Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Poem: "The Duty of the Living"

This poem is spillover from the August 4, 2020 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by an anonymous prompt. It also fills the "post-traumatic stress disorder" square in my 6-18-19 card for the [community profile] hc_bingo fest. This poem has been sponsored by Anthony & Shirley Barrette. It belongs to the Officer Pink 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 anxiety, a court case, graphic references to past mad science torture, memory issues, survivor guilt, depression, crying, centaur modesty issues, PDSD, reflexive teleportation with minor injury, and other challenges. If these are sensitive issues for you, please consider your tastes and headspace before reading onward.

"The Duty of the Living"

[Tuesday, May 26, 2015]

Turq was beyond nervous.

The case against Carl Bernhardt
had been building for months,
from the scraps of evidence used
to track him down to everything
uncovered in the course of the raid.

Most of the survivors had agreed
to provide written or video statements
of the crimes committed against them,
so there was no need to pressure
the unwilling ones to participate.

It helped that Bernhardt and some
of his staff appeared in lab videos,
committing crimes on camera, so
those would be easy convictions.

However, a few of the survivors
had volunteered to appear in person.

Today's court session would include
the final presentations and sentencing.

Turq was frankly terrified of it.

He never wanted to see
Bernhardt again, but he also
wanted to see justice done.

He felt a certain obligation
to speak up, because he could,
and others could not -- either
because they were too frightened
or they were no longer alive.

Turq remembered Saffron's
shaking, panicky refusal.
He remembered Coral's
pink fur turned into a coat.

He would do this, because he could.

Turq still fidgeted with his suit. At least
the Chinese style with its stand-up collar
meant that he didn't have to wear a tie,
just the black suit over a white shirt.

His fingers traced the dragon
embroidered in black-on-black,
a symbol of courage and honor.

"You look fine," Ansel murmured.
"We will get through this together."

"Yeah," Turq said, "together."
Nebuly was with him; that helped.

Several of the centaurs had come --
including Arun, Charli, Miriam, Harriet,
and Hobart -- all wearing shoes that
provided traction on slick floors.

They filed into the courtroom,
where they and their legal team
had a cluster of four tables
on one side of the aisle.

Carl Bernhardt and his team
had two tables on the other side.

Judge Mauritius Reagal sat at
the bench. He wore a white shirt
under formal black robes, but his hair
was in wild inch-long spirals instead of
buzzed short like most black professionals.

For some reason, Turq found that heartening.
Judge Reagal had even complimented
Nebuly's dreadlocks when they met.

The trial itself was ... patchy,
from Turq's perspective.

His rough past had left him
with a tendency to zone out and
miss things, or just not remember.

He tried especially hard to ignore
Carl Bernhardt ranting about
his "great work" and how they
would all be grateful someday.

And maybe pigs would fly.

Turq also tried to tune out
the twittering gallery of
observers behind them.

Mostly people kept quiet,
but every outrageous remark
made them stir and whisper.

Nebuly got up and talked about
how he had tried to take care of
the younger members of his cohort,
and how much it hurt to leave them
behind when he finally escaped.

"The worst thing I have to deal with
now, though, is how hard it is to get
help," Nebuly said. "Because of
what he did to my body, it doesn't
react normally anymore. I have
depression but I can't treat it with
drugs, because they don't work right."

Turq winced, remembering the story
about how a bad reaction had driven
Nebuly away from his therapist. They
had reconnected eventually, but it
was nerve-wracking for everyone.

Arun told stories about the centaurs
and trying to lead the cohort. "We
couldn't escape, though. We had
to wait for someone else to rescue us.
Nebuly's people were a lot luckier."

Turq, who shared Nebuly's guilt
at leaving his friends behind,
disagreed with that. But he
didn't say so to poor Arun.

In the end, nobody who faced
Carl Bernhardt was lucky.

When Charli came up, she
took a different approach,
focusing on how becoming
a centaur had affected
the everyday things.

"The first time I tried
go shopping, I froze and
couldn't even get in the mall,"
she said. "I managed to walk
into a supermarket, but then
I got stuck on the slick floor
until someone brought mats."

Turq remembered that trip.
She had come home with a rug
and a set of shelves with baskets,
but she was still embarrassed
about dealing with the stores.

At least the farrier later had
managed to give them all
shoes or horse boots so
they could handle floors.

"I miss being able to shop
in normal places and get
shoes and things that fit,"
Charli went on. "I can't even
wear clothes now except for
tops because nobody makes
anything like that for horses."

Nebuly raised his hand,
and the bailiff came over
to see what he needed.

"I have a solution for that,"
Nebuly murmured. "May I
share it? This is a problem
that we can actually fix."

The bailiff went up and
spoke to the judge, who
waved for Nebuly to speak.

"People do make clothes for
horses. It's called barding. It
can cover just part of the horse or
pretty much everything. Usually it
goes down to the knees, sometimes
the ankles," Nebuly said. "Shall I
go call some folks who make it?"

"Yes, please," Charli said. "I hate
walking around half-naked like this!"

Nebuly pressed a hand to Turq's shoulder.
"I need to take care of this," he murmured.
"I'll come back here as soon as I can."

Without him, Turq felt lonely and
exposed, but he didn't say anything.
Charli needed clothes for her horse half,
and Turq would have hated being
stuck in that situation too.

Of course, the caney didn't
wear clothes, but he was
so fluffy you couldn't
see anything under it.

Turq clung to Ansel,
who said, "I should've
thought of that, but
modern horse covers
don't really go down
far enough for modesty."

"Nebuly will figure it out,"
Turq said, confident in him.

Meanwhile Charli had
broken down in tears.

"Do you need some EFA?"
Judge Reagal said gently.

Charli gave a soggy nod.

"Follow the bailiff back to
the quiet room. We have
an Emotional First Aide
there," said the judge.

That was for the jury and
the witnesses, through a door
on their side of the courtroom.

The judge had his own door
that went to his office, and
there was a public quiet room
down the hall for everyone else.

They were taking extra care
because this case was so awful.

There wasn't much to be done
about the PDSD the survivors had,
but they could avoid making it worse
and hopefully nobody else would
catch it from sitting in court
with a raging nutjob.

Miriam stood and related
her generational trauma
from being Jewish and how
the mad science torture
tied into that history.

She showed where she
had managed to tattoo
her lab serial number on
her left forearm, CM-H4-014.

"I did this to myself so everyone
could see, so that they would
never forget," Miriam said.

Turq rubbed his hands over
his own forearms, feeling
the striationary marks there.

Everyone was marked,
one way or another.

Harriet spoke about
the history of slavery in
America, that despite
the 13th Amendment
people were still captive.

"Nobody is free until
everybody is free," she said.

Hobart shared a different kind
of personal experience.

"Before this happened to me,"
he said, "I used to be a Neo-Nazi.
I thought they were cool. Then I
found out what sick fucks they are.
They're not cool. They're just evil."

Turq had the satisfaction of
seeing Bernhardt flinch.

Way to go, shooting
his own ideology in the foot.

Then it was Turq's turn.
He was shaking already.

"You'll do fine," Ansel said,
patting him on the back. "I'll
be right here if you need me."

Turq was shaking, but he
didn't let that stop him.

He repeated his experiences
in the mad science lab, what
was done to him, what he
saw done to other people.

He peeled off his suitcoat --
the shirt underneath it had
short sleeves -- to display
the striationary marks.

"The day I manifested
teleportation, I was chained
to a table," he explained. "I tore
my body apart escaping. When I
landed, part of the table had come
with me, and so had parts of the people
touching me. We're pretty sure they
died, so that's on Bernhardt too."

He braced himself for the hard part.
He had to get this exactly right.

"The dead cannot cry out for justice,"
Turq said. "They are gone from here,
leaving only their mute flesh behind.
The dead cannot accuse anyone of
their murder nor sue in a court of law.
It is the duty of the living to do so for them."

"Would you please repeat why you
decided on an open casket for
Coral's funeral," Judge Reagal said.

Turq lifted his chin. "So everyone
could see what they did to her," he said.
"I got the idea from the funeral of Emmett Till.
Somebody murdered him for being black.
Somebody murdered Coral just because
they could, and skinned her to make --"

His voice broke, and the room
stuttered around him as he
teleported back to Ansel.

Turq buried his face in
Ansel's shoulder, sniffling.

"Here," Ansel said, and
passed him a handkerchief.

Turq blew his nose, and
the cloth came away red.
"Shit," he muttered, staring.

"What's wrong?" Ansel said.

"I got a nosebleed," said Turq.
"My stupid superpower just
messed up my body again."

"Can you breathe okay?"
Ansel said, worried.

"Yeah, I think this is
superficial," Turq said.

"Turn around and show
the judge," Ansel suggested.
"This is direct evidence of
ongoing harm, if you don't
mind putting it on record."

"Yeah," Turq said glumly.
He didn't like the attention,
but he would do anything for
the chance to put another nail
into Bernhardt's coffin.

As soon as Turq turned,
Judge Reagal looked shocked,
and beckoned for him to approach.

"Are you all right?" the judge said.

"Mostly," said Turq. "Sometimes
my superpowers go off when I don't
mean it. They're kind of panicky
because of how I got them. So if I'm
upset when I teleport or shapeshift,
sometimes it damages my body.
This isn't too bad, just a nosebleed."

"What happens when it gets bad, if you
don't mind sharing?" said Judge Reagal.
"You didn't mention that part earlier."

"Anything can go wrong," Turq said.
"It messes up my lungs a lot -- Ansel
keeps a canister of oxygen for that.
Sometimes digestion, whatever."

"So noted," said Judge Reagal.
"Here, wash your face." He
produced a bottle of water and
tissues from somewhere. "Do
you have a spare shirt?"

Turq looked down at himself.
The blood was crimson on
the white cloth. "Shit. No."

"Well, put your suitcoat back on,
that should hide the worst of it,"
said Judge Reagal. "You may sit."

Turq scurried behind the table
and clung to Ansel, resisting
the temptation to shift shape
and hide under his shirt.

"We will have a recess
while the jurors deliberate,"
said Judge Reagal. "Please
avail yourselves of refreshments
to restore everyone's energy
before returning to the court."

"Come on," Ansel said,
giving Turq a gentle nudge.
"The lawyers should have
a cart set up in the side room."

There were two of those, actually,
one for each legal team and
their assorted witnesses.

The food cart offered
all kinds of healthy snacks.

The beverages included water,
green tea, coffee, and kefir.

For protein it had boiled eggs,
lox, mixed nuts, and nut butter
with celery or crackers.

Fresh fruit included avocados,
bananas, oranges, or raspberries.

There was even dark chocolate.

Turq took a boiled egg, a banana,
and a chocolate bar. He didn't want
anything too difficult to digest, because
his stomach was doing flip-flops.

Ansel piled up a plate with eggs,
lox, a nut butter cup, raspberries,
and a large cup of coffee.

"How are you doing?"
Ansel asked Turq.

"I only teleported
a few yards and
my nose healed up,"
Turq said. "Okay-ish."

"And emotionally?" Ansel said.

"Getting by," said Turq. "I'm
stressed, but not panicky."

"Good," said Ansel. "From
the looks of the jury, I don't
think they'll need long to reach
a verdict, so better be prepared."

Most of the jurors had looked like
they wanted to tear up the rail
and beat Bernhardt with it.

Turq wouldn't have objected.

Nebuly was nibbling on a banana,
while the centaurs had mostly gone
for the fruits and vegetables. Charli
had broken up a chocolate bar and then
stuffed it into a nut butter cup with celery.

Nebuly had his smartphone on the table,
showing pictures of barding in various styles.

Turq thought the poor horses looked ridiculous
in dresses -- one of them so pink it resembled
a cake topper -- but the girls were thrilled.

"Do they have anything, uh, less fancy?"
Arun said, grimacing. "And maybe shorter?"

"Modern horse covers are shorter, and I'm
sorry I didn't think of them sooner," Ansel said.
"If the weather had been awful, then you would
have seen some at the farm, but we don't coat
horses unless it's sleeting or something."

Ansel took out his smartphone and
did a quick search, then showed
horses in winter coats as well
as the lighter show covers.

"Okay, yeah," Arun said,
brightening. "They look like
those athletic slickers that
folks wear for track and field."

Nebuly leaned over to look.
"Those would be faster and
cheaper than barding, but limited
to whatever the companies offer,"
he said. "Anyone who makes
barding can probably work up
whatever you want. I've got
several interested already."

"Maybe some of each,"
Arun said. "I'm not as
body-shy as the girls, but
I'd like to have options. I
might get some cheap stuff
for general use and then
barding for special occasions."

"That's a good idea," Ansel said.
"Just make sure you get things
for different kinds of weather, too."

"Yeah, I like the wool coats as
well as the slickers," Arun said.
"That camel one is almost
the same color as I am."

"Five minutes, folks,"
one of the lawyers said.
"Please wrap up and
return to your seats."

Turq's heart skittered
against his ribs as if
trying to find a way out.

"Shit shit shit," he whispered.

"It will be okay," Ansel said,
wrapping an arm around him. "I'm
right here. We'll get through this."

Nebuly clung to Turq on the other side.
"They'll put him away. They have to."

"There's more than enough evidence
for that," Ansel said. "You all did
an amazing job. Thank you."

They made it back to
their table and sat down.

Turq was so fried that he
just huddled against Ansel
and concentrated on not
teleporting somewhere else.

Then Ansel was shaking him
gently and saying, "Wake up, Turq,
the trial is over. We can go now."

"What? Already?" Turq said.
"Sorry, I kind of ... fuzzed out
for a while there, I think."

"At least you kept your control,"
Nebuly said. "I ghosted."

Turq looked up at him.
Nebuly still looked wispy
around the edges. "Are
you okay?" Turq asked.

"Better now," Nebuly said.
"They locked him up forever."

"Really?" Turq said, turning
back to look at Ansel.

"Guilty on all charges,
and he'll start prison in
private confinement,"
Ansel confirmed.

"Oh, thank god,"
Turq said. "It's over."

The girls were clinging
to each other and crying
a little, but Arun looked
proud and satisfied.

"You've fulfilled the duty
of the living," Ansel said.
"Now it's time to go home
and take care of yourselves.

"Okay," Turq said, and then
the periwinkle ferret dove into
the shelter of Ansel's shirt.

* * *

This poem is long, so its notes appear elsewhere.
Tags: cyberfunded creativity, ethnic studies, fantasy, fishbowl, poem, poetry, reading, weblit, writing
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