Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "Not a Sudden Problem"

This poem is spillover from the March 3, 2020 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from [personal profile] siliconshaman. It also fills the "Pressure Cooker" square in my 3-1-20 card for the Food Fest Bingo. This poem has been sponsored by a pool with [personal profile] ng_moonmoth, [personal profile] fuzzyred, and [personal profile] edorfaus. It belongs to the Broken Angels thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. It includes poverty, gang violence, the Hammerheads making trouble, some of the Broken Angels getting mixed up in trouble they did NOT start, questionable police response, panic attacks, crying, panic-induced breathing difficulty, fear of violence, reference to someone else's messy injuries, extreme separation anxiety, justified fear of Family Services, brief protective restraint, nascent traumatic manifestation, which is circumvented by radical self-sacrifice, feeling unsafe, fear of hurting people, parole form, riding in a police car, backseat camera, discussion of gang fight, trauma screening, Italian lawyer, who is more than a bit bemused by Cas and Ned, and other angst. If these are touchy topics for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"Not a Sudden Problem"

[Sunday, December 6, 2015]

Ned and Gregg had split up to patrol
the North Bottoms neighborhood,
Ned in the car and Gregg on foot.

Everything was a patchwork of
snow, ice, and mud because
it had rained recently, which
melted a lot of the snow but
left dirty mountains of the stuff
everywhere it had been piled up.

The trees were brown skeletons
scraping against a gray sky.

Soggy Christmas decorations
clung to eaves and trees and
lamp posts in some places, but
the neighborhood was so poor
that there weren't really a lot.

Ned hoped it would get better
as the improvements spead out.

He was just turning a corner
when the radio squawked
All Units Respond, and
the address made him
stomp on the gas pedal.

The corner lot across from
El Cheapo's Grocery Store
was notorious for gang activity,
because it marked the border
between several territories --
stores tended to be on the edges.

After Boss Batir had gone down
in spring, the whole city turned into
a pressure cooker, with too many gangs
and not enough guidance to keep it quiet.

Now they had a new boss coming up,
but that just meant all the other gangs
were squabbling for their positions.

Ned wheeled the car around
and headed for the hot zone.

He could see people swarming
around as he approached.

Ned pulled into the driveway
that defined the left edge of the lot,
then bailed out of his patrol car.

He spotted the Hammerheads
right off, because even without
their boss they made trouble.

Rack was using his baby face
to try and talk his way out of it,
which worked more often than not.
Ned would need to step on that.

Clavo was in cuffs, which he
definitely deserved to be --
but so was Cas, who
almost certainly did not.

Pug was already getting put
into a police car, and it looked
like his nose got broken again.

Gregg was having no luck
calming Cas, who seemed to be
having a full-blown panic attack.

"What's going on here?" Ned said
as he approached the two of them.

"This is such a mess," Gregg said,
not letting go of his grip on Cas.
"All of a sudden the gangs are just
scrapping all over the damn place."

"Gang violence in Lincoln is not
a sudden problem," Ned said. "It's
been a part of urban life for years,
offering an aggressive definition and
identity to those seeking a place to belong
in the chaos of large metropolitan areas."

"Well, what do you propose we do
about that?" Gregg snapped.

"Let me take over," said Ned.
"You go make sure that Rack
doesn't wriggle out of this."

"Fine, whatever, it's on you,"
Gregg said, throwing up his hands.

"I take responsibility," Ned agreed,
and watched Gregg trot away.

Then he turned his attention
to Cas, who was still freaking out.

"Hey, Cas, can you tell me what's
going on?" Ned said, coaxing him
to sit down in a not-too-muddy spot.

"We w-were just walking and they
j-jumped us," Cas said. He was
trying to choke down sobs and
mostly cutting off his breath.
"Then the cops cuffed everyone."

"Okay, slow down a bit and breathe,"
Ned coached. "Follow my breaths."

It took a minute, but eventually
Ned got Cas slowed down
enough to get some air.

"That's better," Ned said.
"So you were minding
your own business when
someone else started
trouble, and then what ...?"

"Pug pushed us be-behind him
'cause we're not fighters," Cas said.
"It was s-scary and I don't know
what all ha-ha-happened."

"Okay, that's normal," Ned said.
"Fights are scary. Did you get hit,
or see anyone else hurt? Did you
hit anyone who wasn't trying
to hurt you or someone else?"

"No, b-but they punched Pug
in the face and -- and -- there was
b-blood everywhere," Cas said.

"Yeah, I saw him just now," Ned said.
"I'll make sure somebody takes care
of Pug's face. What has you so upset?"

"That other c-cop said that he was
g-going to arrest me, and what if I
go to j-jail?" Cas blubbered,
starting to shake harder.

"What if, the two scariest words
in the English language," Ned said.

"I can't go to jail, what if someone
t-tries to take Hali, they won't know
how to take c-care of her, and I can't
lose her, I can't --" Cas almost shrieked.

"You're not going to lose Hali," Ned said firmly.
"You have people with Vested Interest, right?"

"Y-yeah," Cas said, wiping his wet face.

"Well then, even if something happened
to you, those people would be there
to take care of Hali," said Ned.
"Where is she right now?"

"Staying with Edie," said Cas.
"I had to r-run some errands,
but I only h-have an hour
before I need to be b-back."

"This might take a bit longer
to straighten out," Ned said.
"We do need to go down to
the station, which means that
you only get one phone call
for sure. However, I can make
a call on your behalf if you want."

"P-please," Cas said. "Don't
tell Edie I'm in tr-trouble, just
that I might be late and -- and
I d-don't know what else --"

"I'll sort it out," Ned promised.

He had Edie's number as one
of his neighborhood contacts, so
he called and said, "Hi, Edie, this
is Ned. Cas ran into a bit of a snag,
so he might be late getting back."

"Oh dear," Edie said. "Well,
tell him it's no trouble to keep
Hali here, even overnight."

"Thanks, I'll let him know.
One of us will call you when
we find out more," Nick said,
and hung up. "It's okay, Cas,
Edie says Hali can stay with her,
even overnight if necessary."

"Thank God," Cas said,
sucking in big gasps of air.

Of course that was when Gregg
came back and made everything
about a million times worse.

"Yeah, no problem," he said.
"I already called Family Services."

Cas went wild, flopping around
like a beached fish as he tried
to get away from Ned and Gregg.

"Gregg, back off!" Ned barked.

He grabbed hold of Cas,
trying to keep him from either
getting loose or hurting himself.

"Stay with me, Cas," said Ned.
"Gregg is new and kind of a ninny.
He's not in charge of you, I am, and
I won't let anything bad happen
to you or Hali. I will get rid of
Family Services. Try to hold still,
this mud is nobody's friend."

Underneath him, Cas was
crying in panicky bursts,
his motions uncoordinated.

"Here, sit up, let's get these cuffs
off you," Ned said. He probably
should've done that right away,
but it was frowned on outside
of an obvious emergency.

It took a moment to take
the muddy cuffs off of Cas,
and then the boy immediately
wrapped his arms around himself.

"Take some deep breaths,"
Ned said. "When you slow
your breathing, it helps the rest
of your body calm down, too."

Cas shook his head frantically.
"S-something's wrong," he said.

"Headache, stomachache?"
Ned guessed. "Are you sure
you didn't get hurt in the fight?"

"No, it's -- it's me, in me,"
Cas stuttered. "Something
moving, I can feel it."

Ned's first thought was
those stupid horror movies
that he'd watched as a tween,
where improbable parasites
burst out of people's bodies.

Then he felt the waves of energy
crawling over his skin, and realized
they could have a much worse problem.

Traumatic manifestation was bad enough
when it just affected the victim, but if things
got worse, it could take out a whole city.

Ned knew that he had to act fast.

"Stay with me, Cas," he said again.
"I'm right here. Everything is going to be
just fine. The fight's over. You're safe."

"I'm not safe -- I'm never safe,"
Cas sobbed, rocking in place.

"I will keep you safe," Ned promised.
"You're a good kid, a great father.
I believe you didn't start that fight,
which means you did nothing wrong.
It's going to be okay. Here, feel --"

Ned captured a flailing hand
and pressed it against his chest.

"I'm right here, Cas," he said.
"You know me. This is real, solid.
Lean on me and you won't feel so lost."

Cas promptly balled up his hand and
tried to pull away. "You sh-shouldn't --
I don't know what -- I could hurt you!"

"Do you want to hurt me?" Ned said.

Cas shook his head. "No, but --
something's happening --"

"Nothing has to happen,"
Ned said. "It's just aftershock.
You don't need to defend yourself,
I'll do that for you. It's my job."

If he could just damp down
the threat level, then maybe
nothing would actually manifest.

"R-really?" Cas said, fingers
tracing over Ned's insignia,
zaps of energy in their wake.

"Yes, really," Ned said.
"Remember when we
talked about job validation?"

Cas gave a soggy nod.

"That's what I'm here for,
to keep everyone safe, so
you don't have to," Ned said.
"Let it go, Cas, you don't need
that fight-or-flight stuff now."

And then Ned had a lapful
of sobbing teenager as
Cas clung to him.

"Okay, okay," Ned said.
"Everything is going
to be fine. Cry it out."

The energy, whatever
it was, had dissipated
without turning into
anything in particular.

Ned waited for Cas
to settle down and
taper off the crying.

Then he fished out
a packet of tissues.

"Here, dry your face,"
Ned said. "The salt
isn't good for your skin."

Cas sniffled, blew his nose,
then wiped tears and mud
off his face as best he could.

Ned looked around and saw
that most of the other people
had cleared out already, and
the few left were standing
a respectful distance away.

"How are you doing now?"
Ned asked, watching Cas.

The boy held up a hand,
shaking, but not as much
as it had before. "Better,
I guess," Cas said slowly.

"Better is good," Ned said.
"Do you feel you have
a handle on things?"

"Whatever it was,
it's gone," Cas said.
"It just went away."
His voice dropped.
"You made it stop."

"I'm glad I could help,"
Ned said seriously. "Are
you ready to talk about
next steps, or not yet?"

"I don't know," Cas said.
"Maybe try, and if it's too much,
I can tap out or something?"

"Sure, just say 'stop' or pat me
on the knee," Ned said, setting
Cas' right hand on his leg.

"I can do that," Cas said.

"Okay, then the next step
would be for you to promise
not to make trouble," Ned said,
bringing out his smartphone. "This
gives me a lot more leeway in what
I can do to make you comfortable."

He called up the parole form in
plain language and held it out.

Cas looked at it and said,
"What if -- if I lose it again?"

"This only says you won't
cause problems on purpose,"
Ned explained. "If you have
a panic attack or anything
like that, it doesn't count."

"Okay," Cas said, and
scribbled his signature.

"Thank you," Ned said.
"Next, we need to get in
my car. Are you up for it?"

"Okay, I think," Cas said.
"I've ridden there before."

"Can you handle sitting in
the back seat this time?"
Ned said. "That's protocol
in cases like this, unless
it's another trigger for you."

"I think ... if it's you ... I can
maybe manage," Cas said.

"Let's give it a try," Ned said.
He stood up, offering Cas a hand.

Cas got to his feet, then held out
his hands, fingers laced together.

"Nope, not risking that again,"
Ned said firmly. "Let's try
to minimize the triggers."

"You won't get in trouble?"
Cas said. "I don't want
to make it hard on you."

"I won't, because I'm
keeping things safe and
calm," Ned said. "But if
anyone argues about it,
that's for me to deal with,
you don't need to worry."

"Okay," Cas said softly.
"Let's go for a ride."

Ned tucked him into
the back with extra care.

"If you get upset, just use
the intercom or tap on
the glass," Ned said,
showing him the controls.
"Do you want me to put on
something soothing to watch?"

"Yeah," Cas said. "Maybe clouds?"

"Serenity Skies, coming right up,"
Ned said as he climbed into the front
of the patrol car. He used the menu
to activate the show on the screen
in the back of the driver's seat for Cas.
"Mind if I put the backseat camera feed
on my screen so I can see if you get upset?"

"Go ahead," Cas said. "I might feel
better if you're looking out for me."

That was a huge improvement
over how skittish Cas had been
back when they first met.

Ned flicked on the screen,
then pulled out of the driveway.

He kept an eye on Cas, who
looked nervous but not panicky
and focused diligently on the skies
displayed on the backseat screen.

Crisis -- hopefully -- averted.

When Ned pulled into the parking lot,
he tapped the intercom and said,
"We're here. I'll come let you out."

As soon as Ned opened the door,
Cas said, "We're going in the front?"

"Yes," Ned said. "You're not
under arrest and you promised
to behave. It's a shorter route
to the soft interview room."

"Okay," Cas said, but
he still clung to Ned.

If serving as a teddy bear
kept Cas calm, Ned was
more than willing to do it.

On the way in, Ned stopped
at the Public Service Desk
to collect the paperwork
that he'd need for Cas.

"This way, please,"
Ned said, guiding Cas
through the corridor.

The soft interview room
was done in shades of
gray and green, its walls
a pale color called Duck Egg.

Cas took the couch, so
Ned asked, "Do you want me
beside you or in the chair?"

"With me, please," Cas said,
clutching at Ned and all but
dragging him onto the couch.

"Okay, I'm here," Ned said.
"The rules are that you can
touch me anywhere not covered
by a bathing suit, or my utility belt,
but I can't touch you unless you ask."

Cas leaned against him. "I could
really use a hug," he whispered.

"All right," Ned said, draping
an arm over his shoulders. "Do
you want your phone call now?"

"Yes, please," Cas said. "I
have a set of steps to follow."

"That's good," Ned said.
He brought out his smartphone
and showed Cas the features
that would log the call.

Cas made the call, then
recited what sounded like
a carefully memorized speech.

He handed the phone back
to Ned, saying, "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Ned said.
"Do you want to keep talking, or
wait for your lawyer to get here?"

"Keep talking," Cas said. "I
just want to get it over with."

"I can sympathize," Ned said.
"Can you handle the paperwork?
This part is more official, so
think before you answer."

"I'll try, if I can still tap out,"
Cas said as he sat up straighter.

"You can if you need to," Ned said.
"This first section deals with
what happened today ..."

The questions were calm and
open-ended, but the answers
painted a damning picture
of the Hammerheads.

Some of the Broken Angels
had gone out to run errands
as a group, when the rival gang
attacked them without warning.

By the end of the questionnaire,
Cas was trembling again.

"Deep breaths," Ned said as he
rubbed the boy's back. "You're safe.
The Hammerheads will be in their cells
by now. They can't hurt you. It's okay."

Cas sniffled, and Ned passed him
a box of kleenex from the table.
"I'll be fine, I think," he said.

"All right, but you're still upset,"
Ned said. "I think we should do
a trauma screening. Do you
want me to do it, or should I
get our Emotional First Aide?"

"You do it," Cas said. "I'm not
sure I could get through this with
anyone else, it's hard enough now."

"I can do that," Ned said. "This part
tells us what happened to you, how much
the fight affected you, and whether you
might need extra help because of that.
Don't worry, it's free if you need help.
The police department has funds for
victim assistance and compensation."

"I know I'm a mess," Cas said,
scrubbing at his face again.

"You've had a rough ride,"
Ned said. "I'm hoping we can
help with that. Here's the scale
for answering these questions ..."

They got through most of them fine,
but the ones about superpowers
made Cas start shaking again.

"Do -- do I have to say what
happened to me?" Cas said.

"No, you don't have to," Ned said.
"Other people might have noticed, but
there are laws to protect your privacy."

"Good, that's good," Cas said,
still breathing a little too fast.

Ned stroked a hand through the air,
reminding him to slow down some.

Cas followed along, and managed
to sit up on his own after a minute.

Ned felt really grateful that he
had taken that meditation class for
professional development last year.
It kept him calm and helped him
to support Cas better as well.

They were about to start the next bit
on trauma history when someone
knocked crisply on the door.

Ned got up to answer it,
and a young man strode in.

He was tall and slim with
a long narrow face, dark hair
contrasting with olive skin.

He wore a tailored blue suit
over a white shirt, with a silk tie
boldly striped in red and blue.

"My name is Alvaro," he said
in a lilting Italian accent. "I am
here to represent Mr. Hansen."

"I'm Cassiel Hansen, but everyone
calls me Cas," he said. "This is
Ned Sterling. He works here,
and he's one of the good guys."

"I advise you to take your own seat,"
Alvaro said smoothly. "The police
can extert ... undue influence at times."

Suddenly Ned was wearing Cas again.

"You leave Ned alone!" Cas snapped.
"He's with me. He's been helping."

Alvaro's eyebrows flicked upward.
"Explain the nature of the assistance."

"After the fight ..." Cas rubbed
his wrists. "I was freaking out,
and Ned helped me calm down."

"I know emotional first aid,"
Ned added. "Cas was upset,
so I took the handcuffs off him
and coached him on breathing."

"True as far as it goes, but you're
both hiding things," Alvaro said, eyes
glinting red for a moment in an odd trick
of the lighting. "Cas ... hide not
the truth from your confessor,
your doctor, or your lawyer."

Cas turned to Ned for support.

"Well, don't look at me, it's not
my story to tell," Ned said firmly.

Cas sighed. "There was this energy,
I thought, but then it ... didn't happen."

"Didn't happen?" Alvaro's eyebrows
all but disappeared into his hairline.
"What do you mean by that?"

"It's, I don't know, gone," Cas said.
"For a few minutes there, it felt like
my skin was going to crawl off. I was
terrified. But Ned made it go away."

"Traumatic manifestation," he breathed.
"How could anyone make it go away?"

"I read about traumatic manifestation
and I was aware of the risks," Ned said.
"So I told Cas he was safe and promised
to take care of him. I put his hand on
my chest so he could feel what was real.
Like he said, the energy ... dissipated."

Alvaro's jaw dropped. "That's impossible!"

"Yeah well, he did it, and I'm really glad
that it worked, because I was freaking out,"
Cas said. "Can we let it go at that?"

"You're telling the truth. Somehow,"
Alvaro mused. Then he turned
to Ned. "In that case, my firm
would like to discuss how you
managed that. We would pay
handsomely for your time."

Ned narrowed his eyes.
"I don't take bribes," he said.

"Not a bribe, a consulting fee,"
Alvaro said. "It could save lives."

That was inescapably true:
traumatic manifestation was
a dangerous thing, difficult or
impossible to control at first.

If only he knew what he'd done.

"I'll think about it, but not right now,"
Ned said finally. "We should be
focusing on what Cas needs."

"Yes, of course," Alvaro said.
"Please bring me up to date
on what you've done so far."

Cas repeated his story for Alvaro.

Ned showed Alvaro their paperwork,
which made him look at Cas again.

"If you require assistance in settling
your mind or your heart, that can
be arranged," Alvaro offered.

"Thanks, but no," Cas said.
"If I need help, I've got friends,
and there's always Soup to Nuts."

"Ah, an excellent choice," Alvaro said.
"I'll leave you in their capable hands."

Ned wondered just how famous
that crew was. He had thought
it was just Mrs. Dr. Finn with
the global reputation, but maybe
he was overlooking the others.

"There's always SPOON,"
Ned pointed out. "They have
all kinds of useful information."

Cas rolled his eyes like
the teenager he was.

"Have you seen their stuff
for supervillains?" he said. "It's
so preachy! It's also meant for
people who made awful mistakes.
And what they have for superheroes
is worse. I'm not a superhero, I've
got my hands full raising a baby!"

"All right, if SPOON isn't helpful
to you, I won't push," Ned said.

"Besides, I've got you too,"
Cas went on. "You can help if
I freak out over the legal stuff,
you've done that before."

"Any time," Ned said.

"I'm curious why you
stepped in on his side,"
Alvaro said, tilting his head.

"Both groups are known quantities,"
Ned said. "The Broken Angels don't
make trouble from scratch, though,
and the Hammerheads do. So when
Cas says that the Hammerheads
jumped them, I tend to believe him."

"Oh, I know he's telling the truth,"
Alvaro said, tapping his cheekbone.
"That's my power -- I can see it.
I just wondered how you did."

"Like I said, I know them,"
Ned repeated. "Unless I find
evidence to the contrary, I expect
people to be themselves."

He wondered how Cas
had managed to acquire
a superpowered lawyer on
a moment's notice, though.

"Indeed, people do not change
often or quickly," Alvaro said.

"Lincoln is getting better, though,"
Cas said. "I know it seems rough
right now, but like Ned said earlier,
it's not a sudden problem. It's one
we've had for a long time that's starting
to improve, but that shakes things up."

"That's encouraging," Alvaro said.
"Perhaps we can get a few of
the troublemakers off the street."

"I sure hope so," Ned said.
"The Hammerheads are nasty."

"What about me, can I go home
soon?" Cas said. "I don't want
Hali to get scared if I'm out late."

The toddler was clingy for
sadly valid reasons. Getting
Cas home was a priority.

"And what about everyone else
who got picked up?" Cas said.

"Don't worry about them," Alvaro said.
"My associates will take care of them."

That reminded Ned to send a text
asking the station nurse to go
take a look at Pug's face, just
in case it hadn't happened yet.

Then he checked his phone
for updates about the street fight.

So far, the stories correlated closely:
the Hammerheads had simply attacked
the Broken Angels without provocation, which
meant the Hammerheads would be staying
in the jail cells while the Broken Angels could
leave once the paperwork was done.

"Alvaro and I will get you home
as soon as we can," Ned said.
"We just have a bunch of
forms to fill out first."

"Then let us get to work,"
Alvaro said as he opened
a briefcase and set it
on the coffee table.

"Okay," Ned said,
and joined him there.

He was finally starting to feel
like the pressure cooker had
vented enough steam that
it wouldn't blow up in his face.

"Thanks," Cas said as he
gave Ned another hug.

That made all the risk worth it.

* * *


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