Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "In the Depths of Your Grief"

This poem is spillover from the July 3, 2018 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from Dreamwidth user Technoshaman. It also fills the "grief" square in my 6-23-18 card for the Hurt/Comfort Bingo Fest.  This poem belongs to the Officer Pink thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

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WARNING: This poem contains material that some readers may find disturbing.  It continues the raid on Carl Bernhardt's mad science compound, as Turq finds out what happened to one of his cohort.  WARN ALL THE THINGS!  Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers.  It features the aftermath of a BASH raid, gore, messy medical details, reference to past mad science torture, schadenfruede, Turq struggling with emotionally complex responses as he helps the support crew, challenges of medical neutrality, legal implications, desecration of sapient remains with a murdereress wearing her victim's fur as a trophy, traumatic grief, extreme emotional distress with meltdown, reference to another past murder followed by psychological injury from incompetent staff, discussion of therapy, graphic violence, reference to unnamed characters killed in action, low food error, hypervigilance, collateral damage from supervillains in the local community, aftercare plans for communal trauma, and other mayhem. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.  However, this is a major turning point in the plot, so skipping it would leave a big gap.

In the Depths of Your Grief

The raid had slowed down considerably
now that the buildings had been breached
and the active fighting had stopped.

From time to time, someone new
would show up at the support station,
most of them breachers who had finally
realized that they had minor injuries
which had gone unnoticed in combat.

Once, BASH officers escorted
a suspect bleeding heavily from
a long gash across her left cheek.

Turq turned away, busying himself
with condensing half-empty boxes of
bandages into a single container.

When he'd told Kelsa that he
needed to keep busy, she had
simply nodded and given him
a list of easy, useful tasks.

"Someone you know, Turq, or
just a general dislike?" Ansel said.

"One of the orderlies," Turq said
through his teeth. "Not someone
who hurt me personally, but she
used to drag the girls away,
most often Saffron, and so I
hate her on their behalf."

"That counts," Ansel said,
and relayed the information.

Meanwhile, the paramedics
worked to stop the bleeding so
the suspect could be transported.

Turq's knuckles were white
on the edge of the cabinet.

"Are you okay, or do you
need to take a break now?"
Ansel asked, concerned.

"I'm trying to remind myself
that medical neutrality means
treating everyone," Turq said.

"That's hard sometimes,"
Ansel agreed. "We have
a similar issue in police work.
A lot of cops struggle with it."

"How do you handle it?"
Turq asked, turning to him.

"Something my grandmother
taught me," Ansel said. "We don't
treat them well because they are
good people, but because we are."

Turq leaned against him and sighed.
"Yeah, okay," he said. "That fits."

The paramedics finished taping down
the giant wad of gauze and waved
the suspect out of the station.

"I can still enjoy this part, right?"
Turq asked as they loaded her
into a cubicle in the prison van.

"Of course," Ansel confirmed. "I
certainly am. Justice is a good thing."

Turq leaned against the side of
the Special Operations truck,
its roll-away doors all open
to display medical supplies.

"Justice is good," he said,
watching the van pull away.
"I just hope that we get it."

"We'll get it," Ansel said.
"Turq, we caught them
red-handed. We could
put these people in jail for
a long time, even without
testimony from their victims."

"That's a relief," Turq said as he
put the mostly-full carton in its place
and threw away the empties. Then he
initialed the supply sheet for that shelf
and ticked off the task on his checklist.
"I'm not sure if I have the courage
to face them in court. I can't imagine
Saffron having it. Nebuly, maybe."

Ansel thought all of them were
among the bravest people he'd known,
just for surviving mad science torture
and still being somewhat coherent.

"You can do video testimony,"
he said. "Nobody is going
to question your grounds
for not wanting to be in
the same room with them."

Ansel was making a note
to recommend that approach
when Turq screamed.

"What's wrong?" Ansel said.

Turq pointed toward a group
of suspects being led out of
the Biology Building.

"I know that fur," he said.
"I know those colors, she --
she was part of my cohort."
His voice shook with grief.
"That sick bitch skinned her
and turned her into a coat!"

Ansel looked at the suspects
and found the woman wearing
a shaggy thigh-length coat striped
in shades of soft pink and cream.

She must have been outside on
a break when the raid began, then
got picked up in a later sweep.

"Bert, suspect number 23 is
wearing a T-187," Ansel said
over the comms. "Get the coat
off of her and bring it here."

Ansel wrapped an arm
around Turq and watched as
two BASH officers wrestled
the coat off the woman.

Then Bert brought it over
to them, cradled in his arms
as carefully as any other casualty.

"I'm so sorry," he said to Turq.
"We thought that the fur was fake."

He knelt down to lay the remains
in an empty space on the black mat.

There were already four black bags
and two blue ones in other spaces,
but Ansel ignored them in favor
of hugging Turq -- who was,
unsurprisingly, falling apart.

When the boy's knees buckled,
Ansel caught him and lowered him
gently to the ground, sitting
beside him on the grass.

Amidst the hysterical sobs
came the vicious jabs
of "shouldn't have"
and "my fault."

Ansel let him vent.

It would be a while before
Turq would be ready to hear
anyone saying that it wasn't
his fault, it was entirely the fault
of the suspects now headed to jail.

The storm of tears rolled over them
and through them, raining a little
on Ansel too as it passed.

When it finally began to slow,
Turq pulled away, sniffling.

"Here." A paramedic was
right there with a packet of
tissues in a case of white cloth
dotted with little red hearts.

Turq took the case, pulled out
several tissues, and blew his nose.

A self-supporting garbage bag
was ready at hand when he
crumpled the tissues.

Ansel checked insignia and
found that their helper wore
not only a paramedic patch but
also the heart-and-serpents
of an Emotional First Aide.

"Hey," he said softly.
"Is it okay if I sit here?
You guys look like you
could use some backup."

Turq gave a miserable nod.

The paramedic sat down
beside them. "My name is
Kedric," he said. "What's yours?"

"Turq," the boy said, snuffling.
"I came here with Ansel."

"It's good to have someone
with you at a time like this,"
Kedric said. "It helps a little."

"Nothing helps," Turq said,
mopping his face with
a handful of tissues.

"It feels that way right now,
doesn't it?" Kedric said.
"Everything is awful,
and you're not okay."

"We're still here, though,"
Ansel said, giving Turq
a gentle squeeze. "We
won't leave you alone."

"Yeah," Turq said, clinging
to him. "Misery loves company."

"Sometimes, two can carry
a burden that one cannot,"
Kedric said. "I heard that
from a favorite therapist."

"Good advice," Ansel said.

Turq started crying again,
quieter this time, and crawled
halfway into Ansel's lap.

Kedric sat with them,
occasionally shooing away
other people who came
too close to Turq.

Eventually the crying
wound down again.

Turq mopped his face
with more tissues, and
handed some to Ansel,
who had also been crying.

"Thank you," Ansel said.

"Nuts, I'm running low
already," Turq said,
looking at the packet.

Kedric handed him a refill.

"Why are you being so,
so patient with me like this?"
Turq said. "I'm a mess."

"Well, I'll tell you if you
want to hear it, but it's
a sad story," Kedric said.
"Are you sure you want that?"

"Yes," Turq said, lifting his chin.

"I'm the middle of three kids --
my older sister Risa, the class clown;
and my younger sister Jessie, who's
more of a tomboy," Kedric said.
"We've always been close."

"Lucky you," said Turq.
"I grew up in foster care,
and then this happened."

"I was lucky," Kedric said,
"and then when I was sixteen,
Risa was brutally murdered."

"Holy crap," Turq said,
turning to stare at him.

"The whole family was
just devastated. Risa
was our sunshine, the one
who could always make us
laugh, no matter how bad
it was," Kedric said. "So
losing her was shattering."

"I'm sorry to hear that,"
Ansel said. "It is awful."

"Then, on top of the loss itself,
the paramedic handling the scene
was a cold-hearted bastard to us,"
Kedric said. "He made everything
about a million times worse."

"Well that sucks," Turq said.
"Then why do ... this?" He waved
a hand at the remains of the raid.

"Because I decided, right there
on the spot while that raging idiot was
screwing up our lives, that someday I
wanted to do exactly this kind of work,"
Kedric said. "I wanted to get there first
and do things right -- or at the very least,
make sure they don't get any worse."

Turq looked down at his hands,
tracing the center opening in
the tissue holder. "Well,"
he said, "you've done that."

"Thank you for telling me,"
Kedric said. "Is there
anything else I could
do that might help?"

"I don't know," Turq said.
"Everything's a muddle."

"That happens a lot on
days like this," Ansel said.
"It's okay. It doesn't mean that
there's anything wrong with you.
Learning to deal with this stuff
takes time, and training."

"Yeah, I've done EFA,
EMT, paramedic, and then
community paramedic -- and
scenes like this are still hard,"
Kedric admitted. "But I have
a good support network to help."

"Support is important," Ansel said.

"What happened to that jerk
of a paramedic?" Turq asked.

"Oh, he got fired -- one of the cops
complained to his boss -- so at least
he couldn't hurt anyone else," Kedric said.
"For us, though, it was too little, too late.
We spent years in family therapy
working through that crap."

"Did that help?" Turq said. "I'm
a foster kid, so I've had therapy
before, but a lot of it was ... not good.
Our community counselor is okay, though.
Nebuly, he's another guy from my cohort,
introduced me to a therapist he likes.
I'm curious about that, but I don't know
if this stuff will really work for me."

"Well, therapy helped me realize
that my sister's death was not my fault,
and come to terms with it," Kedric said.
"Most people with problems find that
some form of therapy does help them --
but none of it works for every individual,
or for all types of problem. You have
to figure out what you actually need."

"How do I do that?" Turq said.

"Think about what's hurting you,"
Kedric said. "I'm going to guess
traumatic stress, because the context
is kind of obvious." He pointed across
the road. "So you write that down. You
write what you've tried before, what was
good or bad about it. Look for patterns.
Then read a list of different therapy types
to see if anything seems promising."

Turq pawed at his vidwatch, but
had trouble making it work.

He gave Ansel a plaintive look.
"Can you make a note for me?"

"Of course," Ansel said, tilting
his wrist to use his combat computer
for it. He grimaced because the gloves
made him clumsy, then took them off
so that he could type more easily.
"We can explore this later."

"I'm glad I could give you
some ideas," Kedric said.

"Sorry I snapped at you
earlier," Turq said. "I'm not ...
really at my best today."

"I doubt any of us are,"
Kedric said. "It's okay,
I accept your apology."

"Thanks," Turq said.
He stared at the pink coat,
and tears welled up again.
"I just keep thinking about
my friend and it's all ... awful."

"Do you want to tell me
about her?" Kedric invited.
"Maybe one happy memory?"

Turq looked across the road at
the buildings, their shattered doors
hanging open with BASH officers
still going in and out periodically.

"That ... might be hard, given
where we met," he said.

"No pressure," Kedric said.
"You don't have to say anything,
or you can tell me whatever you
need to get off your chest."

Ansel smoothed his bare hand
over Turq's wrist. "Just try," he said.
"You've told me a little. Sometimes,
if you keep talking, it gets better."

"She was one of the youngest
and weakest of us," Turq said.
"We tried to protect her, when
the white coats came, but there
just wasn't much we could do."

"You let her know that she
wasn't alone," Kedric pointed out.
"Sometimes, that's quite a lot."

"She used to do tricks for us,
once in a while," Turq said.
"She was such a strong jumper.
She'd go up in the air and do
flips or twists to make us laugh."

Kedric wiped a hand across
his face. "She sounds like
a good friend," he said.

"Yeah, she was," Turq said,
passing him a tissue. "I guess ...
maybe it does help, to talk about her,
even though it's hard. They never
liked us talking about anything."

"Then all you have to do to get
under their skin is keep talking,"
Ansel said. "They're really going
to regret it if you keep sharing things
with the police, especially after today."

Turq gave a ragged chuckle.
"There's a happy thought."

Suddenly the sounds of a scuffle
broke out across the street.

Ansel looked up to see
several regular police officers
struggling with a set of captives.

"Would you be okay here with
Kedric for a few minutes?"
he asked Turq.

"Yeah, go," Turq said.

Ansel ran across the road,
dropped his shoulder, and
rammed the biggest captive
right in the solar plexus.

The man went down
with a pained whoop.

Something thumped vaguely
on Ansel's back, barely felt
through his sturdy armor.

Ansel turned on the woman
and punched her in the face.

She went down and didn't get up.

He cuffed both suspects with
thick figure-8 cuffs. "They got
loose somehow, didn't they?"
he asked the officers.

"Yeah, we don't know
how, though," one said.

Ansel called the BASH director
for advice, who helpfully sent over
a SPAZMAT team with experience
in special restraints and containment.

Then he went back across the road
to the support station, feeling
rather satisfied with himself.

"You really nailed them,"
Turq said, smiling a little.

Ansel rubbed his hand ruefully.
It felt a little sore. "Yeah, I did."

"Did you hurt yourself?"
Kedric asked. "You're
rubbing your right hand."

Ansel looked down at it.

The back was turning red
with a few bluish spots, and
the first two knuckles were bloody.

"Well, that's what I get for hitting
somebody without my gloves on,"
he said. "I forgot I'd taken them off
to type after the fighting died down."

"Let me see that hand, please,"
Kedric said, beckoning to him.

Ansel started to protest, realized
that Turq was watching, and decided
to set a good example instead. "Okay."

Kedric took his hand in gentle fingers
and manipulated it gently. "Can you
move all your fingers?" he asked.

"Yes," Ansel said, demonstrating.

"That's good," Kedric said. "Carefully
now, can you close your fist all the way?"

"Yes," Ansel said. He got it about
halfway closed and admitted, "When
I get that far, it hurts more, though."

Kedric prodded it a little more.
"I don't feel any breaks," he said.
"Close it more if you can."

Ansel closed his fist, winced,
and then opened it again.
"That was not fun."

"I don't think it's broken,
but it's definitely bruised,"
Kedric said. "We don't have
a scanner here, but they do in
the main medical area. You might
want to get it checked before you leave."

"That's probably a good idea," Ansel said.

"Great," Kedric said. "Let me clean up
those cuts for you. I'll need --"

"Here," Turq said, holding out
the minor injuries kit he wore.

"Thank you," Kedric said.
He cleaned Ansel's hand,
spread antibiotic over the cuts,
and then added, "Do you want
Gatorskin to protect these? They're
not big enough to need stitches, if
you're willing to baby them a bit."

"Yes, please," Ansel said.

"Will you let me splint
the first two fingers?"
Kedric asked him.

Ansel sighed. "Will they
split worse if you don't?"

"That's a known risk, but
it's your hand," Kedric said.

"A splint would take me out of
combat for the day," Ansel said.

"Do you really want to jump into
another fight today, and risk actually
breaking a bruised hand, when you
don't have to?" Kedric asked.

Ansel wiggled his hand and
thought about trying to put on
his gloves over the bruises.

"Not really, no," he admitted.
"Okay, wrap me up. Can I
get an ice pack with that?"

"Of course," Kedric said.
"Turq, your hands are free --
go to the truck and bring me
the Gatorskin, an ice pack, and
a universal hand-finger splint."

Turq followed Kedric's directions
to locate supplies in the truck.

"The kid's good," Kedric murmured,
watching Turq track them down.

"He really is," Ansel said.

It only took a few minutes
to finish treating the injury.

"Okay, you know the drill,"
Kedric said. "Use ice off and on
to keep the swelling down. If it puffs
up too much, loosen the splint and wrap
your hand with a stretch bandage, then
put the splint back on. Start with
ibuprofen for pain and swelling."

Turq passed him a packet
without waiting to be asked.

Ansel swallowed the pills dry
and hoped they would kill the ache.

"Did you recognize either of the ones
I just dealt with?" he asked Turq.

"Yeah, the woman's one of the guards,"
Turq said. "I don't know the man,
but I've seen him around -- he
might be another of them."

"That helps," Ansel said,
and passed along the news.

Then he called the BASH director
and admitted that he shouldn't
go back into combat today if
the zone heated up again.

A long vehicle pulled up, and
then another paramedic came over
to say, "The hearse is here."

Ansel sighed. "Turq,
it's time to say goodbye."

"I don't -- I don't know
if I can," Turq said,
his voice breaking.

Kedric leaned over and
put a hand on Turq's knee.
"Will you let me take care
of her for you?" he asked.

Turq reached out toward
the pink coat, then bunched
his fist and crammed it between
his thighs to avoid touching the fur.

"Could you tell me something else
about your sister?" he begged.

"Gladly," Kedric said. "One day in
middle school, Risa brought home a box,
and it was squeaking.  She opened it up, and
out jumped the ugliest puppy I've ever seen,
with a mustache." He held a finger under
his nose to illustrate. "She named him
Groucho Marx. We thought it was a joke.
It wasn't. That dog turned out to be
the craziest prankster in the family."

Ansel chuckled, and even Turq
managed to smile a bit.

"I wish I could have met
your sister," Turq said.

"I wish that too,"
Kedric said, his voice
turning hoarse.

Ansel watched as
teams of people took
the bodies of the fallen
to put into the hearse.

He wished he could do
something more for Turq.

"There was this time,"
Turq said slowly, "when
Coral jumped on me while
I was drinking and I blew water
out my nose. Everyone laughed."
He sighed. "We didn't laugh much,
so it was a precious memory."

"She sounds like a good person,"
Kedric replied. "I wish that I
could have met her, too."

Turq sniffled and reached
for his tissues. "Yeah, me too,"
he said. "You can go ahead now ...
sitting here won't bring her back."

"Thank you for letting me
take care of her," Kedric said.

He brought out a white body bag
and spread it carefully beside
the shaggy pink coat.

Then he opened the packet
of identification tags.

"Can you tell me
her name?" Kedric said.

Tears spilled down Turq's cheeks
as he shook his head. "I don't know
her name," he said. "She couldn't
talk when I met her. So we
just called her Coral."

"Then I'll put that on the tags,"
Kedric said, filling them out.

He fastened one of them
to the bottom button of the coat.

"Why the different colors?"
Turq wondered. "The -- the bags?"

"It's a color code," Kedric said.
"Blue for police or other staff, black
for suspects, white for victims."

"We lost two people today?"
Turq said unhappily, looking
at the pair of blue bags.

"Yes," Ansel said. "This is
our job, Turq. We all know that
it's dangerous and things like this
can happen. If we wanted to be safe,
we'd take desk jobs. We care more
about being important, about
making a real difference."

Turq sniffled again, leaning
harder against Ansel, who
tried to hug him without
dislodging the ice pack.

"I know everything is
utterly horrible right now,
but here's a bit of hope --
this is a lot of material
for the forensic team
to explore," Kedric said.

"Meaning what?" Turq said.

"Even with the skin in this condition,
they might extract enough DNA
to make a match, or identify her
some other way," Kedric said.
"I've worked enough bad cases
to have some idea of what they
can do. I know that it's not much,
but ... sometimes, closure helps."

That was an excellent point.
"If we find a name, would you
want to know?" Ansel asked Turq.

"Yeah," he said. "I'd like that.
We never really ... knew who
she was. Someone should know."

"We'll do our best," Ansel said.

They watched as Kedric lifted
the pink coat into the body bag,
carefully smoothing down the fur,
so it wouldn't catch in the zipper
that purred slowly closed.

Turq pressed his face
into Ansel's shoulder and
started crying again.

"Do you want me to go with
Coral or stay here with you?"
Kedric asked, patting
Turq on the back.

The boy couldn't get
a word out past the sobs,
but he balled a fist in
Kedric's sleeve.

"Okay, I'll stay here,"
Kedric said. "The crew
from the hearse will
take good care of her."

They did, but Turq
didn't even notice.

He was crying too hard
to see much of anything.

Ansel and Kedric managed
to get him between them,
and that helped a little.

Another paramedic
brought them more tissues.

The garbage bag was filling up.

After a while, though, the flood
gradually began to ebb.

Someone brought a cloth
and a bottle of water so
Turq could wash his face.

He still looked exactly like
he'd been crying his eyes out,
but at least his lashes weren't
glued together anymore.

"Look at me, I'm shaking,"
Turq said, holding his hand out.

"That happens when people get
upset," Kedric said. "It could be
emotional shock, or physical.
May I run a health check?"

Turq hesitated, then dropped
his hand in the paramedic's lap.

"Yeah, just go slow," he said.
"I'm twitchy, and you really
do not want my superpower
to start panicking on you."

"That is so true," Ansel said,
showing off his handprint.

"Wow, what did that?"
Kedric wondered.

"I did," Turq said quietly,
laying his hand over the mark
to show how they matched.
"It happened the day we met.
Things got pretty tense."

"I pushed him too far," Ansel said.

"I'll go slow," Kedric promised,
and he did, patiently talking Turq
through the steps of a health check.
"There, I think it's mostly emotional,
which is normal for the circumstances.
When was the last time you ate?"

"Breakfast," Turq said. "Not much,
I was too nervous to think about food."

"Well, that's not helping," Kedric said.
"Let's visit the galley truck. They'll have
chamomile tea if you want something
soothing, and they'll have some foods
that are mild and easy to digest."

"I saw soothers and mood boosters
on the advance menu, too," Ansel said.
"I could really go for some turkey."

He stood up first, then offered Turq
his good hand and pulled him up too.
Turq was wobbly enough that Ansel
didn't want him to trip and fall.

Kedric closed the garbage bag
and tossed it in the red dumpster.

They checked in with Kelsa to log
themselves on lunch break.

Turq and Ansel leaned on
each other as they walked, with
Kedric ambling along beside them.

"We're eating here?" Turq said
as they approached the galley truck.

"We can, or we could go all the way
out to the gate camp," Kedric said.
"They'll have a field kitchen there."

"Look at the paths," Ansel coached.
"Inside the one bordering the STEMZ
and Biology buildings was our hot zone."

"Okay, I see that," Turq said, watching
as Ansel traced a line with his finger.

"The support station was in the warm zone
just outside that," Ansel went on. "We're
passing what used to be the dorms, so
once we cross the next path ahead,
the galley truck is in the cold zone."

"I thought that was out front," Turq said.

"That too," Ansel said. "The hot zone
has active hazards. The warm zone doesn't,
but is close enough that things might spill over.
The cold zone should be safe, unless the zones
shift a lot. See how we'll have the old dorms
between us and the STEMZ Building?"

Turq turned to look. "Okay?"

"That means no direct line of fire from
the hot zone to where the galley truck
is parked," Ansel explained, pointing.

"Except for the hex cannon and
the short-range anklebiters that were
firing along the front lawns, and I heard
one of the SPAZMAT gals lamenting that
those melted themselves," Kedric added.

"So the galley is pretty safe," Ansel said.
"This way, our people can refuel without
wasting a lot of time driving back and forth
between here and the gate camp."

"I get it," Turq said. "Let's eat here."

The cheerful red-and-white truck
had an awning over the window
and a cloud of fragrant steam
wafting over the waiting line.

That line gave them time to read
the menu chalked on the side.

There were snacks such as gelatin,
yogurt, applesauce, instant oatmeal and
soup, coconut chia pudding, hard boiled eggs,
dark chocolate bars, candied ginger, and
several different kinds of licorice allsorts.

Besides the usual hot dogs and hamburgers,
they had turkey sandwiches, salmon patties,
soyburgers, spinach salads, vegetable cups,
fruit cups, and other healthy choices.

You could even get a bowl and fill it
with things like lentils, rice, ground meat,
and whatever toppings you wanted.

The beverage area offered coffee,
water, soy milk, almond milk, cow milk,
and several kinds of tea including
ginger and ginseng in addition
to the promised chamomile.

The fruit baskets dangling
from the awning held apples,
bananas, and avocados.

Beside the truck stood a rack
hung with Horace's Health Nuts,
Hot Chicks and Sweet Chicks,
several kinds of Jumble Munch
and Screamin' Squirrel Snacks,
plus similar packet foods.

Ansel's stomach rumbled
a warning, making him wince.

"Turq, I know you're not feeling well,
but I'm ravenous," he said. "Will it
bother you if I eat a regular meal?"

"Nobody should have to go hungry,"
Turq said quietly. "Get what you want."

"Thanks," Ansel said. To start, he
took an apple, a banana, and a bag of
Jumble Munch in Protein Power House.

When they reached the window, he
ordered coffee, a Cajun Turkey Po Boy,
and a carton of coconut chia pudding.

"I want a small bowl of lentils and rice
topped with ground lamb, bean sprouts,
and chopped tomatoes," Turq said.

Then he went to the beverage area
and grabbed a cup of hot water
with three bags of tea -- ginger,
ginseng, and chamomile -- all of
which went into the same cup.

Kedric asked for soy milk
and a salmon patty, then
loaded his pockets with
dark chocolate and ginger.

"If I don't eat it all myself, I'll be
handing it out to patients,"
he said with a shrug.

Small clusters of people
sat at picnic tables talking or
playing CarGo while they ate.

The three of them claimed a table,
and Ansel ate with his left hand while
Turq nibbled carefully at his bowl
and sipped a cup of herbal tea.

Kedric ate mechanically, and
Ansel recognized the pattern
of eating to refuel when you
didn't really feel like it.

"Hey, are you okay?"
he asked. "If you need
to talk, I have EFA training,
just not as much as you.
I'm a good listener."

"He really is," Turq said.
"Even if it's something awful.
I mean, he's used to me."

Ansel's quiet lakeside cabin
also provided a peaceful refuge
for upset friends every other month
or so, and most of his friends were
first responders of some sort.

"It's not personal," Kedric said.
"I can deal with the job-related stress.
I was fine during the raid. But now
that I have more time to stop and think,
some things are starting to bother me."

"I'm listening," Ansel and Turq chorused.

Kedric toyed with his salad, hiding bits
of carrot, tomato, and cucumber
under the spinach leaves and
then digging them all out again.

"When the police showed pictures
of the suspects, I realized that I've
seen them around," Kedric said.
"There's really only one good place
to shop in Douglas County, which is
Avis Mall in Ava, and I've worked
there before." He shuddered.

"You saw them ... what, out shopping,
like normal people?" Turq asked.

"Carl Bernhardt would come check
Half-Price Books every shipment day,
like clockwork," Kedric said. "He liked
to watch birds. The mall has an aviary for
endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers,
along with some songbirds such as
warblers and finches for company."

Ansel stuffed the last of his sandwich
in his mouth and started typing notes.
"Can you tell us anything else?" he said.
"I'm happy to listen for EFA, but if you have
information about their habits, that might be
useful. Just tell me if you need to say
anything particular in private."

"I'm just thinking out loud, right now,"
Kedric said. "It's probably best if you
write it down, in case you can use it
against them in the court case later.
I really don't like those people."

"Nobody does," Turq muttered.
"I don't think they even like each other."

"That'd explain a few things," Kedric said.
"See, I used to work in the first aid room at
Charter Fitness, serving the mall as well as
the center. Certain days, groups of big guys
would come in and sometimes start fights.
I didn't understand why, then, but today I
recognized them among the suspects."

"Guards, probably," Turq said. "Some
of them were serious, but others
would roughhouse in the halls,
or rough us up for fun."

"Yeah, that makes sense,"
Kedric said. "I think most of
them just bought their stuff at
Grocery Outlet Bargain Market
like the rest of us, but a few would
buy a cartload of hooch at Spec's.
Then they'd go get drunk and
make all kinds of trouble."

"Not a fun bunch," Ansel said.
"So if we check police records in Ava,
we might find some of that activity?"

"Definitely," said Kedric. "I know that
there's one for a fight at China Bistro,
because Mr. Hwang kicked them out,
called the cops, and escorted a couple
of his daughters to the first aid room for
glass cuts. Broken window, I think it was."

"Thanks, I'll check," Ansel said, noting it.
"This information could help us track down
any associates who weren't here today."

Kedric shuddered, rubbing his hands
up and down his arms. "That is
an utterly terrifying thought."

"Yeah," Turq said. "I was
hoping that we got them all."

"We got Carl. We got a lot of
the nurses, lab techs, and guards
like we expected -- plus a bonus of
mad science students that we didn't
even know about," Ansel said. "However,
it's unlikely we caught everyone, because
people typically take time off, even crooks."

"Jesus, I don't want to think about
those creeps crawling all over my town,"
Kedric said. "It feels like I have spiders on me."

Turq brushed a hand over Kedric's arm.
"You don't," he said. "It's just an icky thought."

Ansel glanced at him, wondering who had
taught him reality confirmation skills.
Probably Dao and Mingxia.

"Yeah, I know, but it's hard,"
Kedric said, rubbing his face.
"I have to shop at Avis mall, and
after this, I -- I don't know if I can."

"That sounds rough," Turq said.
"You don't have to eat the eggplant,
man, is there somewhere else
you could shop for a while?"

"Well, let's count the competition in
Douglas County," said Kedric. "We got
Ray's Country Store in Vanzant, which is
a bit of a bong shop and more worthwhile
driving to for the Volkswagen collection
out back than for actual groceries."

Ansel chuckled. "I can see that."

"There's the Gentryville Store in
Gentryville, which has snacks and
hot eats, but it's more use if you want
a nice game of cards than a full cart,"
Kedric said. "Nice art gallery, though."

"There's a store in Bluehill that sells
all blue things, including art," said Turq.

"Spurlock's Store in Squires is
about the closest thing we have
to a real grocery store outside of Ava,
but it's just not all that big," Kedric said.
"They've got basics, but not much variety."

"It's good that people have the essentials
close at hand, though," Ansel pointed out.

"Yeah, we've had some close calls, like when
the gasoline regulations changed and some of
the food ones did," Kedric said. "We explain that
these stores are the only places people got to shop
and work around here, and usually we can work
something out. The new electric chargers bring
tourists -- I think Gentryville is angling for a Tesla."

"Their superchargers are the best," Ansel said.
"Some police departments use those things."

"It sounds like people have a few places
to go, but all the other towns are too small
to support very much," Turq mused.

"Yeah, that's about the size of it,"
Kedric said. "Only the locals
really shop at those stores."

That made Ansel sit up.
"So if anyone new came by,
people would notice," he said.

"Notice and talk about it," Kedric said.
"Maybe a little less in Gentryville since
they're pulling more tourists with that
fuel collection, but even there, if anyone
came back now and then, it'd stick out."

Ansel jotted a note to follow up on it.
"Thanks," he said. "We might be able
to hunt down the remaining strays that way."

"There just aren't many people here, so
not many stores and not much of a crowd
to hide in," Kedric said. He sighed. "That's
why they came here, though, isn't it? They
wanted somewhere with a lot of empty space,
and we sure got plenty of that. They just didn't
realize how much they'd stand out. We noticed,
but we didn't understand what was wrong."

Ansel shook his head. "They came for
the lab space. They absolutely needed
something like that in order to do the work
they had in mind, and the college had it,"
he said. "I expect they did want somewhere
quiet and out of the way, but it couldn't be
their first priority because of the facilities."

"I guess that makes sense," Kedric said,
nibbling at his salad again. "I miss the college.
Losing that really gutted the local economy --
and made people less inclined to ask questions
if somebody offered them a job they could do."

Ansel wrote that down too. "That fits,"
he said. "It would touch on the stores
and local people's shopping habits too."

"Anyhow, that leaves Avis Mall in town, which
has the Bargain Market for everyday stuff
and Spec's if you want something special,"
Kedric said. "Most everyone shops there."

"Except now you feel uncomfortable
about it, because you saw some of
the bad guys there," Ansel said.

"Yeah," Kedric said. "I'll get over it,
I think, I'm just creeped out right now."

"Do you have anyone to talk with
about that stuff?" Ansel asked him.

Kedric waffled a hand in the air. "At work,
we have two people trained in EFA, so
we do for each other," he said. "There's
a community counselor and a few others
in town. We share a traveling psychiatrist
with two other rural counties, Webster
and Dallas. If you want more than that,
you have to drive out to Springfield."

"Let me check something," Ansel said,
tapping on his combat computer. "Yeah,
I thought so. They're sending a team from
River City to treat the communal trauma.
It looks like somebody expected this raid
to upset local folks, and booked support."

He tilted the computer to show Kedric
the available resources on the display.

"Okay, so they're reaching out to
the Ava Clinic for mental care, and
they plan to offer some classes at
the Wellness Center," Kedric said.
"I can just go there if I need help."

He reached out and touched the screen
to scroll it, but it wouldn't respond to him.

"Sorry, it's biolocked," Ansel explained.
"What did you want to do with it?"

"Just scroll down, I can see an entry
about soul injuries and then the top
of the list for spiritual support,"
Kedric said, pointing to it.

Ansel scrolled down for him.

"It looks like they're in with St. Leo's
and the First Southern Baptist Church,"
Kedric said. "I don't see anything for
the New Haven Native American Church
or the Shambhala Center, though, and those
are the folks doing soul repair around here."

"I'll send a message to the health liaison,
and thank you so much for the references,"
Ansel said. "There's just no substitute for
local knowledge. I know it can be unsettling
to have a lot of strangers tramping all over
your turf, but we couldn't do this without you."

"You're welcome, and we wouldn't have
the necessary resources to do it ourselves,"
Kedric said. "We're pulling people and gear
from several counties for this mission."

"Teamwork matters," Ansel said,
patting Kedric on the arm.

"Yeah, it helps," Kedric said.
"I'm still rattled, but it's getting
better now. I think that I can cope."

Turq stretched his legs under the table
and wrapped them around Kedric's ankles.

Kedric smiled a little, and started eating
with more enthusiasm. Turq had
already finished his bowl.

"You don't forget the bad things,"
Turq said quietly. "You just have
to make good memories to lay on top
of them and bury the crud. Maybe you
could talk with other folks at the mall and
do a peacemaking workshop or something."

"That's a good idea," Kedric said. "I can
suggest it the next time I get over there."

Ansel applied himself to the fruit that
he had picked up, while thinking about
workshops that might help the town
start healing. Kedric probably wasn't
the only one who would feel uneasy,
once people heard about the raid.

Some communal trauma was inevitable,
but good support could cushion the impact.

"It's funny," Turq said. "I came here to help
the police, and Ansel came for me, and you
took care of us. Then we listened to you, and
now you're helping the police too. It all circles
around and connects with everything else."

Ansel looped an arm around him.
"I'm glad for that," he said. "Today
is hard enough without anyone
having to face this stuff alone."

"Yeah, I never would have gotten
through it without you," Turq said.

"A feeling of pleasure or solace
can be so hard to find when you are
in the depths of your grief," Kedric said.
"Sometimes it's the little things that
help get you through the day."

"Yeah, but it's ridiculous,"
Turq said. "I'm a grownup, I
shouldn't need so much coddling.
I turned into a waterfall today,
and I'm still not sure it's done."

"You may think your comforts
sound ridiculous to others, but
there is nothing ridiculous about
finding one little thing to help you
feel good in the midst of pain
and sorrow," Kedric said firmly.
"That's the whole point of EFA."

"I think that's what keeps me
going," Turq said. "Having
each other to lean on."

Ansel hugged him and said,
"That's what we're here for."

* * *


See the character, location, and content notes for this poem.

[To be continued ...]
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, life lessons, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing

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