Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "By Nature Too Complicated"

This poem came out of the September 2015 Creative Jam. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] alexseanchai. It also fills the "trust issues" square in my 6-16-15 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest, and the "suspicious" square in my 8-31-15 card for the Tones Bingo fest. It has been sponsored by [personal profile] stardreamer. It belongs to the Antimatter & Stalwart Stan thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem is about Shiv. The inside of his head is a pretty messed-up place. Highlight if you want to read the more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. There are awkward interpersonal dynamics, severe trust issues, minor medical details, uncomfortable conversations, painful attempts at apology, conflicted emotions, and other angst. But you can see little glimpses of hope here and there. If these are touchy issues for you, please consider your taste and headspace before clicking through.

"By Nature Too Complicated"

The morning after Shiv's injury,
Dr. Bloch came to his room, and
a guard opened the door for him.
The doctor carried what looked like
a white tacklebox with a green handle,
marked with a first aid sign on the side.

"You make housecalls?" Shiv wondered,
not budging from his bed. Everything ached,
even through the soft cushion of the pills
he'd taken as soon as he woke up.

"I do when the situation warrants it,"
said Dr. Bloch. "Right now it's better
for you to minimize movement, and if
I'd sent a stretcher team, that would have
just put you in a foul mood. My legs are in
perfect working order, so I came to you."
He tapped one foot against the floor.

Shiv gave a faint chuckle. "I guess
that makes sense," he allowed.
"Still big of you to give me a break."
When people did things for him
without naming a price, it always
made him suspicious about
their real motivations.

Better than getting dragged through
the halls like a cheap package,

though, he admitted.

"Here, I brought you a wedge pillow
for support," the doctor said, showing him
a white foam shape. "You can keep this.
Let me give you a hand sitting up."

"Yeah, fine," Shiv said. He didn't
want the assistance, he just hated
floundering helplessly more than
he hated hands on him.

It wasn't pleasant, but Dr. Bloch
had a particular trick to it, rolling Shiv
onto his side and then lifting him up
to keep his back as steady as possible
so as not to aggravate the bruises.

The pillow helped, some kind of
memory foam under plain white cotton,
that melted against Shiv's back to keep him
propped securely against the wall behind his bed.

"How's your TCL?" said Dr. Bloch.

"What?" Shiv asked,
his suspicion spiking again.

"Total Comfort Level," the doctor said.
"I went over this yesterday, but you were
pretty strung out at the time, so I'm not
surprised it didn't stick. It just means we
factor in all the things that make you feel
better or worse -- the pain from your injuries,
whether you find medication soothing or
irksome, and I know full well that you
consider dealing with me a nuisance --
that sort of thing. Look, there's a form."

Shiv watched as Dr. Bloch showed him
on the tablet, a list of questions that put
their answers into a little grid, where
1 was miserable and 10 was terrific.
There was even space for Shiv
to add his own items to the list.

He shivered. That was a lot
of information to give up, and
all of it could be used against him.
As much as Shiv wanted to feel better,
he hesitated to reveal so much.

Fear and courage scraped
against each other.

"Huh," he said, slowly poking
at the screen of the tablet.

"Fill out as much or as little as
you choose," said Dr. Bloch.
"The more detail you give,
the more I can help, and
it's all confidential."

At least this way I can
pick and choose,
Shiv thought.

So he filled out the form,
adding a few lines of his own,
and watched the tally shift.

By the time he finished,
it settled at six, at the top
of the uncomfortable range.

"It's fine?" Shiv said.
"I just got pounded yesterday,
I don't expect to feel good about it.
I'm okay as long as I don't move much,
and you told me not to anyhow."

"Let's see how you did," said Dr. Bloch.
He used a set of sliding bars to change
the levels of individual questions and show
how that affected the total. "You did a great job.
See, you're right in the middle of the sweet spot.
You've got another notch higher on painkillers
if you need it, but any more than that would
make you feel worse instead of better."

It was weird getting praise like that,
and even weirder that a doctor wasn't
trying to order him around. "So ... fine?"

"Yes, it's fine," said Dr. Bloch.
"Now let me take care of your face."

He handed Shiv a towel to cover
eyes, nose, and mouth. The liquid skin
applied earlier had formed a protective coat
over the raw cheek, which now had to be
dabbed with some kind of remover and
carefully lifted away. It felt like picking at
a sunburn that wasn't quite ready to peel.

"Ah, that's healing beautifully," Dr. Bloch
said on a happy note. "No sign of infection
or fever, minimal redness, and the swelling
is already starting to subside. This will be cold."

The anaesthetic spray still felt like ice, but once
that was done, Shiv could take off the towel.
He felt better when he could see around.

"It's really not bad?" he asked,
trying not to move his face. It was
hard for Shiv to trust anyone's honesty.

"So far, so good," said Dr. Bloch.
"No guarantees yet, but you're already
past the worst risk from the floor dirt. If it
was going to be a disaster, then we'd know
by now. As long as you keep taking good care
of yourself, the prognosis is excellent."

That was a relief. Shiv really
didn't want scars on his face,
which was why he put up with
all this extra fussing around.
"Good to hear," he said.

In some ways it was easier
to deal with the handling today
than yesterday, because he only had
the drugs clouding his awareness, not
that and the crash after the fight,
so he could think better.

In other ways it was harder,
because he had less insulation
against the uncomfortable feelings,
thus more of a strain to sit still
and let the doctor touch him
without trying to fight back.

I really hate this, Shiv thought.

"Would you care to tell me what
I'm doing wrong?" said Dr. Bloch.
"You've got a death grip on the bed."

Shiv rolled his eyes down, and yes,
he was clutching the mattress hard enough
to make his knuckles turn white.

"It's not wrong. It's just ... different,"
he said slowly. "It's not like anything
I know from before, and I can't tell
what you're going to do next."

The contradictions itched at him,
how Dr. Bloch could be so stern
and yet so gentle at the same time,
why the prison was even bothering
to take such good care of a crook.

"What I'm going to do next is
put on a fresh layer of liquid skin,"
Dr. Bloch said as he shook the bottle.

The sharp smell of it made Shiv flinch,
but at least he couldn't feel it going on
over the raw patch of skin. The doctor
checked the smaller scrapes too,
all healing well enough.

"Are we done?" Shiv asked,
tugging his hands away. He hadn't
bargained for the rest of it, only his face.

"Almost done," said Dr. Bloch.
"Sit up a bit so I can see your back."

Grumbling, Shiv leaned away from
the comfortable embrace of the pillow.
Hurry the fuck up and leave me alone.

Dr. Bloch tugged his shirt up and ran
gentle hands over Shiv's waist. "Well, you're
black and blue from here to here --" He
measured the area with light touches.
"-- but there's almost no swelling."
He pulled the shirt back down.

Then Shiv's belly growled.

"I'll let the kitchen know to send
your breakfast over," said Dr. Bloch.
"Do you have anything against
drinking it? That would be
easier on your face today."

"Like what?" Shiv said.
He hated the so-called
'meal shakes' but right now
he didn't want to chew either.

"Fruit smoothies, vegetable smoothies,
rice or wheat cereal thinned with milk,"
said Dr. Bloch. "I'll write a prescription."

Shiv perked up at that. This means
I won't have to spend points to get
something other than the usual slop

He remembered one time when
he'd gotten sick and his foster mother
had tempted him with special treats.
"Do you have CocoWheats?" he asked.

"We do, and that makes a chocolate smoothie
which is both tasty and nutritious," said Dr. Bloch
as he packed up his supplies to go.

That left Shiv alone with his thoughts,
by nature too complicated for him
to make heads or tails of, the way
everything tangled up inside.

Not long after the doctor left,
one of the guards arrived with
a plastic tumbler full of brown stuff
and a folding table on wheels.

"You can keep the table as long
as you don't abuse the privilege,"
the guard said as he unfolded it.

That made it a lot easier for Shiv to get
his mouth around the wide straw, without
having to support the tumbler. Moving still
made his ribs ache in a fuzzy, distant way.

Oh, but that breakfast smoothie was
worth it. The taste rolled over his tongue
in waves of warm chocolate, rich with
something else that might have been
banana or some kind of nut butter.
Not as sweet as he liked it, but it
filled the gnawing ache in his middle.

Shiv licked his lips after he finished it.
I wonder if I could cadge the recipe
from Dr. Bloch or the kitchen staff.

By then his back was bothering him more,
so he pushed away the table and
stretched out on his bed.

He learned that tucking the wedge pillow
under his knees helped amazingly,
making him comfortable enough
that he soon dozed off.

The clatter of the lock
startled Shiv awake, his back
throbbing protest at the tension.

"Staff business, Shiv, I'm
coming in with a guest. You
can stay put," Rosie said
as the door swung open.

"Nng," Shiv grumbled,
trying and failing to get
comfortable again.

"Did we come at a bad time?"
Rosie asked with a frown.

"Was napping," Shiv admitted.

Rosie winced. "Next time,
I'll call ahead even if it is
staff business," he said.

"So what's the big deal?"
Shiv asked, hoping to get it
over with as quickly as possible.

"Mr. Vanburen has something
to say to you," Rosie said,
beckoning to the larger man
who stood behind him.

Shiv recognized the guard who
had pounded him into the cafeteria floor,
a stocky fellow whose broad face currently
had lines between the eyebrows.

Now there's a meeting that I
could've done without,
Shiv thought.

Mr. Vanburen stood at attention
with his hands clasped behind him,
until Rosie touched his shoulder
to urge him into the room's solitary chair.

Shiv wondered at the lack of formality,
then realized that Rosie had done it
so the man wouldn't keep looming
over the bed like that.

The guard looked at him,
looked away, and then dragged
his attention back into place.

It made Shiv feel like a boss
who'd called someone on the carpet,
even if he was in bed instead of
behind a proper desk.

"Spit it out," Shiv said.

"During yesterday's incident,
I tackled you, punched you after
you went down, and then hit you
harder for shouting a warning,"
Mr. Vanburen said.

"Yeah, I remember," Shiv said.

"I read the list of your injuries
when I signed the report,"
the guard went on, his face
folding in on itself. "Pretty bad.
I shouldn't have done that.
I apologize for my mistake."

"Umm ..." Shiv was at a loss.
People didn't apologize to him.

"I found out later that you
saved Ragno's life, and you kept
a weapon of mass destruction from
spreading through the prison,"
said Mr. Vanburen. "I'm sorry
about the Jump Up Johnny.
That's not what we aim
to teach people here."

"Uh huh," Shiv said.
He wasn't any kind of hero;
it had been fear more than courage
that drove him to help Ragno.
He couldn't stand the idea
of chayne getting loose.

"I'll try to do better in the future,"
the guard said, leaning forward.
"I'm willing to offer reparations
if you want to negotiate that.
Will you please forgive me?"

Shiv got so flustered over the idea
of reparations -- because why would
anyone volunteer for that? -- he
lost track of the conversation.

Rosie cleared his throat and
tapped gently on the bedframe
with the toe of his shoe.

Shiv felt torn between saying
yes and no. Then he recalled
something that he had read in
an exercise on relationships.
"I hear you," he recited.

"Was there anything that I
could have done differently?"
Mr. Vanburen asked, his voice taut
"Any clue that I might have missed?"

Shiv shook his head sharply.
"Nothing you could have done,"
he said. "Chayne's wicked stuff.
By the time you can see it from
more than a few feet away,
it's already too late."

Silver chains wrapping around raw meat ...

"Oh," said the guard.
"I was hoping that --"

"Can we not talk about this
anymore please," Shiv said
through his teeth.

"All right, Travis, that's enough,"
Rosie said, unexpectedly
coming to Shiv's rescue.

"I'm sorry," the guard said again.

"Shiv, take some time to think it over,
would you please?" said Rosie.
"We can revisit this topic after you're
feeling better. We just didn't want
to leave it too long, and risk you
thinking it was forgotten."

Why would that matter?
Shiv wondered, but he
nodded so that Rosie
would maybe quit pushing.

"I wish you a speedy recovery,"
Mr. Vanburen said, that formal note
back in his voice as he stood up
to let himself out of the room.

"You handled that fairly well,"
Rosie said, hanging behind.

"Fuck, Rosie, I'm too stoned
to think about this shit," Shiv said.
"Half of me wants to take him for
everything he's worth, and the other
half wants to never see him again.
I dunno what the hell to do."

Rosie just chuckled. "I should
start calling you ECR Boy," he said.

"What?" Shiv said.

"Emotionally Complex Response,"
said Rosie. "It means that you feel
more than one way about the same thing."

"I usually feel like that," Shiv said,
wondering why it was even worth noticing.

"ECR Boy," said Rosie again.

Shiv wrinkled his nose.
"Hate that nickname."

"Ah well, you should have
thought of that before you
started calling me Rosie,"
the counselor scolded.
"Two can play at that game."

Shiv realized that Ambrose
was actually teasing him, which
was downright unprofessional
and made him so homesick
that he had to close his eyes
against the sudden sting of it.

I am so fucking screwed.

"Yeah," he managed to say.
"You got me good, Rosie."

A warm hand touched his ankle,
startlingly warm on the bare skin
above his sock. "Get well soon,"
the counselor said gently.

"Trying to, if some people
would buzz off and let me rest,"
Shiv snarked back.

"If that's what I can do for you,
then I'll get right on it," Rosie said,
and headed for the door.

The heat of his hand, however,
lingered long after he had gone,
and it pressed against tender places
in Shiv's mind left by the discussion.

What'd they have to go and
do that for?
he wondered.

Shiv felt tempted to take advantage
of every weakness, and yet something
made him hold back. It was oddly appealing
to have someone care about hurting him, and
regret it, as if that was a thing that mattered.
Fear and courage, trust and suspicion ...

His feelings tangled around each other,
snarled like abandoned yarn, and
followed him down into sleep.

* * *


* * *
Travis Vanburen -- He has pinkish-fair skin, brown eyes, and dark brown hair buzzed short. He has a large frame and a layer of padding over his muscles. Smarter than he looks, Travis does best with emotional intelligence and also excels at convincing people to do what he wants. He is fair and honest. He works as a guard at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. On the downside, Travis often jumps into situations before he has all the information needed to make the right decision. He's serious about making amends for his mistakes, though. After beating up Shiv, he makes a point of apologizing.
Qualities: Good (+2) Conscience, Good (+2) Convincing People, Good (+2) Model Train Collector, Good (+2) Smarter Than He Looks, Good (+2) Strength
Poor (-2) Jumps to Conclusions

* * *

"Truth is, I'll never know all there is to know about you just as you will never know all there is to know about me. Humans are by nature too complicated to be understood fully. So, we can choose either to approach our fellow human beings with suspicion or to approach them with an open mind, a dash of optimism and a great deal of candour."
-- Tom Hanks

This is the tacklebox style first aid kit. The green-and-white markings are popular for non-emergency supplies. In this instance, Dr. Block keeps the empty case available to fill with whatever he needs for a given trip.

People may recoil from kindness or affection due to past trauma. Abusers often groom victims in ways which make them distrust gifts or favors. Shiv is comfortable trading, but only on a very explicit level. Understand how to deal with gifts that have strings attached, and how to give gifts without them.

A bed wedge pillow makes a great back or knee rest.

A difficult background or learning disabilities may make it hard for people to request or receive help. They may also refuse for practical reasons. Know how to respond when someone doesn't want your help. One productive tactic is simply to wait until you have a very tempting offer: something that can be done quickly, easily, and effectively when the potential recipient is rather desperate. The chance of acceptance is higher, and if you can demonstrate that your help works and you're not a dick about it, then the person may become more willing to accept future offers. It takes time and work to stop thinking of accepting help as a weakness, though.

Total Comfort Level is a Terramagne-American scoring system for measuring how people feel when sick or injured, based on tracking individual issues. Pain, nausea, dealing with the health care system, seeing a doctor/nurse, taking medication, being stuck in bed, etc. are all common things to track. The numbers can be averaged to see the general level of comfort, or viewed individually to make sure that no one item goes too high. Similarly, effort goes into ensuring that the help given does not make one area spike while producing only mild improvement in the target area, because that can cause the person to feel worse overall instead of better. This is particularly a concern for soups, people with allergies, and people with mental challenges. Since high levels of discomfort interfere with recovery, keeping the levels low tends to improve outcomes. Generally 1-3 is the bad range, 4-6 is uncomfortable, 7-9 is okay, and 10 is terrific.

Childhood trauma often causes serious trust issues. These relationship complications are difficult to work through.

You can see Shiv constantly weighing the risks vs. benefits of every exchange. Here's a worksheet for that process. Living in a disadvantaged environment changes the way people think about these things. In some places, help is readily available; in others, any weakness makes you a target.

Hot smoothies are popular in winter or for comfort food, as are hot cereals such as CocoWheats. I couldn't find an exact match, but here's a warm chocolate smoothie and one that uses banana and wheat germ.

Apologies have several important parts. In this case, the guard knows what he's doing, although he probably asked Ambrose for backup just to make sure he gets it right. And yes, he really is apologizing because he feels bad about injuring someone, not merely to cover his own ass. Not forgiving someone can be stressful, but trying to process an apology can be a burden. Sometimes there are good reasons not to accept an apology. There are tips for how to accept an apology, and what to do if you apologize and the person stays mad at you. Shiv is floundering here because the level of emotional intelligence required to handle such a complicated incident is waaayyy over his head; the best he can do is parrot things he's read in educational resources recently. But at least he has those tools now.

Jump Up Johnny is when someone does a good deed and gets criticized or attacked for it; this usually, though not always, refers to superpowers. It is frowned upon because it can shift people toward the supervillain side of the spectrum.

Emotionally Complex Response is one term for having mixed feelings. Learn how to sort through your emotions.

Teasing has its ups and downs. "Two can play at that game" is a version of teasing back. Shiv just plain likes it rough in most aspects of his life, which includes humor that stings a bit. The only kind of affection that really feels good to him is picking on each other. Almost the only people who do that are supervillains or other criminals, so of course it makes Ambrose stand out when he's willing to go there with Shiv.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, family skills, fantasy, fishbowl, life lessons, poem, poetry, reading, writing
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