In/Exhale: Season Two Excerpt

 

 

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 as parents gossiped eagerly with each other, catching up, and the occasional 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.

 

#

 

 
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 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.
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