"Symptoms of Heartbreak"
[Thursday, March 3, 2016]
"So um ... hi?" Blainn said as he
shuffled from one foot to the other.
Joshua looked at the terrified teenager
on his porch and wanted to shoot
someone, only he didn't know who.
"Come in," Joshua said instead,
pulling the door open wider.
"Elisabeth mentioned that
you might drop by today."
"I'm Blainn," the boy said.
"Mrs. Dr. G told me that I
should meet you and you're
a cop but a good one and
you need babysitters or just
extra hands so that might
help me decide if I want
to get that cert or not."
"I'm Joshua," he said.
"Griffin is my oldest son.
Cove is the one watching
you from the couch. Michael
and Isobel are on the floor.
My daughter Dylan is
in the bouncy chair."
Dylan squealed hello,
her bootied feet scrabbling
at the floor as she tried to move.
Blainn almost smiled.
"Grab a couch if you don't
mind the horde," Griffin said.
Blainn sidled into the room
and just barely leaned against
the nearest arm of the couch.
"I uh, I asked Bennett too and
he said that if I knew him, then
I should probably know you too,
because you're ... cape parents?"
Blainn said, looking confused.
"He probably said 'coparents,'
which means people who aren't
married but are raising children
together," Joshua explained.
"Our exes aren't in the picture
anymore, which is a good thing."
"Oh. Okay," Blainn said.
"Though I should also point out
that some of my younger kids do
have superpowers," Joshua added.
"If it's an issue, better to know now."
Blainn said all in one breath.
"Sure," Joshua said easily.
"It's your hat and your head."
"It's your house," Blainn said,
looking like he'd heard that
before, and not in a good way.
"I'm not fussy about that, as long
as people stay reasonably safe
and civil here," Joshua said.
He had heard that Blainn was
drifting after some bad experiences
in foster care, and various folks were
trying to help him settle in Mercedes.
Joshua would do what he could for that.
"So, you're thinking about getting
a babysitting cert?" Griffin said.
"That's a good one to have.
What do you have already?"
Blainn shrank into himself. "Uh ...
bus card, library card, boo-boo card,
packing card ..." He pulled out
the skinniest cert wallet that
Joshua had ever seen a teen
carrying. "Mrs. Dr. G paid me
to get some. Before that,
nobody let me do anything."
"That doesn't sound right,"
Griffin said, looking at Joshua.
"It sure isn't good," Joshua said.
"If you want help straightening
that out, Blainn, just let me know.
Meanwhile, a babysitting cert is
a good choice. Since you're new
to the area, the local resources
part might stump you, though. Do
you have any emergency cards?"
"What?" Blainn looked at him blankly.
Joshua took out the family binder
that Pips had set up, which had
copies of useful papers in a folder.
"First, you need something that
lists the emergency services and
other local resources," Joshua said,
taking out a card for that. "Then, you
need one for your emergency contacts --
people you could call for help in a crisis."
"I don't really have ... um," Blainn said,
fidgeting against the end of the couch.
"Did Bennett offer you his help?
Or any of the Finns?" Joshua said.
"Yeah, sorta, but it's ... hard for me
to trust anyone," Blainn admitted.
"I understand," Joshua said. "I've
had my trust banged up pretty bad
before, although it happened later."
"The woman who gave birth to me,"
Griffin added, making a face. "So yeah,
I get it too. If you want to talk or anything."
Blainn shook his head. "I'd rather not."
"Okay," Joshua said. "In any case,
take both cards. You can always
fill out the emergency contact card
whenever you decide you who
actually want for your backup."
"I guess that makes sense,"
Blainn said, hesitantly taking
them and tucking them away.
"Another thing to remember:
parents should give you a list of
their family emergency numbers,
such as a local adult like a neighbor
you can call if you can't reach them,
an out-of-state relative, and also
the children's pediatrician just in
case anything goes wrong while
you're babysitting," Joshua said.
"Dad and Bennett are local backup
for each other, because each one
has Vested Interest paperwork
for the other's kids," Griffin said.
"We have family in Utah in case
an earthquake squashes the house.
I don't remember Bennett's long shot."
"Bennett has a bunch of bodymod friends
in far-flung places," Joshua said. "Remember
when that bad storm threatened Easy City,
a couple of them stayed with him for a week?"
"Oh yeah, and it was so tight we couldn't
go over then because Bennett's place
is soooo small," Griffin said, nodding.
"You're lucky to have all that,"
Blainn said, visibly waffling.
"You know, even without
a babysitting cert, I have
all sorts of work you could do,
if you're looking for odd jobs,"
Joshua said. "With five kids in
the house, there's no end of stuff
to do, and never enough hands."
Blainn perked right up, like
a thirsty plant under a hose.
"I'm a good worker," he said.
"I can sweep, pick up trash,
wash dishes, fetch and carry ..."
"You should check around for
a junior courier class," Griffin said.
"It has safety tips and advice on
how to set yourself up to carry
small packages, groceries and
such. I did it one summer."
"You could also come inside
and help with endless laundry
or dishwashing," Joshua said.
"Five kids, four of them toddlers --
the work really never ends."
"Yeah, those are good ideas,"
Blainn said, then looked at
Joshua. "You'd really trust me
that much? Most folks don't."
"Trusting you is my decision,"
Joshua replied. "Proving
me right is your choice."
Just then Isobel pounced on
Blainn from the top of the couch.
"Got you!" she squealed, and
then ran off with his hat.
"No!" Blainn wailed,
trying and failing to hide
the fluff of wild blue hair.
The kids had mostly been
ignoring Blainn, so Joshua
had only kept a casual eye
on them, and lost track of
Isobel for a critical minute.
Joshua stalked after Isobel
and scooped her up, then
extracted the hat from
her sticky little hands.
"That was very rude,"
he said. "Some people
wear hats for good reason,
and you could make them
sad or even hurt them by
stealing their hat like that."
"Give her to me," Griffin said.
"Isobel and I can go downstairs
for a little think-it-over time."
Joshua passed Isobel
to Griffin. "Thank you."
When he turned around
to return the hat, though, he
couldn't see Blainn anywhere.
Silently Cove pointed to
the long curtain where
two feet stuck out.
"Blainn, I'm very sorry
about what happened,"
said Joshua. "Isobel is
little and doesn't really
understand manners yet.
I got your hat back."
A hand crept out of
the curtains and groped.
"Here," Joshua said,
pushing the hat at Blainn.
The boy grabbed it, rumpling
the curtain as he put it on.
When he stepped out,
he was blushing dark red
and crumpled in on himself
so hard that his back must
hurt from curling his shoulders.
"Are you okay to stay, or do
you need to leave?" Joshua said.
"No pressure either way here."
Silently Blainn scrunched himself
into one corner of the couch.
Joshua worried, because he
knew some people who could
get headaches from bright light,
and all the hats he'd seen on
Blainn had wide brims.
The kid was clearly in
no mood to talk, though.
"Okay, I'm going to step into
the kitchen and get some snacks,"
Joshua said. "Dylan, up you go."
He boosted the baby onto one hip
and walked into the kitchen, giving
Blainn a moment to compose himself.
Joshua opened the snack drawer
of the fridge. "What shall we have?"
"G'ape!" Dylan said, drumming
her tiny heels on Joshua's hip.
She pointed at the red spheres.
"Gently, please," he said. "Okay,
we have grapes. I want carrots.
Some crackers and cheese,
and we're good to go."
Joshua set up a tray
with all the snacks, then
returned to the great room.
"Cove, Michael, come sit
around the coffee table,"
Joshua said as he put down
the snack tray. He fetched
Dylan's floor seat and put her
in it. "Blainn, you can join us
or not, whichever you prefer."
The teenager was staring at
the food like he was starving.
"Maybe just a little," he said.
"Sure," said Joshua. "This is
just a snack. We're having lunch
in about an hour, and you're welcome
to stay. I've got a gallon of tomato soup
from Jaliya to heat up, and I'll make
grilled cheese sandwiches too."
"Jaliya makes really good soup,"
said Blainn. "I've been running
some errands for her, and she
pays me in food." He nibbled
his lip, then added. "Actually,
she makes good everything."
"I agree," said Joshua. "I'd be
lost without her. The tomato soup
is a family favorite here, since
it's so easy to customize."
Blainn edged toward the food,
but he was so tentative that
Joshua took a risk and heaped
one of the snack plates for him.
It was probably twice what
the teen would have taken,
but from the look of him
he needed the calories --
especially with that blue hair
burning energy to grow.
"Thank you for the food,"
Blainn said quietly.
Joshua said. "We keep
a snack drawer stocked."
Blainn ate with the care of
someone who'd gone hungry
and knew better than to gorge.
Joshua wondered who had
abused the child and whether
he could drag them down to
the police station and throw
a case of books at them.
That was neither here nor there,
so he munched on carrots and
crackers, watching the kids in
hopes of averting mischief.
By the time the food had
been devoured, Blainn
had relaxed a little bit.
Joshua settled the kids
on a blanket with soft toys.
Blainn grabbed a napkin
to clean the coffee table.
When Joshua carried
the platter back into
the kitchen, Blainn
trailed along and
offered to wash it.
"Sometimes I can get
a gig washing dishes at
restaurants," Blainn said.
"Not for long, because
I can't afford to attract
attention, but it's good
for however long it lasts."
"Trust issues?" Joshua said
as he dried the platter and
then put it where it belonged.
Blainn snorted. "Yeah, you
could say that," he replied.
"I got trust issues because
people got lying issues."
"I'm sorry to hear that,"
Joshua said. "It’s hard
to trust when all you have
from the past is evidence
why you shouldn’t do it."
"That's what I have,"
Blainn said. "Dr. G
called it something,
"Fear of trusting people due
to negative past experience,"
Joshua said. "I'm familiar with it."
"Your ex?" Blainn said softly.
"A little bit," Joshua said. "I
wasn't broken, but she and
some other relatives did make it
harder to trust people for a while.
Mostly, I've seen bad versions
in some of my friends."
They went back into
the great room and then
sat down on the couches.
Michael had fallen asleep.
Dylan was playing quietly.
Cove sat up to watch Blainn
and Joshua without a word.
"Is he okay?" Blainn whispered.
"Cove seems a little ... different."
"Like his younger siblings, Cove
has survived some very rough times
before he joined our family here,"
Joshua explained. "He's very alert,
but not in a dangerous way."
"It sucks when people are
mean to kids," Blainn said,
looking down at the floor.
"Yes, it does," Joshua said.
"Part of my job is to stop that."
He had certainly put a stop to
the human traffickers who had
thought of children as property.
"Do you need any help with that?"
Blainn shook his head. "I'm out.
I won't go back there. I'm fine."
"Fine?" Joshua raised his eyebrows.
"Well ... things could be better, yeah,
but I'm getting by," Blainn insisted.
"I don't need help from people who
just want to take over my life or don't
really want me around, just the money."
Joshua really wanted to track down
the adults in Blainn's life and talk to them.
"So let's work on making things better,"
Joshua said. "What would help?
How could I make your life easier?"
Blainn stared at him. "You're like
the second person to ask me that --
no, third. Mrs. Dr. G asked me it,
and Bennett, and I don't know why."
"We're all helpers, each in our own way,"
Joshua said. "We like to pitch in to make
the world a better place. We don't like
to see people struggle, so we lend a hand."
"It's just weird," Blainn said. "Nobody
much cared, before. Sometimes it
made me angry, but mostly I just
felt tired. Being by myself might be
lonely, but at least I can do what
I want, not get pushed around by
someone else's stupid agenda."
"Loneliness, trust issues, depression,
suppressed anger," Joshua said. "These
are some symptoms of heartbreak."
His whole EFA training was waving
red flags and sounding shrill alarms.
"I haven't really had a girlfriend,"
Blainn said, "or a boyfriend."
"That's not the only way
to get your heart broken,"
Joshua pointed out.
Blainn looked down.
"Everyone before you got
here, huh?" said Joshua.
"Not quite, but pretty close,"
Blainn said. "It sucked, and that
makes it harder to connect now."
"Yeah, attachment damage
definitely sucks," Joshua agreed.
"Attachment damage?" Blainn said.
"When adults do a bad job of making
life safe and comfortable, then kids don't
feel a connection to them and don't look
to adults for help," Joshua explained.
"That lack of support makes it hard
to form healthy relationships later.
It's called attachment damage,
or connection disruption."
"Yeah, that's me," Blainn said.
"I'm the loose piece rattling around
the puzzle box from a different picture."
"Then maybe what you need is to find
where you belong," Joshua said.
"I think you have good possibilities
here, if you check them out."
"Dr. G says I should test people
to make sure they're trustworthy,"
Blainn replied. "Bennett says I
should take my time and not trust
farther than I feel comfortable yet."
"They're both right," Joshua said.
"I think Bennett knows the most
about betrayal, but all of us have
had some pretty hard knocks."
"You mentioned your ex earlier,"
said Blainn. "Were they mean?"
Joshua sighed. "People saw a lot
of this, so it's not really a secret,
but it's still sensitive. My ex-wife
refused to acknowledge that Griffin
is a boy, and that really hurt."
"Uh ... he's pretty obviously a boy,"
Blainn said, frowning. "I don't get it."
"Griffin didn't always look that way,"
Joshua said. "We had to visit
a healer to make some changes."
"Oh. Okay." Blainn tilted his head.
"And your ex was nasty about it?"
"Extremely. Illegally so, even,"
said Joshua. "Anyway, Bennett had
some very serious issues in his past
too. Elisabeth Finn lost her parents in
a car crash, and her husband lost half
his family when he was a toddler. Those
are stories most friends know here."
"Shit," Blainn said. "I feel like
I'm whining over nothing."
"No, Blainn, everyone has
their own pain and you are
entitled to yours," said Joshua.
"All feelings are valid. I just
wanted you to know that
you're not alone. You have
people who understand."
"Is this where you say
that it gets better?"
"No, this is where I say
that it can get better, if
you are lucky and diligent,
with good support from friends
or family," Joshua said. "Look
at us and you can see that
being broken isn't permanent."
"Do I have to talk about stuff?"
Blainn said. "I don't like to."
"Most people don't, and no,
you don't have to talk about
anything if you're not ready to,"
Joshua said. "Sometimes
talking can make you feel
better, though. It helped me."
Blainn grimaced. "Mostly it
just gets me nagged more."
"Even here?" Joshua said.
"This place is weird," Blainn said.
"It's not so much nagging as ...
everyone fussing over me. I'm
not used to that, and I don't
know what to do with it."
"Well, how does it seem?"
Joshua said. "Do you feel like
people are trying to help you
feel better, or like they're just trying
to make themselves feel better?"
"Me, I think," Blainn said. "It's
hard to tell, though. Bennett is
teaching me some stuff about
how to know if people are honest,
and that helps some. I still feel
like everyone knows stuff I don't."
"That's life," said Joshua. "I've
felt constantly in over my head
since I became a father, but I
wouldn't change a minute of it.
Some things are worth feeling
confused and outclassed over."
"Yeah," Blainn said, looking
at the kids on the blanket.
"I get how they'd be worth it."
"If you can't trust other people yet,
then at least try to trust yourself.
You may be wiser than you realize,"
Joshua said. "You'll figure it out."
"I hope so," Blainn said. "Mostly
I just feel like I'm watching for
the next disaster to happen."
Cove dropped the sponge blocks
that he was playing with and
climbed onto the couch, then
crawled into Blainn's lap.
"It's nice to ask first,"
Joshua reminded Cove.
"Sorry," Cove said.
"It's okay, I don't mind,"
Blainn said, cuddling the boy.
"I watch too," Cove said.
"Daddy's nice. Griffin's nice.
Bennett's nice. Finns too.
It's safe here. But it's still
hard to remember sometimes."
Joshua's heart squeezed
so hard that he could
barely breathe around it.
Blainn tucked his chin over
the baby-soft hair. "Yeah.
It's hard, but we have
people to remind us."
"That's what family is
all about," Joshua said.
Blainn turned and gave him
another almost-smile. "Thanks."
Griffin came back with Isobel
clinging to his hip. "Hey Blainn,
are you up to listening? Isobel
wants to say something to you."
"I'm listening," Blainn replied.
"Sorry for taking your hat,"
Isobel said. "That was mean."
"You scared me," Blainn said.
"Sometimes people pick on me
because of how I look. I hate
my hair, so that's why I hide it."
"Sorry," Isobel said again,
hiding her face in Griffin's shirt.
"Daddy says bullies are bad."
"Yes, they are, and if anyone
is getting bullied then they can
come to me for help," Joshua said.
Blainn looked at him, looked away,
and then looked back. "Anyone?"
"Anyone," Joshua said, tilting
his shirt collar to show off
the Green Heart pin. "That's
what this pin stands for."
"Okay," Blainn said. "No more
hat stealing, though. That
really freaks me out."
"I'll be good," Isobel said.
"Now that's settled, how about
we go in the kitchen and start
lunch?" Joshua said. "The soup
takes a little while to heat up, and
we have grilled cheese to make."
Blainn's stomach gurgled,
making him blush again, and
Griffin's rumbled a reply.
"Ah yes, teen years, when
everything is hollow inside,"
Joshua said with a chuckle.
"Come on, you can help."
Joshua set Blainn to cutting
thick slices of multigrain bread,
while Griffin poured the soup
into a big pot to heat up.
Then Joshua rummaged
in the fridge for ingredients.
He put out butter for the bread,
a package of thick-cut ham,
and another of lettuce in case
anyone wanted extra toppings.
"Today's cheeses are cheddar
and pepper jack," Joshua said.
Blainn perked up. "I like
pepper cheeses," he said.
"One pepper jack for you and
one for me," Joshua agreed.
"None of the kids like it."
Griffin helped Cove
to butter the bread, since
Cove was the only one of
the younger kids who could
use even a butter knife yet.
By the time the soup was
just starting to bubble at
the edges, everything was
laid out to make sandwiches.
Joshua put the first batch
into the sandwich press
while Griffin brought out
bowls and served the soup.
The air was fragrant with
smells of tomato and cheese.
Blainn seemed to relax
a little more, which was
encouraging -- the kids
who didn't even trust food
typically had more damage.
When Cove tried to put
a bread crust into his pocket,
Joshua stopped him and said,
"Do you need more crackers?"
"Yes, please," Cove said.
"Sorry, I forgot again."
"That's okay," Joshua said
as he handed his son a packet
of snack crackers. "I'll remind you."
"Remind him of what?" Blainn said,
staring at them. "That's really, um ..."
"We need to do some things differently
around here," Griffin said with a shrug.
"Cove feels more comfortable with
food in his bedroom," Joshua said.
"So the rule is, he can store things
that are in packages as long as
he keeps them in his food box."
"Thanks, Daddy," Cove said,
and trotted away with his prize.
"Where I came from, nobody
would ever allow that," Blainn said,
"even though lots of the kids tried."
"Before I adopted my younger kids,
some very wise people told me ways
that I could help them feel safe after
the bad things happened," Joshua said.
"One of those ways was helping Cove
find safe ways to stash some food."
"Yeah, maybe when he grows up
he'll be the guy who stocks all of
the emergency shelters so they
have supplies," Griffin said.
Blainn unwound all at once,
slumping in his chair. Joshua
hadn't even noticed how much
tension the teen was still holding
until it suddenly disappeared.
"If you do that for Cove, then
you must be for real," Blainn said.
"Is this what trust feels like?
It's all ... gooshy and weird."
"Don't worry," Joshua said.
"You will get used to it."
Then maybe the symptoms
of heartbreak would ease up.
* * *
This poem is long, so its notes appear separately.