Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "A Heartbeat at My Feet"

This poem is spillover from the October 6, 2015 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] zeeth_kyrah. It has been sponsored by [personal profile] technoshaman. This poem belongs to the series Polychrome Heroics.

WARNING: This poem contains intense content that some readers may find stressful. Highlight to read more detailed warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes graphic description of suicidal behavior on a tall building, a K-9 team also up the building (with safety lines), advanced emotional first aid, references to soup-hostile behavior leading to depression, possible environmental illness, and other challenges. The overall tone is positive, though, and it has a happy ending. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"A Heartbeat at My Feet"

Kayla McIntosh was writing out
the details of her last mission --
a mentally disabled woman who'd
had a meltdown in the courtroom --
when Chief Bosonetto beckoned urgently
for her to join him in his office.

"Looks like we may have
another call, partner," said Kayla.

A red-gold tail wagged as
the golden retriever fell into place
at Kayla's heels. Amber served
as a police therapy dog, and
made the job much easier.

"We have a report of a jumper out
on a ledge at Monteverde Tower,"
said Chief Bosonetto. "Since we don't
have a dedicated jump team here,
I want to try something new."

"Like what?" Kayla said. "Remember,
"I don't have negotiator training."

"You have the training to deal with
suicidal ideation and other crisis
situations," said Chief Bosonetto.
"Last month, a San Francisco team
got a man to come in by bringing
his cat on the scene. I think that
therapy animals could help, even
with people who don't have pets."

"So basically our regular job of
helping someone regain control
of himself, only up high," Kayla said.
"Sure, we'll take the mission. I even
have our mountain climbing gear in
the trunk of my personal car -- I was
planning to go out after work."

It took a nerve-wracking ten minutes
for Kayla and Amber to get in position.

Monteverde Tower was a new building with
green balconies connected by wide ledges
for maintenance. Kayla clipped their lines
to the balcony rail, then crept through
coreopsis and California fuchsia
until she could see the jumper.

"Hi, I'm Kayla and this is my partner Amber,"
she said. "We'd like to talk with you."

"Don't come any closer!" he yelled.

"Okay, we'll stay here for now,"
Kayla said, and sat down in
a fragrant clump of yarrow.
"Stay," she repeated to Amber.

"If anyone tries to grab me,
I'll jump," the man threatened.

"I don't see how grabbing
you would solve whatever
problem sent you up here in
the first place," Kayla said.

"You got that right," he said.

"What was your name again?"
Kayla said, hoping for an answer.

"Shane," the man replied.

"Hi, Shane," said Kayla.
Her partner barked right on cue.
"Amber says hi too."

"Pretty dog," said Shane.

Amber barked again,
her tail thrashing the flowers.

"Would you like to pet her?"
Kayla said. "She's real friendly."

"No, it's too dangerous
out here," said Shane.

"She's got a safely line,
same as I do," said Kayla.
"We go mountain climbing."

"I'm more of a dirt bike guy myself,"
Shane said, "or at least I was."

"Did something happen so you
can't do that anymore?" Kayla asked.

"You could say that," Shane hissed.
"I turned into a giant fucking lizard
at work and they fired me. Then
my landlord evicted me and
my girlfriend dumped me.
My life is so over."

"How awful," Kayla said.
"None of that was your fault,
and then people kicked you
while you were down instead
of helping you cope with it.
No wonder you're so upset."

"You're not going to tell me
how great superpowers are
and that I have everything
to live for?" Shane said.

"If your power makes you
unhappy, then telling you
otherwise won't help. It's
something that people
have to work through
slowly," Kayla said.

Amber whimpered.

"What's wrong with
your dog?" Shane asked,
watching her fuss.

"She's worried about you,"
said Kayla. "Amber is
a police therapy dog.
Our job is helping people
who are upset by what
happens in the legal system."

"Sounds like a shit job."

Kayla shook her head. "No,
I like helping people and I love
my partner. She's always here
for me, a heartbeat at my feet.

Amber licked her face.

Shane gave a wistful sigh.
"Lucky you, then."

"Did you like your job?" Kayla asked.

"Yeah, it was great," Shane said.
"I worked in customer service.
I liked solving problems for people,
but then this happened and
my manager freaked out."

"Have you tried talking to SPOON?"
Kayla asked. "Sometimes it helps
to have a mentor who's gone through
the same kind of things you have."

"They're the ones who said that
superpowers are great," he grumbled.
"If they're so fucking great, then why
did they ruin my whole life?"

"Sometimes new things cause problems
just because they're new," Kayla said.
"You can't handwave it away,
you have to deal with that."

"Giant lizard is a lot to deal with,"
Shane said with a grimace.

"It must be," Kayla said.

"People just can't cope with
seeing me that way, I can't hide it
because it happened in public, and now
nobody wants me around," Shane said.

"Amber and I definitely want
you around," Kayla said, and
Amber barked agreement.

"You wouldn't say that if you'd
seen the lizard," Shane insisted.

"I think I would," Kayla said.
"Do you want to show me
and find out for sure? If
you're right, I'll apologize for
overestimating my tolerance."

"I tried not shifting, you know?"
Shane said, so quietly that Kayla
had to strain to hear it. "Then I
realized that it starts to hurt if I go
more than a day or so without, like
sitting too long in one position. I
thought I could learn better control,
but --" He shrugged. "Didn't help."

"Is that when you started
losing hope?" Kayla asked.

"Yeah," said Shane.

Amber gave a long whine.

"That's how I feel," he agreed.
"Might as well show you."

The air around him smeared, and
the blond young man was replaced
by a sort of lizard-man with green and
yellow scales. A line of spines ran from
his head down his back to the long tail.

"I can see why people were
so startled," Kayla said.

"I'm a monster," he said,
lifting his long, clawed hands.

"Have you hurt anyone
on purpose?" Kayla asked.

"No," Shane said.

"Then you don't fit into
my monster category,
sorry," she said.

Shane sighed, then
shifted back to human.
"You're a minority of one."

Amber barked at him.
"Two," Kayla translated.

"Can she ... really understand
me?" Shane wondered.

"She understands that you're
very upset, and she wants
to help," Kayla said. "Amber
is a licensed animal therapist
and she's good at her job."

Amber whimpered again,
front paws inching forward.

"Stay," Kayla reminded her.

"She's really worried, huh?"
Shane said. "Weird."

"Yes," Kayla said.

"I guess Amber can come over,
but you have to stay there," he said.

"Okay," Kayla said to him, and
then told Amber, "Go to work."

Amber gave a happy bark
and crept over to Shane,
being careful even though
the ledge was wide enough for
maintenance workers to walk on.

He petted her, tentatively at first,
then with more enthusiasm.

Kayla wiggled her butt into
a more comfortable seat
amidst the flowers.

This part tended to take a while.

Shane muttered things into
Amber's silky fur, wrapped
his arms around her, and
began to cry quietly.

Amber cuddled him
and licked his face.

Kayla pulled out her phone
and started checking on
the surrounding details.

The ground crew had already
called the nearest hospital
to alert the Shock Room staff
in case Shane consented
to come in for treatment.

There was nothing to be done
about his selfish chit of a girlfriend
other than send her a scolding note
about not making a bad situation worse.

The job termination and eviction
might be actionable in some way.
Kayla made a note to follow up
on those possibilities.

Then she opened her file of
supportive resources for
clients with suicidal ideation.

The Starfish Foundation
had just moved someone from
their local Life Support Center
to a live-in apartment building,
so they had a room open if
Shane wanted to go there.

Just getting him into a new home
should help stabilize his situation.

Now Kayla had to convince him that
it was worth the effort to try putting
his life back together again.

When Shane finally lifted his head
from Amber's shoulder, Kayla said,
"Sometimes a good cry helps
to put things in perspective.
How are you feeling?"

"Still a lizard man.
Still pretty fucked up,"
Shane said with a grimace.

"I've been looking at some options
that might help you get your feet
back under you," Kayla said.
"Could I tell you about those?"

"Why bother?" he said.
"Nobody cares about me.
It's better if I just check out now."

"Amber and I care, or we wouldn't be here,"
Kayla pointed out. She glanced over the edge
at the gathering crowd. It was a long way down,
and nothing like rambling over low mountains.
She swallowed hard, then went on, "Looks like
an awful lot of nobodies down there, too."

"They just want to watch me jump," he said.

"I doubt it, but let's ask to make sure," Kayla said.
She switched her mike on. "Hands up, don't jump."

The view below stirred as a majority of the crowd
responded to the relay from one of the ground cops,
raising their hands palm-out in the universal sign
for Stop. Kayla caught the image on her phone
and then turned the screen toward him.

"See, they want you to stay safe," she said.

"Yeah, as long as they don't actually
have to deal with me," Shane said.

"The ground crew have a tablet in case
anyone wants to post messages of
encouragement or offers of help.
I'll check the list," Kayla said.

"Really?" Shane said, his voice
more tentative than derisive now.

Kayla pulled out her smartphone.
"You have fourteen people who
shared their contact information
if you want to meet them later,
and twenty-six messages."

"Are they nice?" Shane said.

Got you, Kayla thought happily.

"Most of them are variations on
'Please stay safe' and 'I hope that
you feel better soon' but there's one
I think you should hear," she said, then
read aloud, "I didn't get to say this to
my brother before he died, so I'm
saying it to you. I love you, man.
I'm rooting for you all the way home."

"Fuck." Shane rubbed a shaky hand
over his face. "You should get
that poor guy out of here."

"Do you really think he'll go?"
Kayla asked, tilting her head.

"I, I don't know," Shane said.
"He shouldn't have to watch this."

"Nobody should have to watch
someone in danger. It's scary,"
Kayla said. "But some of us
think it's worth it for the lives
that we can save this way."

Shane's hand tightened in Amber's fur.
"You can't save everyone."

"Funny you should say that,"
Kayla told him. "There's a place
called the Starfish Foundation which
helps people with suicidal thoughts.
Their motto is 'I made a difference to
that one.' Would you like to hear more?"

"Why starfish?" Shane asked.

So Kayla told him the story about
the little girl on the beach throwing starfish
back into the water. "It's not about trying
to save everyone," she concluded. "It's
about saving the ones you can reach."

The ones who were willing to be reached.

A breeze picked up, blowing her hair in
her face and making Shane shiver
in his thin button-up shirt.

"Are you cold?" Kayla asked.
"I am, and you look chilly too."

"Yeah, it's nippy up here," Shane said,
then buried his face in Amber's fur again.

"I was just thinking, you know reptiles
are cold-blooded, right?" Kayla said.
Shane nodded. "So they have to find
a warmer environment or else they
can get sick ... and here we are in
sunny downtown Santa Rosa."

The wry observation startled Shane
into a laugh. He looked up at the low,
overcast sky threatening rain. A few
drops spattered down from the clouds.

"You think maybe the weather here
is bad for me?" he wondered.

"I think it's a possibility," Kayla said.
"Even ordinary people can get something
called Seasonal Affective Disorder that
makes them feel low in winter when it's
cold and dark. Doctors treat that with
full-spectrum lighting and heat, among
other stuff. It's worth checking out."

"I'm cold all the time," Shane whispered,
so low that Kayla could barely hear him.
"I've always felt the cold but it seems
worse now. It's so hard to think."

"It could be worse now," Kayla said.
"Would you like a warm blanket? I bet
the paramedics have a blanket warmer."

"I don't want to go to jail," Shane said.

"You're not going to jail," Kayla said.
"That's for violent people who can't stop
hurting others. Ideally we'd like for you to go
to the hospital. They can make sure you're
not hurt, and check for physical causes that
might be making you feel this miserable,
as well as the psychological stuff."

"You really think it could be fixed?"
Shane said, lifting his head.

"I'm pretty sure it could. We've
got some ideas to explore, at least,"
said Kayla. "Even if it's not, there's
still palliative care so you won't
feel completely awful."

Shane looked over the edge,
shuddered, and pressed his back
against the wall. "This is stupid," he said.

"What's stupid?" she asked.

"Now that I want to come in, I'm
too fucking scared to move,"
Shane admitted. "I'm so stiff,
what if I slip and fall?"

"You're worried about falling,"
Kayla said. "Okay. Would you like
a safety harness? I've got a fiver
and a line right inside the door."

"Yeah, but I don't know how
to use that stuff," he said.

Kayla smiled. "As I said, Amber
and I like to go mountain climbing
in our spare time. I can explain
how everything fits together."

"What if I fall anyway?" Shane said.

"Then the safety gear will catch you.
This rack line can support up to about
five hundred pounds of falling weight,
so you're perfectly safe," said Kayla.
"Just try to hit the wall with your feet
and not your head when you swing back."
She glanced over the edge again. "Also,
the ground crew have an air mat under us."

"Okay," he said. "Get me the gear."

Kayla set up the safety equipment,
and then Amber carried it to Shane.
Kayla talked him through the process
of fastening the harness around himself.

He made it to her balcony with no trouble,
though, Amber trailing him for encouragement.

Inside the building, Shane wobbled
on his feet, so Kayla let him lean on her
as they walked down the stairs.
Amber's tail thumped madly
against their legs.

When they stepped outside,
the crowd cheered, and most people
backed away to clear the path
to the waiting ambulance.

A middle-aged black man in a turquoise shirt
stepped up to give Shane a quick hug.
"Thank God you made it down safe.
I'm Calvon, I'm on your message list,
you call me if you need anything,"
he said, and then stepped back.

"I'm Shane," the younger man replied.
"It's nice of you to, uh, make the effort."

Kayla steered Shane toward the ambulance
and the two paramedics flanking it.

"Thanks," he said as he sat down
on the tail of the vehicle. "You two
really saved my life today."

"You're welcome," she said.
"Folks, this is Shane, he worked
in customer service and his life
kind of blew up in his face,
so be gentle with him."

"Ooo, customer service,"
said the nearest paramedic
as her partner took charge of Shane.
"Will you give us a review? We can
always use good feedback. I have forms."

That startled a faint chuckle out of Shane.
"Sure, I guess," he said, and on that note
Kayla left him in their capable hands.

The ride back to the station was quiet,
and then Kayla met with Chief Bosonetto.

"How did it go?" he asked them.

Amber gave a satisfied woof and
rolled onto her back, presenting
her belly for their attention.

"That good, huh?" said the chief
as he leaned down to oblige.

"The jumper's name is Shane, and
he's having a hard time adjusting to
a new superpower, no thanks to
the idiots around him," said Kayla.
"We talked him down and handed him
over to the paramedics. You were right;
it's very similar to our usual work,
and Amber was a big help."

"I'm glad to hear that," said Chief Bosonetto.
"I'd like you two to stay on the roster for
calls like this, if we get more of them."

"We're willing, but what if Amber and I
aren't available the next time something like this
happens?" Kayla asked. "We get a lot of calls
for troubled youth, people melting down
in a courtroom -- that keeps us busy."

"The proof of concept panned out,"
the chief said. "I have some people over in
hostage negotiation who don't get as much action
as they did when that team first formed in response
to an organization they've pretty well put down.
I think I could put together an effective team
for suicide prevention starting from there."

"I'd really like to refine my training
if we're making this a regular thing,"
Kayla said. "How's the budget?"

"Good enough that we can cover
the whole cost if the program you pick
has enrollment fees," he said. "Go shop."

So Kayla and Amber went back to
their desk to fill out paperwork and pull up
course catalogs to browse for classes.

It was a good day's work.

* * *


Kayla McIntosh -- She has tinted skin, green eyes, and long wavy brown hair. She has a rounded face and a softly curved body. Along with her K-9 partner Amber, Kayla works at the Santa Rosa Police Department in Westbord, California. They take care of disturbed youth, crisis scenes, meltdowns in the courtroom, and other situations where people need help getting back in control of themselves. Kayla has no interest in fussing with makeup or her hair or fancy clothes; she's plain and no-nonsense and that's good enough for her. It isn't always for other people.
Qualities: Master (+6) Rapport, Expert (+4) De-escalation Skills, Expert (+4) Mellow, Good (+2) Cop, Good (+2) Counseling, Good (+2) Executive Thought, Good (+2) Mountain Climbing, Good (+2) Yogini
Poor (-2) Plain

Amber -- She is a golden retriever with red-gold fur and light brown eyes. She is trained as a police therapy dog. They work with troubled clients.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Police Therapy Dog, Good (+2) Likes Kids, Good (+2) Mountain Climbing, Good (+2) Sweet Personality
Poor (-2) Hates Being Alone

Chief Paul Bosonetto -- He has fair skin, brown eyes, and thinning hair of light gray. He runs the Santa Rosa Police Department in Westbord, California. He is always on the lookout for new techniques that help people. He also enjoys making and solving puzzles, such as jigzaw puzzles or woodblock puzzles. Regrettably his unconventional approach has made a fair number of enemies among the more structured personalities in the legal system and local government.
Qualities: Master (+6) Police Chief, Master (+6) Thinking Outside the Box, Expert (+4) Family Man, Expert (+4) Resilience, Good (+2) Healthy for His Age, Good (+2) Optimist, Good (+2) Puzzles
Poor (-2) Politicking

Shane Avery -- He has fair skin, brown eyes, and dark blond hair. He gets cold easily, so he tends to dress in layers. Shane worked in customer service at a large corporation, where he loved helping people solve their problems. But after his powers manifested, the company fired him. He also got kicked out of his apartment and his girlfriend dumped him. He is not coping at all well.
Origin: His superpowers manifested abruptly and without warning. Because of this, an outside cause is suspected by has not been identified.
Uniform: Smart-casual business attire at work, usually a sports jacket or cardigan over a button-up shirt and trousers. He likes fancy leather shoes with exotic scales or decorations. He favors soft neutral jackets and pants such as camel or light gray, and pastel shirts. Elsewhere he tends toward khakis and chinos with a polo shirt or sweater.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Customer Service, Good (+2) Cooperative Games, Good (+2) Extrovert, Good (+2) Instincts
Poor (-2) End of His Rope
Powers: Good (+2) Lizardman Form
This metapower includes Armor and Regeneration.
Vulnerability: Cold makes him sluggish and uncomfortable.
Motivation: To end it all.

See Shane in his human form and iguana man.

Calvon Keneday -- He has mahogany skin, brown eyes, and short nappy black hair going bald. His younger brother committed suicide several years ago. He enjoys both watching and playing a variety of team sports.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Compassion, Good (+2) Communication Skills, Good (+2) Computer Support, Good (+2) Team Sports
Poor (-2) Survivor of Suicide Loss

* * *

"My little dog -- a heartbeat at my feet."
-- Edith Wharton

Suicidal thoughts and actions occur in response to overwhelming misery that more moderate solutions have failed to resolve. Plenty of people want to prevent suicide, but the common approaches often just pile more pressure on someone who's already decompensating because they can't cope with the pressures already crushing them. Recommendations are getting better, though, especially as survivors speak out. Remember that when you want to help any group of people, it is always best to get input from the people you are trying to help, because they know what actually works and what doesn't or even makes matters worse. There are pointers on how to respond and how to talk with a suicidal friend. The idea is to acknowledge the person's pain without agreeing that it is insoluble, and then assist them in finding a solution.

Jumpers are people who climb to high places as a means of committing suicide. Compassionate people such as police, firefighters, and citizen responders often try to talk them down, and sometimes succeed.

Suicide baiting is a vicious problem in many countries here -- especially in ones where it is perfectly legal to scream verbal abuse at a suicidal person until they jump. T-America has multiple options for quashing this including charges such as disorderly conduct, verbal abuse, and interfering with first responders on the job. If the victim actually dies, verbal assailants can also be charged as accessories to the death. While it is generally considered that suicide is not the fault of bystanders, this only holds for innocent bystanders, because evidence clearly indicates that hostile ones raise the rate of injury and death. T-America also has a program of teaching suicide prevention which includes the "Hands up -- don't jump!" technique for crowds who want to show support. In some cases, animals have proven helpful in coaxing jumpers to come down safely.

Police training and hostage negotiation can teach people how to slow things down, which buys more time to find better outcomes. Techniques such as active listening and nonverbal communication help to forge a connection, not just in the moment but something that can offer an ongoing lifeline to people who have nothing to hold onto. T-America is much better at this than L-America which teaches mostly escalation, not de-escalation. Understand how to get people to do what you want and handle a crisis scene.

Establishing rapport in challenging circumstances is difficult but possible. Make yourself someone whom people love to talk with.

Some police departments have their officers train and volunteer at suicide helplines. This makes them much better equipped to help suicidal people.

Read about some California garden plants.

Survivors of suicide loss have special complications that can make them challenging to understand and help. But some of them go on to volunteer as support for people who feel suicidal.

Kayla is using a 3/8" safety line that is lighter and stronger than the 7/16" minimum that our world hasn't quite reached yet but set as a foreseeable minimum standard. Arachne, or "rack line," is resilient in a way that distributes force along its length during a fall while minimizing the elongation. It's made from a combination of gengineered spidersilk and synthetic fibers. This one can take a falling weight up to about 500 pounds without breaking or causing severe injury.

A five-point safety harness provides support at shoulders, waist, and legs so it offers more security than the commoner three-point style favored by many experienced climbers.

The Starfish Foundation Life Support Center in Westbord assists suicidal people by relieving the weight that society places on them. It was started by survivors of suicide loss, supported by charitable donations. The large house has a cheerfully painted exterior. The basement has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a laundry room. The corner between the laundry room and Bedroom #2 has a pit group with a coffee table. There are bookcases on the wall by the stairs and between Bedroom #4 and the bathroom. The first floor has a kitchen, dining room, and family room. The rotunda attached to the library has a round table for reading or artwork. The breakfast nook is a jungle of houseplants. The second floor has four bedrooms, each with ensuite bath, plus another laundry room. The master suite belongs to the live-in staff. The third floor has an exercise room, reading area, bedroom, and the future room has been developed into another bedroom. So there are plenty of things for people to do, opportunities to socialize, private space, and minimal obligations. It's a good solution for folks who become suicidal because they feel that nobody cares (or in fact had nobody) or whose life fell apart.

Because lizards are cold-blooded, they favor warm sunny environments. While some parts of California are mostly sunny, others have a pronounced cloudy season, especially in winter. This can pose a problem for some soups whose nonhuman traits carry over partially to human form.

Acrophobia can cause mishaps like freezing in place while trying to climb a ladder or navigate a narrow ledge. It has been observed that while some suicidal people have no trouble being up high while they plan to jump, if they change their minds, they may suddenly feel frightened as the survival instinct returns. There are ways to overcome a fear of heights.

Support after a suicide attempt is vital because you can't just stop someone from dying and expect that to work. You have to help them solve the problem(s) that made their life unlivable. Ragging on them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or taking all their choices away, is not helpful. Listening to them and offering extra resources to fix things is helpful.

In some places, suicide is illegal, with variable penalties. T-America does not arrest people for attempting suicide as it has proven unhelpful -- unless they are outright violent, in which case they may be charged with relevant crimes -- and while a hospital visit is strongly encouraged, it is not required unless the person is actually injured. The only thing they could charge Shane with is trespassing in an unauthorized part of the building, but the owner wouldn't press charges.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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