Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette
ysabetwordsmith

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Poem: "To Give Suffering a Location"

This poem is spillover from the August 4, 2020 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired and sponsored by Soupshue. It also fills the "lasting scars from old traumas" square in my 8-1-20 card for the Five Moment of Intimacy Bingo fest. This poem belongs to the Shiv thread of the Polychrome Heroics series.

Warning: This poem contains intense and controversial topics. Highlight to read the warnings, some of which are spoilers. This is hardcore hurt/comfort. It includes a wipeout on a skateboard, road rash, fear, inadvertent intimidation, arguing over safety equipment, messy medical details, scars, self-injury via rough sports, past abuse, self-injury via cutting, stigma toward mental issues, stress, reference to wrecks that Hefty has seen, disdain for therapy, disconnection, feeling alone, overwhelm, bad home life, crying, past child molestation, city Indians, ambivalence, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.


"To Give Suffering a Location"

[Sunday, August 30, 2015]

Despite the beautiful late-summer day,
the Seymour Smith Skatepark was
all but deserted, most people having
gone to The Bay in Lincoln for
the tournament there.

With new college classes
to handle, Stefan had stayed
behind, but allowed himself
a few hours at the park so
he could clear his head.

Stefan was working the vert
when he felt everything go wrong.

His fingertips grazed the skateboard
but missed the grip, knocking it
away from him as he came down.

He bounced off the rim of the vert
and then tumbled down the slope.

Stefan stared up at the blue sky,
enjoying a few moments completely
clear of anything like thought.

Then the pain registered.
Groaning, he sat up.

Well ... fuck.

He had ripped
both knees out of
his blue jeans and
the road rash was awful.

He'd thrown a sweatshirt
over his T-shirt to protect
his arms, but the left sleeve
had ridden up where he hit
the rim, leaving a long scrape.

He hadn't hit his head, though,
and that was the important part.

The sweatshirt wasn't torn,
so that was salvageable if he
could get all the blood out.

The jeans were a wreck.
That was just fucking great.

He only had five pairs,
one of the others already
had patched knees, and he
couldn't wear those to class
or the teachers scowled at him.

So he was down to three that
were presentable on campus.

Stefan heard a muffled thud.

Suddenly a vast shadow fell
over him, making him cringe
as he raised his good arm in
hope of protecting his head.

"Don't move." The voice was
deep but not angry. "You could
make your injuries worse."

Stefan peeked out from
behind his arm, blinking
against the bright sunlight.

Yep. The guy was still huge,
and looming right over him.

This was going to suck
so much more than
just hitting the rim.

"You're not wearing
any protective gear,"
the stranger said as
he crouched down.

"Long sleeves and
long pants in this heat,"
Stefan protested.

The man sighed.
"I meant, you're not
wearing a helmet or
guards," he pointed out.

"They just make
my head bigger and
then I hit it more often,"
Stefan said. "I know
how to fall right."

Hadn't the big lug
seen him fend off
the rim by hand?

"Okay. Can you move
all your hands and
feet?" the man said.

Stefan wiggled everything.
Maybe if he minded, the guy
would give up and let him go
without getting too rough.

"That's good," said the man.
"You want to give me a name
so I don't have call you Hey You?"

Not really, no, but he didn't want
to start a fight over it either.

"Stefan," he said grudgingly,
wishing the guy would go away.

"Hi, Stefan, I'm Hefty," he said.
"I have first aid training."

Something clanged.

Oh, he had pulled
the first aid kit down
from its nearby post.

"I was jogging around
the park when I saw you
wipe out," Hefty said.
"Will you let me help?"

"I guess," Stefan muttered.
It was bad enough to crash
without someone making
such a big fuss about it.

Injuries were part of the game.

He pushed that thought down
as quick as he could, hoping
that Hefty wouldn't notice it.

"Did you hit your head?"
Hefty asked, reaching out
a big hand to ruffle his hair.

Stefan jerked away. "No.
I told you, I know how to fall."

At least when he wasn't wearing
an extra ten pounds of crap that
made it harder to see and move.

He had pushed off the rim and
rolled to the bottom, with nothing
worse than a bunch of road rash.

"I'd really appreciate it if you let me
check for bumps," Hefty coaxed.

"Ffffffine," Stefan grumbled.

The guy was a fucking bulldog,
he just would not let it go.

His hands were gentle,
though, carding through
the mop of Stefan's hair.

Stefan shivered anyway.
He just didn't feel safe
with someone that big
getting this close to him.

Then he caught a glimpse
of the gray T-shirt that read,
Property of Omaha Police Dept.

Stefan cringed, his shoulders
hunching in attempt to hide.

It never really helped, but
he couldn't stop doing it.

"You're really scared of me,
aren't you," Hefty said softly.
"I'm sorry, I can't make myself
smaller. I know what I look like."

"It's fine," Stefan said quickly,
though of course it wasn't.

"Have you ever gone to
the zoo?" Hefty asked
out of the clear blue sky.

"Well, yeah," Stefan said.
"School trips and stuff."

"Do you like elephants?"
Hefty asked. "Or do
they scare you too?"

"I like them," Stefan said.
"They're big, but they're
graceful in a way. They
move exactly how they
want to. I feed them, and
their trunks go like --" He
made a pinching gesture.

Hefty smiled. "Exactly,"
he said. "Gentleness
is controlled strength."

"Huh?" Stefan said,
frowning. "What's that
got to do with elephants?"

"The same trunk can crush
a tiger, tear down a tree --
or pick up a peanut without
cracking the shell," Hefty said.
"It's all about understanding
the power you have and how
to use the right amount of it."

"Oh," Stefan said. He hadn't
really thought about that
before, but it made sense.

The elephants had been huge
but not scary, because he could
see how carefully they moved.

He snuck a sidelong glance
at Hefty crouched beside him.

Not as big as an elephant, and ...
maybe not as much of a threat
as Stefan had been thinking.

A little of the tension leaked out.

"Any idea what went wrong
up there?" Hefty asked.

Stefan sighed. "I missed
the grab coming down and
lost my board," he said.
"In retrospect, I probably
should not have tried
that move on this vert --
I didn't have enough air."

"Then you know not to make
the same mistake again,"
Hefty said. "I'll clean up
the scrapes next, if
that's okay with you."

Stefan listened to
the steady shuck-a-ruck
of someone skating
in another bowl.

He could clean up
his own knees easily,
but the forearm scrape
would be a real nuisance
to treat with only one hand.

Behind them, the skateboard
chuttered up over the edge and
then swished back down again.

"Okay, I guess," Stefan said.

"Do you want numbing antiseptic
or not numbing?" Hefty said.

Stefan blinked at him.
Most people didn't give him
a choice, they just assumed he
wanted it numb because that's
what everyone else picked.

"Not numbing," he said quickly.
"I don't like how it feels, it's
too hard to find my body."

"Ah," Hefty said, nodding
as it if made perfect sense
to him. "Brace yourself."

The stream of liquid felt
cold and then burning.

It washed away all thought,
leaving him clean and new,
without worry or care.

When Stefan came out of
the bright haze, Hefty was
carefully picking out bits of grit
that hadn't been washed away
by the flood of antiseptic.

He was actually doing
a thorough job of it, too,
which was better than
Stefan had expected.

Outside of skateboarders
and dirtbikers, people
tended to be squeamish.

"Fortunately there are plenty
of hydrocolloid bandages
in here," Hefty said. "Unless
you'd prefer nonstick gauze?"

Stefan shook his head.
"Hydro's better," he said.

Hefty measured one against
the long scrape, hummed,
and then trimmed a notch
at one end to fit it around
the knob of Stefan's elbow.

"Thanks," said Stefan.
"That's an improvement."

"Good," Hefty said, carefully
working the sleeve back down
to provide extra protection.
"We'll do the knees next."

This time Hefty started by
stuffing gauze around the edges,
between skin and denim, so
the excess liquid wouldn't
run down Stefan's legs.

It was still brightly burning,
and the sensation gave Stefan
a few precious moments of respite.

He was just starting to come out
of the welcome fog when Hefty said,
"You have quite a lot of scars."

"Sports," Stefan said instantly,
hoping to throw him off the trail.

"Those can get adventurous,"
Hefty said. "What do you play?"

"Skateboarding, lacrosse,
all kinds of stuff," Stefan said.

He played stickball, too, when he
could hook up with the city Indians,
the old-fashioned style without
a bunch of gear or too many rules,
but Hefty didn't need to know that.

Stefan had met Logan and Nathan first,
in a pickup game, and they had
introduced him to the others.

Lacrosse was okay, but
stickball was way more fun.

Hefty was just as careful
about picking the grit out of
Stefan's knees as his elbow.

"Not as deep as they could be,"
Hefty observed as he smoothed
a bandage over the right knee.

"Mostly I rolled," Stefan said.
"It's less bad that way."

"True," Hefty said as he
moved on to the left knee.
"It's good that you know how
to fall if you're practicing
rough-and-tumble sports."

That wasn't where Stefan
had learned to protect his body.
but he wasn't about to admit it.

The left knee was messier,
having landed first, but Hefty
got it cleaned and covered.

"You want some cold packs
for the bruises?" Hefty asked.
"There are snappers in the kit."

"Yes, please," Stefan said,
holding out a hand for them.

He could feel where he'd landed.
He hadn't been at the right angle
to slide down the ramp on his knees,
so instead he had just rolled with it
to spread the impact instead of trying
to break the fall with his hands.

Hefty snapped the packets,
shaking to activate them, then
passed them to Stefan as soon
as they started to get cold.

"Thanks," Stefan said,
putting them over the worst
of the bruises he could feel. He'd
either have to hold them, or ...
"Do you have any tape?"

"Here," Hefty said as he
took out the bandage tape.
"Do you want me to tear off
strips for you to use, or shall I
just tape those on for you?"

Stefan looked down at
the blue line where he'd
bonked his ribs on the rim
a little bit before sliding.

It'd be a bitch trying
to hold the cold pack
with one hand while
taping it with the other.

"Go ahead," he said as he
pressed the pack in place.

Hefty was gentle with the tape,
smoothing each strip into place
without hurting or even tickling.

"I don't suppose you'd let me
drive you to a clinic?" Hefty said
as he finished the last of the tape.

Stefan shook his head. "I'm fine."
He tugged his shirts back down.

"Not all injuries are obvious,"
Hefty warned. "What about
concussion, cracked bones,
compartment injury -- do you
know how to recognize those?"

"Well, yeah," Stefan said.
"Been there, done that, all three."
He hiked up the left leg of his jeans
to show the tidy little scar where
the doctors had to cut in to release
the pressure and patch up what
got ripped inside. "That came
from the compartment injury."

"Okay, I'll concede that you have
some experience," Hefty said.
"Do you have somewhere to go
if you start feeling worse?"

"Yeah, CHI Health," said Stefan.
"For a college clinic they're okay,
but I can't afford to get pulled out of
class this early. I'd never catch up,
that's -- I can't. I just can't."

Hefty sighed. "I'm not happy
about that, but you're an adult,
so it's your choice," he said.
"Take care of the scrapes --
you don't need any more scars."

"Sports," Stefan squeaked.
"I'm careful, it just happens."

He was good at what he did,
and he didn't get injured too often,
just enough to let off the pressure.

It was less bad than what happened
if he didn't find a way to let it off.

"What about these?" Hefty asked,
tracing the lines on Stefan's chin
that left thin streaks in the scruff
of beard that he tried to grow.

The sliding glass door -- he'd
tried to forget about that.

"Accident," Stefan said.
"I was running in the house."

He had been, but that wasn't
how he'd slammed into the door.

His father had grabbed him and
swung him around, hard enough
to crack the glass, hard enough to cut.

How was Hefty even finding them?
Most of Stefan's scars were old and pale,
no more than ghosts against his fair skin.

Then to his horror, Hefty hooked a fingertip
in the cuff of his left sleeve, tugging up
just enough to show four parallel lines
of pink. "And here?" he said softly.

Stefan cringed. "Am I in trouble?"

"Not with me," Hefty assured him.
"I'm concerned about the rest of
your life, though. Are you having
trouble at home? At college?"

"College is good," Stefan said.
"It's hard, but it's good. I um,
I'm studying Exercise Science.
Thought I could maybe get a job
in sports, or doing park programs."

"That's a good plan," Hefty said.
"It's important for you to consider
your future and think ahead."

Important, but terrifying.

Stefan looped his arms
around his shins, swaying
a little back and forth, but he
stopped short of resting his chin
on top of his knees like usual.

"You must be in a lot
of pain," Hefty said.

Stefan jerked up,
staring at Hefty.
"I'm fine," he said.

"You've ripped the skin
off both knees as well as
one forearm. That can't
be pleasant," Hefty said.

Stefan shrugged. "I've had
worse," he said. He really had.

Hefty handed Stefan a packet
of ibuprofen and a water bottle.
"Here," he said. "This will reduce
swelling, and it takes the edge
off of emotional pain too."

Stefan took the pills, because
he wasn't stupid and really didn't
want to wind up at CHI Health
with his knees swollen up.

"I'm not a headcase,"
he muttered, looking away.

"I never said you were,"
Hefty replied. "I just think
something's not quite right in
your life, and that worries me."

Stefan snuck a glance at him.
"What makes you say that?"

"Most people act relieved
when pain stops, not when
it starts," Hefty observed.

"It's a distraction," Stefan said.
"Like for a few seconds, that's
all I'm aware of. It's not weird."

"Mmm," Hefty said thoughtfully.
"Pain sustained by the mind
needs the body mainly in order
to give suffering a location."

"That's ... yeah," Stefan admitted.
"If I can keep it to sports, then it
kind of stays put better. I don't
have to think about it all the time.
Coming here is better than
letting it spill everywhere."

"Understandable," Hefty said.
Plastic rustled as he packed up
the first aid kit. "Come with me?"

When Hefty stood up, he towered
over Stefan again. It was scary ...
but not as much as before.

"Come where?" Stefan said,
eyeing the big hand that
Hefty held out to him.

"Up to the picnic table,"
Hefty said, pointing to it.

The vert that Stefan had
wrecked on was right at
the open end of the bowl,
so all they had to do
was walk out of it.

The picnic table
was up the slope
and around the curve
from where they were.

Stefan didn't really
want to keep talking with
someone who seemed
to see right though his skin.

He didn't think that Hefty
was going to let it go, though.

Well ... maybe it wouldn't be awful.

"If you insist," Stefan said as
he accepted Hefty's hand.

The big man lifted him up
as if he weighed nothing.

Stefan tapped his skateboard
with his toe, popping it up to
his hand so he didn't have
to bend over and pick it up.

It had a new scratch, but
that was just cosmetic.

Carefully Stefan tested
his feet, but they seemed
okay too. He just had
interesting new bruises.

Then they got on the grass,
and that was harder, because
the surface was uneven.

"You can lean on me, if
you like," Hefty said quietly
as he returned the first aid kit
to its post, flipping the switch so
the park rangers would know
that it needed service.

Stefan hesitated. He
still didn't like getting
within arm's reach
of anyone that big.

Hefty was patient,
though, not making
any sudden moves
or trying to grab him.

And the grass was rough.

Stefan drifted closer, and
only when he tripped enough
to clutch at Hefty's T-shirt did
the larger man drape an arm
around him for support.

After that, Stefan stopped
trying to be macho about it
and just clung to him, because
his balance was shot to hell with
bruised muscles starting to stiffen up.

Hefty steered their path around
to where the picnic table stood
beside the big double-pool.

"Take a seat," he invited.

Stefan still wasn't enthusiastic
about this, but he'd agreed to it,
so no chickening out now.

Best to get it over with, so
he could go and study.

"So ... what did you intend
to grill me about?" Stefan said,
easing himself onto the bench.

Hefty grimaced. "This is not
an interrogation," he said.

"Well then, what do you want
to talk about?" Stefan said.

"Actually, I'm more interested
in listening," Hefty said. "I'd
like to hear about whatever
has you stressed enough
to skateboard until you
yardsale down the slope ...
among other things."

He tapped Stefan's wrist
above the hidden lines.

Stefan flinched. "Do I
have to?" he whined.

"No, you're a grownup,"
Hefty said. "You could tell me
to buzz off, but I think that if you
really wanted to be alone, you
would have found a private place
instead of coming out here."

That was ... not entirely wrong.
Today the sunshine and fresh air
felt good, but on the worst days
Stefan just wanted to hide.

"Yeah, maybe," he said,
looking down at the grass.

A few long tufts stirred
in the breeze, missed
by the lawnmower.

"I really don't want to get
a call someday and find you
splattered all over the pavement,"
Hefty said solemnly. "Those
are not good calls to get."

Stefan hadn't thought much
about that before, but his class
on Introduction to Athletic Training
last year had gone on and on about
injuries and how to prevent them.

This year, Physics for Kinesiology
looked to have some similar content,
only with a lot more math explaining
exactly how and why people crashed.

They were interesting classes,
though, because they involved a lot
of practical exercises so he could feel
what the lessons actually meant.

Only now they made him think
of how someone -- maybe Hefty --
had to scrape up the mess when
someone wrecked a car or a bike,
or just their body on park equipment.

"That happens?" Stefan said, glancing up.
"I thought you were a cop, not a paramedic."

"I am a cop," Hefty said. "I just happen
to specialize in search-and-rescue,
first aid, and safety instead of
breaking down doors. Have
you seen firefighter-paramedics?"

"Yeah, there's supposed to be one
on every truck for when people
get hurt in fires," Stefan said.

"Well, I'm kind of like that, only in
the police department," Hefty said.
"I see car and bike crashes all the time,
sometimes sport accidents at parks.
The drag racing sticks in mind."

Stefan winced. "I saw that in
the papers," he said. "Totally
not my idea of a good time."

"That's a relief," Hefty said.
"You're more into contact sports?"

"Yeah, lacrosse is fun for that,"
said Stefan. "I do other stuff, too --
there are tennis classes, and dance,
and some group exercise things."

"That can be a good way to burn off
excess energy or wild emotions,"
Hefty said. "Have you considered
talking about it, though? Because
roughhousing can't fix everything."

Stefan snorted. "You mean therapy?"
he said, shaking his head. "Not my style."

"What don't you like about it?" Hefty said.
"There are all kinds of therapy, after all."

"Therapy is about every kid's nightmare
when people are telling you that you
need to get help but all you really want
is a hug," Stefan said. His voice started out
brusque but then cracked on the last word.

Hefty simply lifted his arm in silent invitation.

Stefan stared at him for a long minute,
then slowly crept into the embrace.

Hefty was so tall that Stefan
fit underneath without having
to lean over more than a little bit.

It was strangely comforting.
Stefan couldn't remember feeling
this comfortable with someone
holding him, let along anyone
as enormous as Hefty.

Stefan was learning,
though, that Hefty was
a lot gentler than he looked.

"You know, a lot of people aren't
enthused about therapy," Hefty said.
"If talking doesn't seem to make you
feel any better, then consider this --
sharing your problems can gain you
a fresh perspective with new solutions.
Does that sound more constructive?"

Stefan nodded. "Yeah, it does,"
he said. "Times I've gone, they
just told me I had to work it out
for myself, but if that's true, then
what the fuck do I need them for?"

"It sounds like you need someone
who understands what kind of things
you're struggling with, preferably one
who's gone through it himself," Hefty said.

"Exactly," Stefan said. "I mean, I'm not
opposed to good advice, but people don't ..."
He shrugged. "They just don't get it."

"You sound like a tactile kind of guy,"
Hefty observed. "Most people aren't,
and that definitely does not help."

"Nailed it," Stefan said glumly.
Then he brightened. "But college
is great for that. I get to take
all these classes on kinesiology!
This year I'm doing one on physics
that has skateboard exercises."

Hefty gave a warm chuckle.
"That sounds right up your alley."

"Yeah, it is," Stefan said.
"And those teachers, I can
talk to them, and they get it."

"That's good," Hefty said. "Did
you know there are experiential
and expressive therapies, too?
The sandplay thing is famous, but
there's also dance, theatre, sports,
and even exercise to consider."

"I didn't know that," Stefan said.
"It sounds interesting, though.
Maybe I can ask my teachers
about it. This seems like it
would go with my studies."

"Exercise Science, right?"
Hefty said, nodding to him.

Stefan was amazed that
he had remembered it.
"Uh, yeah," he said.

"That should fit, because
there are exercise programs
designed for mental health,"
Hefty said. "Your teachers
should know how to explore it,
or I could chip in what I know."

"You seem awful ... invested
in this," Stefan said, giving
Hefty a sideways glance.

"Ah well, when I was in
high school, I had a bad habit
of hitting things when I got upset,"
Hefty confessed. "So you see ..."

He tilted his right hand toward Stefan
to show scars scattered over the knuckles.

"For a variety of reasons, I found out
that wasn't a good idea, so I learned
other ways to deal with my feelings,"
Hefty said. "That works better now."

"Huh," Stefan said. He'd never seen
a grownup with marks like that before.

In fact, he'd never seen another man
who'd done anything like what he had --
at least, not anyone who admitted it.

The health class stuff made it sound
like something only girls ever did, and
they mostly stuck to cutting instead of
getting into fights or rough sports.

Maybe Stefan wasn't as alone
as he had thought he was.

"So ... what do you do now?"
Stefan asked, wondering
whether any of it might be
something he could use too.

"The first step is just to feel
what you feel," Hefty said.
"That's harder than it sounds.
After years of being taught that
the way to deal with painful emotions
is to get rid of them, it can take a lot of
work to learn to sit with them instead."

Oh, great. It sounded really fucking hard
already, and that was going to get worse?

Stefan shuddered. "Seems like torture."

"It can feel that way," Hefty agreed.
"But then so can wiping out."

"You're not wrong there,"
Stefan said ruefully. "But is
your way really worth it?"

"I think so," Hefty said. "It's
like ... people learn things by
sleeping in the wilderness
that those who only sleep
in comfortable houses
may never know."

Stefan thought about
how he sometimes felt
a wall between himself and
the other college students
with their candy-coated lives.

"Yeah," he said softly. "I get that."

"Of course, it's also important for me
to control my temper," Hefty went on.
"During my wild phase, I got into
a lot of fights, and I hurt someone.
Badly. So I decided that I needed
to find some better options."

Stefan shivered but didn't
pull away. "Shit," he said.

"So, is there anything that
you'd like to get off your chest
before it blows up in your face?"
Hefty asked. "Sometimes,
talking really can help, or
at least give you new ideas."

Stefan had gotten dragged to
a school counselor a few times,
and once after a class assignment
left him with raging nightmares, he
had even tried the college clinic, but
none of that did anything for him.

Then again, none of them had
started out by scraping his ass off
the pavement and offering him a hug.

"I um ... college is hard. It's good,
but I have a lot of classes and
the beginning of a semester
is always crazy and stuff,"
Stefan said hesitantly.

He expected to be told
to organize his time and
study instead of goofing off.

"Okay, you have a heavy load
and your schedule is new,"
Hefty said. "No wonder you
feel a little overwhelmed."

Stefan heaved a huge sigh.
"Yeah, that's it, that's it exactly,"
he said. "I don't want to quit,
but it's hard to relax, hard
to get out of my head after
spending all day in class."

"So you come out here, and
get into your body," Hefty said.

"Yeah, skateboarding helps,"
Stefan said. "Even when
I fuck up, it's still ... mine,
you know? The class stuff
is still too new to feel like that."

"You're studying it, and you
enjoy it, but it doesn't feel
like a part of you the way
sports do," Hefty said.

"Right," Stefan said. "So
there's this, like, pull, in
all different directions."

"Is that what brought you
out here today?" Hefty said.

Stefan flinched at the reminder.

Hefty didn't let go, but he
stroked very gently up
Stefan's back, ruffling
his shirts up and then
smoothing them down.

"Yes and no," Stefan said.
"I had this one class on Friday,
Foundations of Fitness & Wellness.
The syllabus for the first few days
is all about analyzing your past
and present health. That's um ..."

Hefty waited for a minute,
then guessed, "Uncomfortable?"

"Yeah," Stefan said, leaning
into him for support. "Growing up,
I used to hang out at the park
as much as I possibly could,
and later I did a lot of sports,
just to stay out of the house.
Home was really ... not good."

"I'm sorry to hear that," Hefty said.
"I'm glad you found a way to cope."

The memories popped up again,
the ones roused by the class
that he'd been trying to forget.

Stefan scratched at his wrist,
fingers sneaking under the cuff
to scrape at the fading pink lines.

"Not that way, please," Hefty said,
gently tugging his fingers away
from the soft skin of his wrist.
"Can you tell me what upset you?"

The one time Stefan had dared
to ask his father to play catch
with him, his father had thrown
the ball and blacked his eye with it.

He felt stupid and useless and
utterly unwanted. He shouldn't
be clinging to a stranger like this.

Hefty was big and warm, though,
and it felt good to pretend that
someone actually cared.

Stefan knew that he was
broken beyond repair, but
just for the moment, it
didn't seem so awful.

He managed to choke out
the story about the ball.

Hefty listened, and made
encouraging noises, and
passed him a packet of
kleenex from somewhere.

Stefan hadn't even
realized he was crying.

"It's stupid," he sniffled.
"That was years ago."

"It still hurts, so that
means it's not stupid,"
Hefty said. "That's
a horrible memory, so
Of course you're upset."

"I didn't go out for, like,
a week after that,"
Stefan said. "But
I got so antsy, I had
to get back outside."

"I'm glad you kept
going out," Hefty said.
"Sunlight and activity
both boost your mood."

"Yeah, I figured that out,"
Stefan said. "It still sucked."

"Was that ... typical for
your childhood?" Hefty said.
"Was it usually better, or worse?"

And Stefan shattered.

The memories came bursting out,
all of the or worse moments when
his father had pushed Stefan's head
into his lap, or pulled off his pants
and then done things to him.

Stefan turned his face
into Hefty's shoulder
and just sobbed.

Hefty didn't tell him
to be quiet or man up
or stop making a scene.

The big man just held him
until the storm finally faded.

"Back with me?" Hefty said.

Stefan gave a soggy nod,
but didn't let go of him.

"Listen to the birds,"
Hefty said. "Can you
tell who's singing?"

Stefan listened.
A clear whistle came
floating from the trees.

"Cardinal," he said,
and then, "Meadowlark."

"That's good," Hefty said.
"Focus on the here and now."

"I'm trying," Stefan said,
but wound up sniffling again.

Then Hefty handed him
a water bottle. "Here,"
he said. "Take a drink,
wash your face, and
clean off your glasses."

Stefan obeyed, too ashamed
to argue or even look at him.

"I'm sorry," Hefty said. "You
looked like you needed to talk,
but I think I pushed a little too far.
Let's wind it back and lighten up."

He talked about birds and
the weather and summer
slowly turning toward fall.

He pointed out someone
rucketing along the part of
the skatepark that had stairs.

"Nice firecracker," Stefan said,
starting to come out of his funk.

"Yeah, she's pretty good --
she was up on the rails earlier,"
Hefty said, still watching.

"I like this skatepark,"
Stefan said. "It's not huge,
but it's big enough that a lot of
people can use it at the same time,
because of how it's laid out. You
can't really make a loop of it, but
there can be a dozen people on
each of the pools plus the strip."

"It's an interesting little layout,"
Hefty agreed. "I like coming here
on slow days because then I
can jog through the course
without bothering anyone."

"Yeah, it's pretty dead today
because everyone's over
at the Bay," said Stefan.

"Nice and quiet," Hefty said.
"So, just to wrap up, do you
have anyone else to talk with?
Classmates or other friends?"

"Well, I have some friends
that I get together with, just
messing around in the park,
but we don't exactly talk about
serious stuff," Stefan said.

"Embarrassed?" Hefty said,
rubbing his back again.

"No, cultural differences,"
Stefan explained.

"Ah," Hefty said. "That
can make even simple things
stickier. My beat partner is
black, so I know how it goes."

"My friends aren't black,
they're city Indians --
their term, not mine,"
Stefan replied.

"Do you think
they'd sympathize?"
Hefty asked him.

"Yeah, probably,"
Stefan said. "We don't
talk about that stuff, but ...
it's statistically likely, given
the context. Things haven't
gone well for tribal folks."

"Then maybe you and
your friends could help
each other," Hefty said.
"Sometimes that can pull
you out of your own mess."

"I like helping people,"
Stefan admitted. "It's why
I thought about doing sports
or exercise programs for a park
or a community center. I don't
do it just because it feels good."

"Then you're on the right track,"
Hefty said. "You probably feel
pretty raw right now. Do you
have someone who'll notice
if you feel worse, even at night?"

"Yeah, my roommate's in
the pre-health track too, but
he wants to be a sport nurse,"
Stefan said, then grimaced.
"Shit, J'aeson will freak if he
sees me dinged up like this."

Hefty's eyebrows went up at that.
"Your roommate's on a nursing track,
but you don't trust him to take care of you?"

"We just met at Orientation," Stefan said.
I don't want to be that guy, you know? I've
had people turn to me because I know
first aid, but when that's the only reason
they ever talk to me ... it gets kinda old."

"I see," Hefty said. "That's thoughtful
of you, then. You can reassure him that
you've had everything wrapped properly.
What about someone you've known longer?"

Stefan thought about it, then nodded. "Yeah,
Nathan Chase. He's used to riding herd
on his brother Logan, which is funny
because Logan is older than him."

"Okay, so you've got people
you can turn to later tonight
if necessary," Hefty said. "I'll
assume any pre-health student
would respond appropriately if
you keeled over all of a sudden."

"Yeah, probably," Stefan said.
"J'aeson seems solid. I like him."

"That's good," Hefty said. "I'd
like to arrange a meeting with you
for tomorrow, if that's all right."

"What? Why?" Stefan said.

"Just to make sure that you're
doing as well as can be
expected," Hefty said.

"Don't you have to work?"
Stefan said, staring at him.

"Yes, but this would count
toward that -- nothing official
between us, but part of my job
keeping people safe," Hefty said.

"But I've got class!" Stefan protested.
"I can't just skip it to go hang out."

"How about tomorrow evening?"
Hefty said. "After work for me,
and after class for you. Tell me
your schedule and I'll work around it.
We could get pizza or something."

Stefan wanted, suddenly and fiercely,
to spend time with someone who
actually cared about him.

He fumbled at his vidwatch,
checking his schedule. "6 PM?"
he said. "Pizza sounds good."

Hefty took out his smartphone
and entered the time. "All set."

Then he fished in his pocket,
wrote something on a card,
and handed it to Stefan.

"That's got my badge number
in case you need to reach me at
work, and my phone number for
other times," Hefty said. "If you
feel like punching a wall, or jumping
off a vert in shorts, or hurting yourself
any other way ... please, call me
first. Any time of day or night."

Stefan flicked a fingertip
against the corner of the card.

The counselor at the college clinic
had fobbed him off with the number
for a crisis line, same as usual.

Nobody had ever invited Stefan
to call and maybe wake him up
in the middle of the night.

When he might have
to work the next day.

This was new, and weird,
and it made Stefan's stomach
flip over, but he couldn't seem
to let go of that little card.

He thought about having
something to do when he felt
like his head was going to explode,
other than jumping on a skateboard
and tricking around until he crashed.

"Okay," he said, licking his lips. "I'll call."

"Thank you," Hefty said, and sounded
like he meant it. "Will you let me
drive you back to your place?
I sure wouldn't want to ride
a bus in the shape you're in."

Stefan gave a rueful chuckle.
"Yeah, the bus would suck,"
he said. "I'll take you up on that,
just let me find my backpack."

He'd forgotten about it earlier,
in all the chaos. Looking up,
he saw it still nestled beside
the extension of the vert.

When he stood up, though,
his bruised muscles protested.

"I've got you," Hefty said,
wrapping an arm around him.

This time, Stefan didn't even
try to walk without support.

When they got to the other side
of the pool, Hefty leaned down
to snag Stefan's bag, saying,
"How about I carry this for you."

"Yeah, thanks," Stefan said,
glad it wasn't weighing on
his tenderized body. "Thanks."

"It's no trouble at all," Hefty said.
"I'm just happy that I could help."

Stefan was starting to believe that.

* * *

Notes:

This poem is long, so the character, setting, and content notes appear elsewhere.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, safety, weblit, writing
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