Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Damaged Control"

This poem came out of the August 2015 [community profile] crowdfunding Creative Jam. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] peoriapeoriawhereart. It fills the "sunny day" square in my 8-1-15 card for the As You Like It fest, and the "dungeons" square in my 7-31-14 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by EdorFaus. It belongs to the Officer Pink thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

WARNING: This poem contains intense material which many readers may find disturbing. Highlight for more specific warnings, some of which are spoilers. Basically Turq tells Ansel why he's such a wreck, and Ansel provides what minimal comfort Turq is capable of accepting. It includes guilt, shame, awkward interactions, stressful apologies, painful disclosures; explicit references to past neglect, abuse, running away from home, human trafficking, kidnapping, imprisonment, mad science, human experimentation, medical torture, murder, traumatic manifestation of superpowers, prolonged duress stress syndrome; self-blame, trust issues, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether this is something you want to read.

"Damaged Control"

A fine autumn day, sunny and crisp, brought
Ansel back to Briarwood Park wearing
a t-shirt that read I ate'nt dead.

He wandered the trails for an hour,
looking at everything and nothing, then
settled on a wooden bench whose S-curve
divided it into two separate seats.

The leaves were turning, glints of gold
and orange peeking through the green.
The top of the nearest maple blazed
like fire in the sun, and the sweetgums
were going purple in a few places.

A cool breeze carried the scents
of the spicy fallen leaves on the ground
and people making barbecue on a grill.

The slats of the bench creaked as someone
settled into the seat beside and behind him.

"You came back," Turq whispered.

"I did," Ansel said. "Were you
watching me or something?"

"I was watching the park," Turq said.
"It wasn't like stalking you personally.
I thought maybe ... but you didn't come,
and so I was about to give up ..."

"I got suspended for a couple weeks,"
Ansel said. "After I got out of the hospital,
I was assigned to some classes about
handling supervillains, which took up
about the same time as work."

"Hospital?" Turq echoed,
twisting around to look at him.

"Finding me unconscious on the ground
with a hand-shaped burn mark kind of
freaked out my partners," Ansel said.
He rolled up the sleeve of his flannel shirt
to show Turq the fading imprint, now little more
than a brownish outline against his ruddy skin.
"So I spent the night in the hospital while
people made sure I wouldn't die on them."

Turq looked downright horrified,
his brilliant blue hair startlingly bright
against a face gone pale with shock.

One hand reached out as if
to touch the mark, then closed
into a fist and pulled away.

"I don't -- it never did that before --
I'm sorry," Turq stammered. "How long
did it take for you to wake up?"

"Over twelve hours," Ansel said,
rolling his sleeve back down.

Turq whimpered. "I didn't mean
to hit you that hard," he said.
"I don't know why it did that.
It never lasted more than
three or four hours."

"Thank you for telling me that,"
Ansel said. "You may have gotten
stronger recently, or maybe I'm
just more vulnerable to it.
I'm a heavy sleeper."

"I'm sorry. I didn't intend
to get you locked up
like that," Turq said.

"I wasn't locked up," Ansel said.
"The doctors let me go not long after
I woke up. My girlfriend, now --
she didn't let me out of her sight
for the rest of the weekend!"

Turq gave a pained laugh.
"I guess it could have been worse
then," he said. "I know I'm a fuckup,
but I'm not a whackjob. I shouldn't
have roughed you up so much over
a street fight, I just ... lost my shit
a little bit. I'm really sorry."

"A bit," Ansel echoed.
"That's the third or fourth time
you've apologized to me. Do you
feel like this needs something else
to be finished between us?"

Turq had flipped out over the idea
of alternative justice, but if Ansel
could introduce the concept of
reparations delicately enough,
that might turn out better.

His recent classes had emphasized
the need for putting the bottom rungs
on the ladder to good behavior.

"Yeah, I guess it does," Turq said.
"I'm no welcher." Worn tennis shoes
scuffed restlessly against the ground.

"Do you have any ideas,
or would you like suggestions?"
Ansel asked him.

"Earlier you asked me about what
had happened to me," Turq said.
The bench creaked where his hands
clenched over the wooden slats.
"I wasn't born this way. I grew up in
the foster system, just an ordinary kid."

"Hey, not to sound ungrateful, because
I could sure use the information and
I'm glad you're trusting me with it, but
I don't want you to push yourself into
a panic attack over this," Ansel said.

Turq shook his head, bright hair flying.
"I owe you something, after what I did,"
he insisted. "You could've -- you didn't --
this is what you wanted to know, so.
It's hard enough. Just let me --
let me get through this."

"Okay," Ansel said. "I'm listening."

"My foster parents sold me," Turq said.
"I'd run away before, just needed some space,
so it was easy to make it look like I'd just
done the same thing again."

Ansel flinched. He'd heard stories
from other cops, and come across cases
while reviewing soup-related crimes --
there were blips in the statistics for
both Easy City and Onion City of
superkids disappearing from care,
sometimes with the whole family
but other times by themselves.

"I'm sorry that happened,"
Ansel said. "Was it because
you turned out to be a soup?"

"No, this was before," Turq said.
"There was this mad scientist,
he wanted ... test subjects."

Ansel's skin tried to crawl under the bench.
He took a firm hand on it, refusing to leave.
Turq had lived through this; the least Ansel
could do was listen to his story.

"That sounds scary," he said.

"Yeah, I wound up in a dungeon --
all shiny and clean, but still a dungeon,"
Turq said. "I don't know how long
I was there, it felt like forever."

"It's hard to keep track of time
in that situation," Ansel said.
"It must have been awful."

"The hell of it is, I thought I was safe,"
Turq said softly. "Because I was
in the control group, you know?
But he was never satisfied with
one round of experiments, then ..."
Turq gave a despondent shrug.
"I guess he ran low on subjects,
so I wound up in the hot seat.
Now I'm just ... damaged control."

He was shaking, now; Ansel
could feel the bench vibrating.

It was tempting to pry for details,
because the thought of having
a real live mengele around was
nothing short of terrifying, but
Ansel didn't want to make this
any harder for Turq. Let him
tell it in his own way.

"I don't think anyone comes out
of a dungeon without some damage,"
Ansel said. "You survived, though."

"Yeah. I did. Most didn't," Turq said.
"He was trying to figure out what causes
superpowers to manifest, and he was
real methodical about it. A lot of tests."

Ansel couldn't help mentally racking up
possible charges, if they ever managed
to find the culprit. He added murder, torture,
experimentation, and medical abuse to
human trafficking and kidnapping.

"There were, god, I don't know,
I lost count of how many things
he did to us," Turq said.

He leaned back then, shifting on
the bench so that he could drape
his head over Ansel's shoulder.
Turquoise hair, as soft as fur,
tickled against Ansel's neck.

It was so tempting to reach up
and stroke it, to offer active comfort,
but the man had been so skittish before.
Better to let him choose his own
form of contact instead.

"I'm here," Ansel said.
"You're not alone with this."

"He shot me up with all kinds of drugs,
I have no idea what," Turq said,
his voice tightening. "I'd be numb
one minute and the next it was like
I was burning alive. Sometimes I
couldn't remember who I was or
what was happening. Other times
I'd lie awake wondering what I
ever did to deserve this."

"Nothing," Ansel said. "You didn't
do anything to deserve it; nobody
deserves to be abused like that.
What happened was not your fault."

"News to me," Turq said. "Everybody else
thinks I'm asking for it. There was this --
this chamber, like a big metal box, but with
lights inside, different colors. They'd turn on,
and then I'd get such blisters all over from them.
Any time I acted up, he would ask me if
I wanted to go back in the box."

No wonder Turq had reacted so strongly
to the nerve-burn on Ansel's forearm.
Showing that off hadn't been a bright idea,
but Ansel had no way of knowing it earlier.

"Then one day, this happened," Turq said,
one hand ruffling through his hair and
brushing against Ansel in passing.
"Started right at the top and it's been
creeping downward ever since."

"Mine started at the top too,
but I chose it," Ansel said.

"You're insane," Turq said.
"The first time I shifted shape,
I thought I was going to die --
almost did, I think, but then
the regeneration must have
kicked in and saved me from it.
The next thing I knew, I had fur,
everything smelled different,
it was just overwhelming."

"I thought you were dying too,
that time we met," Ansel said.
"It was alarming enough to watch.
It must be even worse to go through."

"Yeah well, I learned that just because
it hurts like hell, doesn't mean it will
actually kill me," Turq said. "Then I --
some other stuff happened, and
I managed to escape. I don't
know exactly where, I was
pretty out of it at the time."

"I can only imagine," Ansel said.

"Don't, it'll just give you nightmares,"
said Turq. "It does me too. I can't sleep
without remembering the dungeon, it's why
I can't stand closed doors anymore, or
anything holding me down, and
my body fucking hates me."

"The next time you have bad dreams,
try remembering this instead," Ansel said.
"A pretty day in the park, a nice warm bench
to sit on, all the colored leaves to look at ..."

Turq hummed a little at the thought.
"Maybe I'll give that a try," he said.
"It's better than yelling about how
I hope he burns in hell."

"He certainly deserves to spend the rest
of his life in a small private cell, paying
his debt to society," said Ansel.

Assuming, of course, that no supervillain
caught up with the mad scientist first
and told Charlie to go home.

Maybe it made Ansel an awful cop,
but he couldn't muster much regret
over that possible outcome.

"About that, are we -- are we square yet?"
Turq asked, his voice thick with unshed tears.
"Cause I'm sorry I hit you way too hard, but
I'm not sure I can take much more of this."

Ansel turned around to look at him,
and Turq shied away from the motion.

"Will you promise not to use that superpower
on me again, since it didn't behave as
you expected?" Ansel asked.

"Promise," Turq whispered.

"Then you and I, we're square
on the park incident," said Ansel.
"I'll do what I can with the information
that you gave me -- it's a big help.
Beyond that, you've still got a mess
to straighten out for whatever crimes
you've committed, but we can deal
with that some other day."

He offered Turq his hand.

Tentatively the shapeshifter
wrapped it in a damp, clammy grasp
and then let go. "Okay," he said.

"Just because you're damaged
doesn't mean it has to stay that way,"
Ansel said. "There's help available,
if you decide you want some."

Getting Turq to quit committing crimes
would be a lot easier with more resources.

Turq shivered. "Good way to get hurt,
letting people close like that," he said.

"Some people aren't safe," Ansel said.
"Others are. We're here, after all,
not tearing into each other."

"Yeah ... nobody else wants to hear
about what a mess I am," Turq said.
"But it's, I don't know, like letting out
a breath I've been holding too long."

"I don't know about you, but after that,
I'm sure grateful for a sunny day
outdoors," Ansel said, turning
back around to look the other way.

After a long moment, he felt Turq
lean back against him again.

"Yeah. I like the sweetgums,"
Turq said. "They're all sharp
if you step on the seedpods, but
the leaves are neat, like little hands."

"I like the ash trees," Ansel said.
"They have strong wood, and
the leaves turn gold or orange."

"There's a purple kind too,"
Turq said. "It's a hybrid
of the white ash."

"I didn't know that," Ansel said.

A thin shoulder lifted and fell.
"Trees are safe. People are
more complicated," Turq said.
"I spent a lot of time in libraries."

"Can't say I blame you," Ansel said.

They turned their attention back
to the autumn leaves and let the sun
melt away the chilling memories.

* * *


See Ansel's T-shirt. It's a Granny Weatherwax quote.

This style of park bench is sometimes called a courting chair. It can prevent strangers from having to sit right beside each other, and also facilitate difficult conversations by providing proximity without eye contact. Terramagne-American hospitals often have something similar in the Shock Room.

(The following links are distressing.)
Foster care often has poor outcomes when compared to keeping families together. These negative experiences cause institutional betrayal, which undermines survivors' ability to seek help from others -- even when trustworthy people and resources later become available to them. T-America does better than L-America, but as you can see, it's not perfect. Turq had some very mixed experiences.

(So are these.)
Human trafficking is a serious problem in Terramagne, more in some countries than others, and especially for certain kinds of soups who have interesting abilities that don't lend themselves well to self-defense. But as you can see from Turq's experience, there are other reasons.  It also impairs access to care.  Know how to help stop human trafficking.

(And these are basically nightmare fuel.)
The Nazis were infamous for human experimentation, but America has done it too, including the CIA. Psychologists have helped design and implement torture programs, after redefining torture, and that laps over into human experimentation because they were trying to figure out how to extract information. Here are some other examples. This kind of stuff is why Turq panics over potential capture.

(So are these.)
Medical abuse has happened in concentration camps and secret prisons.

(And these.)
Torture produces terrible long-term effects. Torture survivors often have difficulty recovering, even with help. There are ways to recover from torture and help trauma survivors.

(Another gross link here.)
Mengele is a rude term for a mad scientist who experiments on nonconsenting subjects, particularly people with superpowers. There is deep, ugly history of atrocities committed in the pursuit of science without compassion, which makes soups extremely sensitive to issues of medical ethics. More disturbingly, it can start with small things that seem innocuous and then slide down into atrocities; people are keenly aware of that slippery slope. Like telepathic violation, this kind of abuse tends to be a very short route to a Go Home Charlie. Naries are less inclined to use a word as foul as "mengele" but they are still alert to the dangers; soups, who are preferred targets for unwelcome experimentation, will go for the throat. It derives from Dr. Mengele of Nazi infamy.

Listening to disclosures is a difficult but vital part of helping people recover from trauma. Know how to comfort someone after molestation or abuse.

Contact comfort comes from healthy touch, between people or even just touching something soft. Petting fur, or having hair stroked, stimulates nerves that bring pleasure. Affectionate touch can soothe pain and calm anxiety. Turq isn't ready for more than brief, minimal contact -- but the fact that he seeks comfort at all means that he's damaged but not completely broken. There are ways to comfort yourself or cuddle someone else.

(Some of these links are unpleasant.)
Shame and self-blame routinely follow trauma. These may be behavioral or characterological, and often involve false ideas about abuse. Understand how to challenge shame-based thinking, overcome shame, and let go of self-blame. This set of best practices explains which techniques therapists can use to produce the most positive outcomes -- it even cites studies, so it meets the T-American standard for calling something "best practice."

(These are horrifying.)
Abusers tend to think and speak in similar ways, whether they are domestic abusers, mad scientists, or whatever. Claiming that the victim deserves, likes, or wants the abuse is very common.

(Some of these are upsetting too.)
Prolonged duress stress disorder or complex-post-traumatic-stress disorder often appears in survivors of torture. Understand how to deal with post-traumatic stress or help someone suffering from it. Turq's ranges from some cases of bad foster care up through mad science torture, for years. There is some information on how to treat PDSD.

Nightmares appear in most people with post-traumatic stress. Understand how to cope with nightmares or help someone stop them.

Hypervigilance is a loss of feeling safe. There are ways to reduce hypervigilance and teach hypervigilant children to calm themselves.

Go Home Charlie is slang for when when a supervillain kills someone for being too awful for even the other bad guys to tolerate. While often thought of as concerning abusive telepaths, those are actually quite rare, and there are plenty of other offenses that have caused supervillains to turn around and frag someone supposedly on their own side. A milder version entails turning the offender in to the authorities, such as SPOON or the police. Most lawkeeping organizations wish to encourage this kind of assistance and thus grant the delivering supervillain a stay of pursuit ranging from the rest of the day to 24 hours.

Trust and trust issues are touchy topics for many abuse survivors. Betrayal of trust violates basic expectations of relationships. It takes work to become a trustworthy person and to build trust between people, especially in cases of abuse and/or neglect. Ansel also uses some techniques similar to those for earning the trust of abused dogs.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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