Warning: This poem contains intense topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features the aftermath of a raid on a mad science compound, restlessness, travel dilemmas, references to foster care, past kidnapping and human trafficking, gay foster fathers (in positive family dynamics), feeling unwanted, stress reaction, difficult but hopeful reunion, crying men, choice paralysis, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"An Ember of the Old Emotions"
[Friday, April 17, 2015]
"Okay, folks, I found you
a place to stay," Ansel said
as he stepped back into
the tent with the centaurs.
"My grandfather has a farm
just outside of Bluehill, so
you're all welcome there."
"We can really stay together?"
Lilita asked, clinging to Arun.
Sorley looked restless too,
shifting his weight back and forth,
but he didn't say anything yet.
"Everyone who wants to, yes,"
Ansel said. "People are free
to make other arrangements
if they wish to, though."
"How would we get there?"
Arun asked. His long tail
swished once, then stilled.
"That's up to you," Ansel said.
"It's about three hours by car;
we can modify a truck for you.
If you don't want to ride, then
you can walk there instead,
though you'd need a guide."
"I can do that," Filly said.
"I love long trail rides. I have
an endurance horse named Altair."
"How long would that take?"
asked one of the centaurs under
the pavilion tent. Blaize, that was
her name. "I don't think I could
stand getting into a truck."
"That depends on you,"
Filly said. "Endurance riding
starts at about 50 miles a day;
I wouldn't expect more than that.
Competitive trail riding starts at 15.
A decent human hiker can do that much,
and even a novice can manage about 8."
"That sounds about right," Turq said.
"The centaurs won't be in great condition
because they were kept inside, but they've
all had some kind of exercise program."
"The distance is around 150 miles, less
if you can shortcut where cars can't go,"
Ansel said. "So call it a minimum of
three days, probably no more than ten."
"That's ... kind of a lot," Blaize said.
"It's spring and the weather is great.
Think of it as a camping trip," Filly said.
"If anyone wants to tap out, though,
we can pick you up in a truck, just like
the safety trailers for a competition."
"We'll need several trucks anyway,
or it'll take days to carry everyone,"
Ansel said. "Sparing one to pace
the trail group should be easy,
unless you do cut overland."
"They could still meet us at
the next road," Filly said. "There
are trails all through here, but
a lot of them parallel the roads."
"What if -- what if we don't
want to go?" Sorley asked.
"You can choose another place,
especially if you have family
to turn to," Ansel assured him.
"Are we really still in Douglas County?"
Sorley said. "I heard someone talking
about Ava, but it's so hard to believe ..."
"Are you from around here?" Filly asked.
"Can you tell us where your family lives?"
"Well, I was born in Vanzant, but I haven't
actually lived there in years," Sorley said.
"I was staying with my foster fathers at
the New Hope Wilderness Camp. That's
where we met -- it's just outside of Ava.
I got snatched on the road, though,
going to a sport camp near Springfield."
"Yeah, a lot of foster kids got nabbed,"
Turq said. "Some others got picked up
from camps, too. Traffickers look for kids
who won't be missed, but they'll take
anyone who's in easy reach, too."
"I'll call New Hope and let them know
we found you," Filly said to Sorley.
"I don't know if my dads are even
still working there," Sorley said,
pawing the floor. "It's been years."
"Sorley, I guarantee that if you
stayed at New Hope, people there
will absolutely want to know where
you are," Filly said. "Your dads
won't have given up on you either."
"O-okay," Sorley said. "You can try."
"I'm on it," Filly said, and headed
outside to make the phone call.
"Do you want to move somewhere
more private?" Turq asked. "I think
they matted a smaller tent too."
"We did," Ansel said. "Come on,
I'll show you which one it is."
Turq and Sorley followed him to
the other tent, where another centaur
was just stepping out of the flaps.
She was young, maybe fourteen,
with a soft champagne color and
a snowcap over her haunches.
Ansel thought that her lower half
looked like a Missouri Foxtrotter.
Bandages wrapped around her arms,
and she was trying to snuggle up to
a paramedic who gently discouraged
her persistent attempts to fondle him.
"The tent's empty if you need it,"
he said. Someone had scrounged up
a door hanger, and he flipped the sign
from Occupied to Vacant as he left.
"Thanks," Turq said, then turned
to Ansel. "Which way should we put
the sign? We're using the tent, but
we're waiting for people to join us."
"Put it on Occupied, and leave the flaps
open for now," said Ansel. "Then we can
see Sorley's fathers and invite them in."
"Will they even want me?" Sorley fretted.
There wasn't really room to pace inside
the small tent, but he shifted his weight
from one side to the other constantly.
"I wondered about that too," Turq said.
"My foster parents were thrilled to find me."
"Sorley, were your foster parents
good fathers? Did they care about you?
Did you like living with them?" Ansel said.
"Yeah," Sorley said, his voice cracking.
"They were great. My birth parents ...
never bothered with me much. It took
a long time to realize that people
might really care about me."
"Then trust that," Ansel said.
"Good parents don't give up
on their kids, no matter what."
"They're probably worried sick
about you," Turq said. "Mine were.
They still have a website up search for
the other foster kids they lost touch with."
"It's just ... I'm such a mess," Sorley said.
"Not only the horse part, I mean, I have
all these health problems now. That's
quite a lot to dump on anyone."
"I'm a mess too," Turq said.
"My family doesn't mind, they
just help as best they can."
He looped an arm around
Ansel to include him in that
along with his foster parents.
"Family is about taking care of
each other," Ansel said. "Nobody
asks for the challenges that come
our way. We each have our own
to face. A good family makes it
easier to deal with the challenges."
"I know, I know, but this is so --"
Sorley's voice broke off in a sob.
"Okay, let's close one of the tent flaps,"
Ansel said. "That will give us a little privacy,
and we can still watch for your fathers."
"I've got it," Turq said, and went
to untie the ribbons that held it up.
Ansel dropped his voice to
a low, soothing tone as he said,
"Now focus on breathing. When we
breathe fast, it makes our bodies tense.
When we slow our breathing, it helps
our bodies relax. Breathe in, breathe out."
"It's different now," Sorley protested.
"Breathing doesn't feel the same as it did."
"Yeah?" Ansel said. "Think about how
it feels now. What's different about it?"
"I breathe in --" Sorley put a hand on
his upper chest. "-- and then it sucks in
again." He touched his equine chest.
"Do you breathe out the same way?"
Ansel asked, keeping his voice soft.
"Yeah, I think so," Sorley said.
"Okay, then count it out," Ansel said.
"Breathe one ... two ... three ... four.
There are lots of four-beat exercises
if you look up breathing for relaxation."
"I like those a lot," Turq said. "Sometimes
it really helps me calm down when I freak."
They worked together on it, and gradually
the three of them settled into a calmer mood.
Sorley's sheer size made his breathing
slower than usual, and as he began
to relax it slowed even further.
"Feel your body," Ansel said.
"Pick up each foot and then put it
back down carefully. Smell the air
and the flowers blooming. Listen
to the birds singing outside."
"I hear ... that's a cardinal,
whistling," said Sorley. He
smiled. "I haven't heard
one of those in years."
"That's right, a cardinal
is singing," Ansel said.
"Listen to the birds and
remember that you're free."
"It took me a long time
to relax and believe that I
was really free," Turq said.
"I'm just now getting to where
I can go indoors for a while
and not panic over it."
"Yeah," Sorley said.
"I'm feeling a bit better."
Of course that was when
his fathers showed up.
"Here they are," Filly said.
"We had to get a police escort
since they swore that they'd
speed all the way over here."
Two men pushed through
the door of the tent so eagerly
they almost got hung in the ropes,
a tall redhead and a short brunet.
They wrapped themselves around
Sorley without even seeming to care
that he had the bottom half of a horse.
Sorley clung to them like life preservers.
"I'm taller now," he said, frowning
down at both of his fathers.
"Hey, we make a three-stack,"
the redhead said as he tucked
his head under Sorley's chin.
"You, me, and Laydon."
Sorley huffed and then
scrunched down to fit
himself under their heads.
"Knock it off, Dearil, can't you
see he's upset?" Laydon said.
"It's been so long," Sorley said,
and then started crying in earnest.
Turq pulled down the other flap,
tying the ribbons to close the tent.
It wasn't a lot of privacy, but they'd
have to take what they could get.
"Okay, okay, we've got you,"
Dearil said. "Four horrible years,
but now we're back together and
we're never letting you go again."
A fierce gaze promised mayhem
if anyone tried to separate the family.
Ansel spread his hands. "We've made
plans for the centaurs to stick together
if they want to, but we're also hoping
that at least some of them can be
reunited with their own families."
"I can't believe that -- that I was
so close all this time," Sorley sobbed.
"We looked for you," Dearil said. "We
searched everywhere that we could.
The police tried to help, but we didn't
know where you were. The chaperone
lied about where you disappeared, but
we didn't find out about that until later."
"They said you disappeared after
the bus reached the sport camp,"
Laydon said. "Then the police
learned that nobody had seen you
since the rest stop halfway there."
"Yeah, I think that's where ..."
Sorley said, shuddering all over.
"I'm so sorry that nobody could
find you sooner," Ansel said.
"We had a hard time finding
the compound, too," Turq said.
"I knew it existed but not where
it was. They had it well hidden."
That just made Sorley cry more,
clinging to his fathers for support.
"Sorley, can you tell us what you
want?" Laydon asked, once the boy
began to wind down. "We'll support
whatever will make you feel better."
"I just want to go home!" Sorley wailed.
"Okay, we can do that," Laydon said.
"There might be some obstacles,
but we'll make it happen."
"Well, we're not living in
the same house anymore,"
Dearil said. "After we lost you,
we moved into a room at New Hope."
"We'll work something out," Laydon said.
"The farm has plenty of horses, and so
finding space for you is no hardship."
"What kind of accommodations
do you need?" Dearil asked.
"You know I've worked with
all different horses, so we
have plenty of options."
"I-I don't know," Sorley said.
"We didn't get choices."
"It will take a while to sort out
health needs," Ansel said.
"However, I can tell you
one thing already -- he'll
need a padded floor."
"That's a lot of bother,"
Sorley said, shifting his hips.
"Son, if we have to put you up
like the princess and the pea,
then that is what we will do,"
Laydon said firmly. "We love
you. We'll do whatever it takes
to make you safe and comfortable."
Sorley just bawled louder.
"It's hard to come back from
something like that," Turq said.
"Don't expect him to be able
to pick and choose right away.
He might need you to make
decisions for him, or at least
simplify down to two options."
"We have resources on
assisted decision-making if
you need those," Ansel said.
"We're both certified already,"
Laydon said. "New Hope offers
all kinds of special training for
counselors and foster parents."
"We'd be lost without it," Dearil said.
"Working with troubled youth, they
need a lot of help learning what
good decisions even look like."
"That should help," Turq said.
"I was such a wreck after I escaped,
I couldn't even stand to be around people.
I hid in the woods for I don't know how long.
It got better very slowly, then after I met
Ansel, it got better faster. I needed
someone to help me remember
how -- how to be a person again."
"I've tried not to put too much weight
on you, though," Ansel said. "I know
how difficult the recovery has been."
Turq leaned against him. "Yeah,
but you make it bearable," he said.
"I hope that we can do that for Sorley,"
said Laydon. "Everything is so ... fraught."
Sorley sniffled. "I missed you both," he said.
"I don't know how to feel, though. It's just
been so long since I've seen you, and
everything is awful and I'm not okay."
His voice cracked on the last word.
"We are here for you," Dearil said.
"No matter how bad it gets or
how long it takes, we are here."
"Reunions are always fraught with
awkward tensions and the necessity
to account for yourself," Ansel said.
"They are our attempts to find, through
memories, an ember of the old emotions."
"I think -- I think I can feel that much,"
Sorley said. "Like a campfire, when
it's burned down overnight, but in
the morning, you put your hand
over it and it still feels warm."
"Remember when we taught
you how to build a campfire?"
Dearil said. "All you have to do
is brush off the ash, put on
some new tinder, and blow.
It'll come right back to life."
"I want that," Sorley said.
"I want it more than anything."
"Then you'll have it," Laydon said.
We're together now, and that's what
we needed. Everything will be okay."
Looking at the little family huddled
together, Ansel believed it would.
* * *
This poem is long, so the character and content notes appear elsewhere.