Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "The Brightest Thing in the Day"

This poem came out of the August 4, 2015 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by an anonymous prompt on Dreamwidth. It also fills the "self-harm" square in my 7-31-14 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest, and the "blood" square in my 6-10-15 card for the [community profile] genprompt_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Danso and Family thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

WARNING: This poem contains intense events which may be upsetting to some readers. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. There are stress symptoms including depersonalization and derealization, emotional upheaval, accidental injury, graphic description of deliberate self-injury, unintended discovery, graphic description of aftercare, discussion of past responses to self-harm that went very badly, asking for help and getting it, self-condemnation, and other challenges. On the whole, though, the tone is positive and the outcome hopeful. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"The Brightest Thing in the Day"

It's over now, or at least
it's supposed to be over,
but Cassandra doesn't know
how to feel about that, except
it doesn't feel over.

She's gone through the meetings
with people for and against clipping,
from forks to concerned parents, and
even met a few other survivors like herself.

That Faramundo had really scared her,
the way he looked at clipping as
"just exploring all the options."

Yeah. Cassandra's parents had
explored their options too.

Then had come the capture and
identification of the clipper, followed
by a whirlwind trial that left him depowered
and left Cassandra wondering what happened.

It's over, but it doesn't feel over,
and she struggles to keep a grip
on emotions as slippery as wet soap.

Everything seems used and grey and strange,
like dishwater left in the sink overnight,
all the heat leached out of it.

Cassandra feels lost and vaguely unreal,
wandering through a faded movie-world
where everything touches her
but nothing moves her.

When the knife slips as she's washing dishes
and slices into the side of her palm,
it comes as a relief.

Cassandra just stands there,
staring at it, for a long minute.

The brightest thing in the day
is that first spill of shocking red
and the sensation, not of pain,
but of pain bleeding away
to wash in pink trails
down the drain.

The relief is so sweet that
when the first rush of it begins
to dim, Cassandra turns the knife
and lays the blade flat against her skin,
pressing down until she can feel the edge
start to slip under and in, cool metal moving
through her and soothing even the things
that she can't just slice away.

This one is for Faramundo, she thinks,
then shifts the blade a little higher up
her wrist, and this one is for Jabez.

The red lines rise up around the knife
and trickle along the curve of her wrist.

It stings, because there's still soap
on the stainless steel, and her blood
bubbles a bit as it mixes with the suds
clinging to the bottom of the sink.

It stings, but it makes Cassandra
finally feel alive again, so that's good.

She doesn't feel okay yet, but
she feels better, and that's
enough for now.

Then the door swings open
and Groundhog walks in --
hours early he should still be
at work why is he even here
shattering the peaceful haze.

The floor plan of the apartment
is open enough that he can see
from the living room into the kitchen,
and with a few more steps, spot her at
the sink before she can hide the blood.

Cassandra drops the knife with a clatter
and stares at him, chest heaving.

Groundhog dumps his stuff on the couch
and strides forward, grabbing a dishtowel
to wrap around her wrist. "Hold this,"
he says. "Keep pressure on the cuts
while I get the first aid kit."

Too stunned to protest, she obeys.

Cassandra waits for the yelling to start,
for the condemnations about how crazy
and inconsiderate she is, the threats
of dragging her off to a hospital
or a therapist or even jail.

It never starts.

Groundhog comes back with
the big tacklebox-sized first aid kit
that he keeps in the powder room.

He spreads more dishtowels over
the top of the little gateleg table
in the breakfast nook, then guides
Cassandra into a chair so that she
can rest her forearm on the soft towels.

She watches him scrub his hands
and then slip on a pair of gloves.

"Can you tell me what happened here?"
Groundhog asks Cassandra as he lifts
the reddening cloth away from her injuries.

"I cut myself," she confesses.
"It was -- was an accident."

The first one was, anyway.
Please believe me.

"Knives can be tricky," he says.

"Yes," says Cassandra,
knowing that knives aren't
the only things that can be.

Gentle fingers prod her wrist to see
how the slit skin moves against itself.
"These don't look too deep. I can't see
anything that needs stitches," Groundhog says.
"Do you want me to take you to a clinic so you
can hear that from a real doctor, or would
you rather I take care of it at home?"

"You don't have to," she says
worried all over again about becoming
so much of a bother that he might
kick her out of his apartment.
"I can take care of myself."

"I know you can, but it's pretty awkward
trying to work with only one hand,"
Groundhog says. "I'd really like
to help if that's okay with you."

She'll do anything to make him happy,
and this isn't easy, but at least
it's something she can do.

"Okay," she whispers,
her shoulders hunching.

"Hey, relax," says Groundhog.
"Take a few deep breaths so you
don't faint on me. I know first aid and
I've even got the kind of antiseptic with
a topical anaesthetic so it won't sting."

This is an unexpected luxury, she thinks.

Cassandra has rarely had the opportunity
to treat her cuts with more than soap
and hot water, because her parents
kept an eye on the first aid kit
after that first incident.

She feels lightheaded enough that
Groundhog's warning makes sense,
so she calls up some of the exercises
that Aidan has taught her for calm.

Cassandra breathes, and feels a bit better.

The gauze is cool and wet against her skin,
and true to his word, it is only a little uncomfortable
as Groundhog cleans each of the cuts with care.
Before long, her palm goes numb, then the wrist.

"You said a knife, right, not broken glass?
So I don't need to check for chips?" he asks.

"It was the fillet knife," Cassandra says.
They'd had fish the night before, fresh
from the dockside market, and he had
shown her how to cut the thin steaks
away from all the finicky bones.

"No worries, then, I can fix these
with skin glue and butterflies,"
Groundhog says as he starts
carefully matching the edges.

There is something strangely peaceful
about sitting here in the familiar kitchen
and letting him take care of her.

His hands are deft and gentle
as he smooths the gel over
the shallow slices and then
stretches butterfly bandages
across them for closure.

"Thanks," Cassandra says,
because it seems rude
to say nothing.

"You're welcome," Groundhog says.
For a moment his blue eyes glance up
from his work. "You know, if there's anything
you'd like to talk about, I'm glad to listen."

Cassandra can't help the flinch, because
she can't help remembering what happened
when the school counselor found out about this,
but it's Groundhog now instead of her parents
and he'd dealt with the awful sex thing
and the awfuller alcohol thing
without pitching a fit.

"Or we can just sit here quietly,
that's okay too," he assures her,
thumb stroking softly over
an unbroken patch of skin.

All the things that make her want
to cut herself are bubbling up inside,
and she wishes she could talk about them,
she really does, now that she has someone
who might give an actual fuck, but the words
stick in her throat like fishbones and make her
afraid that she'll choke if she tries to talk.

Groundhog coats the injured skin
with a layer of thick, shiny salve.
He winds gauze around her hand from
the base of her fingers past her thumb
and up along the lower part of her forearm,
securing it with a dab of bandage tape.

"There you go," he says,
nudging her arm back toward her.

Cassandra folds it over her belly,
closing the other arm across it.

She watches as Groundhog cleans up
the mess on the table, puts the first aid kit
back in the bathroom, scrubs out the sink,
then finally re-washes the knife and puts it away.

"Shall we go back in the living room?" he suggests.
"These wooden chairs look nice, but they aren't
exactly the most comfortable seating."

"Okay," she says, letting him
steer her with a hand on her back
because she's not quite steady yet.

Cassandra sits down on the couch
and pulls the afghan around herself,
a soft warm shield against all the things
that have upset her recently.

Her vision blurs with unshed tears.

"Sometimes when people get hurt,
they want a friend close for comfort,
and other times they need to be alone,"
Groundhog says. "If you let me know which
you prefer, I won't be offended either way."

As he talks, he picks up everything that he
dropped on the couch and moves it elsewhere,
careful to respect what he has decided is
"her space" while she's staying here.

It's that which finally clears the blockage
enough for Cassandra to say, "I really didn't
mean to do it at first. But then I did. I just ...
needed a way to let out what I was feeling
so that I wouldn't explode. Needed to feel
real again, to find my way back to my body."

Groundhog sits down at the far end of the couch.
"You have all these feelings tangled up around
everything that's happened to you lately,
and this is the best thing you've found
for dealing with them," he says.

Yes. It's like that.
It's exactly like that -- why
can't anyone else seem to see that?

Cassandra nods. "Yeah."

"I'm glad that you trusted me enough
to tell me," says Groundhog.
"How can I help?"

Her eyes squeeze closed,
and the tears finally break free
to trickle down her cheeks.
"I don't know."

"Have you ever told anyone else?"
Groundhog asks her.

"Not really. A school counselor found out
and told my parents," she says, poking
a finger through the afghan holes.

"That's not a great way to get the word out,"
Groundhog says. "Then what happened?"

"They locked me up in a hospital for a month,
and by the time I got out, I was so far behind
in school that I almost flunked," Cassandra says.
"So I didn't get to see my friends anymore, I only
got out of the house to see the stupid shrink."

"Did that help?" Groundhog says.

"No," Cassandra growls.
"It just made everything worse."

They wouldn't listen to me.
Nobody ever listens to me

Her jaw aches, and she realizes
that she's been gritting her teeth.
She makes herself relax.

"Then let's not do that again,"
he says. "We'll think of something else."

"Like what?" Cassandra says,
wiping her cheeks with her hand.

Groundhog passes her a kleenex.
"I've got some ideas from other people
I know who have dealt with similar challenges,"
he says. "We could check those for inspiration."

"Usually people freak out a lot more
than this," she mutters.

"Cassandra, I'm a SPOON dispatcher,"
he says gently. "I work with upset people
all day long, and a lot of them don't have much
in the way of backup. This is not the first case
of cutting that I have seen, and thank god,
it is a long, long way from the worst."

"Oh," she says. "It really doesn't bother you?"

"Well, I'd be lying if I denied feeling any concern,"
says Groundhog. "I'm your friend. Right now,
you're hurting and you're taking it out on yourself,
so of course that worries me. I know enough
to understand that pestering you won't help.
I'd like for us to find something that does."

Cassandra recalls the awesome sex stuff
that he helped her find earlier. Embarrassing
as that discussion was, the outcome
was absolutely worth it.

"I guess I could look at
your resources," she says.

"Great, let me just get my tablet,"
Groundhog says, getting off the couch.

While he is gone, Cassandra surreptitiously
shifts into the middle of the cushions.

Groundhog comes back, tablet in hand,
and finds her sitting in the middle seat.
"Should I move to a chair?" he asks.

Cassandra shakes her head.
Please don't make me say this out loud.

"Would you rather I sit beside you?"
Groundhog asks her.


He settles onto the couch,
and Cassandra scooches closer
until she can feel the heat of him
through the afghan.

"So you got stuff from other people
who do this sort of thing?" she says.
"I kind of thought I was the only one."

"You're not alone," he says at once.
"Sadly, cutting isn't rare. Folks who do it,
or used to do it, have written down things
that they find useful in resisting the urge
to hurt themselves. Sometimes if you
work through the underlying problems,
that desire goes away in time."

That would be a relief.

"Show me?" she says.

So he shows her, and it opens
all kinds of new doors.

There are tips on how to stop cutting
and how to help a friend who cuts.
There is a whole workbook
on how to hurt yourself less.

There is a set of questions
for trusted friends to ask a cutter.
Her finger traces down the list,
pausing near the end.

She wonders what it would feel like
to have the pain drawn out with words
instead of carved out with a knife, and
whether it would make a difference
to talk with someone she trusts,
when she has a choice between
speaking or keeping secrets.

"How do you feel before you cut?"
Groundhog asks softly.

"It's like --" Her hands
shape boulders in the air.
"-- like a mountain on my chest.
That I can't breathe. And it hurts."

"How do you feel afterward?"

"Better. It goes away for a while,"
Cassandra says. Then she hugs herself.
"It helps, it really does, I know nobody
ever believes that but it's true!
I wouldn't do it if it didn't help."

This feels like getting rid of stitches,
she thinks as Groundhog teases out
the threads of conversation. She can
remember the quick snip of scissors,
the silent sigh of confined flesh relaxing,
the silk slipping out of her itchy skin.

"You feel better after you cut,"
Groundhog says. "You've done this
more than once, though, so it must
come back eventually. Does that
happen fast or slow for you?"

"Slow," she says. "Sometimes
it gets worse faster, like if things
are really crazy all around me,
but most of the time not."

"That's good. It means we have
plenty of time to think about other
coping methods you could try,"
he says, handing her the tablet.

There's a batch of those too, and some
of them are the same as Cassandra has
seen on other lists of coping skills, while
some are specific to cutting.

She thinks about the biting cold of ice cubes
and wonders if that might work. Then she
sees a reference to red paint.

"People paint? And that works?" she says.

"It does for some, especially visual thinkers,"
Groundhog says. "It's a kind of art therapy.
You could ask Waverly about creative expression;
she knows all about handling high emotions."

I don't want to drag anyone else into this.
It's bad enough just bugging my housemate.

Cassandra curls into herself again.
"That sounds ... really hard," she says.

"Well, we can talk about practicalities too,"
Groundhog says. "Have you ever taken
a good first aid class? Would you like to have
your own kit, or you do you feel more comfortable
with the big box in the bathroom?"

"I could have my own?" Cassandra says.
"My parents used to keep theirs locked up
after that time I landed in the hospital."

"That is the opposite of helpful," he growls.

Groundhog takes back the tablet and,
with a few brisk strokes, calls up a menu
of household first aid kits. "Pick one,"
he invites. "Whichever you like."

Much to Cassandra's satisfaction,
they have one specifically designed
for treating cuts and scrapes, along with
a booklet of basic first aid techniques.

"Thanks," she says. "This is great."
Then she tenses. "You're not ...
going to make me promise
never to do this again?"

"If someone tried that with a smoker,
do you think it would work?" he says.

Cassandra gives a purely mental snort.
It never worked when Dad tried
that with Mom, either.

"No. Nicotine's really addictive,
it's hard to quit," says Cassandra.

"So is cutting," Groundhog says.
"You have all these feelings inside,
and it's not good to keep them bottled up.
What we need to do right now is make it
safer for you to let them out, and long term,
find a better solution for you. That might mean
fixing it yourself or finding someone to talk with."

If it can be fixed at all. If I'm not broken forever.

"The shrink made me promise," she grumbles.

"That doesn't sound very helpful,"
Groundhog says. "How did it go?"

Cassandra shrugs. "I made it through
the sessions so he'd leave me alone."

"Then I won't make you promise,"
Groundhog says, and she believes him.
"I'd like it more if you could tell me when
you start feeling bad enough that you want
to hurt yourself. Maybe we can find another way.
If that's too much yet, you can also ask me
for help patching up, any time. At least
I'll have both hands free for it."

"I don't want to be a bother," she says,
but just this once, she kind of does.

"Do you think I'm a bother when I
overestimate my tolerance for open skies
and need help getting home?" he asks.

At once Cassandra shakes her head.
"Of course not!" she exclaims. "You said
your superpower almost killed you when
you were little. Anyone would be freaked out
over that. It's amazing you've managed
to get past it as much as you have."

"It took a lot of work, but Aidan
really helped me," Groundhog says.
"I'd like to help you now, if you're willing,
because that's what friends are for.
What do you say?"

Cassandra prods at the sore places
inside herself. On the one hand,
talking about this is exhausting
and embarrassing. On the other,
Groundhog did a lot better job of
fixing her wrist than she ever has.

Besides, the tenderness with which
he handled her injuries made her feel ...
almost like she mattered to someone.

It's just so hard, she thinks,
and I am so freaking tired.

"Maybe?" she says. "I'll try."

"I really appreciate it," Groundhog says.
"I know this is a lot to ask."

Cassandra stares at him.

"Yes. Really," he says.
"I told you that I've known
other folks with this kind of issue,
so I have an idea what it costs
to tell anyone or to ask for help,
especially after people have
betrayed your trust before."

She sighs and leans against him,
remembering the long list of people
who should have helped her and
instead just made it all worse.

My parents. My teachers.
The counselor. The shrink.
All those stupid cops

"Yeah," Cassandra says.
"That makes everything harder."
Then something else occurs to her.
"Why are you even home? I thought
you were at work, not supposed
to get back until evening.
It's barely lunchtime."

Groundhog gives a lopsided smile.
"Ah well, things got crazy at work,"
he says. "We got a ton of calls
about clipping, and everyone is
sensitive about that now, so we
agreed to tag out on short shifts
to avoid potential burnout."

No wonder they left early.

"I think ... it's good you came home."
Then her stomach grumbles.

"I don't know about you, but I
could do with some comfort food,"
Groundhog says. "How about
egg salad sandwiches for lunch?"

Cassandra smiles. "I love those.
Haven't had any in a while, though."

Someone used to make those for me.
A grandmother, maybe?
she thinks.
She can't recall the details, only
the distant flavor of eggs and
a dim sense of being loved.

"I'll put some water on to boil,"
he says, getting up from the couch.

Cassandra listens to him puttering
in the kitchen, pots clanking, then
the fridge door opening and closing.

Soon Groundhog comes back
into the living room, and Cassandra
silently unwraps the afghan, stretching
one long arm over the back of the couch.

He sits down beside her.
"Want a hug?" he asks, tilting
his open palm toward Cassandra.

"Yeah," she says.
"That would be nice."

She snuggles into him.
Groundhog is very snuggly,
as long as she asks first.

"I'm glad you're safe," he says
as she wraps the afghan around
both of them. One hand comes to rest
over her forearm, above the bandage.

I have a new brightest thing in the day.

"Me too," says Cassandra.
"I feel better now."

"Oh, thank god,"
he whispers into her hair.

* * *


Cassandra Vogler -- She has fair skin, brown eyes, and long brown hair habitually worn in braids. Parts of her hair tend to bleach out to a more golden tone. Cassandra is an only child, with no cousins or even close friends her age. Tall for a girl, she tends to hunch down in attempt to hide her true stature. She is gawky and awkward in her body.
Having just turned 18, Cassandra demands that people treat her as an adult woman and quickly becomes belligerent if she feels that people are treating her like a child -- because to her, being a child is associated with people being free to hurt her. Now that she's an adult, she wants to learn how to defend herself. She dislikes coffee, but insists that it's an acquired taste and she's determined to acquire it.
Her family belongs to the Evangelical Methodist Church. When Cassandra's superpower manifested, her parents first put her into suppression therapy, which spurred several unsuccessful attempts to run away. Later they found a clipper to remove her Flight ability. That loss has left Cassandra with chronic pain, and a deeply conflicted identity crisis over whether she is still "really" a soup with her power crippled. She is more at risk for lashing out than for regressive types of teen rebellion.
Origin: Her superpower emerged at puberty. Her parents immediately started trying to make it go away.
Uniform: Street clothes.
Qualities: Good (+2) Artist, Good (+2) Birdwatching, Good (+2) Bookworm, Good (+2) Endurance
Poor (-2) Hostility Issues
Powers: formerly Average (0) Flight
Motivation: Escape from parents.

Groundhog (Eunan Campbell) -- He has strawberry blond hair, green eyes, and pale skin with freckles. His weak lungs mean that he can't handle altitude changes well, and tends to catch every cold or chest bug that goes around. He works at the Onion City SPOON base as a dispatcher. He wants to support other soups so that bad things don't happen to them like what happened to him. He's one of the few people who is compassionate toward supervillains, because he understands how traumatic superpowers can be and how they can mess up someone's life. His parents Jordan and Margaret run a plant nursery.
Origin: When his superpower first manifested during his infancy, he disappeared into the sky, and before he was rescued he got so high up that it damaged his lungs. His parents were frantic, and after that, overprotective. Left with vulnerable breathing and a timid nature, he stopped using his power.
Uniform: Navy blue shirt and pants with the SPOON logo embroidered in silver on the chest pocket.
Qualities: Expert (+4) Dispatcher, Expert (+4) Soup Contacts, Expert (+4) Sympathetic, Good (+2) Classic Literature, Good (+2) Dexterity, Good (+2) Green Thumb, Good (+2) Sewing
Poor (-2) Weak Lungs
Powers: Good (+2) Flight
Limitation: He is acrophobic and agoraphobic, so he never uses his power. It still works, in theory; he's just too afraid of it to activate it.
Motivation: Support people with superpowers.

* * *

“I know exactly how that is. To love somebody who doesn’t deserve it. Because they are all you have. Because any attention is better than no attention. For exactly the same reason, it is sometimes satisfying to cut yourself and bleed. On those gray days where eight in the morning looks no different from noon and nothing has happened and nothing is going to happen and you are washing a glass in the sink and it breaks-accidentally-and punctures your skin. And then there is this shocking red, the brightest thing in the day, so vibrant it buzzes, this blood of yours. That is okay sometimes because at least you know you’re alive.”
Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors

Derealization and depersonalization are two unpleasant symptoms of extreme stress, when the mind protects itself by disengaging -- or is knocked loose from the world by upsetting events.  Dissociation is another, and for this I have found a terrific comic which explains what it is like to lose touch with consensus reality.

(These links are intense and some are also graphic.) Cutting is one type of self-harm that people sometimes use as a negative coping technique. Here is what cutters and their supporters say about self-harm; it's always best to get an inside perspective on issues if you can. There are questions you can ask to help someone talk about cutting if they have trusted you enough to let you know in the first place. The Hurt Yourself Less Workbook is my go-to resource for this issue, designed by self-harm survivors so they know what works and what doesn't. There are many other coping skills that people have found helpful instead of hurting themselves. Browse some tip sheets tailored for different people who might know someone with self-harm issues.

Groundhog's apartment is similar to this layout. His entry is at the front of the living room. The bathroom has a small frosted window. Instead of the washer/dryer he has a pantry. There is no garage.

This is the large first aid kit. At this size, which is recommended for big households and/or anyone who sees a lot of everyday injuries, it's important to have divisions such as trays or pockets, so that everything isn't just jumbled loose in a giant box or bag.

First aid for cuts includes knowing when stitches would be advisable. I was intrigued to discover that contemporary advice varies on cleaning. Most places say plain water, some still say soap and water or disinfectant. Reason being, soap and harsh chemicals can irritate the injured skin, which sometimes makes it heal slower. The deeper or dirtier the injury, the more it probably needs extra cleaning. Some people just generally get better results with disinfectant, and a good first aid cream will soothe any irritation just like it helps the main injury. Pay attention to your body and do what works for you.

Cassandra uses a lot of defensive body language, showing how upset she is.

It's always rough when a friend is upset. Know how to provide comfort.

Staying calm in a crisis is a vital skill, especially for emergency workers like Groundhog. Understand how to calm yourself or help someone else calm down. Remember that you cannot force anyone to calm down, but you can remove stressors and talk them through some coping steps.

A first aid kit for minor injuries is best accompanied by a guidebook. In addition to all-purpose kits there are ones designed for specific categories of problem, which is really convenient anywhere there's a pattern of specific injuries.

Comfort food helps people feel better in both physical and psychological ways. Check out this recipe for egg salad sandwiches. Bonus if you can get someone to make it for you, because loving care also soothes upset and makes problems seem less daunting.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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