Warning: This poem includes some intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It features poverty, organized crime, homelessness, police intervention, messy medical details, fear of authorities, hypervigilance, reference to losing body parts, past medical abuse, police priorities, anxiety, trauma-informed care, trust issues, impaired consent, boundary issues, and other angst. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.
"Dissolving the Barrier"
[Friday, September 11, 2015]
Ned Sterling drove slowly through
a dilapidated neighborhood of Lincoln.
Most of the houses were small, sprinkled
with a few larger ones that had been
divided into shoebox apartments
or converted to boarding houses.
There was, however, a vacant lot
that was no longer vacant but had
become a humble little park.
Over the past month, Ned had
watched as it gained a garbage can,
a park bench made from a tailgate,
a picnic table with inset boards for
two different games whose pieces
were concealed inside the tabletop,
a showerhouse, and a bunkhouse.
Local activity had slowly risen as
the place became more appealing.
When that started, the police chief
had quietly encouraged Ned
to keep a closer eye on it.
Lincoln had lost its head gangster
in spring -- finally! -- but nobody had
stepped into his shoes until August,
when suddenly Ned started hearing
rumors about a new guy in town.
Just last week, he had cruised by with
Gregg Osborne, who had suggested that
they do something about the new boss
before he could get firmly entrenched.
"Nah," said Ned. "I'd rather wait and let
the boys get used to washing and sleeping
on a regular basis, then see what happens.
We can always step in later if we have to."
"Okay, you're the expert," Gregg said,
and hadn't made any trouble about it.
One of the things you learned on the job
was when to leave well enough alone, and
Ned's instincts were telling him to wait.
Today he parked the police car in
the tiny lot near the showerhouse,
so he could warn people away from
the intersection beyond the far end
where the bunkhouse now stood.
Ned had seen the lanky teen before,
too thin under his faded clothes,
but the short scruff of blond hair
was now damp and clean.
"Good morning," Ned said.
"I'd like to talk for a moment."
It didn't even make the youth
break his stride as he brushed by.
"Hang on, there," Ned said, catching him
by the arm. "The BBQ Shack is changing
equipment and traffic is all snarled up --"
The boy yelped and jerked away.
"Whoa, hey, what did I hit?"
Ned said, spreading his hands.
"Did I hurt you? I'm sorry,
I didn't mean to do that. I'm
just warning people to stay
away from the ruckus."
"I'm fine," the boy said,
shuffling. "It's nothing."
"That didn't sound like
nothing," Ned said.
"That sounded like ow."
The teen just shrugged.
"I'm Ned," he said. "What's
your name? I've seen you
around here before."
"Cas," said the boy.
"I just came to take
a shower. They're free."
"They sure are," Ned said.
"I have first aid training
if you need help."
"I don't want to,"
Cas said, shivering.
"Okay, you don't have to,"
Ned said. "I'm worried, though.
Would you let me look -- just look
for now, I won't touch anything
without your permission."
"I guess," Cas said reluctantly.
He pushed up the sleeve of
his gray sweatshirt to reveal
a round sore on his forearm.
"No wonder you jumped," Ned said,
shaking his head. "That must
have hurt when I touched it."
"It's getting better!" Cas protested.
"I can see that," Ned said. "Look
at the pink ring around the edge.
That's new skin growing in."
"Yeah, I thought so," Cas said.
"Things got pretty bad for a while,
hard to find anywhere to wash or
sleep, and then this happened.
Now that the showerhouse is here,
though, it's easier to keep clean,
so most of it's clearing up."
"Most of it?" Ned said.
"Do you have more hotspots?"
Cas made a vague wave toward
his arm but said nothing more.
"Could I check the rest?" Ned said,
holding out a hand. "I might be
able to fix it for you. I promise
not to grab. I'll be real gentle."
Slowly, Cas settled his arm
in Ned's outstretched hand.
"Easy now," Ned said. He kept
his right hand flat under Cas' arm
and used his left to push up
the sleeve a little farther.
Another sore covered
the crease of his elbow,
an oval of raw skin that
seemed to be healing
a little but still oozed.
"Ooo, that looks nasty,"
Ned said. "Could I show you
a nifty little test? It's real easy
to learn, and you can use this
yourself once you know it."
"Will it hurt?" Cas whispered.
"It shouldn't," Ned said. "If it does,
though, that's a bad sign, so please
tell me. What I'm going to do is press
beside the sores, not on them. First,
turn your arm over so we can see
how it looks on healthy skin."
Frowning a little, Cas obeyed.
"What's it supposed to do?"
"It's called a blanch test,"
Ned explained. "You know how
your skin turns white if you touch it?
That should turn pink again within
two seconds. If it takes longer,
then something's wrong."
He pressed a fingertip to
Cas' skin. "See, the color
came back almost instantly. It
means you have good circulation."
"Huh," Cas said, staring at his arm.
He turned it over. "Now the other side?"
"Yep," Ned said. "Measure at least
a fingertip from the injury, a little more
if it's a big one. Press gently. There,
it refreshed just as fast. You're fine."
"What about ..." Cas gestured
to the larger sore at his elbow.
"That one might be touchier, so
I'll start farther away and move in,"
Ned said. The first touch was normal,
but the next took a couple of seconds.
"Shit, that's worse," Cas said, and
a tremor ran through his arm.
"It's not outside the normal range,
but it's visibly slower, which is
not good," Ned said. "Come on,
let's get you to a clinic and --"
"No!" Cas yanked his arm free
and skittered away from him.
"It's probably nothing, but it
might be more," Ned warned.
"A quick visit would make sure
that it doesn't get any worse."
"I don't want to," Cas said as he
wrapped his arms around himself.
"Okay, you don't want to," Ned echoed.
"Most people don't like going to the doctor.
Sometimes it's better than the alternative,
though. Right now, this is a little problem.
Ignore it and you could lose skin -- or more."
Ned had seen some pretty awful things
that happened to homeless people when
they couldn't take care of themselves.
He'd seen more than a few of them
with missing fingers, or worse.
"I can't afford it," Cas said.
"I'll be just fine, really."
"A community clinic
covers some things free,
and I have access to a fund
for more than that," Ned said.
That made Cas back away
another step. "No, no way!"
he snapped. "I hate those places."
Ned frowned. This sounded like
more than the usual reluctance.
"Cas, has somebody been rough
with you?" he asked. "Or did they
turn you away when you needed help?"
"Who hasn't?" Cas said, his voice cracking.
"Well, that's not good," Ned said. "What if
I took you to a doctor I know personally,
someone that I can vouch for?"
Cas snorted. "Like you've ever
gone to a community clinic. People
with jobs go to a real doctor."
"There's an Urgency Care Clinic
not far from here, which serves
the next neighborhood over,"
Ned said. "It's a favorite."
"Why would you go there when
you can afford better?" Cas said.
"Because it was the closest clinic
when I needed help," Ned explained.
"I was chasing a guy, he went over a fence,
I went over after him -- and I ripped open
my pants, my butt, and down my thigh.
So I'm not going to show you the scar."
That startled a laugh out of Cas.
"Yeah, no, I can see why not."
"Anyway, it healed up so well,
it's barely visible now," Ned said.
"Is that why you think that
he's a good doctor?" Cas said.
"Part of why, although it's not hard
to throw a few stitches," Ned said.
"The reason I think he's a good doctor
is because he didn't tease me about it,
not even a little bit. I was a rookie, I'd
only been a cop for a few months
when that happened, so I was
really embarrassed about it."
"He wasn't mean to you
or anything?" Cas said.
"No, he was very gentle and
professional the whole time,"
Ned said. "I promise that
he'd take good care of you."
Cas fingered his pocket.
"I don't have bus fare."
"No problem, I can give
you a lift," Ned offered.
"The last thing I need is
people seeing me in the back
of a cop car!" Cas said.
"Hmm," Ned said. "If I
let you ride in front, can
I trust you not to mess
with my gear? That'd
get us both in trouble."
"I thought you weren't
supposed to let anyone
ride in front," Cas said.
"Usually not, but that's
because most of the people
I put in my car are bad guys who
belong in the back," Ned said. "If
I'm transporting victims, they can
go in front to avoid retraumatization.
Other than that, it's my choice."
"Oh," Cas said. "I can keep
my hands to myself, I guess.
But I still don't want to go."
"It's up to you," Ned said.
"How about this, though --
let me drive you to the clinic
so you can see it in person.
If it doesn't look safe, then I'll
drop you off wherever you want."
"Maybe," Cas said, looking down
at his battered old vidwatch.
"I'm sorry, I forgot to ask --
is there somewhere else
you need to be?" Ned said.
"I've got an hour," Cas said.
"Is that long enough? It's not
at most clinics I've been to."
"That should be plenty of time,"
Ned said. "The city is expanding
its community clinics, so they're not
as overcrowded as they used to be."
"I'll believe that when I see it,"
Cas muttered, but didn't back away.
"Then let's go," Ned said, waving
Cas toward the waiting car. The ride
would give him a longer look at
a member of the local street life.
Fortunately when they got there,
Cas climbed in without further urging.
Ned wanted to take care of him,
not make him feel trapped.
Just the sound of the doors
closing made Cas jump, though.
"It's okay," Ned said. "I lock the doors
for safety while the car's moving. If
you decide to bail, just tell me so.
I will stop and let you out."
"Uh huh," Cas said.
Ned pulled out and
headed for the clinic.
Then he noticed that Cas
had both hands clenched
between his knees so tightly
that his wrists turned red.
"Try to relax a little," Ned said.
"You don't need clamp down
so hard it shuts off circulation. I
don't want you to hurt yourself."
"You told me not to mess with
anything," Cas said, looking at all
of the screens and switches. "I fidget.
This way I can't touch anything."
"Now that I can fix," Ned said happily.
"Reach into the cup holder on your door."
Cas groped around. "What the ...?"
"We keep fidgets in there, both
for ourselves and for polite guests,"
"Pick one you like, and it's yours."
Cas pulled out a purple bracelet
with soft, floppy tentacles.
"Thanks," he whispered.
"Hey, I'm here to help,"
Ned said, smiling at him.
"I've seen you around
more often lately," Cas said,
stroking the tentacles. "Are you
planning to raid the park?"
"No, not unless we start
getting complaints about
serious problems," Ned said.
"I think that it's turning into
a nice little park, don't you?
Much better than a vacant lot."
"Yeah, it's nice," Cas said.
"I heard there's a new guy
adding stuff and -- you're not
going to hassle him, are you?
We need the showerhouse."
"Will you be okay if I talk about
my job a little?" Ned asked.
Cas licked his lips. "Maybe."
"Well, it's all about priorities,"
Ned said. "The last big boss
behind Lincoln's gangs was
a real pain in the ass -- he liked
to beat people up, and he caused
all kinds of trouble. So that made
him a high priority for us, although
it took a long time to catch him."
"I know," Cas said. "I used to --
I needed the money -- but I
couldn't stay with those guys."
"Do you want me to do something
about any of that?" Ned asked.
Cas shook his head frantically.
"Are you doing better now?" Ned said.
"That's the more important part."
"Yeah, some," Cas said. "I tried
different places, haven't really settled
yet, but the park helps us a lot."
"Okay then, that's an improvement,"
said Ned. "Here's a middle example.
There's a landscaper around here
called Allen Basswood. He's not
a gangster, but we've gotten plenty
of complaints about him, so we
keep an eye on his business."
Cas sighed. "Tried him too," he said.
"Mr. Basswood hires a lot of people,
but he's like the boss from hell. At least
Boss Batir only hit us when we screwed up.
Mr. Basswood acts like he's mad at everyone
all the time. I couldn't deal with that."
"Workplace abuse is hard on
everyone's health," Ned said.
"You want to file a complaint?"
"No," Cas said. "I don't want
to make trouble, really."
"Okay," Ned said. "I'm just
trying to do my job -- you aren't
obligated to take me up on it.
Some people don't feel like
they can ask for things, so
I have to offer, understand?"
"I get it," Cas said, stretching
one tentacle between his fingers.
"Now let's talk about Mr. New Guy,"
Ned said. "I don't know who he is, but I
think I like him. Look what he's done so far.
The street fights are starting to slow down,
and he's put up amenities on a vacant lot."
"Yeah, I noticed there are fewer fights
than there used to be," Cas said.
"We'd love to be able to take credit
for that, but it'd be fibbing," Ned said.
"Of course, I can't condone illegal acts,
and rumor has it the new guy's a gangster.
He's not making trouble from scratch, though.
So unless he does something really bugnuts,
Mr. New Guy is a low priority for the cops,
and we've got worse problems to solve."
"That's ... good," Cas said. "It's hard
when the cops just hassle everyone."
Ned nodded. "That's hard on us, too.
I've seen what happens when bad cops
ruin the relationship between police and
citizens. It makes our work more difficult
and more dangerous. That's why I do a lot
of community outreach. I want folks to tell me
when trouble comes up, so that I can fix it."
"Like a boss, I mean a good one," Cas said.
"Never seen it myself, but I've heard of some."
"Something like that, yes," Ned said. "I've
seen a range of good and bad myself."
"Why are you doing this?" Cas whispered.
"Doing what?" Ned said. "Talking,
giving you a lift, or something else?"
"All of it," Cas said. His fingers
twiddled with his floppy bracelet.
Ned's job involved keeping an eye on
crime, but there was another reason.
"I like taking care of people. It's
part of my personal code," Ned said.
"If you see a homeless person on the street,
and they need food, housing, medical attention --
if you can give that, do it. Just make sure you do it
with compassion, because that's how you start
dissolving the barrier between you and them."
"Most people, it's like they don't even see us,"
Cas said to his shoes. "Or if they do,
they see only the bad things."
"That's a job hazard for cops,"
Ned said. "It can happen to
other people too, though. Did
you know it even has a name?
It's called compassion fatigue."
"Huh," said Cas. "I guess anyone
would get tired of that shit."
"We have ways to deal with it,
including transfer to a different unit
so nobody has to deal with the worst stuff
forever," Ned said. "As long as we take
the right steps, it shouldn't get so bad
that it causes problems for everyone."
"Nice if you can manage it," Cas said.
"Yep," Ned said as he pulled into
the parking lot of the Urgency Care Clinic.
The front simply said Urgent Care above
a brick face, since such places could
change hands. "And here we are."
Cas was clutching the panic handle
on the door like it was a life preserver.
"Okay, you seem a little freaked,"
Ned said. "Relax. You don't have
to go in if you really can't take it."
Cas drew a shuddering breath.
"You promise?" he wheezed.
"I promise," Ned said. "Look around.
What can you observe about the place?"
"What?" Cas said with a frown.
Ned had training in observation,
and got a kick out of sharing it.
"Is the ground clean or full of litter?
Does the parking lot have potholes to
China? Is there graffiti all over the
building?" Ned said. "Observing
the environment can tell how safe
or dangerous a place might be."
"It looks ... pretty clean?"
Cas said. "The lot is old, but
it's kept up, just a few cracks.
The signs are big enough to read
from here, like the open hours.
Better'n I'm used to, anyhow."
"Okay, that's a good sign," Ned said.
"Shall we go take a closer look?"
Cas fidgeted with his floppy bracelet.
"By all means, keep that if it helps
you to stay calm," Ned said. "Let's
take this one step at a time. We
can just go inside and look around.
You don't even have to sign in
if you feel too overwhelmed."
"Why are you letting me back out
now?" Cas said, narrowing his eyes.
"Back at the park you were pushing
me to come here and get fixed up."
"I would like you to get through
a checkup, but I would also like
to avoid sparking a panic attack,"
Ned said. "If what you can do today
is sit in the parking lot, or check out
the waiting room, that's fine. We
can always try again tomorrow."
"Heck no, let's just get this
over with," Cas said.
"Okay, hop out," Ned said,
unlocking the car doors.
By the time they both
reached the waiting room,
Cas was plastered so close to
his back that he might as well
have been painted on.
Well, at least the boy
was now viewing Ned as
more protection than threat.
Ned watched Cas scout around.
Chairs made a concise U-shape
facing the reception window,
and racks of reading material
filled the walls around it.
The walls were various shades
of almond, gray, and pale blue
above a floor of polished wood.
Houseplants dotted the windows.
It looked clean but not too clinical,
and the air smelled of lemons.
"Hi, Ned," said the receptionist.
"What brings you here today?"
"A friend," said Ned. "Is
Dr. Just available now?"
She glanced at a screen.
"He's with a patient, but
he should finish in five to
ten minutes. If you log in
now, then you can catch him --
everyone with an appointment
is booked for someone else."
"O-okay," Cas squeaked.
"Name or number?"
the receptionist said.
"What?" Cas said,
looking at Ned.
"Do you want to tell
them your name, or use
a random-generated number?"
Ned said. "Your name is easier
to remember, but a number
is more anonymous."
"Number, but they can
call me Cas," he said.
"Okay, I'll print that on
a card for you to carry,"
the receptionist said. "You
can get your records from today
on a T-mem bracelet if you want,
then you can bring those back later
and we'll know who you are."
"Thanks," Cas said as
he took the card from her.
"Reason for visit?" she asked.
"Skin condition, and please ask
Dr. Just for TIC," Ned said.
"What's TIC?" Cas said,
pressing against him.
Ned explained. "It just means
he'll know to be extra-gentle
with you because you've had
bad experiences in the past."
"Method of payment?"
the receptionist said.
Cas flinched, but Ned
stepped in smoothly with,
"Lincoln Police Department fund
for citizens in need, please."
Ned walked him through
the rest of the paperwork.
"Okay, that's it for now,"
the receptionist said. "You
can take a seat or look at
our literature. Dr. Just should
be available any minute now."
Ned wasn't about to leave Cas to
his own devices, so he beckoned
the boy over to the wall racks.
"Come take a look at these,
and see if anything appeals."
One rack held free handouts
on health, parenting, nutrition,
and various other subjects.
Cas ran his fingers over them,
finding the family life section.
Hesitantly, he pulled out brochures
on positive discipline and child's play.
"You like the one on positive discipline?"
Ned said. Lots of teens did babysitting
to earn money. "Here's a whole book."
"Is that really ..." Cas wondered.
Ned tapped the sticker that read,
FREE -- TAKE ONE! "Yes, it is."
Cas tucked it under his arm.
"That's pretty cool," he said.
"They have magazines, too,"
Ned pointed out. "These we can
read in the waiting room. This rack
has back issues to take home."
"Some of these look interesting,"
Cas said, examining the titles.
"Let's see, we've got Comfort Food,
Household Harmony, Relaaax ..." Ned said.
"Oh, since you like fidgets, check out
Taxxi, it's a tactile magazine."
Cas had barely started to run
his hands over the cover of Taxxi
when the doctor came out.
His white coat contrasted with
his sorrel skin, and his teeth
flashed an easy smile. "Hi, Ned,"
he said. "What's up today?"
"Cas, this is Dr. Just," said Ned.
"Dr. Just, Cas has a skin issue."
"Okay," said Dr. Just. "Cas,
do you want Ned to wait out here,
or come to the room with us?"
"Don't leave me!" Cas yelped,
clutching the back of Ned's shirt.
"Right this way, we're in Room 2,"
Dr. Just said, leading the way.
Cas followed close enough
to step on Ned's heels, but Ned
didn't say anything. Let him
take what comfort he could.
"Is there anything special that
you want to tell me before we
begin?" Dr. Just asked Cas.
The boy just shrugged
and handed him the card.
"Any of the things that
made you not want to come
here today?" Ned prompted.
"I guess ... don't yell at me?
Or mess up what you're doing,"
Cas said. "And don't ignore me,
I hate when people do that."
"No yelling, avoidable errors,
or ignoring," Dr. Just said.
"I'll take extra care with you."
"Yeah, Ned said," Cas replied.
"I hope that it helps some."
"Nervous?" Dr. Just said, and
when Cas nodded, he patted
the exam bed. "Okay, hop up here
and we'll start with a basic health check
so we can get to know each other before
digging any deeper. I'll explain what
I'm going to do before I do it, too."
Cas passed his handouts to Ned,
then climbed onto the exam bed.
Ned nudged the guest chair
close enough for contact comfort
in case the boy reached out to him.
Although tense, Cas sat through
the first few steps without protest until
Dr. Just palmed the business end
of the stethoscope to warm it.
"What are you doing?" Cas said.
"I'm heating the metal in my hand
so that it won't feel cold touching
your skin," Dr. Just explained.
"Huh," Cas said. "I never saw
anyone do that before. The cold
always makes me jump."
Dr. Just frowned. "Then
somebody did a poor job
taking care of you."
"Does Dr. Everybody
have an office address I
could look into?" Dr. Just said.
Cas shook his head. "I don't
want to cause problems," he said.
"I just want to get this over with."
"Okay," said Dr. Just. "Shall I
listen to the front or the back first?"
"Front," Cas said instantly.
He didn't flinch underneath
the warm metal, though, and even
let Dr. Just reach behind him.
By the end of the brief exam,
Cas was even starting to unwind
a tiny bit. Dr. Just was good.
"Are you ready to talk about
why you came here, or shall I
pick another round of basics
to break the ice?" Dr. Just said.
Cas sighed and pushed
his sleeve halfway up.
"For a while we -- there
wasn't anywhere to wash, and
I got this raw spot," he said.
"Now there's a showerhouse
I can use, so it's getting better."
He glared. "Ned's a worrywart."
Dr. Just gave a warm chuckle.
"He is, isn't he? But that's what
makes him a good cop," he said.
"All right, let's have a look."
He started with exactly
the same steps Ned had,
humming in satisfaction.
"That's not too bad," he said.
"A little antibiotic cream should
clear that right up for you."
"Yeah well ... then there's this,"
Cas said, baring his elbow.
"Not so good," Dr. Just agreed.
He took a closer look at the sore.
"Let me take some skin samples
from these and send them to the lab
for a quick check. That'll tell us if
you have the kind of germs that
need stronger medication."
"Okay," Cas said, but his hands
dug into the soft padded bed.
"This might be a bit unpleasant, but
it shouldn't hurt a lot," Dr. Just said.
"Tell me if it's awful, because it means
the problem is worse than it looks."
Cas hissed a bit at the scraping,
but at least he stayed put.
Dr. Just stepped out and
handed the samples to a nurse.
Then he picked up a spray bottle.
"This is a topical anaesthetic,"
he said. "It feels like ice water,
but it numbs broken skin almost
instantly, and it even soaks
into whole skin a little bit."
"Yeah, that's the same brand
we use for our big trauma kits
in the trunks of the patrol cars,"
Ned said. "It's good stuff."
"Coldcoldcold," Cas chanted.
"Oh wow. They stopped stinging."
"I'll clean these up for you, then
wrap them," Dr. Just said. "This
should take care of the problem.
If not, come back and we can do
another swab to culture the germs.
That takes longer, but it tells us
exactly what we're fighting so I'll
know how to fix it for sure."
He was gentle and careful
about blotting over the sores
with antiseptic, then coating
them in a thick cream and
patches of nonstick gauze.
"Check this out," Dr. Just said.
"This mesh sleeve goes over
your arm to hold the gauze on,
without tape that rips your hair off."
"Awesome," Cas breathed as
he watched Dr. Just slide it on.
"Another happy customer,"
Dr. Just said. "I'll send you
home with some of these so
you can change the dressings.
Do exactly what I did and it'll go
fine. I'll give you a care sheet too."
"Thanks," Cas said. He twisted
his arm and wiggled his fingers.
"Now a touchier topic," Dr. Just said.
"Do you have any other raw spots?"
"Those are the worst, really,"
Cas said. "I'm fine."
"Let me check, please,"
Dr. Just said. "I know how
to recognize trouble that
might not be obvious yet."
"What do I have to do?"
Cas said, rocking in place.
"Ideally, undress so I can
examine your whole body,"
Dr. Just said. "If you're right
about where the worst ones are,
I can just do a quick cleaning and
a dab of cream. You might not
even need more bandages."
Cas jittered, looking at Ned.
"Do I have to?" he whined.
"No, you don't," Ned said.
"It's your body and your choice.
But you're already here today.
Think how much it would suck
to have one bubble up worse
next week and have to come back."
"Yeah, yeah," Cas muttered. "Okay."
"Thank you," said Dr. Just. "Do you
want Ned to wait here or in the hall?
I can pull a curtain around the bed if --"
Cas grabbed Ned by the knee
hard enough to dimple the fabric.
"Don't leave me here with him!"
"It's all right, Cas, I don't mind
staying as your spotter," Ned said.
"I'll be right outside the curtain,
so just yell if you need me."
Cas pried his fingers loose and
let Dr. Just swish the curtain
into place around the bed.
Ned listened, tracking progress
by the rustle of clothes and clatter
of the instrument tray as Dr. Just
went over Cas' whole body.
A murmur of commentary
carried over, but it was so soft
that Ned couldn't make out
more than a few words.
A soft knock on the door
made Dr. Just step out saying,
"Go ahead and get dressed, Cas,
I think our test results are here."
He opened the door just enough
to take the tablet from the nurse.
Cas pushed the curtain away,
still tugging his clothes into place.
"What's it say? Is it bad?"
"Mixed news," Dr. Just said.
"The spot on your forearm is
relatively clean, but the one at
your elbow has some bacteria
that slow healing. I can give you
a shot of antibiotics to fix that."
Cas cringed at the suggestion.
"Or I can order you a course of
oral antibiotics," Dr. Just went on.
"One little sting and it's all over,
or you have to remember to take
pills twice a day for two weeks."
"I can't always ... oh, fine,
do it quick," Cas muttered.
"Roll up the sleeve on
your good arm," Dr. Just said
as he turned away, blocking
the view with his body.
Cas obeyed, but the tentacles
on his bracelet were vibrating.
Ned opened his hand in
a silent invitation in case
Cas wanted the comfort.
Instead Cas clamped a hand
over Ned's knee again.
"All right, Cas, relax as much
as you can," Dr. Just coached.
"This stuff is cold, so it will
probably make your shoulder
cramp. It'll warm up in a minute,
and I'll show you how to work
the knot out of the muscle."
The prick of the needle made
Cas clench his fingers, but
he didn't try to pull away.
Yeah, that was going
to leave bruises, but Ned
was willing to put up with it
if that meant getting Cas
out of here in one piece.
"All done," Dr. Just said as
he smoothed a bandaid over
the puncture. "Okay, now roll
your shoulders gently. Lift
your arms up a little, then
forward, then back. Make
the motions bigger each time
until the cramp goes away."
Cas shrugged his way through
a few repetitions, then said,
"Yeah, it's gone. Nobody
ever showed me that before."
"Not everyone knows the trick,"
Dr. Just said. "Sometimes when
you come to an appointment, you
learn new things. I love that."
"Usually people just lecture me,
and none of it's new," Cas said.
"That sounds like Dr. Everybody
is making the whole field look bad,"
said Dr. Just. "I'm glad I could
give you a better example."
"Yeah," Cas said, wiggling
his fingers. "The sleeve thing
really is fantastic. Thanks."
"You're welcome," Dr. Just said.
He set out a row of supplies.
"Some Ouchless Wound Rinse,
antibiotic cream, nonstick gauze,
and the sleeve bandages."
Cas glanced at Ned again.
"It doesn't cost?" he said.
"No, that's covered in
the visit," Ned said.
"Okay, then," Cas said.
"Change your bandages
every morning. Do it like I did
and it should go fine," Dr. Just said.
"Here are the instructions in text
and pictures as a reminder,
plus a bag to carry it all."
Cas looked at the page.
"Yeah, these are clear."
"It sounds like your problem
came from lack of access rather
than lack of knowledge, but do
you want another handout on
basic hygiene?" Dr. Just said.
"I know how to wash," Cas said.
"I can't always get water, though.
The showerhouse helps a lot."
"Okay, I'll trust that you know
what you're doing," Dr. Just said.
"Why?" Cas looked baffled.
"Because you gritted your teeth
through the whole visit, so I doubt you
want to come back soon," Dr. Just said.
"Therefore it's in your best interest
to take good care of yourself."
"People usually treat me like
I'm stupid," Cas grumbled.
"That's not helping," Dr. Just said.
"I'd rather establish trust, and that
includes trusting my clients."
"You'll get used to it," Ned said.
"Some of his bedside manner is
different from what I expected, too,
but I like it enough to come back."
"Any work-related issues I should
know about?" Dr. Just asked him.
"Nah, I'm good," Ned said.
"Then we're done," Dr. Just said.
"Cas, I'd be happy to check you over
in a week to make sure you're all healed,
but it's not required. No charge either.
If you have any problems, then
come back sooner or call me."
"I'll try," Cas said. "This is
hard for me. I'm sorry I'm so ..."
He shrugged, voice trailing away.
"It's okay," Dr. Just said. "I've heard
what you told me about Dr. Everybody,
remember? I'm glad you made it
all the way through the appointment.
You've done very well today."
He held out a colorful card.
Cas took it, then frowned.
"Happy Teen? What's this for?"
"You pushed yourself to do
hard things today, so you earned
a perk," Dr. Just said. "A little treat
can make it easier to succeed."
"Businesses donate gift cards to
community clinics and other offices,"
Ned added. "They can go for perks or
concrete apologies if the wait runs long,
or whatever's needed. We have a box
of goodies at the police station too, and
it eases the sting of working on a holiday."
Cas flicked his fingers and the card
vanished somewhere on his person.
"Okay, thanks," he said softly.
"When you sign out, the receptionist
will give you a copy of your records
from today's visit," Dr. Just said
as he opened the door for them.
"You'll need that if you come back
and want to connect with this one."
Cas skittered out of the room as fast as
he could, but paused at reception
to let Ned catch up with him.
It only took a minute
to get the paperwork and
a T-mem bracelet of the file.
As they walked out, Ned said,
"You did great, Cas. I'll drop you off
wherever you want. Can I buy you
lunch before we split up, though?"
"What? Why?" Cas said.
"You've already done a lot."
"And you have validated
my job satisfaction for the day,"
Ned said. "Like Dr. Just explained,
perks make it easier for you
to do the hard things."
Besides, he suspected
that Cas wasn't getting
enough to eat, and if Ned
could fix that for one day,
then he'd grab the chance.
"Drop me back at the park,"
Cas said. "After we drive through
Salad Palace. I could go for
a chicken salad sandwich."
"Deal," Ned said happily.
* * *
This poem is long, so the character, location, and content notes appear elsewhere.