WARNING: This poem contains material likely to disturb many readers. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features traumatic stress, nightmares, graphic description of human experimentation, graphic description of mad science torture, near-drowning (Turq), death by drowning (other people), extreme survivor guilt, shame, self-blame, self-hate, attachment issues, witnessing others being hurt, abrupt waking up from nightmares, hysterical sobbing, post-traumatic everything, but Ansel is awesome, Turq sharing painful memories about others in his cohort from the lab, feeling unworthy, loneliness, fear over reunion with family, feeling broken, missing people, Turq is just desperately miserable, confusion, memory problems, past suicidal ideation, Ansel fantasizing about poetic justice, specific worries, more generalized anxiety, hardcore hurt/comfort, and other challenges. Although this poem deals with plot-relevant events, most of it simply adds more graphic details of stuff that has already been presented in general terms. The main thing you'd miss by skipping it is the introduction of other survivors in Turq's cohort. If these are sensitive subjects for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before deciding whether you want to read this one.
"Blood and Water"
Turq sleeps, and he
dreams of blood and water.
He remembers the tank
and the tiny platform and
the bitter, creeping cold.
He remembers falling asleep
and falling into the water and
climbing out again, clinging
desperately to the platform.
He remembers the sick relief
when the water gurgled away
and he could scramble out,
hideously grateful that it was
someone else's turn now.
Turq whimpers in his sleep,
reaching for comfort that isn't there.
People always say that
blood is thicker than water,
but it's never been true for him.
The people closest to Turq
haven't been related to him at all,
and his relatives haven't been close.
He knows that blood
can run thick or thin,
that water can trickle or
turn to slush underfoot.
Sometimes blood and water are
both nothing but something to choke on.
He remembers Darian holding him
and rocking him, murmuring gentle lies
that everything would be all right,
the older boy's black-and-white hair
falling like curtains over Turq's face.
He remembers Lina screaming
as the white coats dragged her away,
her yellow hair bushed out in fear.
He remembers the bodies
of the ones who drowned.
A sound cuts through the dream,
like a woodpecker drumming, and
it shocks Turq awake so that he
bangs against the inside of his den.
He scrabbles out of it, sobbing
for breath, fur giving way to skin.
It's Ansel, knocking hard on
the low wall of the gazebo and
giving Turq a worried look.
"Are you okay?" Ansel asks.
"No," Turq says, too wrung out
for even a token attempt at dignity.
Ansel spreads his hands.
"How can I help?" he asks.
Turq presses himself against
the bigger man's chest
and says, "Hold me."
"Okay," Ansel says,
wrapping his arms around
Turq. "I can do that. Okay,
shh, I've got you now."
Turq is crying into the soft wool
of Ansel's gray cableknit sweater.
He cries and he cries, and
it feels like he will cry forever.
Ansel holds him and talks about
the weather and the cold clear day and
the white chili in the crockpot for supper.
Turq snuffles. He can barely
smell the garlic and chicken
through all the snot, but yeah,
that's chili clinging to Ansel
like a cloud of perfume.
"Nightmare?" Ansel asks gently,
and Turq nods against his shoulder.
"I thought that might be it. I had
a hard time waking you up."
"Thanks," Turq says,
sitting up a little. He has
left a damp spot on the sweater.
"I thought you slept better
in caney form?" Ansel says.
"Usually I do, but now ... I'm
getting all wired up about
my family," Turq says.
"Were you dreaming about
them?" Ansel asks as they settle
into a more comfortable position
on the bench seats of the gazebo.
"Not exactly," Turq says.
"It was ... I miss my cohort."
"Your cohort?" Ansel echoes,
and Turq realizes that he hasn't
explained this much before.
"The other people in the same series
with me, back in the lab," Turq says.
The memory makes him shiver,
clammy as hands from a grave.
He wraps his arms around himself
as if he can hold in the fear.
"Do you want to tell me about them?"
Ansel said. "I'd like to listen, if
they're important to you."
So Turq tells him, even though
the words all but choke him
on their way out.
He talks about the lab and
the drugs and the burning light,
about the tests that hurt so much
he wanted to die but never did.
He talks about the ones who did.
Turq's voice quivers as he tells Ansel
about the other members of his cohort,
those he knew only a little and
those he felt closest to.
"Darian was ... I guess you could
call him our leader," Turq says. "He was
the oldest of us, we all looked up to him,
and he always tried to protect us littler ones,
even though he couldn't really. The guards,
yeah, sometimes they could be distracted,
but not the white coats -- they had
like a list they had to follow."
"That must have been awful
for everyone," Ansel says,
rubbing Turq's back.
"It was hell," Turq says.
"Lina was one of the youngest,
she was so small and so scared,
the rest of us tried to hide her
whenever we could."
Turq shudders, remembering
the tank and the terror, the relief,
then the guilt and shame that followed
once he was dry and mostly warm
because someone else had
taken his place in the tank.
He's a horrible person.
He is selfish and awful and
there is no way his parents
could love someone like him.
"I'm so bad," he sobs.
"I shouldn't be missing
people, I'd just hurt them
if they were around. I don't
mean to be selfish, but
I'm just so lonely."
"Turq, listen to me,"
Ansel says. "You are not
a bad person. The ones who
hurt you are bad people. None
of this was your fault, and you
could not have done anything
to stop it, so don't blame yourself."
Every time Ansel says things
like that, it hurts, but it helps,
like putting pressure on a wound.
Turq is so broken, he doesn't
know how to fix himself, but
maybe Ansel can help him
figure it out in time.
"I miss my cohort. I miss
my family," Turq says.
"Of course you do," Ansel says.
"Everyone misses people they
care about when separated. It's
a good thing that you can still feel
the connection so well, even if it hurts
for now. That means it isn't ruptured.
Attachment damage is really hard to heal."
Turq sighs. It's just his luck that
pain is a positive msign.
"I don't even know why this is
happening to me," he says,
scrubbing a hand over his face.
"I'm supposed to be able
to sleep as the caney."
Ansel hands him a hankie.
"Maybe you're feeling shaken up
because of your family," he says.
"Reconnecting with them is
a big step, it's bound to stir up
all kinds of emotions."
"Yeah," Turq says as he rubs
the soft cloth across his face.
"I just ... wish I had some hope
of finding my cohort again, and
that gets all tangled up with
wanting to see my family."
"Think back on what you told me,"
Ansel coaches. "Who did you see dead,
for certain? Who do you suspect got out
before you did? Who do you know was
alive at the time you escaped?"
Turq tries, he really does, but
even counting on his fingers, he
can't keep track of it all. His mind
is still too much of a mess.
"Some just disappeared,"
he says. "I think some of them
probably died or were killed, but
others may have escaped. We had
superpowers, and soups are
hard to lock up for long."
"That's a good point,"
Ansel says. "What else?"
"I'm pretty sure that Darian
escaped," Turq says. "I know
he got out of his cell, because we
were all separated that night, and
he tried to open the other doors but
couldn't. We heard the guards coming
and he ran away." His head tilted back
against the wall. "God, I wanted to die."
"But you didn't," Ansel says. "You survived."
"Yeah, I had some idea how to handle it,"
Turq says. "The family stories, they can be
sad and scary stuff, about what happened to
the other Chinese people on the trail and to
the Tibetan helpers, but they taught me a lot
about how to be a refugee and how to survive
this shit. I wouldn't be here without them."
"Costly lessons, but precious ones,"
Ansel says with a sympathetic nod.
"I taught the others as much as I could,
but I didn't know it all, I know there were
stories that Dao and Mingxia only told
the older ones," Turq says. "But I had
enough to get by with. I hope that some
of the others are still alive, too."
"So do I," Ansel says. "I can help you
look for them, too, if you want."
"I don't know ... maybe," Turq says.
The desire burns in him, hot and potent,
but he knows the risks. "If they're alive
and free, they won't want to be found.
If they're still ... back there ... then I
don't want any of us going near it."
He shivers, shudders, at the thought
of it and then once he starts, he
can't seem to stop again. He can
still taste the blood and water.
Ansel pulls him close and
shelters Turq with the warmth
of his body until the tremors ease.
"Turq, it's my job to stop people who
are doing really bad things," says Ansel.
"I have been fantasizing about putting
that perp in front of a Jewish judge and
a jury of twelve trauma survivors."
A startled laugh escapes from
Turq's throat at that image, and
somehow makes him feel better.
He wants that too, or at least,
he would if he could believe it
was possible and wouldn't just
get his new friends killed.
"It's a sweet picture," he says.
"Good," Ansel says. "Everyone
deserves justice." He reached up,
slowly, and stroked Turq's hair.
"It's okay to worry about your friends
and family. There are all kinds of bonds,
all kinds of families, and every one of
them is special in its own way."
"Dao and Mingxia say that
this is the family that counts,"
Turq said, snuggling against
Ansel again. "It's not about who
gave you life, but who shares
your life, whether those are
the same people or not."
"That's a great rule," Ansel says.
"I'll have to remember that one."
"So, um, why'd you come down here?"
Turq wonders. "It can't have been
just to wake me up from a nightmare,
you wouldn't have known it upstairs."
"I wanted to know if you'd like
a hot breakfast," Ansel says. "I put
some overnight oatmeal in the fridge
yesterday. It's no trouble to heat up
an extra bowl if you want some."
Turq's stomach growls on cue.
"Yes, please," he says, blushing.
"I'll be back in a few minutes,"
Ansel says. He hugs Turq,
then trots up the stairs.
Turq takes the opportunity
to pee in the woods, then wash
his hands and face with bottled water.
By the time he's done, Ansel is back
with a pair of big steaming bowls
and two enormous coffee mugs.
The ones he passes to Turq are
glazed blue inside, while Ansel's
are a pale peach color, all of them
with woodsy designs on the outsides.
The oatmeal is hot and thick,
warming the cold spot inside
Turq's belly. Its vivid spices
chase away the lingering taste
of blood and water on his tongue.
He's so grateful for the good food.
The coffee is really too hot to drink,
but Turq drinks it anyway, sipping from
just the surface where the cold air
has made it almost bearable.
Ansel always eats with Turq, or
at least, as often as Turq will let him.
He doesn't have to, he just wants to.
It makes Turq feel a little less lonely,
a little less like he's drowning in dry air.
It makes him feel like he has family again.
* * *
Saffron (Lina Craddock) -- She has bisque skin, luminous turquoise eyes, and long straight yellow hair streaked with peach. Her body hair varies between peach and yellow too; in the picture you can see that her eyebrows are kind of a dark peach color and she's using heavy eye makeup to cover the yellow lashes. Her heritage includes Welsh, Scottish, French, and Arabic. She pronounces her surname "KRATH-ock" while everyone else says "KRAD-ock." Following incidents of child sexual abuse and abandonment, she grew up in the foster care system, so she has no real family support. The results of that have not been very good. She is about 17 years old.
One time when Lina ran away from her foster parents, she fell prey to human traffickers. That got her into prostitution. Eventually they sold her to a mad scientist whose disturbing experiments gave her superpowers. A lifelong pattern of victimization and revictimization has left her with disorganized attachment and serious boundary issues, making it difficult for her to connect with people. Lina carries herself like a victim. Sometimes she lets people violate boundaries that she doesn't even realize she should have, while other times she pushes them away in a panic. She also tends to "fade" under stress, as the dissociation reflexively activates her Phasing. She has been mistaken for a ghost, more than once.
Saffron's abilities lend themselves well to the underworld. Her Neural Manipulation leans more toward pleasure than pain, although she can deliver an unpleasant jolt if distressed. Her skill with pillow talk means that she knows what's going on around her, and can sometimes tease out secrets that people don't intend to share. She can Phase away from trouble if cornered, and also tends to use it for stealing things.
Origin: Mad science torture. The supervillain Carl Bernhardt locked Lina in a strange metal chamber and bombarded her with mysterious energies that caused his body to warp. She escaped when she finally manifested Phasing. Now she works as a prostitute and occasionally as a thief.
Uniform: Street clothes. Often she wears dark or neutral colors to hide her body. When hooking, she dresses to display her assets, usually in warm tones. She is particularly fond of shot silk with yellow/pink or yellow/orange combinations.
Qualities: Good (+2) Agility, Good (+2) Pillow Talk, Good (+2) Poker Player, Good (+2) Prostitute, Good (+2) Versatile
Poor (-2) Boundary Issues
Powers: Average (0) Cryptid Shifter
In Saffron's case, the metapower of Cryptid Shifter includes Average (0) Neural Manipulation, Average (0) Phase, Average (0) Regeneration, Average (0) Shapeshifting, Average (0) Yellow Hair, and variable enhancements to vision.
Her alternate forms include felydd, horse, rabbit, squirrel, flame-colored tanager, and albino lavender ball python. The felydd has a catlike body, paws with retractable claws, and a long fluffy tail like a snow leopard. The coat is mostly shades of yellow and peach with darker leopard spots plus a white ruff, belly, and tail tip. The yellow eyes are slitted like a cat's, but the face looks more like a fennec fox with a tiny muzzle, although the enormous ears are set on top of the head instead of the sides. In felydd form, Saffron has musk glands with a pronounced musky-spicy scent, which is less intense but still present in her other shapes. It is not quite a superpower unto itself, but it definitely contributes to her sex appeal. She has the ultraviolet vision that sometimes comes with exotic colors, plus enhanced night vision which is Average in human form and Good in felydd form.
Vulnerability: Saffron has difficulty controlling her superpowers. Shapeshifting screws up her body in ways that can leave her disoriented and shaking afterwards. Sometimes she has problems remaining solid, and other times she loses bits of her body or gets foreign objects embedded inside her. However, she can heal the damage -- anything that doesn't kill her instantly probably can't kill her at all. Phasing can leave her confused and twitching from misconnected nerves, or scrambled inside, or all of the above.
Motivation: To feel safe. She has an unfortunate habit of pursuing this goal by clinging to a protector, and she often chooses bad ones.
A civet is a catlike animal which produces a strong musk once used in perfumery. The smell has been described as musky, fecal, and animalic; when diluted it becomes very sensual. Currently synthetic civet musk is preferred instead; T-America has much better production values than L-America in replicating animal fragrances. The felydd produces a musky-spicy scent similar to civet.
In Gaelic, felydd can be translated as "fancy" or "saucy" although pinning down references is difficult. The name is pronounced "FEL-ith." It also riffs on felid, a general term for cats or catlike creatures.
Nebuly (Darian Cormac) -- He has pale skin and gray eyes. His hair is short and white on the sides of his head, while the top has a row of long black dreadlocks. His body hair is patched and swirled in black, brown, and white. He is tall and strong. He has a stretched lobe tunnel and upper lobe piercing in each ear. He has bridge, both nostril, and septum piercings in his nose. He has a labret, snakebites, and two pairs of corner piercings in his lower lip. Nebuly uses the occasional pain from piercings to break through the numbness of depression and remind him to take good care of himself.
Darian grew up in a happy, healthy family until he and his parents were attacked by human traffickers when Darian was 10. His parents fought ferociously to protect him, and managed to kill at least one of the attackers. Due to all the blood spilled, Darian suspects that his parents were also killed, and doesn't really want to find out the truth. He is about 21 now.
Origin: Mad science torture. The supervillain Carl Bernhardt locked Darian in a strange metal chamber and bombarded her with mysterious energies that caused his body to warp. He escaped when he finally manifested Vaporous Form. Now he works as a rennie and occasionally as a hacker.
Uniform: Street clothes. He usually wears black. Sometimes he lightens up with white, gray, or brown. Rarely he wears brighter colors like blue or purple. He also has some medieval garb.
Qualities: Good (+2) Fortitude, Good (+2) Leader, Good (+2) Hacker, Good (+2) Historical Re-enactment, Good (+2) Tall
Poor (-2) Depression
Powers: Good (+2) Cryptid Shifter
In Nebuly's case, the metapower of Cryptid Shifter and variable enhancements to vision. Good (+2) Control Electricity (Signature Stunts: Average EMP, Average Lightning Bolt, Average Neural Disruption), Good (+2) Regeneration, Good (+2) Shapeshifting, Good (+2) Vaporous Form (Signature Stunt: Average Liquid Form), Average (0) Merle, and Average (0) True Sight. His alternate forms include myrstag, liger, blue tricolor merle border collie, western spotted skunk, black-and-white tegu lizard, and snowy owl. His night vision is Average in lizard form; Good in human, myrstag, and dog forms; Expert in skunk and liger forms; and Master in owl form. The myrstag's distinctive musky scent carries over into other forms, but only the skunk's is strong enough to function as a bioweapon.
Motivation: To put his life back together.
Heraldry defines nebuly as a wavering line meant to resemble clouds. It comes from the Latin word nebula referring to a mist, vapor, or cloud. See pictures of a line nebuly and a shield emblazoned Barry nebuly of nine azure and argent.
The myrstag form has sharp antlers for defense, a heavy coat which sheds rain, hooved paws for walking on soft ground, and the ability to digest almost anything. The outer guard hairs are coarse and wiry; the middle hairs are silky; and the woolly undercoat is soft. In Swedish, myr means a bog, moor, or wetland. Caribou and reindeer have large cloven hooves which help them walk over marshy ground or swim through open water; the myrstag enjoys similar features.
* * *
(Some of these links are appalling.)
The mad scientist is a common trope in entertainment, but also disturbingly real. Mad scientists frighten people because they distort the quest for knowledge as a solution to problems, and instead cause problems. They use cruel methods toward unethical ends. Another creepy factor is that genius and madness really are related. Although most "mad scientists" depicted in entertainment are actually just mad engineers, Carl Bernhardt does use scientific methods such as experimental groups and control groups. In fact, Turq started out as control before falling into a later experiment.
(These links are awful too.)
Research on human subjects requires careful attention to ethics, lest if fall into unethical areas of human experimentation. What happened to Turq and his cohort extends into the realm of medical torture. This kind of abuse has deep historic roots. Motivations range from morbid curiosity to outright power-tripping, but the Nazis were particularly known for their maniacal pursuit of human perfection.
(These links feature cruelty to animals.)
The flowerpot technique and behavioral despair test are two variations of forced swimming. Other tests explore the creation and elimination of hopelessness, and the effects of hope on survival (independent of the fact that none of the rats could actually escape).
Parentification appears in the trope Promotion to Parent when one child has to look after another for lack of appropriate adult care. Parentification can have positive and negative effects, and it's important for counselors to understand that it can go both ways. Parentified children (and later adults) often benefit from help setting healthy boundaries. Foster or adoptive families face challenges in getting them to accept care.
(Some of these links are upsetting.)
Traumatic bonding refers to close human connections formed under stressful circumstances, most often used in regard to unhealthy bonds between abuser and victim. However, shared trauma and pain generally encourage bonding, and that context can impair the quality of the connection in ways that would benefit from healing. This happens often during disasters and war. While debriefing immediately after trauma tends not to help, and belongs to a list of therapies that can cause harm, some survivors nonetheless have found it appealing even though it produced no measurable reduction in the rate of PTSD development. This may be due to their greater affinity for talk therapy, in which case the intervention was simply mistimed; or it may be a near-miss where what they needed was social bonding and the offered intervention was as close as they could get. Another factor is oxytocin, which the body produces during some painful experiences (such as childbirth) but also during pleasant ones (such as sex) and which facilitates bonding. You can see this connection between Turq and his cohort comforting each other, then later with Ansel comforting Turq. A secure bond can help heal the damage of earlier bonds which were harmful or were hopeful but impaired by traumatic context. It also supports the process of naming and describing what happened, binding the memories with words to hold them in place so they don't drift around and cause problems.
Nightmares are a common symptom of PTSD. There are various treatments for PTSD nightmares and advice for health workers. People debate whether or not it's acceptable for adults to seek comfort after a nightmare, so most of the advice relates to children's nightmares. Understand how to cope with flashbacks and deal with nightmares.
Friends and family help people overcome challenges. These and other resilience factors can reduce the chance that a traumatic experience will develop into PTSD. Notice that Turq is becoming less skittish and more inclined to seek help when he gets upset. Understand how to support and comfort a friend during a crisis, or how to reach out when you need support.
Ansel's sweater is a simple wool cableknit. He loves fuzzy things, and so does Turq.
Slow Cooker White Chicken Chili is a good recipe for a long work day. Like many people who have gone hungry, Turq finds food smells reassuring. Ansel has taken to capitalizing on this, and it works.
(These links are very intense.)
Survivor guilt is a devasting emotion that can follow a traumatic experience where someone lived but others died. Survivors may feel plagued by questions and struggle to find meaning after the events. The moral logic of survivor guilt, or moral injury, cause particular anguish to survivors who hurt someone else or feel that they did. Turq feels like a bad person just for being grateful that he was not, at a given moment, being tortured because the perpetrators were busy with another victim. Traumatic drowning is especially prone to causing survivor guilt. It is important to understand what does and doesn't help in coping with survivor guilt. While I could not find anything on how to support a friend who suffers from survivor guilt, these tips for supporting survivors of suicide loss seem like a reasonable approximation.
Child abuse and neglect tend to cause emotional trauma. The effects can include guilt, shame, and self-hate. This can pose particular complications for male survivors. Turq had some of this baggage even before his kidnapping, and it only got worse from the mad science torture. An essential step in healing involves placing the blame where it belongs, on the perpetrator. Cultivating self-compassion can also help to heal the shame, overcome the guilt, and relieve the self-hate of childhood trauma. Friends and family can help this process.
Attachment is a way of describing different patterns of relationship between children and their caregivers, but applies to adult relationships also. Here child maltreatment causes damage to the bonding mechanisms. There are ways to nurture healthy bonds in people with attachment disorders. When it comes to attachment, Turq is a palimpsest, because he has layers of bad treatment, a very strong family connection, a lot more mistreatment, and how has supportive friends. So his reactions often fluctuate.
Removal from the home necessarily causes trauma, because losing a parent is the worst thing that can happen to a child. This often causes attachment issues or disorders. Another way to look at this is connection disruption, rather than attachment disorder: not something wrong with the survivor, but something wrong with what happened to them. Foster care disrupts attachment in ways that cause loss and grief effects. Disordered attachment appears on a spectrum from secure attachment to insecure but organized forms of attachment, disorganized attachment, secure base distortions, and non-attachment disorders at the far end. Parents of fostered or adopted children can help repair this damage.
PTSD of Abandonment has a particular flavor of its own, marked by a sense of being "damaged goods" and fear of hurting others. Here are some resources on abandonment and ideas on how to help people who feel abandoned.
Overnight oatmeal can be made hot or cold. Ansel logically serves it hot during chilly weather.
This gallery holds many dishes similar to Ansel's kitchen set. The colors make it easy to distinguish which items belong to whom in use. Ansel has a peach bowl, plate, and mug. Turq has a blue bowl, plate, and mug.