book,” Kai said, plucking a copy of the Velveteen Rabbit and flipping through it. “Jon read it to me.” Kai turned a few pages, scanning the text. “I used to wonder if I wasn’t ‘Real,’ and if that’s why I was so broken,” Kai said in a whisper. “I thought, maybe if the rabbit could become Real, I could, too.” He sighed, set the book in his lap. “Real isn’t how you are made,” Kai said, as if quoting, his fingertip tracing the outline of the rabbit on the cover, “but something that happens to you when you’re loved. When you’re Real, you don’t mind being hurt. Once you are Real, you can’t be ugly.”
Renee laid a hand on his shoulder, relieved when he accepted her touch by reaching up and resting his hand on top of hers, only for a moment before looking up at her. His eyes were filled with a depth of emotion she couldn’t quite extract, like staring at the back of a weaving and trying to interpret the picture on the other side.
She squeezed around him, jogging down the shelves till she found what she was looking for, pulling it out and returning to show him. “What about this one?”
Kai blinked, shook his head, as if he’d been lost in thought before finally reaching out and accepting the book. He flipped through it. “ The Very Hungry Caterpillar . Oh, this is perfect, Re.”
She loved hearing her name abbreviated like that, since he was the only one who ever did, and it rolled off his tongue, deep and open and bright. “It’s beautiful to look at, and it’s got a lot of learning stuff in it. Fruits and colors and numbers and things like that.”
He smiled at her, tucked the books between his legs to make sure they wouldn’t fall, and wheeled toward the reading area, laying them out on the folding chair Renee had assumed the reader was going to sit in.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to read these, so I can start thinking of how I’ll interpret them. Especially the Velveteen Rabbit . It’s been a long time and that one’s a bit more complex.”
“Oh. OK. Well, uh, I’ll be in the front if you need me.”
Kai smiled. “You should watch, if you can. You know, later.” He blushed slightly.
Renee nodded, then, at the last minute, rushed up and stole a quick kiss. She wanted to tell him something cheesy, like he felt Real to her, but flushed deep red instead at the mere thought, so held her tongue. “Uh, good luck with the kids. I’ll talk to you after?”
He nodded. “Maybe I’ll even convince Art to let me steal you away for lunch.”
Art hadn’t been joking about how the place would fill up for the story hour. Though the store was packed with parents and children, instead of the din of multiple conversations, she merely heard the slap of skin against skin and the occasional inarticulate sound as parents gossiped eagerly with each other, catching up, and the thunderous footsteps and cackles of children playing and chasing one another. Renee found herself entranced by the conversations, how animated they were, involving much more than just hands.
After a few moments, one of the mothers helped settle all the children, and Kai rolled in, taking his place at the front. Some of the mothers took the chairs Art and Renee had laid out earlier, but there were more adults than chairs, so many simply stood toward the back, waiting. Renee had never been around deaf people before, let alone so many, and she felt a bit awkward, not knowing what to say or do, so she found a spot in the back, where she could still see, and decided to take up Kai’s invitation to watch.
Kai began to sign, his hands moving, his face shifting, that expressiveness put to beautiful use.
“Are you Renee?” one of the moms whispered, leaning in. “Art told me he had hired someone new.”
“You speak English,” Renee said, half surprised and half relieved.
The woman laughed. “Pam. My husband’s deaf, and so are our children. They were so excited when I told them ASL story hour was back.”
Renee nodded. “What’s he saying?”
“He’s introducing himself, inviting them to ask questions. They’re asking about his wheelchair.”
Renee mimicked the sign she’d seen Kai make, his hands on each side, as if he were pushing his wheels. “This means wheelchair ?” Renee asked.
Pam nodded. “He’s explaining that walking is difficult for him, so his wheelchair helps. Oh, now he’s asking the kids what color it is.”
Renee watched as the kids raised their hands, palms flat, thumbs folded, waving them in the air. Kai smiled and nodded his fist, repeated the sign. “ Blue ?” Renee asked, also imitating this sign.
Pam nodded, grinning. “Now he’s asking them what their favorite colors are. And pointing out some examples of each. That’s wonderful; he’s really reinforcing what they know, engaging them. The other reader wasn’t like that at all.”
Renee couldn’t help smiling.
“Now he’s explaining he’s going to read them two stories, one short one and one longer one.”
Renee watched Kai show off the book, holding it up with one hand and signing with the other, his hand in a kind of claw shape, drawing it down sternly over his torso, then folding his left arm and inching a finger along it, his mouth moving a little, but no sound coming out, his eyebrows arching slightly when he did what had to be the sign for “caterpillar.” He looked at the children, his eyebrows scrunching together, leaning forward, his right hand splayed on his side, palm up, fingers slightly curled, as if to say, “huh?” He pointed to the picture of the caterpillar on the cover, then repeated the sign, then held up his fist and moved through several motions involving his fingers, then pointed to the printed word.
“He’s teaching them the sign for caterpillar, and spelling it out for them, too, so they can start to associate the English word with the ASL sign. Wonderful.”
Kai opened the book, making sure everyone got a chance to see the first illustration, then he laid it face down in his lap and began telling the story. Renee found him a delight to watch; he was so expressive, his signing such that she could almost understand him (knowing the story helped, too). Occasionally, he’d pause to show them the picture, explaining a sign and/or spelling it out, as he had with “caterpillar.” Apple, strawberries, oranges, etc. Kai used his entire upper body, hands, arms, and face to tell the story. Even though Renee couldn’t completely follow everything, it was wonderful to watch. He was having fun, and the kids were, too, and they were learning in the process.
Renee found the part where the caterpillar eats all kinds of strange things particularly entertaining, as Kai went through the different foods, excited and eagerly “devouring” the cake, frowning at the pickle, making little asides to point out what she assumed meant he “loved” or “hated” a particular food, then apparently asking the kids for their favorites, seeing a chorus of signs she couldn’t identify, but she could see the other moms looking on approvingly.
She had to cup her hand over her mouth when she began to laugh as he signed out the stomachache the caterpillar got from eating all of that, hands on his stomach, an exaggerated frown on his face. She noticed Kai raised a single brow and met her eyes for a microscopic instant, but otherwise continued with the story. She had to bite her lip again when he showed how the caterpillar wasn’t little anymore, it was big and fat, gesturing and puffing out his cheeks, even changing the sign for “caterpillar” to indicate it, spreading out his pinkie and thumb as he inched his index finger up along his arm. Pam laughed, too, when she saw how Kai explained what a cocoon was, illustrating the caterpillar wrapping himself up, then pointing to the picture in the book, then spelling out the word.
Finally, he ended with the beautiful butterfly flying away. Renee observed how the children and the parents all raised their hands and shook them. “It’s what we do instead of clapping,” Pam told her. “He’s amazing. I hope Art can convince him to do this again.”
Renee smiled, caught Kai’s eyes. He winked at her before looking back at the kids, asking them something, perhaps about the book, that Renee couldn’t quite make out. But she wanted to. She’d probably never learn to sign as naturally as he did, but she wanted to at least learn some of the basics.
Deafies were notorious for protracted goodbyes—with a visual language like ASL, and a small community, Deaf people didn’t like to turn down the chance to talk to each other face to face. Nevertheless, Kai was surprised, when he reentered the bookstore, to find some of the families from the reading earlier that day still bustling around, and his heart beat a little faster although everything had gone well so far. He’d worried, initially, how the Deafies would receive him, and it was the primary reason he’d avoided the Community the past few years. He had been anxious about the inevitable questions—ones that sometimes came even before introductions were made—about where he learned to sign or where he went to school. Or if he was deaf or hearing. They were questions every Deafie asked someone they met for the first time, but for Kai, they weren’t easy, simple answers. He’d worried about alienating himself again if he answered truthfully, but he didn’t want to get caught in a lie, either. Yes, he’d stayed away from the Community for years, and he’d changed a lot in that time, but Jonesville was a small town, and the Deaf Community, even smaller. His lies would catch up with him and perhaps be worse than the truth.
Fortunately, most of the moms had been too busy collecting children to do more than sign a quick, single-handed “AMAZING” or “THANK-YOU” as they yanked their kid toward the exits. The few who had lingered had accepted the truth: that he went to school at JSD until eighth grade, at which point, because he was an orphan, the state forced him to go to the hearing high school. Instead of more questions, that merely elicited a chorus of sympathy: That must have been awful. How could they do that? They forced you into speech therapy? etc., etc. And it was that simple. Maybe he’d impressed them with his signing enough they assumed he had to be deaf? And why would a hearie go to a deaf school? Still, it was surprisingly relieving to have passed that barrier.
Renee was at the register, smiling and a little harried, ringing up a woman up whose children were racing around one of the display tables, playing tag.
A few other women were in line, and when they saw him, they smiled and waved and thanked him again, in sign, for the wonderful reading, telling him how much their children enjoyed it and how they hoped to see him next month. Another one, Pam, reminded him about the Halloween party at the school for the deaf Tuesday, saying she hoped he’d go. Kai forced a smile that didn’t look fake and signed it depended on whether his Tales from the Crip costume came in or not, overacting the part of a corpse, eyes rolled back, tongue hanging out. He knew she was hearing and would appreciate the pun, though gimp jokes often made people uncomfortable. She froze for a moment, fingerspelled “ C-R-I-P ” back to him, double-checking she’d understood him.
“JOKE ,” Kai signed. “ I’ll think about it.”
Kai didn’t see Pam’s response, because he caught a blur of movement out of the corner of his eye, reaching out reflexively before he could truly process what happened. One of the kids had nearly run into Kai’s chair, stopped only by Kai’s firm grip.
“Be careful,” Kai signed with one hand, before letting the kid go.
The boy stood there for a moment, gaping. “You’re the story man.”
Kai chuckled. “Yes.”
“Are your legs really broken?”
The other kids had realized the game had stopped and had wandered over, standing around so they could see the conversation.
“They don’t work right. But I get to use this cool wheelchair.”
There was a flutter of hands, all wanting to touch it. Kai laughed and nodded, though he gripped his pushrims, keeping his wheels immobile to try to minimize the chance of small fingers accidentally getting pinched.
“When will you be fixed?” the first boy signed.
“I don’t know. Maybe someday,” Kai said.
By now, Pam, apparently the mother of a few of the kids, wandered over and apologized, still a little flustered by Kai’s earlier joke, but Kai waved her off.
“TUESDAY, MAYBE,” Kai signed. “If not, next month,” he said, as a form of goodbye, adding a wave to the children as they were herded away. The young question-asker kept glancing back, finally smiling when Kai waved to him specifically.
A few moments later, and the store was empty. Renee wandered over to him, looking tired. She spotted the bag in his lap. “Is that lunch? I’m starving.”
It felt a little jarring to hear English after his signed conversations, and he had to remember to respond verbally. “Yes. Nancy’s chicken salad?”
Renee practically leapt on him, wrapping her arms around his neck and squeezing. “I could marry you right now.” She pulled back, seemingly not even realizing what she’d said, and added, “Let me just double-check with Art that I can take a break.”
Kai couldn’t help chuckling as he watched her skip off, her curls bouncing. Though he’d been furious with Jon initially, he just had to remember the way he felt every time he kissed her: complete, grounded, and no one else, nothing else mattered suddenly. Renee was a curious person, he could tell that much, but she never seemed to push him too hard. Not like Becca, who was constantly probing and demanding and insisting. Even when he knew he wasn’t fully in control, when he was with Renee, he didn’t feel panicky. Knowing she’d be there—ironically—was the only reason he’d finally agreed to help Art out. And now that he’d done it, seeing the look on her face as she watched him sign. . . .
Kai realized . . . he could love this girl.
“The break room: the height of romance,” Renee joked as she laid out their food.
Kai pushed a chair out of his way so he could pull into the table and help Renee. “I’m not much for traditional romantic gestures. Why be trite when you can be personal? Besides, I’m deathly allergic to pollen.”
“Is that your way of telling me I’ll never get flowers from you?”
“Real ones. Unless you don’t want to see me for a couple weeks afterward.”
Renee laughed as she unwrapped her sandwich. “You couldn’t take an antihistamine and live with watery eyes to make me happy?”
He smiled faintly, rubbed his chest absently. Honestly, he didn’t know how he’d react with his new lungs. Before, a single flower could potentially kill him. But now? He knew dust didn’t affect him as badly as before, though that could also be nerves still healing; his cough response wasn’t what it used to be.
“If that was all it was, I could and I would.” His heart began to race, and he had to hide his hands under the table as he felt them start to tremble. No, please, not now . The hydroxyzine he’d taken that morning as a precaution had probably worn off. He knew he needed to tell her about his transplant, his FS, but. . . . He had to redirect his thoughts before this bubble of anxiety turned into a full-blown panic attack. That’s all he needed, with Renee and her front-row seat to the crazy show.
But then she leaned across the table to lay a hand on his arm, just for a moment, and it was like a wave of calm washed over him. He took a few breaths, looked up at her.
Kai swallowed. “Something like that. I told you there was more than the chair.”
“Flowers are overrated anyway,” she said, casting it off as if it genuinely weren’t a big deal. It made Kai smile despite himself, and though he still felt a flurry of anxiety lingering in his stomach, Renee’s open, honest, carefree acceptance made him feel better. “What’s not overrated is you. You were fantastic.”
Kai shrugged, grateful his hands were still so he could open his soup without spilling it everywhere.
“Really. I mean, I know the moms were gushing over you, even if I couldn’t understand what they were saying. And one of the hearing moms told me you were a million times better than the last reader.”
Kai stared at his soup, stirring it with his plastic spoon as a way to avoid her eyes. “Of course they’re going to tell me I’m wonderful. The last time Art was able to do this was . . . four? five? months ago. They’ll tell me I’m Jesus reincarnated if it means they’ll have one Saturday morning a month they don’t have to be at home with their children running around, driving them crazy.”
Re sighed. “That’s awfully cynical.”
Kai shrugged. Tasted some soup. It had gotten cold, but he swallowed it anyway.
“Do you think . . . do you think I could learn?”
Kai finally looked up. “Learn what?”
“Sign language,” Renee said, smiling, as if she’d wanted to add “silly” to the end of her sentence. She was so beautifully happy all the time. It would have been annoying if he didn’t love that about her so much.
“Most hearies who say they want to learn pick up a couple signs.” He demonstrated the “ I love you ” sign. “That doesn’t mean what you think it does, by the way.” He shrugged again. “And that’s it. Maybe they learn a bit more, but they still basically sign English without caring about ASL grammar, usage, etc. Or learning anything about Deaf culture.”
Renee almost literally deflated, and Kai remembered the other night in his car, when his anger had poured through despite his best efforts to contain it, feeling, again, like an asshole. Here was a woman who calmed his anxiety, who took his escalating amount of crazy in stride, who apparently wanted to learn ASL, and yet he had the portcullis down and the soldiers on the barricades, ready to fire.
He decided maybe it was time to turn down his cynic meter a few notches. “Do you know the alphabet?”
Renee shook her head.
Kai laid his spoon down. “OK. Watch. I’m going to do it fast, first, then slow down and you can do it with me.” Kai blew through the alphabet, correcting her form when she didn’t get it quite right, reminding her to relax her hand—the irony of his telling someone else to relax not escaping him—until she’d gotten the hang of it, more or less. “Practice until you can do it without thinking, and hopefully be able to at least read when someone finger spells their name.”
“Do mine. My name.”
Kai smiled, then finger spelled her first and last name, showing her the signs for name and last name . Simplifying things for her by double-signing the “E’s” in “Renee” instead of sliding.
Kai felt his smile growing; Renee was leaned forward on the table, her eyes sparkling like a little kid’s, engaged, excited, and so incredibly kissable. Without thinking, Kai rapidly fingerspelled his first and last name.
“Whoa. If I didn’t know what you were doing, I’d never get that.”
Kai chuckled. “My name is really easy to fingerspell quickly, especially my first name; the letters all flow into each other. K-A-I . F-O-X .”
She squinted at him, as if assessing him, before sitting back and taking a few bites of her sandwich. Once she’d swallowed, she asked, “If you’re describing someone, do you really do ‘fat’ like you did in the story?” Renee demonstrated, looking adorable, her cheeks puffed out and her hands spread wide at her sides. “Or was that just for the kids?”
“Yes and no. ASL is a visual language. Where English would use a modifier like ‘really’ or ‘very,’ we convey it by the way we sign a word and in our facial expressions. So, like, ‘really tall’ would look like this,” he said, signing by holding his right hand up high above his head, his hand flat, shaking it a bit to emphasize the height, also expressing it on his face, his mouth opening to emphasize extreme height. “And ‘really short’ would be the same, only down here,” he said, using the same gesture but at table height, his facial expression shifting again. “That can also mean ‘little’ as in, ‘when I was little,’ but . . . you’ll learn ASL is heavily context-based.”
She observed him intently the whole time; he could almost see her brain working, absorbing the information greedily as she nibbled her sandwich. “What about colors. I picked up a few from watching you read The Very Hungry Caterpillar , but . . .”
“Sure. COLORS ,” Kai said, holding his spread hand above his mouth, wiggling his fingers slightly. Then he signed through the basic rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, white, black, gray, brown. First, to demonstrate, then again, slower, letting her mimic him, correcting her when necessary.
She picked up quickly, and Kai began to hope maybe she actually would learn, at least enough for basic conversation. His heart did a funny tango in his chest at the thought of being with a woman he could sign with. Even if he had to slow down, even if it wasn’t as smooth as it would be with a native signer. . . .
“So, if I wanted to describe you, I might say, WOMAN, VERY-SHORT, THIN, HAIR BLACK CURLY, EYES GREEN. ” Kai signed slowly, speaking each word so she could clearly see.
“ HAIR ?” Renee asked, mimicking him, her fingers on her head as if she were picking up a piece of hair.
Kai nodded his fist. “ YES. ”
“OK, do you!”
Kai couldn’t help chuckling at her childlike exuberance. “Well, I could cheat and just say, ‘man wheelchair,’” Kai said without signing. “But you wouldn’t learn, would you? MAN VERY-TALL, WHEELCHAIR, HAIR YELLOW!, EYES BLUE! ”
Renee laughed when he signed the colors, quick flicks of his wrist and his eyes bugging out. “That’s the ‘very’ you were talking about before, isn’t it?”
Kai nodded, smiling. “There’s a sign for blond, but ‘hair yellow’ works.”
“OK, one more question,” Renee said, shifting in her seat. “I noticed you did this a few times during the reading.” She held her hand up on one side in a relaxed claw, palm up. “It looked like ‘what’ or ‘huh’?”
“Yes.” He drummed his fingers on the table, thinking. “If I wanted to ask you your name, I’d do it like this. YOU NAME WHAT? ” He pointed to his eyebrows. “My eyebrows, and the way I lean forward, tell you I’m asking a question. Think of it kind of like the ASL equivalent of a question mark, or the inflection you do in spoken English: what is your name?” Kai said, adding a bit extra inflection to the end of the sentence to illustrate his point. “If I were asking a yes or no question, you’d know because my brows would be higher,” Kai said, demonstrating, making Renee laugh. “If I ask you something like that, you know all you need to say is ‘yes’ or ‘no.’” Kai demonstrated the signs for yes and no in turn. “Though it’s polite to sign more than that, to show you’re engaged in the conversation.” He shrugged. “ASL has a lot of body-language and facial-expression elements that indicate grammar.”
Renee’s eyes widened. “Sounds so complicated.”
Kai shrugged. “It’s really not. It’s pretty intuitive, for the most part. It just seems that way once you start breaking it down. English is much, much more complicated.” He stared down at his soup, realizing he needed to eat more of it but not really wanting to. “But that’s one reason most hearing people never really learn to sign well. They keep trying to think in English instead of remembering ASL is its own language with its own rules, and it’s visual .”
Renee studied him a while, an elbow on the table, her hand supporting her head. Finally, she asked, “Do you think I could learn? Really learn?”
“LEARN.” Kai demonstrated the sign for learn , his left hand flat, his right pulling from it toward his head. “Yes. My hearing friend in high school learned from me, though he took classes later to improve his fluency. He’s a certified interpreter now, so it’s definitely possible.”
“How do you say ‘want’?”
Kai demonstrated, his palms up, as if grabbing something and pulling it toward him.
“I really want to learn,” Renee signed, doing her best to put her emphasis on the ‘want’ to show how much she wanted to learn.
A smile blossomed on Kai’s face as a delightful warm feeling filled him, seeing her, after only a few minutes, put a full sentence together.
Yeah, he could definitely love this girl.
“What are you doing Halloween?” Kai blurted.
Renee tilted her head. “Uh, Diane wants me to go to this party the visual art students are throwing, but . . .” She shrugged.
Kai swallowed, reached for her hands. His heart was pounding in his chest, but he decided not to back down. “I volunteered to take some of the kids from the group home where I grew up trick-or-treating at the hospital. Would you . . .” He swallowed, bit his lip. “Want to . . . come with me?”
Her face transformed into confusion and hesitation, pulling her hands away; it made his mostly empty stomach knot and swirl, his pulse at his throat racing so fast it had to be visible. “ Yes ,” she said, signing and speaking, smiling shyly before retaking his hands. “If you really want me there.”
Did he? Want her there? His first time back to County House in years, and he was going to bring Renee with him? “Yes.” He smiled, felt some of his anxiety fading away again as her thumbs stroked the tops of his fingers. “Yes. Yes.”
Jon was just finishing a sandwich and some coffee when he heard the door open, then close, and the slight creak of Kai’s chair as he rolled in. Jon looked up, wondering if he’d get the silent treatment from his brother—who’d been avoiding or ignoring him the past couple days. (Not that it was difficult, since Jon had been working nights most of the week.)
Kai pushed to the table, gliding into his usual spot across from his brother. He signed hello , then drew his pinky in a kind of sideways mirror-image of a “J” on his mouth, like he was drawing a lopsided frown. Jon’s old name sign that Kai had given him when he was little, because Jon rarely smiled and always looked worried. It may have been nearly twenty years since Kai had given his brother the nickname, but it was still pretty true to life. In Deaf culture, you never used a person’s namesign to address them (you simply pointed to indicate where the person was or where they’d been if they’d left the room), but Kai sometimes did it teasingly to emphasize how serious Jon was all the time.
Kai smiled, leaned forward with his elbows on the table, looking amusingly like a puppy waiting for his master to notice him so they could go to the park and play fetch.
Did this mean Kai was talking to him? “I guess everything at Lost Apple went well?”
Kai leaned back so he could sign. “ Renee wants to learn to sign. Really learn. I taught her some basics. She learns really fast. ”
Kai signed almost too rapidly for Jon to catch it, but his work with Megan over the past few weeks had apparently helped, and he was able to glean the meaning despite Kai’s excited, harried signing.
“The girl from the other night?” Jon decided to keep things vague in case that would clam Kai up again, and he wasn’t 100% sure how to sign it.
Kai nodded. “I’m still mad at you for sending her to PT, but I’m also glad you did, so we’ll call it a wash. Deal?”
“Deal.” Jon finished his coffee, checked his watch. He still had a few minutes before he needed to head in, and this was his first time in a while that Kai really felt like talking and wasn’t giving him monosyllabic or single-sign answers. “So this girl . . .”
“ She’s amazing. She’s just so . . . alive. Happy. ” Kai signed with enthusiasm, his excitement coming through with the intensity of his signs, the gleam in his eye that Jon had never seen before. “ She makes me feel . . . calm. Like I can do no wrong. She doesn’t push me or judge me or look at me . . . weird. ” Kai seemed to be choosing his signs carefully, as if he almost couldn’t believe what he was saying. “ I invited her to go with me to CH for Halloween. ”
Jon leaned forward, his eyebrows raised, his index finger drawing out from his mouth toward Kai. “Really?! ”
Kai ducked his head, nodded his fist.
“That’s really great, Kai.”
“I also . . . may go to Deaf Halloween. It’s at the school. . . .”
“Wait.” Jon leaned forward, as if to see Kai better, his eyes narrowed. “You ended your boycott of Lost Apple, made yourself the center of a Deaf event, invited Renee to go to County House with you, and you’re planning on going to Deaf Halloween. After years of staying away from the Community. Who are you, and what have you done with my little brother?”
Kai gripped the edge of the table, used it to push and pull himself away and back toward it over and over. “Art needed help. Dr. Miller says I need to confront my past, and I got excited and invited Renee. And signing today made me remember how much I miss it. Making an appearance at the party won’t kill me.”
Jon pushed himself to his feet, carrying his plate and mug with him to the kitchen. “And this has nothing to do with Renee.” Jon looked over at Kai as he rinsed the items in the sink.
Kai shrugged, the hint of a smile playing at his lips. He rotated back, picking his casters up just a few inches off the floor, carefully balancing in place on his rear wheels. “You working Halloween night?”
Jon noticed Kai’s artful dodge, but said nothing, fishing out his meter and a clean lancet from a drawer and quickly pricking his finger and testing his blood. “Yeah. I get to be the consult for the ER, too. Yay.” Jon left his meter on the table and grabbed a vial of insulin from the fridge. He heard the clack of Kai’s casters hitting the ground. “Basically, I have the schedule from hell until mid November, plus I’m on-call Thanksgiving.” He filled a syringe, still waiting for the meter.
Kai twisted, Jon heard a zip. Some rustling. Then his brother turned back around, offering Jon a book he’d obviously taken out of his bag. Jon accepted it just as his meter beeped, so he left it on the counter while he quickly injected himself.
After tossing the used materials in the sharps bin he kept for the purpose and returning his insulin to the fridge, he examined the book closely, noticing Kai seemed to be silently waiting for Jon's reaction. “Wow. The Velveteen Rabbit. ” Jon flipped through the book, shaking his head. “I didn't think you remembered.”
Just before Thanksgiving, 1983, Jon had woken in the middle of the night to find Kai unconscious, feverish, and barely breathing. It was the sickest Kai had been since he was a baby. Kai spent nearly a month in the hospital, most of the time sedated and on a ventilator, and even though Jon had only been 13, he'd understood how serious it was. Their father had been working nearly seven days a week to pay Kai's medical bills, and their mother had been barely keeping herself together, hardly managing to take care of three-year-old Sara.
So it was Jon who sat with Kai—grateful Kai’s nurses allowed him to be alone with his brother despite his age—whenever he wasn’t in school, reading aloud to him for hours, like Inez would to Martin, not even sure if Kai could hear him or knew he was there, but needing to do something . To be there. And when Kai got a little better, he’d ask Jon to read him the “bunny book.” Every time. Jon nearly had it memorized by the time New Year’s came around.
Was this Kai’s way of saying, without words or signs, Thank you for always being there?
“I kept hoping the fairy would come and make me Real,” Kai said, not meeting his brother’s eyes, tracing a scratch in one of the cabinets with his thumbnail. “Because then I could be like other kids. Like you and Sara. And Mom and Dad would love me.”
“It’s fine, Jon,” Kai said, doing a 180 and heading out of the kitchen. “I just thought you might like a copy.”
Jon raced around, caught Kai before he could escape into the hallway, standing in the doorway to keep Kai’s attention and block his flight. He ignored the glare Kai gave him, which could have leveled a small continent. “Is that why you had me read it to you over and over and over?”
Kai shrugged. “Aren’t you going to be late for work?”
“I have time. Come over here. Don’t make me push you.”
Red had crept up Kai’s neck, but he followed Jon to the living room, saying nothing when Jon perched on the edge of the sofa, looking intently at him. Kai was mad now, but angry was better than shut down. Kai hated to be pushed—physically and emotionally—but if Jon had learned anything the past few weeks, it was that sometimes, that’s exactly what his brother needed.
“Our mother had problems, OK? It meant she wasn’t always there for us, as a mom, the way we needed. And it was like Dad was practically a single parent of four children, Mom included. But he loved you. He was so proud of you. Always.”
Kai blinked at Jon, but his anger had faded. He’d slipped on that mask, that infuriating affectation that made it impossible to know what he was thinking.
“Dad was the one who believed me when I insisted you weren’t retarded. He was the one who helped me fight to get you into the preschool program at the school for the deaf so you could learn ASL.” Jon pushed his fingers through his hair, wondering if he should continue. “He gave you this giant lollipop the first day you walked on your own, at home. It was so big, it made you lose your balance, and you fell. You cried, because you thought he’d take it away from you for falling.” Jon smiled faintly, remembering Kai, as a toddler, so proud of himself once he’d finally mastered his first pair of braces, supporting himself with a wheeled walker to help with his balance. “But he scooped you up, and kissed away your tears, and hugged you tight, and then you shared the candy together.”
Kai’s mask dropped, looking a bit shell shocked. “I . . . I don’t remember that, ” Kai said, shifting to ASL.
“How could you? You weren’t even three.”
“You never . . . talk about them. About me, when I was little, before . . . ” Kai shook his head. “I don’t remember . . . them.”
“So you remember me reading The Velveteen Rabbit to you, in the hospital, when you were five, but you don’t remember our parents?”
A flash of hurt crossed Kai’s face before he quickly suppressed it. “I remember you,” Kai said in a small voice.
Jon sighed, staring at Kai’s hunched shoulders, his elated mood of earlier having completely vanished, trying to formulate what to say—or sign—next. His pager sounded, breaking the moment. Jon resisted checking it. “How about you keep the book. And I promise, we’ll talk later.” Jon took in a breath. “I’ll tell you another story from before. OK?”
“I have to go. You’ll be OK? Don’t lie to me.”
Kai offered a faint smile, nodded again. “ Thanks .”
Kai’s brief sign—his hand flat, drawn out quickly from his lips—was simple, but Jon knew, like the book, it meant more. Jon stood, squeezed Kai’s shoulder as he walked by. I love you, too , Jon thought.