Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Burnt and Experienced Hands"

This poem came out of the March 6, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by prompts from [personal profile] dialecticdreamer, [personal profile] siliconshaman, and [personal profile] mama_kestrel. It also fills the "learn a new skill" square in my 2-28-18 card for the Slice-of-Life Bingo. This poem has been sponsored by [personal profile] mama_kestrel. It belongs to the Shiv thread of the Polychrome Heroics series, and directly follows "Even If It Is in Flames," so read that one first or this won't make much sense.

Warning: This poem contains some intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. This is the aftermath of the kitchen fire. It is hurt/comfort, more comfort than hurt, but Shiv is a pretty sad sack right now. The poem includes underestimation of injuries, emotional overload, hand-shyness, messy medical details, incident analysis, self-blame, humiliation, feeling worthless, bad tape, because the inside of Shiv's head is always a warning, Shiv is not comfortable with lessons, anxiety, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"Burnt and Experienced Hands"

Shiv stumbled down the stairs,
his eyes stinging with smoke and
the tears he refused to shed.

When he made his way to the kitchen,
Cook was already waiting for him.

"Boss told me about the fire,"
said Cook. "Are you hurt?"

"I'm fine," Shiv choked.

"Uh huh," Cook said,
guiding him into the kitchen.
"Sit down. Wash your face first,
'cause smoke is bad for your eyes."

Shiv took the wet rag and wiped it
over his face, pressing the cool cloth
against his hot skin for a minute.

He didn't want to quit, because
no one could see him like this,
but he had to come up for air.

"That's better," Cook said,
taking the rag back from him.
"Now show me your hands."

Shiv tried to lean away.
He hated inspections.

"None of that, now,"
Cook said, catching him
in a gentle grip. "You mind me."

Shiv hissed in pain and
yanked his hands away.

He hadn't even realized
anything was wrong, but
now it hurt, it hurt so bad.

"Ayup, I thought you might've
burned yourself somewhere,"
Cook said, shaking his head.
"I woulda rather found that out
the easy way than like that."

"I didn't know," Shiv whimpered.

"Adrenaline is real good at hiding pain,
that's why it's important to check for
injuries," Cook said. "You sit tight
while I get the first aid kit."

He pulled the metal cabinet
off the wall and set it on the table.

"Ready to show me your hands now?"
Cook asked as he sat down.

Shiv turned his hands over
to show both sides. He had
tiny blisters spattered over
the back of his right hand,
and an oozing pink streak
the size of his little finger on
the outside edge of his left hand.

For some reason, they hurt
even worse now he'd seen them.

"Nasty, but not bad enough you
need a clinic," Cook declared.
"Hold still, this will hurt."

Shiv closed his eyes and
gritted his teeth as Cook
carefully blotted off the grease
with a swab that stung like fury.

"That's done," Cook said.
"This will be cold, and it
numbs the skin pretty good."

Freezing gel slopped over
both hands, making Shiv
suck in his breath again.

"Let me wrap these
for you, and then we'll be
just about done," Cook said,
smoothing gauze over the burns.
"There, how does that feel?"

"Better," Shiv admitted.

"Good," Cook said. "Next time
you get burned, stick your hand
under cool water a couple minutes
to take the heat out. It stops
the burn getting worse."

"Uh huh," Shiv said.

Something rattled nearby,
startling his eyes open.

"Here, start with these,"
Cook said, holding out
two little white pills. "If
you don't feel better in
ten-twenty minutes, we'll
go down to the patch room
and get you something stronger."

Shiv knocked back the pills,
and Cook put a bottle of water
in his hand to chase them.

"Thanks," Shiv muttered,
not looking at the older man.

"No trouble atall," Cook said
as he cleaned up the mess and
put away the first aid kit. "I'll go
get you some breakfast now."

He brought out a few boiled eggs
along with a slab of cold ham.

"Thanks," Shiv said, digging in.

"You want that ham hotted up?"
Cook said. "I could throw on
some bread with it, for toast."

Shiv tugged off a small piece
so he'd have something to eat now.
"Heat up the rest of this for me?"

"Can do," Cook said. "Will it
bother you if I turn on the stove?"

Shiv glanced at the huge thing,
more than twice the size of
a normal one, but far enough
away from him. "Nah, I'm good."

Cook flicked on a burner and
the blue flames danced to life.

Shiv's nerves maybe twitched
a little, but not too bad.

The ham went in a skillet with
a sizzle, followed by the bread,
and fragrant smells floated up.

Shiv scarfed down the eggs
and the bit of ham before Cook
slid the rest onto his plate.

Everything was delicious.
Cook was good at his work.

"You want to tell me what
happened upstairs?" Cook said.

Shiv shrugged. "I tried to make eggs,
and the fucking butter caught fire."

"That's not a proper report,
Shiv," said Cook. "I know
Boss White taught you better."

Grumbling, Shiv dragged out
a more detailed description of
his fumbling attempt to cook.

It was humiliating, but
Cook was right, and Shiv
didn't want to make Boss White
look bad by botching a report
when a lieutenant called for one.

"So the first thing that went wrong
is you didn't have anything for breakfast
that you already knew how to make,"
Cook said. "I can fix that."

He walked away, opened
the pantry, and came back
with an armload of stuff.

"Cheerios. Quick oats. Raisins.
Sliced almonds," Cook said as
he set them in front of Shiv.
"You know how fix these?"

Shiv picked up the big carton of
quick oats, fondly remembering them
from the Get Your Sh!t Together Diet
that Dr. Bloch had introduced. It always
offered whole-grain hot and cold cereals
for breakfast and lunch, with things like
nuts and raisins to mix into them.

In the cafeteria, you just got them off
the bar, with the hot cereal already made,
but Shiv had learned to cook oatmeal
in the little kitchen, from a class
about how to eat healthy.

"Yeah, I know how to, but ..."
His voice slowly trailed away.

Shiv had fucked up and
set his kitchen on fire,
and now here was Cook
rewarding him with food.

It made his head go sideways.

Cook gave him a gentle thump on
the back and said, "Whatever you're
thinking, Shiv, cut it out. I can see from
the look on your face it ain't good for you."

"I don't deserve this," he said, putting
the carton reluctantly on the table.

"Now didn't I just tell you, the problem
started because you didn't have anything
you already knew how to make?" Cook said.
"You take those things upstairs, and then
you'll have them when you need them."

"But my kitchen is wrecked," Shiv said.

"Well, what did Boss White tell you
about that?" Cook asked him.

Shiv winced. "That he and
Lieutenant Brown would clean it."

"Then you can bet they'll leave
your kitchen spic-and-span, ready
to cook in," the older man said.
"It's your job to know what to do
with it when you go home, so
let's get on with that."

"Yes, sir," Shiv said,
wondering what he had
gotten himself into now.

"Safety first: fire extinguishers,"
Cook said. "You ever use one?"

Shiv shook his head. "I only
seen 'em used in a demo once,
or sometimes on television."

"All right, I'll take you through
the whole process," Cook said.

"I guess," Shiv said. He didn't want
to argue with Cook or Boss White.

Cook got up to fetch a little red tank.
"This here's the ABC fire extinguisher,
like we put up in the apartments."

"It's not the same?" Shiv said,
looking at the big silver tank
still hanging on the kitchen wall.

"You got sharp eyes, kid," said Cook.
"That one is a Class K fire extinguisher
for putting out big grease fires. Don't worry
about it for now; that one's my responsibility.
Learn this little one first, and if you want more,
we'll do that lesson on some other day."

"Okay," Shiv said, not sure he could
handle even the smaller one.

Cook talked him through it,
though, and the things were
designed to be stupid-easy to use.

They even discussed different kinds
of fire extinguishers and which fires
each one would put out. ABC meant
it would work on almost everything.

"All right, let's go outside and
give it a try," Cook said.

"What?" Shiv yelped.
"But they're expensive!"

Cook raised his eyebrows.
"They're rechargeable, and I
guarantee that'll cost less than
dealing with an actual fire.
Now move your butt."

Shiv moved. Last thing he
needed was Cook pissed at him.

Cook set up a few targets, then handed
Shiv a pair of stretchy kitchen gloves.
"Here, you need to keep your hands
clean and dry until the burns heal."

He even helped Shiv put them on,
so that the gloves wouldn't drag
over the thin layer of gauze.

"Now aim at the base of the flames,
just like we talked about, and
pull the pin," Cook said.

Shiv obeyed him, and then
the fire extinguisher whooshed.

The paper targets fell one by one.

Shiv might be no use in a kitchen,
but he could hit what he aimed at.

"Good job," Cook said, clapping
him on the back. "Let's go in."

The fire extinguisher went on
a cart instead of back on the wall,
with a big orange sticker on it
that read, "SERVICE NEEDED."

Then Cook picked up the scissors and
used them to split the gloves a little
at Shiv's wrists. "When you've hurt
your hands, don't yank off your gloves
like usual," Cook said. "Cut first,
then tear them off like this."

He showed Shiv how to do it,
gently peeling off the gloves so
they didn't muss the bandages.

"Okay, I got the idea," Shiv said.

Cook took out a tablet computer,
quizzed Shiv on a few things that
were surprisingly easy to answer,
then put it back in a drawer.

"How you feelin' now, Shiv?"
asked Cook, watching him closely.

Shiv wiggled his hands. He could
feel the gauze, a little, but his skin
had gone mostly numb from the gel,
and the pills took care of the rest.

"Good enough," he said.

"That's great," Cook said.
"Come on over here, and I'll
show you how to make eggs."

Shiv froze. "I-I can't cook."

"Hell you can't, you already
told me you can make oatmeal,"
Cook said. "Eggs ain't much harder."

Shiv pried himself away from the table
and slunk over to where Cook stood
beside the monster of a stove.

"Here now, you're okay," Cook said,
gently taking Shiv's hands and helping
him into a fresh pair of gloves. "It ain't
so scary once you know what you're doing."

"You're not worried that I'll mess up
your stuff?" Shiv said, shoulders hunching.

"Burnt and experienced hands are
more important than all of the gear
in the kitchen," Cook said firmly.

"Well, all right then," Shiv said.

"Look down," Cook said, and
Shiv obeyed. "Remember when I
showed you about them lines?"

"Yeah," Shiv said, because that had
been back when he first joined and Cook
was real firm about why not to run into
a crowded kitchen and maybe bump
into someone carrying a pot of hot chili.
"Yellow shows the walking lanes and
white's for where people stand."

"That's right," Cook said.
"Look around at the kitchen."

Shiv looked. It was full of stuff --
the big sinks for making food and
washing dishes, the actual dishwashers,
the tall ovens, the huge deep fryer, and
Cook's grill that nobody else touched.

"Red-and-white marks safety equipment,"
Cook said, pointing to the fire extinguisher.
"Black-and-yellow marks active hazards, like
the hominy -- lye will burn if you get it on you."

"Yeah, you said." Shiv nodded in memory.
He didn't want to get himself hurt, so he
paid attention to Cook in the kitchen.

"Step up," Cook said, urging him
onto the rubbery black mat outlined
in white. "This here's your workstation."

"Okay," Shiv said, not feeling okay
but not wanting to act like a pansy.

"Here's how the stove works,"
Cook said. "It's a lot like the kind
in a regular kitchen at home, and
that's why I start folks here."

There were more knobs and stuff,
but that's because it had ten burners.
Once Cook told Shiv which ones went
with the pair in front of him, it wasn't so bad.

Carefully Shiv repeated what Cook had
just explained, pointing to the right knobs.

"See, you're doing fine," Cook said,
rubbing a hand over Shiv's back.
"This is how to crack an egg.
You got to be quick and clean,
or you'll drop shells in the dish."

The egg smacked briskly against
the edge, Cook pulled the halves
apart with his fingers, and then
the goop plopped into the bowl.

"Wow," Shiv breathed.

Cook chuckled, warm and
solid beside him. "It ain't hard,"
he said. "Now you try it."

Shiv struggled to obey, but
he kept mashing the eggs
and getting shells everywhere.

"I told you I can't cook," he whined.

"Well, I don't believe a bit of it,"
Cook said. "You're good with
your hands. Try it again,
this shit takes practice."

Grumbling, Shiv tried again.
The egg broke in half, but
he still got chips in the dish.

"I don't like wasting food," he said.

"We ain't gonna waste anything,"
Cook said, clucking his tongue. "I'll
make a casserole later. Doesn't matter
if the eggs have shells in them, I'll just
run them through the food mill."

"Can't I just do this the easy way?"
Shiv said, slopping an egg in the dish.

"What easy way?" Cook said.
"You tell me, and I'll let you
know if it's safe to try."

"With my superpower,
pulling the shell apart,"
Shiv said, pointing.

"Sure, go ahead,"
Cook said. "Worst case,
you spill some of it."

Shiv spilled most of it
the first time, but after that
he figured out how to slit
the shell so it came apart
into two neat halves.

"I did it!" he crowed.

"Knew you could," Cook said,
patting him on the back. "Okay,
let's try that for real now."

He fixed up a pan, showing
Shiv how much butter to put
in it and where to set the heat.

He'd had the stove on way too high
this morning, and used too much butter,
that's what had gone so wrong.

"Put the eggs in now," Cook said
when the butter had melted.

Shiv put in two eggs and
managed not to pop them.

"Well done," Cook said. "Now you
just let 'em alone while they cook.
Don't mess with a good thing."

Shiv watched the clear glop
turn white, then brown at the edge.

"See that dark line?" Cook said.
"Means your eggs are done,
so you can plate 'em up."

He showed Shiv how to tilt
the eggs gently onto the plate.

"Eat up," Cook said then,
shooing him toward a table.

Shiv gobbled up the eggs.
They actually did taste good.
That gave him a funny flutter
that he didn't recognize.

"Come on back and I'll
teach you how to scramble
the next batch," Cook said,
and Shiv hurried over.

This time they put the eggs in
a bowl and beat them with a fork.

"Pour in a little milk," Cook said.
"Then add the salt and pepper.
No need to get too fancy; let
the eggs speak for themselves.
You like cheese, right, Shiv?"

"Uh, yeah," Shiv said. He liked
almost anything he could get.

Cook went into the refrigerator
and brought out a hunk of cheese,
which he quickly chopped into bits.

"If you put the cheese in early, it'll
all melt down. If you put it in later, you'll
have chunks of hot cheese in your eggs,"
Cook said. "I like both, so I put in some early
and some when they're almost done."

"It sounds good," Shiv said,
watching Cook demonstrate.

"All right, now it's your turn,"
Cook said as he put his eggs
on a plate and started eating,
still standing up. "You scramble
two eggs, and I'll watch to make sure
that you do everything just right."

So Shiv scrambled the eggs,
biting his lip nervously as Cook
watched every step of the process.

"You two look busy," a voice said
as Shiv was plating the eggs.

Startled, he looked up to find
Dymin standing in the doorway,
turning something in her hands.

"Congratulations," Dymin said,
offering whatever it was to Shiv.

"Go on and take it," Cook said
when Shiv hesitated.

Shiv reached out and
took what turned out to be
a wallet-sized card from Dymin.

"What's this?" he wondered.

"That's your cert for passing
the fire extinguisher test,"
Cook said. "Good job."

Shiv ran his fingers over
the crisp paper. "Thanks."

Praise still made him nervous,
but from Cook, it wasn't so bad.

"Mmm, something smells good,"
Dymin said with a smile.

"Have you some eggs if you
want them," Cook said.
"Shiv's a good cook."

Shiv squeaked in surprise.

He didn't think making eggs
was anything special, but
if Cook said it, then it
had to be true.

"Don't mind if I do,"
Dymin said, taking a plate.

Shiv trembled, hoping that
he hadn't done anything
awful to the eggs.

Cook had been watching,
though. Cook would tell him
if he messed up, and then
show how to do it right.

"Fannnntastic," Dymin said.
She plunked herself at a table and
curled her arm around the plate.

Shiv grinned, caught off guard
by the sudden surge of pride.

Cook gave him a sideways hug,
there and gone almost before
Shiv realized what was happening.
"Congratulations, you're a cook."

"Thanks," Shiv whispered
as he shyly looked down at his
burnt and experienced hands.

If Cook said it, then it had to be true.

* * *


This poem is long, so the notes appear in another post.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, food, poem, poetry, reading, safety, weblit, writing
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